This week's innovators to know in Houston includes Ayse McCracken of Ignite Healthcare Network, Philipp Sitter of VIPinsiders, and Diane Yoo of Medingenii. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators — from health care investing to marketing technology — all making headlines in Houston this week.

Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite Healthcare Network

Ayse McCracken joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss women in health care and Ignite Madness. Photo courtesy of Ignite

When the pandemic hit and shut down businesses across the world, Ayse McCracken knew immediately what group of people were likely going to be the most affected: Women in health care. It just so happens that her nonprofit organization, Ignite Healthcare Network, exists to serve this same group of people, so she got to work on creating online events that were intentional and meaningful.

"With COVID, it has only escalated the importance of our work, so we've elevated our voices through our webinar series," McCracken says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast.

This week, Ignite's virtual startup competition concludes with the finals. She shares more about the program and Ignite's mission on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Philipp Sitter, founder of VIPinsiders

Restaurateur Philipp Sitter launched VIPinsiders last year. Photo courtesy of VIPinsiders

Restaurants have undoubtedly suffered due to loss of business during the shutdown, but they face an uphill battle back to normalcy, and restaurateur Philipp Sitter knew his tech tool could help. He created VIPinsiders as a marketing tool to reach customers in a data-driven way.

"The restaurant gets to know me [the customer], it understands how often I visit, it also gets to reward my visitation," explains Sitter. "Most importantly, it reminds me to come back when I haven't visited in a while."

Data recorded by VIPinsiders shows that 48 percent of users visit restaurants with the platform "more often" in the first 90 days. Click here to read more.

Diane Yoo, managing partner at Medingenii

Diane Yoo, who was hospitalized due to COVID-19 earlier this year, created a VC fund that's investing in health tech solutions for the disease. Photo courtesy of Medingenii

Just a few weeks after being hospitalized from COVID-19, Diane Yoo was investing in a medical device startup that could have made a world of difference to her recovery. After closing its initial fund, Medingenii invested in several Houston health startups including Vitls, a wearable device that can track and send vitals remotely.

"The pandemic has really validated some of the business models we're invested in," she tells InnovationMap.

Now, fueled by her first round of success and eager to advance other life-changing technologies, Yoo is looking toward a second fund. Click here to read more.

A Houston restaurateur and tech founder is giving the food and restaurant business a new marketing opportunity with VIPinsiders. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Houston entrepreneur's mobile platform brings gains to small restaurant chains

tapping into tech

Food is the way to a Houstonian's heart. With critically-acclaimed cuisine and an abundance of diversity, Houston is the South's culinary pride. COVID-19 has now stirred uncertainty in a once definitive piece of the city's culture, and restaurateurs are looking for solutions. For Philipp Sitter, CEO of VIPinsiders, artificial intelligence is a step in the right direction.

Sitter holds many titles: CEO of KB Restaurant Group, President of EggHaus and King's Bierhaus — and now, tech founder. In 2019 he launched VIPinsiders, "a rewards program that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to understand the customer on an individual journey," he explains.

"I was born into the restaurant industry," says Sitter, as he remarks on immigrating from Vienna as a child and opening the first King's Biergarten in Pearland in 2011. As a fifth-generation restaurateur, he is familiar with "the love and pain of the industry." When he took on the challenge of marketing his family's "obscure German restaurant behind a car wash in Pearland," he became "obsessed" with the trade.

Philipp Sitter launched VIPinsiders last year. Photo courtesy of VIPinsiders

After building excitement around EggHaus, the Instagrammable haven that's attracted both breakfast lovers and influencers, Sitter wanted to find a way to build the same buzz at his other restaurants using technology.

Going mobile

From Starbucks Rewards' gold stars to Chick-Fil-A One, reward programs have been tested and utilized by the Goliaths of the restaurant industry for years.

When looking at the cost of building a mobile app like Starbucks, he determined it to be impossible.

"We're talking about millions that go into developing technology. What restaurant is going to be able to afford something like that?" he asked.

The plan soon crystallized: Sitter decided to create a mobile platform that uses AI to personalize unique offers and experiences for customers while taking the responsibility from the shoulders of restaurant owners with smaller, multi-unit concepts. By developing and scaling the mobile platform by providing its services to other businesses, "then it would all of the sudden become affordable for everybody," he realized.

Deciding to create a mobile platform was the easy part.

"I wasn't born with the emotion of fear in business," shares Sitter, who has dabbled in obscure endeavors from washing cars to flipping classic cars on eBay.

