Choice Hotels has a new partner in Houston-based WizeHire. Photo courtesy of Choice Hotels

A Houston startup has struck a deal with a major new client focused on getting employees back to work at its 6,000 locations worldwide.

Maryland-based international hotelier Choice Hotels International Inc. selected Houston-based WizeHire into its Qualified Vendor program as its only current recruiting solution for the thousands of franchised locations under the Choice Hotels umbrella. WizeHire provides its clients tech-enabled, customized hiring solutions and has a suite of software available for users to utilize.

"We're so excited to support Choice's independently-owned hotels with the most personal and complex part of their businesses—hiring great talent," says Sid Upadhyay, WizeHire's co-founder and CEO, in a press release.

According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the hospitality industry saw an unemployment rate of 13.5 percent. With travel expected to increase this year, Choice Hotels is looking to provide its franchisees opportunities to efficiently rehire.

"As a long-time Choice Hotels owner and WizeHire customer, I'm thrilled for what this partnership means for growing my business," says Tushar Patel, owner of Quality Inn & Suites Round Rock - Austin North, in the release.

Hospitality represents one of the six industry verticals WizeHire has listed on its website, and the startup provides "job templates created with industry experts, built-in pre-screening tools specifically for hospitality jobs and benchmarks that help identify the soft skills needed for numerous hotel roles," according to the release.

Choice Hotels nationwide will have access to these resources effective immediately, per the release.

"At a time when there is so much uncertainty for many individuals and employers in the hospitality industry, WizeHire has the opportunity to meet hiring needs at this critical moment," says Justin Nimergood, head of franchise sales for WizeHire. "I'm thrilled to be leading that charge."

After a tumultuous year in which hiring across industries essentially came to a halt, WizeHire is seeing immense business growth as companies plan to rehire, says Upadhyay in a recent interview with InnovationMap. The company recently raised a $7.5 million series A round to gear up for this growth.

With all the uncertainty last, Upadhyay says he and his team instead focused on providing resources, such as PPP loan guidance, for small businesses — something the company is focused on continuing.

"We're really going beyond just the hire," Upadhyay says in a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're getting to this role where we're going to help you grow your business."

Listen to Upadhyay on the Houston Innovators Podcast:

These Houston startups are starting the year off funded. Photo via Getty Images

5 Houston startups start 2021 strong with fresh funding

following the money

Houston startups saw a tumultuous year last year when it came to funding, but some local businesses are seeing an uptick in various stages of venture funding — from a $130 million series B round to a few seed and pre-seed fundings.

In case you missed some of these headlines, InnovationMap has rounded up these seven deals based on previous reporting. Scroll through to see which Houston startups are catching the eyes — and cashing the checks — of investors.

Houston software startup closes $7.5M series A led by two Houston-area​ VC firms

A Houston startup has closed a $7.5 million round of funding with mostly local investment. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

A Houston B2B software startup has closed a new round of funding led by two Houston venture capital firms.

WizeHire, a tech-enabled hiring solution for small businesses, closed a $7.5 million series A funding round that was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and Amplo, which is based just north of Houston in Spring. Additional support came from existing backers Ruchit Shah and RigUp co-founder Sandeep Jain. The company was co-founded by Sid Upadhyay, Nick Carneiro, and Jay Niblick.

According to a news release, WizeHire will use the funds to scale their business, which is centered around providing personalized hiring resources to small businesses, as well as to hire more staff and expand its partner program.

"We're a small business helping small businesses with a team of people looking out for you," says Upadhyay, who serves the company as CEO, in the release. "Hiring is complex and personal. Our customers see what we do not just as software; they see us as a trusted advisor." Click here to continue reading.

Houston B2B software company raises $3.2M in seed funding to grow team and product

DocJuris has raised its first round of venture funding to grow its team to keep up with demand for its legal software platform. Image courtesy of DocJuris

A Houston-based software-as-a-service company that is revolutionizing the contract process has closed a round of funding this week.

DocJuris, founded in 2018, raised $3.2 million in seed funding led by New York-based RTP Seed with additional support from Houston-based Seed Round Capital, California-based Watertower Ventures, Maryland-based Crossbeam, and Remote First Capital.

It's the startup's first round of venture funding and Henal Patel, CEO of DocJuris, says he was looking for funds as well as support from investors who had experience with software and could open doors to new clients for the legal software. Click here to continue reading.

Houston space tech company raises $130M series B

Houston-based Axiom Space has raised more funds for its growing commercial space business. Image via axiomspace.com

Just around a year ago, Houston-based Axiom Space Inc. closed a $100 million series A round. Now, the space tech company has announced even more financing as it grows and scales to support a NASA-commissioned project.

