3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's Houston innovators to know include Yared Akalou of Alcove Group, Serafina Lalany,of Houston Exponential, and Patrick Lewis of Sustainability Ventures Group. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: This week's group of Houston innovators you need to know might be pretty familiar to you, however each of them have a new endeavor they are excited to launch — from an energy investment group with a new name to new virtual platforms to benefit entrepreneurs.

Yared Akalou, founder-and-CEO of Alcove Group

Yared Akalou founded IAmOther50 to capture the brand of the freelancer along with their personality and experience. Photo courtesy of Alcove

Yared Akalou describes himself as a designer-focused entrepreneur. As founder-and-CEO of Alcove Group, his latest venture, IAmOther50, is a platform for creatives and freelancers to connect to work. This innovation he's focused on is in light of the growth in jobs that are freelance and remote.

"I am really on a mission," Akalou tells InnovationMap. "I have been talking about the future of work for over a decade now. The paradigm will change to viewing work as a service, so it is important to tell a freelancer's story through a more engaging and novel way." Read more.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the HTX TechList, which launches this week. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany is pinpoint focused on creating resources for Houston innovators through her work at Houston Exponential. Most recently, that's meant creating and launching the HTX TechList, which went live last week. For her, one of the most important benefits the platform will afford the city is access to data about the ecosystem.

"We needed a centralized datasource classifying startups, investors, startup development organizations, and corporate innovators," she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was not any good resource on the internet that was verified, centralized, and adhered to a data standard." Read more and stream the episode.

Patrick Lewis, managing partner of Sustainability Ventures Group

Houston-based Sustainability Ventures Group is focused on connecting energy companies to innovative, sustainable solutions. Photo courtesy of SVG

As Patrick Lewis started to get a feel for what his network within the energy industry was looking for amid the pandemic, he thought some of the sustainability-focused ventures might be on the back burner.

"We thought we would hear that sustainability in this environment may have slipped down the priority list, but it was the exact opposite," Lewis says. "Pretty consistently across all the operators, sustainability, reducing emissions, and greenhouse gases — those are all even more important today."

This confirmation that the energy industry is committed to innovative sustainability projects led Lewis to rebrand his energy tech investment group from BBL Ventures to Sustainability Ventures Group, or SVG. The investment team focuses on reverse engineering the startup innovation process by sourcing the concerns and goals of the energy companies, then finding solutions from the startup world through reverse pitch competitions and challenges. Read more.

Houston — much like the rest of the world — has a growing freelance economy. A local innovator has created a platform for freelancers to find work. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Houston entrepreneur creates a new digital platform to help connect freelancers to clients

calling all creatives

By 2027, freelancers will account for the majority of the American workforce — and Houston is already well represented by the freelance space.

According to a recent study, Houston is home to 117,260 skilled freelancers who generated more than $4.1 billion in revenue in 2018. This burgeoning environment for freelancers presents many opportunities for innovations in the tech world, as one Houston entrepreneur has already discovered.

Yared Akalou, founder-and-CEO of Alcove Group and self-described designer-focused entrepreneur, released his third innovation catering to freelancers of the Houston area. His digital solutions platform, IAmOther50, assists freelancers with securing new clients by sharing their personal stories rather than just submitting their professional experience, it uses videos and articles to promote the work of a freelancer and connect them to their next client.

"I am really on a mission," Akalou tells InnovationMap. "I have been talking about the future of work for over a decade now. The paradigm will change to viewing work as a service, so it is important to tell a freelancer's story through a more engaging and novel way."

At first glance, the digital platform seems like a departure for Akalou who in 2017 founded Alcove, a portable laptop case that serves as a private workspace for freelancers to use amid coffee shops or coworking spaces. However, IAmOther50 serves as a distinctly separate yet integral part of his innovation landscape.

"These projects have been a combination of my focus and research," says Akalou. "My new platform works hand in hand with Alcove, supporting the mission to help people stay productive from anywhere."

The digital platform serves to capture the brand of the freelancer along with their personality and experience. It lives at the intersection of popular social media platforms and professional platforms such as LinkedIn, except just for freelancers in the Houston area. Currently, any freelancing professional in the Houston area can join for free by filling out a survey that customizes their goals for their profile.

"IAmOther50 provides information in a contextual way," says Akalou. "We have this guiding principle of delivering value even before the prospective client contacts the freelancer for an interview or potential position. It's about going beyond just a resume of what you've done and showcasing how you add value right now."

