With Houston having the fastest growing veteran population in the country, the innovation ecosystem has plenty of veterans turned entrepreneurs. Here are five to know today. Courtesy photos

5 Houston entrepreneurs to know this Veterans Day

American heroes

Over a quarter of a million United States military veterans call Houston home, and that number is growing.

"Houston has the second largest and fastest growing veteran population in the country," says Reda Hicks, a Houston entrepreneur and military spouse herself. "That's a very significant chunk of our city to share an affinity, and it's not something Houston has talked about."

For its large veteran population, Houston was selected in January 2018 as the third location to set up a chapter of Bunker Labs, an acceleration and incubation organization for military-affiliated entrepreneurs.

"Our whole goal is to help empower military-affiliated people to start and grow businesses," says Hicks, who is one of the Houston leads for the program, a lawyer, and the founder of GotSpot Inc.

The program provides resources for veterans, military spouses, or anyone whose lives were affected by a family member in the military. Bunker Labs provides a digital platform for early-stage ideas called Launch Lab that's used by hundreds annually, and also has face-to-face programming through its Veterans in Business program hosted through WeWork.

"It can be the case that veterans can feel siloed, and it's wonderful to have those people around you who can really understand you, but for businesses to grow, they have to really understand the ecosystem they live in," Hicks says.

In honor of Veterans Day, here are a few Houston veteran entrepreneurs to know.

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO of Trumbull Unmanned

Dyan Gibbons

Dyan Gibbons translated her Air Force experience with unmanned missiles into a drone services company. Courtesy of Alice

Dyan Gibbons found her dream career in the United States Air Force Academy. She served as engineering acquisitions officer managing stealth nuclear cruise missiles, and even went on to supported Air Force One and Global Hawk UAS engineering and logistics. After her years of service, she transitioned into the reserves, when she discovered she was ineligible to serve again. She went back to the drawing board to recreate herself — this time, as an entrepreneur.

She went into a doctorate program — she already had her MBA — and was close to finishing up when her drone startup took flight. Trumbull Unmanned provides drone services to the energy sector for various purposes. With her experience as a pilot and managing unmanned missiles, she knew the demand for drones was only growing — and, being from Texas, she knew what industry to focus on.

"I wanted to start a company that uses unmanned systems or drones to improve safety and improve the environment and support energy," Gibbons tells InnovationMap in a previous interview.

Nicole Baldwin, chief visionary officer and founder of Biao Skincare

Nicole Baldwin

Photo via toryburchfoundation.org

Before founding her tech-enabled, all-natural skincare line, Biao, Nicole Baldwin served in the Army Civil Affairs Units and was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan. In honor of Veterans Day, she shared on Facebook an image of her with young girls outside the compound she lived in.

"I often tell people not to thank me for my service, because I don't feel like I should be thanked for doing something I genuinely wanted to do," she writes in the post. "I am grateful every moment of my life knowing that I did all the things in and out of uniform that was felt from the heart."

Baldwin's company, which uses a skin-scanning technology has taken off, and she's participated in Houston's Bunker Labs programming, and she has also been a Tory Burch fellow and appeared on Shark Tank.

Brett Rosenberg, founder of Semper Fi Systems

Photo via LinkedIn.com

Brett Rosenberg spent a few years in the U.S. Air Force before he took his experience from national security to a different kind of security.

Rosenberg's startup is another one utilizing the resources of Houston's Bunker Labs. Semper Fi Systems takes information security experts' knowledge and machine learning solutions to optimize cybersecurity and avoid regulatory financial exclusion.

Nathan Wilkes, CEO of Guidon Holdings

Photo via LinkedIn.com

After four years in the U.S. Army based in Georgia, Nathan Wilkes enrolled in business school at Texas A&M University. It was during the program when he founded Guidon Holdings, a Cypress-based aggregates company that — through screening, washing, separating, clarifying, and much more — can turn a natural resource that is considered waste into something of value.

Wilkes is also a West Point Academy graduate and a member of the 2019 Bunker Labs Houston cohort.

Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital

An U.S. Army vet, Tim Kopra spent over 244 days in space, and now he's using his tech background to invest in emerging energy companies. Courtesy of Tim Kopra

Before he spent a career total of 244 days in space, Tim Kopra first served his country in the United States Army. Nowadays, he serves the Houston innovation ecosystem as an investor and adviser to startups and entrepreneurs in the energy tech industry.

