3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Philipp Sitter of RepeatMD, Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother, and Chris Howard of Softeq. Courtesy photos

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


Philipp Sitter, founder of RepeatMD

RepeatMD offers its clients rewards-based software and is expanding with a new fintech tool. Photo via LinkedIn

Ever the entrepreneur, Philipp Sitter saw an opportunity to equip health service professionals with marketing tools. RepeatMD, founded in December 2020, specializes in white-label rewards apps for plastic surgeons, medical spas, dermatologists, and similar businesses. Now, it's expanding into the "buy now, pay later" fintech realm through a new deal with BTL Industries, a Marlborough, Massachusetts-based provider of body-sculpting equipment.

Through these services, Sitter sees his company being a one-stop-shop for this type of tech.

"We see us becoming ubiquitous in the industry, where anybody that's a dermatologist, a plastic surgeon, or a medical spa has [our app]," Sitter says. Click here to read more.

Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

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

Abbey Donnell knows she's doing something different. Her company, Work & Mother, builds out and runs lactation suites as an amenity to office buildings.

"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 these challenges, the company has grown and is even eyeing a national expansion. Click here to read more.

Chris Howard, CEO and founder of Softeq

A Houston software company has announced the five early-stage startups it will be supporting through its new venture studio. Photo courtesy of Softeq

A lasting tech ecosystem requires successful tech entrepreneurs to give back to the next generation of new businesses. Chris Howard knows that, and it's why his company, Softeq Development Corporation, announced its inaugural cohort for the Softeq Venture Studio. The program, which will be offered quarterly for four to six startups each cohort, is geared at helping its resident startups quickly develop their technology and build their businesses.

"Historically, most tech startups had a founder with development skills. However, we're now seeing more and more business people, doctors, and other professionals start companies, and they need a strong engineering partner to develop their products," says Christopher A. Howard, Softeq founder and CEO, in a news release.

"We take it several steps further with the Venture Studio providing technology business consulting, development services, and much-needed cash. We're a vested partner, so we also help secure follow-on funding for continued growth," he continues. Click here to read more.

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

How this Houston innovator created a whole new type of business to revolutionize the workplace for new moms

Houston innovators Podcast episode 105

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.

Work & Mother — with the help of CBRE Group Inc. — is gearing up for a national expansion. Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

Houston female-founded startup takes on national expansion

going places

Houston-based Work & Mother Services LLC is embarking on a nationwide expansion of its network of lactation suites.

Work & Mother already operates two locations in downtown Houston (The Jones on Main and Three Allen Center) and is preparing to open locations at Four Oaks Place in Houston and Eastlake at Tillery in Austin. Beyond that growth, the company aims to expand to metro areas like Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.

Work & Mother has tapped Abby Alford and Lucian Bukowski of commercial real estate services company CBRE Group Inc. to find space in expansion markets. Both of them work out of CBRE's office on Post Oak Boulevard.

Work & Mother's lactation suites feature private rooms, hospital-grade pumps, and refrigeration and storage options. As part of its service, the company offers a booking app and support resources, such as lactation consultants and career coaches, to working mothers who are breastfeeding their babies.

"Most employers have a legal obligation to provide a proper space for nursing mothers, but pumping at work has always been incredibly difficult, with in-office solutions and multipurpose wellness rooms often failing moms and contributing to high turnover rates around motherhood — many employers don't even realize they have a problem until it's too late," Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother, says in a CBRE news release.

"We look forward to supporting more new mothers' return to work and providing the real estate services that office tenants and landlords need in a post-pandemic world to promote wellness, flexibility, and inclusion in the workplace," Donnell adds.

A Work & Mother suite is an amenity shared by tenants of an office building. The company says its suites help employers adhere to federal labor laws, reduce HR risks, and retain female employees.

"The pandemic has forced tenants and landlords alike to reimagine workplaces with a greater focus on employee experience in order to recruit and retain top talent," CBRE's Alford says.

Donnell, a Rice University alumna, started her company in 2017. She is a certified lactation counselor and a former advertising executive.

Earlier this year, Work & Mother raised an undisclosed amount of funding from The Artemis Fund, a Houston-based firm that supports women-led startups; the Texas HALO Fund, a Houston-based investment firm; and the Beam Angel Network, an Austin-based nonprofit that backs startups founded by women.

Here's what Houston startups won prizes at the inaugural Venture Houston conference. Photo via Getty Images

Inaugural Houston Venture startup pitch competition names big winners and doles out nearly $1M

taking home the W

Just a few months ago, Venture Houston 2021 was just an idea. Now, the two-day conference concluded with over 2,500 registrants and doled out nearly $1 million in cash and investment prizes to startups.

