This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Amanda Ducach of ema, Bobby Bryant of DOSS, and Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother. Photos courtesy

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

Amanda Ducach, founder and CEO of ema

Amanda Ducach, founder of ema is launching her business's new product. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

Amanda Ducach set out to create a platform where mothers could connect with each other socially, but when she launched SocialMama just ahead of a global pandemic, she soon learned there was a bigger market need for access to information surrounding women's health — from fertility to menopause.

After pivoting her femtech platform to include women's health experts, she realized her technology wasn't able to completely support growing user base. The platform, which was called SocialMama, saw users engaging with experts in similar ways — and as Ducach looked into growing the platforms users, she realized that 24/7 access to experts was going to be hard to scale.

"We noticed that most of these conversations were repetitive," Ducach tells InnovationMap. "You had women asking an expert about tracking ovulation a hundred times a day. Having an OBGYN answer that question a hundred times a day was crazy and just not scalable." Read more.

Bobby Bryant, CEO and founder of DOSS

DOSS is a real estate platform founded in Houston that helps democratize access to homeownership. Photo via askdoss.com

Real estate and homeownership has been historically exclusionary. Bobby Bryant — the first Black man to create and franchise a real estate brokerage brand — wanted to do something about that.

Considering the history of the real estate industry — women weren't able to buy homes without being married and African Americans were refused outright thanks to the country's history of redlining — Bryant tells InnovationMap he saw an opportunity for a business.

“I look at diversity as our superpower, and I look at the opportunity to kick that door down," he says. Read more.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Work & Mother is expanding. Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

Houston-based Work & Mother, which outfits commercial buildings with lactation accommodations for working parents, announced this month that it has entered into an agreement to open two new lactation suites outside the state of Texas.

The company, founded by Abby Donnell, will open suites in two commercial office buildings in Boston, Massachusetts, and Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. The new suites are expected to be completed this summer.

Work & Mother currently has suites in Allen Center, The Jones on Main and Four Oaks Place in Houston, as well as East Lake at Tillery in Austin and Lincoln Centre in Dallas. Read more.

Houston-based Work & Mother is growing. Photo courtesy of Work & Mother

Houston-based femtech company announces first locations outside of Texas

growing tech

Houston-based Work & Mother, which outfits commercial buildings with lactation accommodations for working parents, announced this month that it has entered into an agreement to open two new lactation suites outside the state of Texas.

The company will open suites in two commercial office buildings in Boston, Massachusetts, and Arlington, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. The new suites are expected to be completed this summer.

Work & Mother currently has suites in Allen Center, The Jones on Main and Four Oaks Place in Houston, as well as East Lake at Tillery in Austin and Lincoln Centre in Dallas.

The Work & Mother suites allow parents to book time to pump in a private room in the comfortable, well-designed suites through the Work & Mother app. Each private room is equipped with a hospital-grade pump, milk storage bags, sanitizing wipes, and other supplies while the full Work & Mother Suite lounge area includes cleaning stations and refrigerated milk storage.

The suites also serve commercial properties and employers by providing them with the resources to adhere to federal labor laws—as well as reduce HR risks, and retain female employees—by having a dedicated space with lactation amenities for employees.

When founder and CEO Abby Donnell spoke with InnovationMap in 2021, she said that Work & Mother was planning for national expansion.

"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," she said.

In addition to the new location in Boston and Arlington, the company is planning locations in San Francisco, Chicago, Miami and New York, according to Work & Mother's website.

The company is also adding new services for working and lactating parents through a recent partnership with Nest Collaborative, a national virtual lactation consultation platform, announced last month.

The partnership will provide Work & Mother app users with access to Nest Collaborative's board-certified lactation consultants through telehealth appointments, available seven days a week.

The services through Nest Collaborative are part of Work & Mother's resource center called The HUB, which also provides career and personal coaching, mental health resources, and downloadable guides.

"We are confident that our partnership with Nest Collaborative will have a measurable impact on the breastfeeding success rates of parents who work outside the home," Donnell said in a statement. "I'm looking forward to broadening our ability to support working parents at any time, anywhere."

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

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from 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
  • CemvitaFactory 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."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Texas nonprofit grants $68.5M to Houston organizations for recruitment, research

Three prominent institutions in Houston will be able to snag a trio of high-profile cancer researchers thanks to $12 million in new funding from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

The biggest recruitment award — $6 million — went to the University of Texas MD Anderson Center to lure researcher Xiling Shen away from the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation in Los Angeles.

Shen is chief scientific officer at the nonprofit Terasaki Institute. His lab there studies precision medicine, including treatments for cancer, from a “systems biology perspective.”

He also is co-founder and former CEO of Xilis, a Durham, North Carolina-based oncology therapy startup that raised $70 million in series A funding in 2021. Before joining the institute in 2021, the Stanford University graduate was an associate professor at Duke University in Durham.