Akalou, who is also one of the mentors in The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, is focused on elevating the professional profiles of many freelancers, including those outside the Houston area. He is aiming to grow the platform to a self-service platform that can connect freelancers to clients all over the biggest metropolitan areas soon.


It's not easy getting green. Getty Images

3 tips for a successful crowdfunding campaign

Know before you hit go

Kickstarter is a widely popular crowdfunding platform that helps people to raise money and awareness for their creative projects. While known for product-focused campaigns, musicians to film producers have also achieved success on the platform. In September of 2017, my Houston-based startup GetAlcove.com launched our first kickstarter campaign. While we exceeded our campaign goal, it was a very intense 45 day campaign. Let's consider the statistics:


Yes, almost 70 percent of projects fail. Don't fret. Understanding how to effectively plan and launch your campaign will increase your chances for meeting your campaign goals.

By March 2017, my co-founder and I received enough customer feedback to warrant the pursuit of developing Alcove Workstation™ further. We were attracted to crowdfunding as it presented a viable option for validating our concept with a wider audience while also raising the initial working capital necessary to mass producing Alcove. After researching the various crowdfunding platforms, we decided on Kickstarter as it is well known for launching product-focused campaigns and has a strong brand that we could leverage during our marketing efforts. While we read countless publications on how to prepare for our crowdfunding campaign, our experience on Kickstarter garnered three key lessons.

1. Spend up to one year prepping before launching your campaign.

I can't stress this enough. After we decided to launch, we spent six months engaging with our target audience and obtaining verbal commitments from friends and family and past colleagues to back our project. We also presented at local events and evangelized our brand via social media marketing. In hindsight, we should have spent additional time finalizing the production ready sample of our product prior to launching.

Once you launch your campaign, the clock starts ticking and you'll need deliver fast. Due to a myriad of issues with remote manufacturing, we inevitably missed our original ship date. Fortunately, the kickstarter community is forgiving and recognizes the inherent challenges with bringing a product to market. Even so, I recommend launching your campaign as close to your final concept as possible to reduce unforeseen delays with manufacturing and shipping logistics.

Once you launch your campaign, the clock starts ticking and you'll need deliver fast.

2. Determine which crowdfunding platform is right for your project.

There are four main types of crowdfunding platforms. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are rewards-based whereas platforms like GoFundMe are donation-based. More recently, equity, and debt based platforms like Houston's NextSeed have garnered attention from campaigners seeking alternative methods to raising funds and deferring payment.

Take the time to read about each type and contact each platform for specifics about how they will support your campaign during and after campaign. Indiegogo does a solid job of highlighting their partnerships with vendors that can assist you during different stages of your campaign; offering marketing promotion, direct links to manufacturing vendors, and additional funding options even after your campaign ends.

The next step to determining the right platform for your project is to search for similar "like" products. If you are launching the most revolutionary ear buds on the planet, then you want to ensure people are backing ear buds or similar product on the platform/s you are considering. A simple search on each site will pull up all ear bud projects to date. Then, you can quickly assess the patterns of the most successful vs. unsuccessful campaigns.

3. Launch the right campaign goal, with the right team, at the right time.

This is both important and hard to determine. Let's break it down.

The right campaign goal
The campaign goal is the total dollar amount you want to raise by the end of your campaign. The goal amount can be adjusted once on Kickstarter but I recommend that you keep it low — $5,000-$10,000 — to ensure you meet your goal within two days — three days max. Keep in mind you are competing with four to five thousand live projects at any given time. If you make your campaign goal, Kickstarter's algorithm pushes your project up the list and you have a good shot of being listed or even featured on the front page of Kickstarter's website. If you make your campaign goal too high and don't meet your goal with those couple days, Kickstarter's algorithm pushes your project down the list. If I recall, our campaign went from approximately 115 to 800 after day two. Each day that passes, your project is pushed even further down the list of over 4000 projects. What this means to your project is that unless you have a serious marketing engine behind you, no one will see your project outside of your immediate contact list or followers on social media. This is where hiring the right team of marketers and PR can be invaluable.

The right team
Think of the development of your crowdfunding campaign as a micro-enterprise site that requires the right mix of talent to build out. Funded startups with established teams and products in market, for instance, are launching on Kickstarter as a way to increase market awareness of their new products. For the boot-strapped startups with small teams, leverage your strengths and hire for gaps in skills to ensure you develop the right communications, pricing strategy, and overall layout of your page. To be clear, a production quality video is an absolute must.

