This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Mark Walker of Direct Digital Holdings, Will Womble of Umbrage, and Steve Altemus of Intuitive Machines. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from adtech to aerospace — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Mark Walker, CEO, co-founder and chairman of Direct Digital Holdings

This month, Mark Walker is celebrating his company's one year anniversary of going public — only the ninth Black-founded business to accomplish this feat on a U.S. stock exchange. Photo courtesy

Houston-based Direct Digital Holdings, an adtech platform, is celebrating one year after its IPO. Co-Founder Mark Walker shares on the Houston Innovators Platform how he took this experience in tech, advertising, and media to create his company's platform.

He also shared the story of how Direct Digital went public. Walker says the decision to IPO made the most sense for his company — though it wasn't an easy process. Direct Digital is only the ninth company founded by a Black entrepreneur to go public on a US stock exchange.

"If you think the process is hard — it actually is," Walker says on the journey to IPO. "We were a privately held company, and we knew we had a good growth trajectory and we looked a couple different options. We decided to go public in a very traditional way." Read more.

Steve Altemus, co-founder, president, and CEO of Intuitive Machines

Intuitive Machines listed on Nasdaq on February 14. Photo via intuitivemachines.com

Intuitive Machines, a space tech company based in Southeast Houston, announced that it has completed the transaction to merge with Inflection Point Acquisition Corp., a special purpose acquisition company traded on Nasdaq.

“We are excited to begin this new chapter as a publicly traded company,” says Steve Altemus, co-founder, president, and CEO of Intuitive Machines, in a news release. “Intuitive Machines is in a leading position to replace footprints with a foothold in the development of lunar space. With our launch into the public sphere through Inflection Point, we have reached new heights financially and opened the doors for even greater exploration and innovation for the progress of humanity.”

The transaction, which was originally announced in September, was approved by Inflection Point’s shareholders in a general meeting on February 8. As a result of the deal, the company will receive around $55 million of committed capital from an affiliate of its sponsor and company founders, the release states. Read more.

Will Womble, founder and CEO of Umbrage

Umbrage, a Houston-based developer of enterprise software, has been acquired. Photo via umbrage.com

Umbrage, founded in 2019, is proving once again that Space City is a software hub. Earlier this month, Founder Will Womble announced that Umbrage has been acquired by Bain & Company.

Umbrage creates custom software for companies by partnering with an internal technology team that makes the products. It’s a “teach a man to fish” method that has brought the company great success in creating software such as Shell’s TapUp app.

Bain & Company works with clients in 64 cities across 39 countries, meaning the global consultancy is positioned to bring Umbrage worldwide.

"Alongside Bain, we can deliver enhanced end-to-end solutions that will position our clients for success and to adapt during waves of disruptive emerging technologies," says CEO Womble in the release. Read more.

Umbrage, a Houston-based developer of enterprise software, has been acquired. Photo via umbrage.com

Houston software company acquired by global consultancy

M&A moves

A Houston software company is celebrating an exit this month.

Umbrage, founded in 2019, is proving once again that Space City is a software hub. Earlier this month, Founder Will Womble announced that Umbrage has been acquired by Bain & Company.

Umbrage creates custom software for companies by partnering with an internal technology team that makes the products. It’s a “teach a man to fish” method that has brought the company great success in creating software such as Shell’s TapUp app.

Bain & Company works with clients in 64 cities across 39 countries, meaning the global consultancy is positioned to bring Umbrage worldwide.

"Alongside Bain, we can deliver enhanced end-to-end solutions that will position our clients for success and to adapt during waves of disruptive emerging technologies," says CEO Womble in the release.

Bain’s Vector program has advised more than 6,700 digital projects around the world and across industries. It works by creating joint teams featuring Bain’s consulting staff, allowing companies to reach their digital goals themselves, but with a little help, not unlike Umbrage’s own methods. Acquiring Umbrage gives Bain a boost in its ability to help clients on a larger scale.

"Bain's commitment to delivering results with clients requires expanding and enhancing its ability to innovate and industrialize digital solutions," says Arpan Sheth, global leader of Vector, Bain's digital delivery platform. "Joining forces with Umbrage will allow us to develop a best-in-class, craft-centric digital product and venture building studio that will enable our clients to not only develop successful digital strategies, but to also execute on these strategies through world-class software capabilities. Umbrage further enhances Bain's Next solution to support our clients in their business building missions.”

Once the deal is completed, Umbrage will operate independently, but as a branded service line that’s part of Bain Innovation & Design. But existing clients needn’t worry. Umbrage will continue to assist them, including clients in financial services, energy, natural resources, and other industries.

In 2021, Umbrage raised a $2 million round led by Rice Investment Group. Womble previously joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how Houston has played a role in the company's growth.

Will Womble founded Umbrage in 2018. Photo courtesy

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Will Womble of Umbrage, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and James Reinstein of Saranas. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from energy to health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Will Womble, CEO of Umbrage

Startup founder on how Houston has evolved as a software hub — and why there's no better place to be

Will Womble joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy

Will Womble describes his company, Umbrage, as fiercely loyal to Houston. The business, which publicly launched earlier this year, supports companies large and small with their software design, development, and more. Womble says he saw a void in Houston for this type of company, and he's attempting to fill it.