As a partner at venture fund Blue Bear Capital, Kopra uses his experience in the Army and in space to do figure out if entrepreneurs have what it takes to go the distance and if their technology is worth investing in.

"On face value, it may sound like an odd match, taking someone with a tech and operational background and putting them in venture, but quite frankly it feels very familiar to me because my career has really been focused on working on complex technology and operations with very small teams," tells InnovationMap in a previous interview. "It's not just a theoretical understanding of the technology, but understanding how to use the technology and how it works."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston is still — but most accounts — emerging as a tech and innovation hub, which could seem to mean that the startups that make up the innovation ecosystem reside in early stages of business scale.

However, this week's sampling of Houston innovators to know demonstrate the scope in scale of Houston's companies — from a CEO to a newly public company and recently hired CEO of a rapidly scaling software company to a health tech leader fresh out of the gates.

John Berger, CEO of Sunnova

Photo courtesy of Sunnova

Taking a company public brings on a slew of changes. One that might be overlooked is the change for the leader of that company. John Berger —CEO of Sunnova, a Houston-based solar energy company that went public last summer — joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the changes and where his company is headed.

Transitioning from a private company CEO to a public company CEO has been eye opening, Berger says on the podcast, joking that he now has to watch what he says. But change is ultimately something Berger says he embraces.

"I really look at myself and how I can change myself," Berger says. "I'm a different CEO today than I was 12 months ago, and hopefully I'll be a different CEO in 12 months, because the company demands it." Read more and stream the episode here.

Mary Beth Snodgrass, co-founder of Healthiby

Mary Beth Snodgrass is convinced she can help people make life-enhancing changes that affect health and financial situations because, well, science.

The co-founder of Healthiby created the platform to use financial incentives to drive positive health and wellness decisions. The Houston company is in pilot mode but has plans to expand.

"What we're really focused on this year is, in addition to our incentives, digital content and coach guidance, is making sure that participants are engaging among themselves," Snodgrass tells InnovationMap. "Science shows there are benefits to surrounding yourself with other people who share similar health goals." Read more.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software

Photo courtesy of Quorum

A new CEO is tasked with exponential growth at a Houston-based software company. Gene Austin joined Houston-based Quorum Software last year at a time of rapid M&A activity.

The energy industry software solutions provider, which is a portfolio company of California-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo LLC since 2018, has big plans to continue the exponential growth with more acquisitions that diversify their portfolio of services and a Houston office expansion later this year. According to Austin, he expects this growth spurred by M&A activity to double Quorum's revenue of $200 million in the next 3 to 5 years.

"We are always thinking about how to best serve our customers," Austin says. "We've made millions of dollars of investments in our support organization and cloud team services that are foundational to reinvigorate innovation and help our customers see how the future can unfold for them." Read more.

Houston listed among top cities expected to see office job growth

new hires

Texas cities — including the Houston area — will see a slew of new office jobs this year, according to a new projection.

Commercial real estate services company CBRE predicts Houston will see a 1.9 percent rise in office jobs this year compared to last year. That ranks Houston as the No. 4 spot for anticipated office-job growth in 2020 among U.S. markets with at least 37.5 million square feet of office space. Office jobs include those in the tech, professional services, and legal sectors.

"Tech, talent, and low taxes continue to fuel Texas' rising status as an inevitable, leading force in the U.S. economy," Ian Anderson, Americas head of office research at CBRE, says in the release. "2020 will be another year where companies and people from around the country relocate to the Lone Star State, leaving most of the rest of the country in envy of the growth in Dallas, Houston, and Austin."

Dallas only narrowly outpaced Houston in the ranking coming in at No. 3 with 2.1 percent expected growth. Austin, however, is the big Texas winner with an expected 2.6 percent rise in office jobs this year compared with last year. That puts Austin in first place on the ranking, edging out San Francisco for the top spot in CBRE's forecast, published January 9. The company predicts a 2.5 percent increase in San Francisco office jobs this year versus last year.

Personal finance website WalletHub recently ranked San Francisco and Austin third and fourth, respectively, on its list of the U.S. best cities to find a job.

"It's not surprising that the forecast for Austin is extremely bright, and we expect that technology companies and professional firms will still drive the demand for more [offices]," Troy Holme, executive vice president in the Austin office of CBRE, says in a January 22 release.