The right time
Finally, consider the timing of your launch to align with complimentary events or holidays. If your product is focused on education/learning, the obvious timeframe would be to launch during back to school. Another way to galvanize your target audience is to identify popular conferences for your industry. For our campaign, we aligned with the Tech Disrupt conference in San Francisco and literally went live on Kickstarter directly from our exhibit booth!

While I can not make any guarantees for your campaign's success, I am confident that if you apply these tips, you will be that much closer to achieving your campaign goals.

------

Yared Akalou is the founder of Houston-based Alcove.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

ExxonMobil announces $100B carbon-capture hub for Houston area

greener thinking

In a move that would be a gamechanger for Houston, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil envisions creating a $100 billion carbon-capture hub along the Houston Ship Channel.

ExxonMobil foresees the Houston Ship Channel being the site of an "innovation zone" for carbon capture and storage. In a blog post on the ExxonMobil website, Joe Blommaert, the Houston-based president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, says Houston would be "the perfect place" for the project because:

  • The ship channel is home to dozens of refineries and petrochemical plants.
  • The geological formations in the Gulf of Mexico could "safely, securely, and permanently" store tons of carbon emissions under the sea floor, according to the blog post. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the storage capacity along the U.S. Gulf Coast could handle 500 million metric tons of CO2.

Irving-based ExxonMobil, which employs more than 12,000 people in the Houston area, says the project could capture and store about 50 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030. By 2040, that number could rise to 100 million metric tons.

"We could create an economy of scale where we can reduce the cost of the carbon dioxide mitigation, create jobs, and reduce the emissions," Blommaert tells the Reuters news service.

In a news release, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner applauds the ExxonMobil plan.

"This proposal by ExxonMobil is the type of bold ambition and investment we will need to meet our climate goals and protect our communities from climate change," Turner says. "ExxonMobil's proposal represents a significant step forward for the energy industry, and I hope it brings more companies to the table to help Houston lead a global energy transition."

Turner notes that the Houston area is home to some of the largest emitters of carbon in the U.S., adding that everyone has "a responsibility and role to play in decarbonization."

Blommaert says the project would require public and private funding, along with "enhanced regulatory and legal frameworks that enable investment and innovation." According to Politico, ExxonMobil wants the federal government to kick in tax breaks or to set carbon-pricing policies to help get the project off the ground.

Politico reports that the Biden administration isn't considering ExxonMobil's idea as it prepares a climate-change package.

"Meanwhile, environmental groups and many Democrats have slammed carbon-capture proposals as a climate strategy, saying the only way to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution is a wholesale switch away from fossil fuels," Politico says.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency maintains that carbon capture and storage "are critical for putting energy systems around the world on a sustainable path." Achieving net-zero goals "will be virtually impossible" without carbon capture and storage, the group says.

ExxonMobil announced creation of its Low Carbon Solutions business unit in February as part of its push to invest $3 billion in lower-emission energy initiatives through 2025. Low Carbon Solutions initially will focus on technology for carbon capture and storage. The business unit is exploring opportunities along the Gulf Coast, as well as in Wyoming, Belgium, the Netherlands, Qatar, Scotland, and Singapore.

Last year, ExxonMobil hit the pause button on a $260 million carbon-capture project in Wyoming due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Bloomberg news service.

In a December report, the Global CCS Institute, a think tank, said 65 commercial carbon-capture projects were in various stages of development around the world.

"Climate ambition, including efforts to decarbonize industry, has not been curtailed despite the adversities faced in 2020," Brad Page, CEO of the institute, says in a news release about the report. "We're continuing to see an upward trajectory in the amount of CO2 capture and storage infrastructure that is being developed. One of the largest factors driving this growth is recognition that achieving net-zero emissions is urgent yet unattainable without CO2 reductions from energy-intensive sectors."

Newly appointed innovation leader calls for more health care collaboration in Houston

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 80

Allison Post is a professional dot connector for the Texas Heart Institute. Located in the Texas Medical Center and founded in 1962, THI has long had a history of innovation — from Denton Cooley, THI's founder, performing the first artificial heart implementation in 1970.

Now, Post — who was appointed to a newly created position of manager of innovation partnerships — is focused on working with THI's latest generation of cardiac health innovators. She works internally to foster and support THI's brightest inventors as well as externally to make sure the institute is bringing in the best new technologies out there to its patients.

