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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Following $50M gift,Tilman Fertitta reveals goals for eponymous medical school at University of Houston

Q&A

As Houston’s most high-profile billionaire and owner of the posh 5-star Post Oak Hotel and Houston Rockets, Tilman J. Fertitta has become synonymous with over-the-top opulence and big-time entertainment.

But the CEO of the massive Feritta Entertainment empire’s latest move has nothing to do with penthouses or point guards, but rather a legacy, game-changing appropriation meant to aid his home state’s health.

The longtime UH board member and former chairman and his family have just pledged $50 million to the University of Houston College of Medicine. In turn, the new medical school has been christened the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine.

The projected school, upon completion. Rendering courtesy of University of Houston

This landmark gift aims to address the state’s critical primary care physician shortage, (especially in low-income and underserved communities), as well as attract innovation-focused scholars, UH notes.

Additionally, the grant is meant to further clinical and translational research, with an emphasis on population health, behavioral health, community engagement, and the social determinants of health, according to a press release.

Here is how the Fertitta family gift will be distributed:

  • $10 million funds five endowed chairs for faculty hires who are considered national stars in their fields with a focus on health care innovation. This portion of the gift will be matched one-to-one as part of the University’s “$100 Million Challenge” for chairs and professorships, doubling the endowed principal to $20 million.
  • $10 million establishes an endowed scholarship fund to support endowed graduate research stipends/fellowships for medical students.
  • $10 million will cover start-up costs for the Fertitta Family College of Medicine to enhance research activities including facilities, equipment, program costs and graduate research stipends/fellowships.
  • $20 million will create the Fertitta Dean’s Endowed Fund to support research-enhancing activities.

No stranger to writing big checks, Fertitta donated $20 million to UH Athletics — the largest individual donation ever — in 2016 to transform UH’s basketball arena into the now high-tech Fertitta Center.

CultureMap caught up with the CEO (who just sold his Golden Nugget gaming for $1.6 billion), best-selling author, and Billion Dollar Buyer to discuss his landmark gift.

CultureMap: Congratulations on this legacy grant, which has been a long time coming. What does this gift mean to you, now that it’s finally official?

Tilman Fertitta: This was a vision of our chancellors and, you know, I’m on my third, six-year term and not been the chairman for eight years — and we started working on this, seven, eight years ago.

To be able to be in the beginning and the nucleus, and the idea, and what we wanted, and to get the approval from Austin—to watch it come to fruition, how often does somebody get to do a naming gift at the same time they had a lot to do with the creation of the school? So, it was very special in my heart.

CM: Many know you as the CEO of a hospitality empire, author, and even TV personality. But not many know of your commitment to healthcare.


TF: I think there’s one thing in this world that we definitely should always be treated equally on, and that's that’s equal health care for all. This medical school will serve the whole community.

We’re trying to recruit students who want to be primary physicians who will take care of the community that we live in. It’s just something that was very important to me in my whole family.

CM: Academia, scholarship, and research aside, this could essentially be looked at as seed capital for a fledgling operation. Is that a fair assessment?

TF: I know where you’re going with this and yes, it’s no different than business.

I have the vision to know that being in nearly the third largest city in America and a top 100 university in the United States — as University of Houston is according to U.S. News & World Report — that I know what this is going to be in 50 years. It’s no different than looking at another business that you start and you can have the vision to see how successful it'll be in the years to come.

Being on the ground floor of the University of Houston Medical School and being a part of it from its inception, and to help the seed money that will attract other money, I know that in the years to come what a special nationwide medical school this is going to be — because it’s in one of the great cities of America.

So, to be a part of it today and still be a part of it when I’m not here 50 years from now, maybe even sooner than that [laughs], you know, it’s going to be something very special to always be attached to.

CM: Other Houston medical schools here have distinctions in pivotal research or groundbreaking procedures. Is there a specific direction you’d like UH Med to take, going forward?

TF: Honestly, you know, what I’ve been saying? There’s a significant shortage of primary care physicians, not only in the country, but in the state of Texas. We ranked number 47th in the nation.

What we need in the state of Texas, as well in Houston and everywhere, is primary care physicians to take care of your everyday people—and to see them to know if you need a specialist.

I hope that this medical school looks back and we see that they’re graduating more primary care physicians than any other university in the United States and that's our goal. We’re going to be a med school of the community.

CM: You have zero problem with issuing directives, Tilman. What’s your message to the first graduating class, the one that will initially benefit from this $50 million gold mine?

TF: Go out and take care of the people.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Creative Houston art duo unveils dreamy new tech world in downtown's hottest destination

simulation stimulation

Aclever, Houston-based duo has unveiled a new digital art experience at downtown’s hottest hub. Creative technologist Billy Baccam and multidisciplinary artist Alex Ramos, founders of Input Output Creative Media Lab, have launched “Simulation,” the first artist residency at Post Houston. The show runs through June 30.

The creative team has transformed part of POST Houston's X atrium into a creative media lab. There, Baccam and Ramos have experimented with various kinds of emerging technologies to prototype and develop art experiences.

Mediums in the show include projection mapping, 3D printing, body tracking, camera vision, augmented reality, LEDs, and computer simulation, per a press release.

The “Simulation” layout utilizes the glass wall as an interface for the public to experience the art. Internally, viewers can see an amalgamation of machinery, wires, gizmos, and gadgets similar to the inner workings of a computer.

Externally, viewers can explore and interact with the art through the glass wall via body tracking sensors, augmented reality via QR codes, and just by merely watching. Various books, movies, and other memorabilia have been scattered throughout the space to showcase inspiration on the subject matter of simulations and their influence on culture, a release notes.

“We’re super excited to be able to share the art we have diligently been working on for ‘Simulation,’” the team notes in a statement. “We’ve been able to explore a variety of new mediums such as 3D printing and augmented reality while also getting a chance to dive deeper into our previous works based on projection mapping, interactivity, and computer simulations. As we continue to create, learn, and iterate, the pieces will also evolve to reflect our growth. We thank the public for engaging with our work and bringing about moments of joy and wonder.”

For more information on the duo, visit www.inputoutput.space or @1nput0utput on Instagram.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.