After formulating the VIPinsiders concept, he hired a team of developers to "use the psychology of everything I've learned in marketing and put it into a technology platform," he explains.

The user experience

Each client gets a tailor-made approach, ensuring the rewards and loyalty features are made to fit the restaurant. The VIPinsiders staff builds custom mobile platforms for its small and medium-sized restaurant chain clients that utilize the restaurant's branding, menus and events for $299 per month.

"We got through a discovery call in which our team will actually build the rewards journey for them and show it to the business owner for approval," explains Sitter, "We don't want to give the owners and managers a homework assignment."

Once the platform is approved, Sitter's team trains restaurant owners. In-house copywriters and designers then develop print material for the restaurant to cross-promote the rewards program.

According to VIPinsiders' internal data, 95 percent of users find the app "easy to use." Using QR technology, customers can sign up by scanning a QR code rather than downloading an app.

"The restaurant gets to know me [the customer], it understands how often I visit, it also gets to reward my visitation," explains Sitter. Rather than a one-size-fits-all reward program, the platform is meant to showcase different menu items and offerings.

"Most importantly, it reminds me to come back when I haven't visited in a while."

Data recorded by VIPinsiders shows that 48 percent of users visit restaurants with the platform "more often" in the first 90 days.

Text message marketing 

When stay-at-home orders first took effect in Harris County, many business owners could not update their business hours or post new content on the Google My Business platform due to the site's halted review process during COVID-19.

The issue left business owners with one less form of contact, creating a vulnerability in customer communication. Social media marketing doesn't quite come to the rescue either, with Facebook's algorithm showing an average of 5.5 percent of a brand's following will see its post.

To Sitter, text messaging is "the next frontier."

Due to COVID-19, VIPinsiders recently ran a promotion to provide free platform use and unlimited text capabilities for a limited time to restaurants. "We've gotten a lot of incredible emails and feedback saying thank you for letting us use this and helping us [get] back our business," says Sitter.

"It's time for all of us to take our power back, to own our customer [data] and be able to talk with them directly and not have to pay the middleman [like social media companies] and really have the relationship that customer opted in for," says Sitter.

As one of the first mobile platforms approved by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, restaurant clients can extend happy hour offerings and provide customers with free alcoholic beverages.

At King's Bierhaus, Sitter was able to deploy an alcohol-to-go offer via text message that resulted in $40,000 of bottled King's Whiskey sold.

"I was able to sell that because I was able to text my customers directly," Sitter says.

Clients outside of Sitter's own properties also see growth. Ninety-three percent of restaurants using the VIPinsiders platform reported an increase in sales.

"I would absolutely recommend other operators to sign up for VIPinsiders because it has increased our sales, our guests love it, and the support we get from them makes it effortless," explains Usman Dhanani, President of Operations for Cyclone Anaya's Tex-Mex Kitchen, in a VIPinsiders testimonial video.

El Toro, a Mexican restaurant chain with six Texas locations, generated an estimated additional $735,000 in sales with a total of more than 35,000 additional customer visits, according to VIPinsiders data.

"The biggest brands in the world and celebrities lead a charge into marketing initiatives," says Sitter, "A company like ours will bring that to small businesses and make it affordable for them so they can compete at the highest level."

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Health tech startup launches Houston study improve stroke patients recovery

now enrolling

A Houston-born company is enrolling patients in a study to test the efficacy of nerve stimulation to improve outcomes for stroke survivors.

Dr. Kirt Gill and Joe Upchurch founded NeuraStasis in 2021 as part of the TMC Biodesign fellowship program.

“The idea for the company manifested during that year because both Joe and I had experiences with stroke survivors in our own lives,” Gill tells InnovationMap. It began for Gill when his former college roommate had a stroke in his twenties.

“It’s a very unpredictable, sudden disease with ramifications not just for my best friend but for everyone in his life. I saw what it did to his family and caregivers and it's one of those things that doesn't have as many solutions for people to continue recovery and to prevent damage and that's an area that I wanted to focus myself on in my career,” Gill explains.

Gill and Upchurch arrived at the trigeminal and vagus nerves as a potential key to helping stroke patients. Gill says that there is a growing amount of academic literature that talks about the efficacy of stimulating those nerves. The co-founders met Dr. Sean Savitz, the director of the UTHealth Institute for Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases, during their fellowship. He is now their principal investigator for their clinical feasibility study, located at his facility.

The treatment is targeted for patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke, meaning that it’s caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain.