"The whole mission of the Texas Heart Institute is to help our patients. If that means that someone else has an incredible idea we want to jump onboard and bring it to people," Post says in this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Post, who has a bioengineering background and has worked on both sides of the table as an entrepreneur and a startup mentor, is looking to support breakthrough cardiac innovations within stem cells, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and more. And unfortunately, the cardiac health space has an increasing need to develop new health care solutions.

"Because of the growing burden of heart disease, heart failure, coronary artery disease, the unfortunately long list of things that can go wrong with someone's heart means the pressing need for therapies is just growing," she says on the show. "We're trying to keep up and break into things that people haven't done a lot of work on, such as women's heart health."

Another factor in Post's role, which she's had since last fall, is to bring THI further into both the TMC's innovation efforts as well as the greater Houston innovation ecosystem — as well as beyond. To her, Houston has a huge opportunity to lead health care innovation.

"It makes no sense that we aren't the health care leaders yet in med tech development. It should not be Boston, San Francisco, or Minneapolis. It should be Houston," Post says. "We have everything we need to do it. We just need to bring it all together."

The key to getting there, she says, is further collaboration. If there's one thing the world has learned about health care innovation from COVID-19, it's that when experts are rallying behind and collaborating on solutions, the speed of development is much faster.

"The more minds we have the better the solutions I going to be," she says.

Post says that she hopes her work at THI can inspire other institutions to collaborate ‚ since everyone has the same goal of helping patients.

"I only see just phenomenal things for Houston, and what I really want is for the Texas Medical Center to become even more interconnected. We've got to be able to transfer ideas and thoughts and intentions seamlessly between these institutions and right now there are a lot of barriers," Post says. "And I really think Texas Heart is hopefully going to serve as an example of how to take down those barriers."

Post shares more about what she's focused on and where THI is headed on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

New Houston accelerator supporting BIPOC in aerospace announces inaugural cohort

out of this world

A new accelerator program that is focused on aerospace innovation and supporting entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color has announced its first cohort.

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises, or AIA for MBEs, has named the four companies that well be a part of its inaugural cohort. The 12-week program will guide the entrepreneurs through the development of their innovations, the growth of their businesses, and the development of relationships with mentors, corporate partners, and stakeholder networks.

"Aerospace contains a myriad of dimensions and by demystifying the industry in the form of the AIA for MBEs, we are able to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at The Ion, in a news release. "It's our goal to not only support participants to be successful, but to open the playing field for other minority business enterprises hoping to enter the space."

The program's existence was possible through a partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center, DivInc, and The Ion — as well as a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency.

Here are the four companies to take part in the cohort, according to the release:

  • Axialnics Systems Inc., led by Vincent Mbuvi, is an aerospace technology platform developing a Disc-wing Rotor Aircraft Concept, which takes-off as a helicopter, carries as much payload as an airplane and flies just as fast beyond the range of typical helicopters. The innovation solves runway inefficiencies and enhances military efficiency.
  • Boozed Beverages LLC, led by Damyanna Cooke and Jim Luu, specializes in intelligent vending in the liquor industry. The company provides a contactless, AI-driven cocktail making and dispensing vending machine, for locations such as weddings and events, sporting venues, festivals, restaurants, and nightclubs and lounges.
  • NANCo Aero, led by Shern Peters, provides urban air vehicles and drones to commercial, small business, government, and nonprofit organizations. It is working to develop the first Hybrid Personal Air Vehicle capable of transporting a family over the city of Houston.
  • Stratos Perception LLC, led by Rube Williams, develops artificial intelligence solutions for space systems to benefit human productivity, safety, and enterprise. It is also developing an intelligent transducer, a tool that can monitor and control multiphase flow, for use in space such as lunar water extraction and waste processing.

The hub and its associated accelerator will be housed at The Ion when it opens up later this year — along with the organizations other accelerators — but the program is being launched virtually on Wednesday, April 21, at noon.

"The Aerospace Innovation Hub came from the idea that the aerospace industry is well-known in Houston but for many people, particularly underrepresented communities, there have been barriers in entering the aerospace industry," says Jan E. Odegard, executive director of The Ion, in the release. "By offering mentorship, introduction to capital and training opportunities, with significant backing from Microsoft, The Ion is working to remove the barriers."