"What makes us different is speed to market — we're all onshore. We're all Houston-based, with the exception of five of our 40 employees," Womble says. "Houston was our focus and mission."

Womble has seen Houston evolve as an innovation ecosystem over the years, and now the game has changed. Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert's company, ALLY Energy, has made an acquisition. Photo via Katie Mehnert

ALLY Energy announced it has acquired Clean Energy Social, a jobs and networking community for the clean energy industry. The deal expands ALLY's platform into the solar, wind, power, oil and gas, power and utilities, biofuels, hydrogen, geothermal, carbon capture, and other sectors that make up the energy transition.

"It's time to tackle the enormous challenge of the energy transition by connecting companies and candidates to resources so we can reduce the time and capital it takes to recruit and reskill," says Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy, in a news release. "We can speed up decarbonization by centralizing resources into one digital experience. This acquisition is a much-needed human capital investment to advance net-zero goals." Click here to read more.

James Reinstein, president and CEO of Saranas

Saranas closed its series B round this week. Photo via Saranas.com

Saranas Inc. announced that it closed a $12.8 million series B investment led by Wisconsin-based Baird Capital, the venture capital and global private equity arm of Baird, a global company with a location in Houston. Austin-based S3 Ventures also supported the round. The company will use the funds to continue its clinical trials, per a news release.

"We are pleased to announce this round of funding led by Baird Capital," says Saranas President and CEO James Reinstein in the release. "It underscores the importance of real-time monitoring of bleeding complications and our opportunity to accelerate the commercialization of Early Bird. We look forward to expanding our clinical evidence through prospective clinical trials and launching next generation products, including Bird on a Wire, to address a much broader range of endovascular procedures." Click here to read more.

Will Womble, CEO of Umbrage, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy

Startup founder on how Houston has evolved as a software hub — and why there's no better place to be

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 94

It's no understatement to say that Will Womble is incredibly proud to be a Houstonian. The former actor and lawyer first got involved in the startup world by way of Austin — but he always advocated for his hometown.

"Houston is always third in line when it comes to the 'cool kid' in Texas," Womble says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "But when you look at what's here, there's not a city outside of New York City with as many Fortune 500 companies. ... I just wanted to go prove that Houston has some really talented software developers just clamoring for the opportunity to show the talent."

An early hire at Chaotic Moon — later acquired by Accenture, Womble co-founded Austin-based Hypergiant before founding his latest venture, Umbrage. The company, which publicly launched earlier this year, supports companies large and small with their software design, development, and more.

The company, which Womble describes as a service-focused, crafts-based digital studio, works with its clients to design, develop, and deliver enterprise software that's cutting edge and scalable. The other thing? Umbrage is fiercely loyal to Houston. Womble says he saw a void in Houston for this type of company, and he's attempting to fill it.

"What makes us different is speed to market — we're all onshore. We're all Houston-based, with the exception of five of our 40 employees," Womble says. "Houston was our focus and mission."

Womble has seen Houston evolve as an innovation ecosystem over the years, and now the game has changed — especially when it comes to hiring, which has gotten very competitive.

"You see all of these great companies that aren't just bootstrapping but raising significant venture funding," Womble says. "It's awesome, but it's also making the landscape from the talent perspective very competitive. It was hard enough for a lot of industrial enterprise to attract talent before all of these startups were infused with capital to build their own teams."

These types of challenges aren't a deterrant for Womble — it's exciting for him.

"It's a really awesome time to be called a Houstonian," he says.

Womble shares more on his circuitous career and how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem evolve on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Umbrage, a Houston-based developer of enterprise software, has closed its seed funding. Photo via umbrage.com

Houston digital studio closes $2M seed round with local investment

money moves

A software startup in Houston has leveled up thanks to new funding. Houston-based digital studio Umbrage has reportedly raised $2 million.

Founded in 2019 by Will Womble, Umbrage creates custom software solutions for companies within digitally transforming industries, such as oil and gas, healthcare, and supply chain.

"Umbrage is a new way that enterprises can overcome the inherent challenges of building and scaling digital solutions," Womble, who also serves as CEO, says in a news release. "Umbrage partners with internal technology teams to create scalable products that directly impact business' success. And by training our clients to effectively scale and improve these custom-built solutions, we're setting up our customers for long-term, sustainable success."

The round was led by Rice Investment Group — which, according to the release, has been a client of Umbrage as well as an investor.

"We've utilized Umbrage's custom solutions in our portfolio companies with great success and we can attest to the customer value proposition," says Danny Rice, a Partner of Rice Investment Group. "We're thrilled to support Umbrage's growth and enable forward-thinking businesses to unlock the business potential that digital solutions from Umbrage can deliver."

According to the release, Umbrage was able to be cash-flow-positive within weeks of starting and has already grown its team to nearly 40 employees. Clients include Cold Bore Technologies, Sumitomo Corp., and cpap.com.

"Umbrage brings a product-first mindset that continues to influence our organization far beyond what is expected from a software vendor," says Edwin Suarez, vice president and chief digital officer at SC Global Tubular Solutions. "Our team has been challenged with digital business models from ideation through product development and partnering with Umbrage helps us focus on long-term strategy while ensuring delivery on our immediate needs."

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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.