The idea was to bring together startups, investors, corporations, and anyone who cares to advance the Houston tech ecosystem, says Sandy Guitar, managing director at HX Venture Fund, at the closing event. The conference, which was put on by HXVF, the Houston Angel Network, the Rice Alliance, and Houston Exponential, wrapped up with the announcement of nine startups taking home investment or cash prizes.

In its first year, the Venture Houston conference attracted over 266 startup applications, and a group of Houston innovation leaders named 30 semifinalists that pitched on Thursday, February 4. On Friday, February 5, seven finalists pitched:

  • Koda Health
  • Spark Biomedical Inc
  • PATH EX, Inc.
  • Conversifi
  • CellChorus
  • MacroFab, Inc.
  • Mainline

The top three startups in the competition took home cash prizes — Macrofab won first place and $15,000 from Halliburton Labs, Spark Biomedical won second place and $10,000 from Softeq, and PathEx won third place and $5,000 from ChampionX.

  • Work & Mother won $250,000 from The Artemis Fund
  • MacroFab won $250,000 — $100,000 from Mercury Fund and $150,000 from Carnrite Ventures
  • Conversifi won $200,000 — $100,000 from Next Coast Ventures and $100,000 from Live Oak Venture Partners
  • Koda Health won $50,000 from Houston Angel Network
  • CellChorus won $50,000 from Texas Halo Fund
  • Nesh won $50,000 from Plug and Play
  • Cemvita Factory won $25,000 from baMa

Two previously announced prizes — $500,000 from Fitz Gate Ventures and $250,000 from Montrose Lane — were not given out.

The Venture Houston organizers are already looking forward to next year's program, but in the meantime Guitar had a parting call to action.

"Keep helping your fellow entrepreneur," she says, "that's really what Venture Houston 2021 is really about at the end of the day. The entrepreneur journey is a difficult one — often a lonely one — and sometimes one of hard knocks. Please keep finding entrepreneurs within your ecosystem. Let's help them with our advice, our capital, and our understanding."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother, Blair Garrou of Mercury Fund, and Randa Duncan Williams. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the first weekly roundup of Houston innovators of 2021, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — one of the richest people in Houston, a venture capital expert, and a female founder with big plans for 2021.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell is looking forward to growing Work & Mother in 2021. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell is making sure that when new moms go back to work in downtown Houston in 2021, they'll have a suite of professional, spa-like rooms to pump in. Work & Mother has recently opened its latest location in Three Allen Center and designed it with comfort and safety in mind.

"Pumping at work has always been incredibly hard for mothers. Now, with the pandemic, there are the added complications of germ spread, closed community spaces, and repurposed wellness rooms, which makes pumping at work nearly impossible. Yet, most employers still have a legal obligation to provide a proper space for nursing mothers," says Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother, in a news release. Click here to read more.

Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund

Blair Garrou joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo via MercuryFund.com

Despite the rollercoaster of a year 2020 has been for venture capital, Blair Garrou says he's never been busier. One thing he's seen increased is an interest in early stage investing — this, he says, is happening as the pandemic has shown a spotlight on the importance of tech and ramped up digitization in business.

"People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software," Garrou says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I can't tell you how many individual investors who call interested in investing in Mercury as a fund or our companies. People are not getting the return they desire from the markets and they are seeing tech companies do great things." Click here to read more and stream the podcast episode.

Randa Duncan Williams, owner of Texas Monthly

One of the four richest people in Houston, Randa Duncan Williams owns Texas Monthly. Photo courtesy of Texas Monthly

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the richest of them all? Nevermind, mirror. Forbes just told us. Houston's Duncan family, with a net worth of $22 billion, who once again appear on the annual Forbes ranking of America's richest families. (The Duncans come in at No. 11 on the Forbes list.)

The four children of pipeline mogul Dan Duncan — Randa Duncan Williams, Milane Frantz, Dannine Duncan Avara, and Scott Duncan — inherited a $10 billion estate from their father when he died in 2010. The net worth of each heir exceeds $5 billion.

Randa enjoys the highest profile among the four Duncan siblings. She is chairwoman of Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners, the pipeline giant founded by her father, and owns Austin-based Texas Monthly magazine. Click here to read more.

Work & Mother has opened its latest location in downtown Houston. Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

Female-founded startup opens facility for new working moms in downtown Houston

pump it up

As companies roll out back-to-work plans for the new year, one subset of workers' needs might be overlooked: new, breastfeeding mothers. However, one Houston startups is looking out for them with a new downtown location.

Work & Mother Services LLC creates and manages a suite of breastfeeding rooms and support equipment — along with a booking smartphone app, and has officially opened its new suite at Three Allen Center. The new facility has 10 private rooms, each equipped with a hospital grade pump, milk storage bags and other supplies; cleaning and sanitizing stations; lockers; refrigeration options; and more.