In November, Austin's unemployment rate decreased to 2.5 percent from 2.6 percent in October and 2.7 percent in September, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. Austin's jobless rate in November was the third lowest among the state's metro areas; Dallas-Fort Worth's rate was at 3 percent, while Houston's was at 3.6 percent.

CBRE says the growth of office jobs was more robust in the top U.S. markets last year than it is estimating for 2020. Dallas (5.7 percent) leads the 2019 list, followed by San Francisco (5.2 percent), Seattle (4.2 percent), Houston (3.7 percent), and Charlotte, North Carolina (3.6 percent).

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based energy logistics software prepares to hire, raise funds as it scales up

now hiring

Many startups turn to offshore outsourcing to fuel their growth. The Now Network, a Houston-based energy tech startup, is doing just the opposite — relying on stateside in-sourcing.

The SaaS company is in the midst of building out its in-house development team, including full stack developers and UX/UI designers. This year, The Now Network plans to add another four to six developers, on top of the six who already are on board. Stacey McCroskey, the company's director of product since September 2019, leads the team.

Previously, the development team consisted of more than a dozen contract workers in Ukraine and India, says Mush Khan, president of The Now Network. Khan assumed the president's role in May 2019.

"We believe that having our own in-house team drives a sense of ownership over the product. We have to eat our own cooking. because what we build, we have to support," Khan says.

Compared with the outsourcing model, the in-house team enables the company to more quickly release higher-quality products and more quickly respond to customers' needs, he says.

"Over the years, The Now Network has seen immense growth, consistently advancing its technology framework to drive faster payments, increased driver retention, an expanded 3PL network, and increased business revenue," Sam Simon, the company's founder, chairman, and CEO, says in a release. "The addition of an in-house development team will only amplify this growth, promoting more opportunities for cross-collaboration and customer feedback, to expand upon and refine existing features."

Members of the in-house development team are working on expansion of The Now Network's last-mile logistics platform for wholesalers, third-party logistics (3PL) carriers, drivers, and users of fuel. Khan says the platform offers "complete visibility and accuracy" throughout the fuel delivery process.

Competition for tech talent in Houston industries like energy and manufacturing is ramping up as the region evolves as "a fast-paced, innovative environment," he says.

"We believe companies like ours offer an opportunity to build a product from the ground up," Khan says, "and in an environment that allows them to express themselves creatively."

In June 2019, staffing firm Robert Half Technology put Houston in fourth place for the anticipated volume of IT hiring in U.S. cities during the second half of the year.

"The technology market in Houston remains strong as more companies are investing in systems upgrades, focusing on security, and taking on digital projects," Robert Vaughn, Robert Half Technology's regional vice president in Houston, said in a release. "The candidate market remains tight, and companies that prolong the interview process or don't make competitive offers tend to have the hardest time staffing open roles."

Today, The Now Network employs 15 people, all but one of whom works in Houston. The company expects to grow its workforce to around 30 by the end of 2020, Khan says. To accommodate the larger headcount, The Now Network is moving this month from WeWork at the Galleria to a 6,000-square-foot office in the Upper Kirby neighborhood.

To help finance its growth, The Now Network will soon launch its first-ever fundraising effort. Khan says the company will seek more than $5 million in investment capital.

Founded in 2015, The Now Network strives to simplify the last mile of the "energy ecosystem," which Khan describes as "slow, opaque, and expensive." Its SaaS platform automates delivery functions in the energy supply chain, doing away with manual labor and tedious paperwork, he says.

Since early 2018, the startup has handled more than 180,000 customer transactions involving over 1.8 billion gallons of fuel.

The Now Network is a portfolio company of Simon Group Holdings, a private equity firm based in Birmingham, Michigan. One of its key areas of focus is the energy sector.

In 2017, The Now Network (previously known as FuelNow Network) entered a strategic partnership with Houston-based Motiva Enterprises LLC, a fuel refiner, distributor, and retailer owned by Saudi Refining Inc. Khan says his company is collaborating with Motiva to roll out The Now Network platform to U.S. fuel wholesalers.

"As of now, Motiva doesn't have a stake in our company," he says.

Motiva owns East Texas' 3,600-acre Port Arthur Refinery, the largest oil refinery in North America, with a daily capacity of more than 600,000 barrels. State-controlled Saudi Aramco — which went public last year in an IPO valued at $2 trillion — owns Saudi Refining.