Abbey Donnell created a service before employers even knew they needed it. Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell always thought she'd run her own business one day. But did she think she'd start a business that builds out and runs lactation suites as an employee amenity within office buildings? No, she can't say that she did.

However, that's what she's done with Work & Mother, a growing Houston-based business that's both a real estate play and a femtech company. Donnell was working in the advertising and marketing industry and moonlighting as an MBA student at Rice University when the idea came to her. She saw her friends starting having kids and saw how they struggled with the return to work. If they forgot essential supplies for pumping, they'd have to run to the store real quick. Or, they'd have to pump in a room that sacrificed privacy, cleanliness, and/or comfort.

It's something women are hesitant to advocate for themselves, Donnell says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, adding that they are more willing to just deal with the lack of appropriate facilities than raise a fuss. Through her work at Rice and an early pilot in an office building, Donnell essentially started a whole new type of business.

"We created this service for commercial office buildings," Donnell says, explaining that the business works directly with office building landlords to build out the facility. "The new business model creates a win-win-win scenario because it's more cost efficient and is a better solution for all parties, as well as adding privacy and being more streamlined."

In addition to the facilities, which are decorated in a spa-like way that adds comfort to the rooms, Work & Mother adds on to its amenities service with a smartphone app for new moms working in the building to book their pumping room.

The fact that Work & Mother is created a whole new type of service has presented Donnell with a unique set of challenges. For one, fundraising has been a process that includes educating potential investors — most of which are likely men without personal experience with the burden new moms face.

"We're in a strange niche of the industry. We don't really fall completely into a real estate bucket and we don't fall completely into a tech bucket," Donnell says. "It makes finding investors who really understand what we're doing a little bit trickier."

Despite the challenges, Work & Mother has gotten some traction coming out of the pandemic — something that has benefited the business model in that more people are aware of the importance of sanitation and staying healthy in the workplace. Work & Mother has two open locations now with more on the horizon — including expanding outside of Texas thanks to a partnership with CBRE.

Donnell discusses the partnership and the future of Work & Mother on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

UH's business school has been recognized for innovation and entrepreneurship. Photo via bauerticker.uh.edu

Houston health tech company raises $8M, former WeWork exec has a new gig, UH programs recognized, and more innovation news

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Hitting headlines this month are innovation news stories from sustainability and education to funding and startup competitions.

In this innovation news roundup, two health-focused startups raise money, the University of Houston earns two pats on the back, a Houston-based former WeWork exec joined the C-suite of a sustainable clothing company, and more.

BrainCheck closes $8 million series A round

BrainCheck has received funding to grow its cognitive assessment platform. Photo via braincheck.com

Houston-based BrainCheck, a cognitive health tech platform closed its $8 million series A funding round. Austin-based S3 Ventures and Chicago-based Tensility Venture Partners co-led the round, and Austin-based True Wealth Ventures and Kansas-based Nueterra Capital also contributed to the round.

BrainCheck's digital platform allows physicians to better assess cognitive function in their patients. The new funds will be used for research and development, including customizing the platform's algorithm for an enhanced patient experience, according to a news release.

"Cognitive healthcare should be an end-to-end solution where problems can be assessed early, and results shared between patients and physicians," says Dr. Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, in the release. "By analyzing multiple forms of data, BrainCheck helps physicians create and fine tune personalized interventions. This not only improves outcomes for current patients, but is invaluable to developing management and treatment strategies for future generations."

Former WeWork exec Emily Keeton joins C-suite of a sustainable clothing startup

Goodfair has created a digital thrifting platform. Photo via goodfair.com

After a little over two years at WeWork in leadership positions, Emily Keeton has left the coworking space company to join a Houston startup. Keeton, who was among the founders of Station Houston, is now the chief operating officer at Goodfair, a direct-to-consumer thrift platform based in Houston.

"The rise of fast fashion is contributing to major environmental change," she tells InnovationMap. "Right now, the average American buys 68 new garments a year and wears each one only 7 times. Clothing production is responsible for over 20 percent of all industrial water pollution."

Keeton says she was connected with Goodfair's CEO, Topper Luciani, through the company's lead investor, Paul Bricault of California-based Amplify. Luciani just moved to Houston, and the company also has a warehouse here.

Goodfair sells bundles of "pre-loved" clothes based on size and category at a low price point.