Shen and Xilis aren’t strangers to MD Anderson.

In 2023, MD Anderson said it planned to use Xilis’ propriety MicroOrganoSphere (MOS) technology for development of novel cancer therapies.

“Our research suggests the MOS platform has the potential to offer new capabilities and to improve the efficiency of developing innovative drugs and cell therapies over current … models, which we hope will bring medicines to patients more quickly,” Shen said in an MD Anderson news release.

Here are the two other Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awards that will bring noted cancer researchers to Houston:

  • $4 million to attract David Sarlah to Rice University from the University of Illinois, where he is an associate professor of chemistry. Sarlah’s work includes applying the principles of chemistry to creation of new cancer therapies.
  • $2 million to lure Vishnu Dileep to the Baylor College of Medicine from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he is a postdoctoral fellow. His work includes the study of cancer genomes.

CPRIT also handed out more than $56.5 million in grants and awards to seven institutions in the Houston area. Here’s the rundown:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center — Nearly $25.6 million
  • Baylor College of Medicine — Nearly $11.5 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — More than $6 million
  • Rice University — $4 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — More than $3.5 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — More than $3.3 million
  • University of Houston — $1.4 million

Dr. Pavan Reddy, a CPRIT scholar who is a professor at the Baylor College of Medicine and director of its Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Care Center, says the CPRIT funding “will help our investigators take chances and explore bold ideas to make innovative discoveries.”

The Houston-area funding was part of nearly $99 million in grants and awards that CPRIT recently approved.

Houston space company's lunar lander touches down on the moon in historic mission

touchdown

A private lander on Thursday made the first U.S. touchdown on the moon in more than 50 years, but managed just a weak signal back until flight controllers scrambled to gain better contact.

Despite the spotty communication, Intuitive Machines, the company that built and managed the craft, confirmed that it had landed upright. But it did not provide additional details, including whether the lander had reached its intended destination near the moon’s south pole. The company ended its live webcast soon after identifying a lone, weak signal from the lander.

“What we can confirm, without a doubt, is our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” mission director Tim Crain reported as tension built in the company’s Houston control center.

Added Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus: “I know this was a nail-biter, but we are on the surface and we are transmitting. Welcome to the moon.”

Data was finally starting to stream in, according to a company announcement two hours after touchdown.

The landing put the U.S. back on the surface for the first time since NASA’s famed Apollo moonwalkers.

Intuitive Machines also became the first private business to pull off a lunar landing, a feat achieved by only five countries. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a shot last month, but never made it to the moon, and the lander crashed back to Earth. Both companies are part of a NASA-supported program to kick-start the lunar economy.

Astrobotic was among the first to relay congratulations. “An incredible achievement. We can’t wait to join you on the lunar surface in the near future,” the company said via X, formerly Twitter.

Intuitive Machines “aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted.

The final few hours before touchdown were loaded with extra stress when the lander's laser navigation system failed. The company's flight control team had to press an experimental NASA laser system into action, with the lander taking an extra lap around the moon to allow time for the last-minute switch.

With this change finally in place, Odysseus descended from a moon-skimming orbit and guided itself toward the surface, aiming for a relatively flat spot among all the cliffs and craters near the south pole.

As the designated touchdown time came and went, controllers at the company's command center anxiously awaited a signal from the spacecraft some 250,000 miles (400,000 kilometers) away. After close to 15 minutes, the company announced it had received a weak signal from the lander.

Launched last week, the six-footed carbon fiber and titanium lander — towering 14 feet (4.3 meters) — carried six experiments for NASA. The space agency gave the company $118 million to build and fly the lander, part of its effort to commercialize lunar deliveries ahead of the planned return of astronauts in a few years.

Intuitive Machines' entry is the latest in a series of landing attempts by countries and private outfits looking to explore the moon and, if possible, capitalize on it. Japan scored a lunar landing last month, joining earlier triumphs by Russia, U.S., China and India.

The U.S. bowed out of the lunar landscape in 1972 after NASA's Apollo program put 12 astronauts on the surface. Astrobotic of Pittsburgh gave it a shot last month, but was derailed by a fuel leak that resulted in the lander plunging back through Earth's atmosphere and burning up.

Intuitive Machines’ target was 186 miles (300 kilometers) shy of the south pole, around 80 degrees latitude and closer to the pole than any other spacecraft has come. The site is relatively flat, but surrounded by boulders, hills, cliffs and craters that could hold frozen water, a big part of the allure. The lander was programmed to pick, in real time, the safest spot near the so-called Malapert A crater.

The solar-powered lander was intended to operate for a week, until the long lunar night.

Besides NASA’s tech and navigation experiments, Intuitive Machines sold space on the lander to Columbia Sportswear to fly its newest insulating jacket fabric; sculptor Jeff Koons for 125 mini moon figurines; and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for a set of cameras to capture pictures of the descending lander.