“Rehabilitation after a stroke is intended to help the brain develop new networks to compensate for permanently damaged areas,” Gill says. “But the recovery process typically slows to essentially a standstill or plateau by three to six months after that stroke. The result is that the majority of stroke survivors, around 7.6 million in the US alone, live with a form of disability that prevents complete independence afterwards.”

NeuraStasis’ technology is intended to help patients who are past that window. They accomplish that with a non-invasive brain-stimulation device that targets the trigeminal and vagus nerves.

“Think of it kind of like a wearable headset that enables stimulation to be delivered, paired to survivors going through rehabilitation action. So the goal here is to help reinforce and rewire networks as they're performing specific tasks that they're looking to improve upon,” Gill explains.

The study, which hopes to enroll around 25 subjects, is intended to help people with residual arm and hand deficits six months or more after their ischemic stroke. The patients enrolled will receive nerve stimulation three times a week for six weeks. It’s in this window that Gill says he hopes to see meaningful improvement in patients’ upper extremity deficits.

Though NeuraStasis currently boasts just its two co-founders as full-time employees, the company is seeing healthy growth. It was selected for a $1.1 million award from the National Institutes of Health through its Blueprint MedTech program. The award was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The funding furthers NeuraStasis’ work for two years, and supports product development for work on acute stroke and for another product that will aid in emergency situations.

Gill says that he believes “Houston has been tailor-made for medical healthcare-focused innovation.”

NeuraStasis, he continues, has benefited greatly from its advisors and mentors from throughout the TMC, as well as the engineering talent from Rice, University of Houston and Texas A&M. And the entrepreneur says that he hopes that Houston will benefit as much from NeuraStasis’ technology as the company has from its hometown.

“I know that there are people within the community that could benefit from our device,” he says.

Texas Space Commission launches, Houston execs named to leadership

future of space

Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Space Commission, naming its inaugural board of directors and Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee.

The announcement came at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and the governor was joined by Speaker Dade Phelan, Representative Greg Bonnen, Representative Dennis Paul, NASA's Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche, and various aerospace industry leaders.

According to a news release, the Texas Space Commission will aim to strengthen commercial, civil, and military aerospace activity by promoting innovation in space exploration and commercial aerospace opportunities, which will include the integration of space, aeronautics, and aviation industries as part of the Texas economy.

The Commission will be governed by a nine-member board of directors. The board will also administer the legislatively created Space Exploration and Aeronautics Research Fund to provide grants to eligible entities.

“Texas is home to trailblazers and innovators, and we have a rich history of traversing the final frontier: space,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says in a news release. “Texas is and will continue to be the epicenter for the space industry across the globe, and I have total confidence that my appointees to the Texas Space Commission Board of Directors and the Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee will ensure the Texas space industry remains an international powerhouse for cutting-edge space innovation.”

TARSEC will independently identify research opportunities that will assist the state’s position in aeronautics research and development, astronautics, space commercialization, and space flight infrastructure. It also plans to fuel the integration of space, aeronautics, astronautics, and aviation industries into the Texas economy. TARSEC will be governed by an executive committee and will be composed of representatives of each higher education institution in the state.

“Since its very inception, NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been home to manned spaceflight, propelling Texas as the national leader in the U.S. space program,” Abbott says during the announcement. “It was at Rice University where President John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

"Now, with the Texas Space Commission, our great state will have a group that is responsible for dreaming and achieving the next generation of human exploration in space," he continues. "Texas is the launchpad for Mars, innovating the technology that will colonize humanity’s first new planet. As we look into the future of space, one thing is clear: those who reach for the stars do so from the great state of Texas. I look forward to working with the Texas Space Commission, and I thank the Texas Legislature for partnering with industry and higher education institutions to secure the future of Texas' robust space industry."

The Houston-area board of directors appointees included:

  • Gwen Griffin, chief executive officer of the Griffin Communications Group
  • John Shannon, vice president of Exploration Systems at the Boeing Company
  • Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace
  • Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin
  • Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg, director of the Texas A&M Space Institute

Additionally, a few Houstonians were named to the TARSEC committee, including:

  • Stephanie Murphy, CEO and executive chairman of Aegis Aerospace
  • Matt Ondler, president and former chief technology officer at Axiom Space
  • Jack “2fish” Fischer, vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines
  • Brian Freedman, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and vice chairman of Wellby Financial
  • David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University

To see the full list of appointed board and committee members, along with their extended bios, click here.