Work & Mother takes a professional and spa-like approach to a daily, usually dreaded task new moms take on, while also allowing the employer a chance to provide its employees a necessary amenity.

"Pumping at work has always been incredibly hard for mothers. Now, with the pandemic, there are the added complications of germ spread, closed community spaces, and repurposed wellness rooms, which makes pumping at work nearly impossible. Yet, most employers still have a legal obligation to provide a proper space for nursing mothers," says Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother, in a news release.

Per the Fair Labor Standards Act Section 7(r), companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk." Companies that aren't in compliance with Section 7(r) — and lack the resources to do so — can either purchase individual or company memberships to Work & Mother.

Brookfield Properties, which is the management company over Allen Center, has now helped its tenants have access to a facility that will help them be compliant.

"Brookfield Properties is deeply committed to creating highly amenitized work environments for our tenants," says Travis Overall, executive vice president and head of the Texas Region for Brookfield Properties. "We have a strong presence of working mothers at the Allen Center campus, which requires thoughtfully curated wellness amenities, such as Work & Mother. We look forward to having this valuable resource readily available for our working mothers once it opens."

Work & Mother has opened other locations downtown, including one at 712 Main St., but the new location at Three Allen Center, designed by PDR Corp., is the latest.

"It's been a great experience to partner with Brookfield Properties on this project, it's clear that they truly care about their tenants. The space at Allen Center is a beautiful, professional amenity that enables working mothers of the buildings and surrounding area to pump safely and with dignity," says Donnell.

Next year, Work & Mother plans to open its first non-Houston location in Austin.

Private rooms

Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

The new facility in Three Allen Center has 10 private rooms, and mothers can book on the Work & Mother app.

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Rice rises to top of new ranking of Texas colleges and universities

hoot there it is

If Texas had one Ivy League school, it would have to be Rice University.

Time after time, the Houston school ranks as the best college or university in Texas and one of the best in the country. Personal finance website WalletHub just added to Rice's accolades with a No. 1 ranking in Texas and a No. 6 ranking nationally among colleges and universities.

In Texas, Rice appears at No. 1 for admission rate, graduation rate, gender and racial diversity, and post-school median salary. Not every ranking is that stellar, though. Rice ranks 50th for on-campus crime among 55 Texas schools and 52nd for net cost.

More students soon will be able to take advantage of Rice's top-tier education. In March, the school said it would enlarge its undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent — to 4,800 — by the fall of 2025, up from more than 4,200 in the fall of 2020.

In a news release, Robert Ladd, chairman of the Rice Board of Trustees, called expansion of the student body "a strategic imperative."

"Expanding the student body now will also expand Rice's future alumni base across the nation and around the world," he added. "Welcoming more students to the Rice campus today will have an impact on the university for generations to come."

Elsewhere on the WalletHub list, the University of Houston lands at No. 10 within Texas and No. 238 in the country.

To determine the top-performing schools, WalletHub compared more than 1,000 institutions in the U.S. across 30 key measures, including student-to-faculty ratio, graduation rate, and post-school median salary.

Here are the top 15 colleges and universities in Texas, according to WalletHub, along with their national rankings:

  1. Rice University, No. 6 nationally.
  2. University of Texas at Austin, No. 45 nationally.
  3. Trinity University in San Antonio, No. 61 nationally.
  4. Texas A&M University in College Station, No. 127 nationally.
  5. Southwestern University in Georgetown, No. 144 nationally.
  6. University of Dallas, No. 152 nationally.
  7. Southern Methodist University in University Park, No. 178 nationally.
  8. Austin College in Sherman, No. 192 nationally.
  9. LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 231 nationally.
  10. University of Houston, No. 238 nationally.
  11. University of Texas at Dallas, No. 252 nationally.
  12. Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, No. 253 nationally.
  13. Baylor University in Waco, No. 357 nationally.
  14. Texas Lutheran University in Seguin, No. 375 nationally.
  15. Southwest Adventist University in Keene, No. 407 nationally.
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

With $150M in VC raise, this Houston company is re-envisioning the future of e-commerce operations

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 106

If you're operating a business that sells a product online, you have several options for software to support your efforts and needs as a merchant. However, as one group of Houston entrepreneurs realized, there wasn't a streamlined, one-stop-shop for e-commerce software. That is until Cart.com launched just over a year ago.

And it's been a busy year. The startup is led by CEO Omair Tariq, Chief Commercial Officer Remington Tonar, who previously served in a few leadership roles at The Cannon, and a several other co-founders and C-level execs. Following strategic growth and several acquisitions, the Houston e-commerce software provider now employs over 300 people and has raised around $150 million in venture capital. The suite of software services includes everything a company needs — from managing a storefront to collecting important data and metrics.