"You know you'll get a medium flannel shirt, but you don't know exactly what color. If you don't like it, you can get a new order for the cost of shipping only," Keeton says. "We have created an entirely new model for this industry, which is an over $14 billion market."

NurseDash raises bridge round as the startup braces for growth

Houston-based NurseDash is the Uber of staffing nursing shifts in medical facilities. Photo via nursedash.com

A growing Houston startup has received bridge funding ahead of opening a larger round. NurseDash, a digital staffing tool for nurses and medical facilities, has received $500,000 from East Coast-based SEI Ventures.

The corporate-backed fund has contributed greatly to higher education institutions, like Capella University, which has a large nursing program.

"Some of the ways we think we can help NurseDash accelerate their growth is getting getting word out to Capella's tens of thousands of alumni and hundreds of employer partners to make sure they are aware of the advantages of the platform, and potentially organizing an educational partnership as well," Taylor Chapman, Houston native and principal at SEI Ventures, tells InnovationMap.

NurseDash, which launched in 2017, now has a presence in 80 facilities on the platform and over 1,000 clinician users in Houston, Austin, and Northeast Ohio.

"We are excited to have SEI join us as a strategic investor and the opportunity that it brings for us to provide enhanced educational opportunities to our clinicians as well as greater exposure the wonderfully talented group that comprises the alumni and nursing students of Cappella University," says CEO and Co-founder Jake Kohl in an email.

University of Houston programs receive recognition

The University of Houston's business school has been recognized for two of its programs. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

The University of Houston's business school has two more feathers to add to its cap.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek named the MBA program at the C. T. Bauer College of Business as among the world's best programs for entrepreneurs. The program tied for ninth in the B- category out of 126 programs surveyed.

"Bauer students indeed reflect the values of our beloved Houston," Professional Programs Associate Dean Leiser Silva says in a news release. "Like our city, they have grit, they are resilient, and they are the bearers of an unparalleled ingenuity. It is in their character to assume calculated risks and be entrepreneurs."

Meanwhile, Bauer's Stimulating Urban Renewal through Entrepreneurship received the 2019 Award of Excellence for Innovation + Talent at the recent University Economic Development Association annual summit. The program creates a partnership between UH students and local entrepreneurs and area business leaders.

"At the heart of the program is experiential learning for our students, along with a commitment to service and civic engagement," says SURE™ founder and director Saleha Khumawala, in a news release.

Capital Factory seeks Texas companies for artificial intelligence challenge

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Capital Factory is looking for AI companies to compete for $100,000. Getty Images

Austin-based Capital Factory, which has a statewide presence, is looking for startups with artificial intelligence technologies.

The $100,000 Artificial Intelligence Challenge is asking companies to submit their solutions to four key challenges decided by the Army Artificial Intelligence Task Force. The four challenges are: Intelligence support for long-range precision, automated threat recognition for the next-generation combat vehicle, human resources and talent management, and predictive maintenance for military assets.

The competition will conclude on November 12th, at Capital Factory's Defense Innovation Summit. Five technology finalists will be judged by a panel, and one will receive a $100,000 investment that day. The deadline to apply online is October 21.

Work & Mother announces new location

Houston-based Work & Mother is rethinking how new mothers pump in the office. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Houston startup Work & Mother, which runs lactation centers for new moms returning to work, has another location opening. Brookfield Properties announced that Work & Mother has signed a lease for a 949-square-foot space at Three Allen Center at 333 Clay St. in downtown Houston with an expectation top open next summer.

"We are thrilled to partner with Brookfield Properties on this project. We've found that companies aren't equipped to fully address such a private and intimate issue as pumping breast milk in the office," says Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO, in a news release. "It doesn't make sense for every company in a large office tower to take this on individually. Work & Mother is a better economic option for companies in that they reduce their legal risks and create a better working environment, preserving their own office space for their core business."

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Greentown Labs hires former Houston sustainability exec

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The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

Houston edtech nonprofit grows its technology with $440K grant from Kinder Foundation

student-focused

As the learning landscape shifted from in-person to virtual, the ability to provide students with necessary support systems and resources became compromised. However, one Houston edtech company worked hard to close that gap.

ProUnitas, a Houston-based nonprofit, partnered with Thoughtworks, a global technology consultancy, to expand its PurpleSENSE platform to mobile. This partnership was ensured through significant private investment, including a one-time gift of $440,000 from the Kinder Foundation.