Axiom raised $130 million in its series B round led by C5 Capital with support from TQS Advisors, Declaration Partners, Moelis Dynasty Investments, Washington University in St. Louis, The Venture Collective, Aidenlair Capital, Hemisphere Ventures, and Starbridge Venture Capital.

"Axiom Space is a force in the space sector, and it will become a centerpiece of the C5 Capital portfolio and enhance our vision for a secure global future," says C5 operating partner Rob Meyerson, who will join the Axiom board of directors, in a news release. "The Axiom Station will be the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space, and it will serve as the foundation for future exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond." Click here to continue reading.

Houston construction staffing startup emerges from stealth with $1.5 pre-seed funding

Houston-based Buildforce is developing a technology to better connect contractors and the trade professionals they employ. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston startup has been quietly working on a tech solution for construction staffing and has now emerged from stealth mode to announce a recent funding round as well as an acquisition.

Launched in July of 2020, Buildforce is a construction staffing app that aims to more efficiently connect contractors to skilled workers in trades ranging from electrical, mechanical, and plumbing to flooring, concrete, painting, and more, according to a news release. The company raised a $1.5 million pre-seed round led by Houston-based Mercury Fund.

Co-founder and CEO Moody Heard, who previously served as senior investment analyst at Mercury, says the tech product — the Buildforce Contractor App — will have a big impact on Texas, which is experiencing growing construction volume across the state. Click here to continue reading.

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

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

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." Click here to continue reading.

WizeHire CEO Sid Upadhyay joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his big plans for his company as it gears up for growth. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

Houston startup plans to expand to revolutionize tech-enabled small business support

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 74

Hiring and recruiting has been a challenging and inefficient process for small businesses — yet it could not be more important as a company with a small, growing team.

"Today, whether you're running a startup for the first or second time, at the end of the day, you're just wearing too many hats," says Sid Upadhyay, co-founder and CEO of WizeHire, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Recruiting is one of those things where we know talent is the lifeblood of our businesses, but we just don't have the time to think about the process."

Upadhyay says his company, Houston-based WizeHire, lives and breathes for small businesses, and in 2014 the company launched to tap into technology to provide a software service that can streamline a more effective way for startups and small businesses to hire — and hire optimally.

Last month, the company — founded by Upadhyay, Nick Carneiro, and Jay Niblick — closed a $7.5 million series A funding round that was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and Amplo, which is based just north of Houston in Spring. Additional support came from existing backers Ruchit Shah and RigUp co-founder Sandeep Jain. The fresh funding will go toward expansion — both of its team as well as WizeHire's products.

Upadhyay says the the effects of the pandemic — which includes many businesses ceasing to hire — had profound repercussions on WizeHire.

"We saw half our revenue disappear overnight," Upadhyay says. "As we were going through that up-and-down roller coaster, it was one of the most humbling experience."

Upadhyay says WizeHire has a close relationship with its customers, and they were reaching out asking for guidance from WizeHire during the uncertain times. Upadhyay's team took the opportunity to provide low or no-cost support, especially when it comes to navigating the CARES Act.

"We started to educate our customers about everything from PPP loans to tax credits," Upadhyay says. "We went so far as to connect 300 of our customers to banks — otherwise they wouldn't have been able to get these loans."

These efforts are what led WizeHire to its first venture capital raise. The bootstrapped company has a client base that includes more than 7,000 businesses, and the company recorded $4.7 million in run rate in 2020. Now, in light of the impact WizeHire was able to make with its clients during the pandemic, Upadhyay says the company is going to expand to include other key services, like identifying tax credits.

"We're really going beyond just the hire," Upadhyay says. "We're getting to this role where we're going to help you grow your business."

Upadhyay discusses more about WizeHire's plans for 2021 and the intentionality of the business on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Rachel Moctron of ClassPass, Sid Upadhyay of WizeHire, and Ashley Small of Medley Inc. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries recently making headlines — from fitness tech and software to PR and communications.

Rachel Moncton, vice president of Global Marketing at ClassPass

Rachel Moncton shares why ClassPass tapped Houston as a prime place to expand. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

ClassPass recently announced its entrance into the Houston market, and at the helm of the company's new local presence is Rachel Moncton. In a guest article for InnovationMap, she shares why ClassPass was so interested in Houston. The search actually started four years ago, but the tech company finally landed in Houston for its fourth location.

"In 2017, the ClassPass team spent nine months conducting an intensive nationwide search for a city that matched our mission and values," Moncton writes. "As a brand focused on supporting an active lifestyle, we wanted a city that offered a connection to the outdoors. One of the most important driving factors in our search was finding a city where we could attract incredible talent to our team. Though we settled on Missoula, Houston was high on the list." Click here to read more.