"Our platform is really geared toward ambitious companies that have their foot in the door, have sales, and have product-market fit, and now need to level up," says Tonar on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "E-commerce as an industry is highly fragmented — you have so many players, but they don't play well together. Through our end-to-end offering, we are bringing all these things together."

Described as a competitor to Amazon, Cart.com connects the dots for e-commerce companies, and, in fact, works alongside Amazon, too. While Cart.com clients can use the suite of software services to create their own shop, ship out of Cart.com's distribution centers, etc., they can also list their products on Amazon too.

"I like to view Amazon as co-op-etition. We can coexist with Amazon," Tonar says. "We're not antithetical to Amazon. We're not mutually exclusive. We can work with folks who are selling on Amazon to build their direct-to-consumer business, and we are doing that today."

And business are indeed looking for that help, Tonar says on the show. He describes the marketplace as a bit of a monopoly between Amazon, Walmart, and some other players that are essentially squeezing out small or even mid-market companies that can't compete with these larger companies. Walmart and Amazon have the scale necessary to control the end-to-end marketplace, and very few companies have that, Tonar explains.

"Now Cart.com has done the hard work and spent the money to go out and aggregate all of these capabilities. The difference is, we aren't hoarding them. We're offering them as services," he says.

Heading into the holidays, where potential new clients will be focusing on delivering on orders and sales, Cart.com is expecting a busy 2022 in terms of growth. In a lot of ways, the COVID-19 pandemic played a major role in the development of e-commerce and, by extension, Cart.com.

"The pandemic has played a role in overall accelerating the growth of ecommerce as a category and an industry. That growth was going to happen anyways, but it made it more ubiquitous faster," Tonar says. "It's just commerce now. This is just how people purchase and consume things."

Tonar discusses what else you can expect to see from Cart.com in terms of growth, more fundraising, and more. He also shares how he's observed the Houston innovation ecosystem grow over his years in the business. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


2 Houston startups announce new execs to their leadership

short stories

A pair of Houston tech startups have recently announced new appointments to their leadership staff. An e-commerce company has a new chief people officer and a blockchain company named a new president to lead commercialization.

Meet Cart.com's new C-suite hire

Sara Patterson is a human resources veteran. Photo courtesy of Cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, an end-to-end ecommerce services provider, appointed Sara Patterson as chief people officer. She will lead all aspects of the company's talent acquisition and employee experience of the fast-growing startup.

As the company grows its team and its ecommerce-as-a-service platform, it's Patterson job to forge a strong, unified culture and develop a compelling talent acquisition strategy to support continuing growth, according to a press release from Cart.com.

"Sara is one of the most accomplished and experienced HR leaders in the business. She has a real gift for talent management, and unrivaled expertise driving success for fast-growing companies across a wide range of industries," says Omair Tariq, CEO of Cart.com, in the release. "Her experience and dedication are exactly what we need as we forge a unified workforce to support our end-to-end ecommerce platform. After all, we aren't just growing our workforce at record speed. We're also building a unified culture and delivering incredible employee experiences to ensure that our entire team — from office workers to warehouse pickers — can stay laser-focused on our core goal of helping ecommerce brands to thrive."

She has three decades of experience in human resources, including serving as CPO of Lemonade, which included managing over 500 employees. She also worked as vice president of HR and head of talent management at Walmart eCommerce, which had more than 15,000 employees. She has also held senior leadership positions at Bonobos, Tribune Media, Conde Nast, Coach, and Gilt.

"People are the key to success for any growing company, and I'm thrilled to be joining one of the fastest-growing and most transformative companies in the ecommerce space," Patterson says in the release. "Cart.com's leaders have made it clear that they see a strong culture as the key to lasting success, and I couldn't agree more. I'm delighted to be joining such a talented team, and supporting their continuing mission to unlock scalable growth for ecommerce brands."

Here's who will lead commercialization for Topl

Tim Marx has transitioned from adviser to employee at Topl. Photo courtesy of Topl

Tim Marx has joined Topl as president, the company recently announced. Marx will lead Topl's commercialization efforts and scaling. He previously supported the blockchain company as adviser.

A Fulbright Scholar, Stanford MBA, and former Boston Consulting Group partner and managing director, Marx has consulted on the ground in more than 20 countries, including those of Latin America, Europe, and Asia. He will continue to support Baird Capital as a venture partner, which he has since 2018.

"My overall thesis for getting involved in Topl is that I finally saw a really solid business use case versus a classic solution looking for a problem to solve," Marx says.

To learn more about him, read his recent Topl team member blog.