ProUnitas promises that this expansion will allow student support teams to take the power of PurpleSENSE with them on the go for easier, real-time response using the new PurpleSENSE mobile app.

"A mobile version of PurpleSENSE will empower student support teams to work more rapidly, efficiently and effectively towards their mission and goals," Chris Murphy, CEO of Thoughtworks North America, says in a news release.

Committed to ensuring that no students fall through the cracks, ProUnitas' purpose is focused on providing all students, including those most impoverished, with support services such as food assistance programs, mental health counseling, and after-school clubs.

"Every day many of our students carry the burden of poverty on their shoulders to school, and despite the availability of services, schools do not have the technology infrastructure necessary to connect students to resources in a coordinated way. We want to change this reality," says Adeeb Barqawi, president and CEO of ProUnitas, says in the release.

Engaged in similar work, the Kinder Foundation was a natural partner.

"The Kinder Foundation believes that children cannot succeed if they are juggling significant personal challenges," says Nancy Kinder, president and CEO of the Kinder Foundation, in the release. "As a result of the pandemic, we are seeing mental health and the impact of stress with fresh eyes. Now is the time to support our children and help them thrive and learn. We are proud to help elevate the work of ProUnitas to reach more schools and more students in this critical time of need."

In a press release, ProUnitas states that through these new mobile capabilities, up to 60 percent of administrative work in providing social service options is eliminated. It also shortens the response time for a student to be identified and receive services by 90 percent.

The expansion of PurpleSENSE to mobile is a critical step for ProUnitas to effectively support more schools and students.

Renewables are Houston's next chapter, says this expert

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Houston has long been known as an innovative city — from medicine to technology to creative cuisines (see Viet-Cajun). I am always proud to see how cultures, education, and change come together to build the fabric of our city. As we look forward to a new future, we need to look no further than one of our strongest industries: energy. As many before me, I've sat down to ask: What does that next chapter look like for Houston?

Renewable energy has rapidly grown in Texas and across the country. Emerging technology has furthered this innovation, bringing wind and solar projects that are more powerful and reliable online from the Panhandle to deep in the Rio Grande Valley. As these new projects come online, aging wind facilities built in the early 2000s are beginning to be revitalized, gleaming bright white with newer, longer blades. And, similar to cleaning out your closet of old clothes, the current blades have to go somewhere. Where others see a problem, we saw an opportunity: We've made a business out of recycling them.

At Everpoint, we are demolishing and removing blades all across the US, with projects in North Dakota, Colorado, and even here in another Texas city, Sweetwater. In this rural Texas town, wind investment took Nolan County market value from $607 million in 1998 to $3.2 billion as development peaked in 2009. This growth enabled the school districts, county, and hospital district to expand and upgrade their facilities. As a trailblazer in the industry, we worked closely with the Sweetwater team to handle a smooth transition, allowing their community to look forward to a breezier future.

The industry is quickly innovating to meet the demands of Texas' future, and new opportunities are forming every day, something we're proud to be a part of, especially as a veteran-owned company. We are driven to make the future of energy more transparent and traceable, that's why we partner with firms like Media Sorcery which uses sensors and an ESG based blockchain built by another Houston firm, Topl, to maintain full accountability throughout the decommissioning process.

Beyond our company, the renewable energy industry employs veterans at a higher rate than the national average, with more than 11,000 in the wind industry alone. As a veteran myself it only made since to team with another veteran founded company to pursue this opportunity. I appreciate meeting fellow veterans every day that are applying the skills they learned in the military: a technical knowledge base, teamwork, and discipline.

Across Texas, renewable energy is powering 40,200 well-paying careers that I know are building toward a better, brighter Houston. It's in our blood to continue the Texas legacy of welcoming energy industries, like wind and solar, into our state. I believe in an all-energy approach to the energy transition. Renewable energy is about more than hearts and minds, it's about dollars and cents.

In honor of that, we are celebrating American Clean Power Week this week, October 25-29, and we hope you will join us. Not to celebrate one industry, but to embrace an all of the above, made in Texas energy future — a future that I know we can all be proud of, and where Houston will be the Energy Capital of the Future.

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Kevin Doffing is the chief commercial officer of Everpoint Services.