Sid Upadhyay, co-founder and CEO of WizeHire

A Houston startup has closed a $7.5 million round of funding with mostly local investment. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

Sid Upadhyay's startup has something to celebrate. The software company founded in Houston closed a $7.5 million series A round of funding led by two Houston-area venture capital firms — Amplo and Mercury Fund. According to a news release, WizeHire will use the funds to scale their business, which is centered around providing personalized hiring resources to small businesses.

"We're a small business helping small businesses with a team of people looking out for you," says Upadhyay. "Hiring is complex and personal. Our customers see what we do not just as software; they see us as a trusted advisor." Click here to read more.

Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc.

From events to online shopping — here are four tech trends to look out for this year according to Ashley Small. Photo courtesy of Medley

For Ashley Small, founder and CEO of Medley Inc., innovation and inclusion go hand in hand. Business leaders need diverse voices at the table to drive new ideas and innovation.

"Innovation is actually impossible without diversity," Small says on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "A part of this is also being really open minded to the fact that you are going to hear ideas that sound and look different. Be open to that, because that is 100 percent the point."

Small discusses more about how she's honoring Black History Month with her team and the evolution the PR and media industries have seen over the past decade on the episode. Click here to stream the episode and read more.

A Houston startup has closed a $7.5 million round of funding with mostly local investment. Photo courtesy of WizeHire

Houston software startup closes $7.5M series A led by two Houston-area​ VC firms

money moves

A Houston B2B software startup has closed a new round of funding led by two Houston venture capital firms.

WizeHire, a tech-enabled hiring solution for small businesses, closed a $7.5 million series A funding round that was led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and Amplo, which is based just north of Houston in Spring. Additional support came from existing backers Ruchit Shah and RigUp co-founder Sandeep Jain. The company was co-founded by Sid Upadhyay, Nick Carneiro, and Jay Niblick.

According to a news release, WizeHire will use the funds to scale their business, which is centered around providing personalized hiring resources to small businesses, as well as to hire more staff and expand its partner program.

"We're a small business helping small businesses with a team of people looking out for you," says Upadhyay, who serves the company as CEO, in the release. "Hiring is complex and personal. Our customers see what we do not just as software; they see us as a trusted advisor."

WizeHire's client base includes more than 7,000 businesses, and the company recorded $4.7 million in run rate in 2020, according to the press release, and it was the company's highest year-over-year growth.

"WizeHire is focused on a future where small business owners have easy access to the elevated hiring experience large corporations already have," says Amplo's Sam Garcia, who will join WizeHire's board, in the release. "They're not just creating a better alternative to current recruiting solutions; they're giving employers more peace of mind about the hiring process so they can get back to building their business."

Last year, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company launched a free version of its product and partnered with lenders to help increase accessibility for the Paycheck Protection Program. Now, in a new year, unemployment continues to soar and more than 10 million people remained out of work. As small businesses continue to recover and plan to rehire, WizeHire provides a service that is hyper-personalized for different industries.

"We are thrilled to support WizeHire's opportunity to define talent acquisition for small businesses," says Heath Butler, managing director at Mercury, who will also join WizeHire's board. "By systematically helping hiring managers align company values, behavioral competencies, technical skills and industry requirements to identify the best candidate, WizeHire is enabling their clients to maximize productivity, reduce turnover cost and increase customer loyalty."

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

innovation delivered

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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 — startup development, fintech, and health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Impact Hub Houston has two new initiatives for female founders. Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Two accelerator programs were recently announced and they both are aimed at supporting female founders — and one Houston organization is behind them both. Impact Hub Houston announced that it has partnered up with Frost Bank to sponsor eight female founders to participate in Impact Hub's new Accelerate Membership Program.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston has teamed up with MassChallenge for their own initiative supporting female founders in the Houston-Galveston region in partnership with Houston-based Workforce Solutions. The three organizations are collaborating to launch launch a bootcamp to support female founders in the greater Houston region.

"As a female founder myself, I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity to support and uplift more women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses in our region," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "By now, it's no secret that women, and especially women of color, are under-invested in; and this is our chance to change that by helping more women strengthen their businesses and prepare to seek funding." Click here to read more.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

The world of investing is changing — and the power shift is tilting from the rich elite to individuals. Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic, has seen the change starting several years ago.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

Lee shares more about the future of investing and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo courtesy

No industry has been unaffected by COVID-19, Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health, observes in a guest column for InnovationMap. But hospitals — they've had a spotlight shown on them and their technology adoption since day one of the pandemic.

"The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time," she writes.

Hospitals, she says, look and feel completely different now than they did last year and the year before that. Click here to read more.

Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.