This week's innovators to know roundup includes Youngro Lee of NextSeed, Joy M. Hutton of Google's Digital Coaches, and Aaron Knape of sEATz. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from sports tech to startup mentorship.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed

Youngro Lee NextSeed

With the acquisition, Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, has been named the COO of Republic. Courtesy of NextSeed

Youngro Lee has a new title thanks to an acquisition. Republic, a growing New York-based private investment platform, has acquired Houston-based NextSeed, according to announcements from both companies. With the acquisition, Lee now also serves as COO of Republic.

It's a pivotal moment for the private investment community as just two weeks ago the SEC announced changes to Regulation Crowdfunding that included raising the fundraising caps from $1.07 million to $5 million. Between the new regulations and the new Republic deal, investing on NextSeed's platform will grow in scale.

"Now, by partnering with Republic, we believe that we can achieve so much more together for our entire business and investor community," NextSeed's executive team says in an email to investors. "We have known and worked with the Republic team for over four years, as both firms tried to strengthen and grow this industry since the very beginning of this movement." Read more.

Joy M. Hutton, Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston

Joy M. Hutton will lead Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy

A new Google initiative is expanding its Texas presence this month, and Houston entrepreneur Joy M. Hutton, founder of Joy of Consulting, will serve as the Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston.

"The Grow with Google team is making an effort to close the gap in resources that Black and LatinX small business owners have not generally had access to — in Houston and beyond," Hutton says in the release. "I live and breathe entrepreneurship, so I'm honored to participate in the Google Digital Coaches program and excited to work with Houston entrepreneurs who are traditionally underrepresented." Read more.

Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO of sEATz

Houston-based sEATz has raised funding to help scale to the demands as fans safely return to stadiums. Photo courtesy of sEATz

When COVID-19 hit, Aaron Knape and his team at sEATz had to think long and hard about how their tech platform for in-stadium food and merchandise delivery would survive. However, what seemed like an insurmountable challenge became sEATz's biggest opportunity.

"We really started seeing how integral our platform was going to be for the safe return for sports and entertainment," says Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder of sEATz."When we started getting that momentum and traction with our clients, our investor base and perspective investor base got really excited."

And those excited investors allowed the startup to raise a second seed round of venture capital to the tune of $1.6 million. Read more.

With the acquisition, Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, has been named the COO of Republic. Courtesy of NextSeed

Houston investment platform acquired, new partnership grows investor access

Nextseed's next phase

A growing New York-based private investment platform has acquired Houston-based NextSeed, according to announcements from both companies.

Republic announced the acquisition Monday, November 16, and appointed Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, as Republic's new COO. It's the third acquisition for Republic this year. Fig, a gaming-focused platform, and Compound, a real estate-focused platform, both joined the Republic family, allowing investors access to other industries.

"The NextSeed acquisition is just the latest milestone for Republic as we deliver the most expansive platform of marketplace offerings and investment types for private investors globally," Republic CEO Kendrick Nguyen says in a release.

Lee founded NextSeed with CMO Abe Chu and CTO Bob Dunton six years ago following the passage of the JOBS Act in 2012, that allowed smaller investments from non-accredited investors. Since then, NextSeed has facilitated $20 million in investments from 25,000 members into 75 local businesses.

It's a pivotal moment for the private investment community as just two weeks ago the SEC announced changes to Regulation Crowdfunding that included raising the fundraising caps from $1.07 million to $5 million. Between the new regulations and the new Republic deal, investing on NextSeed's platform will grow in scale.

"Now, by partnering with Republic, we believe that we can achieve so much more together for our entire business and investor community," NextSeed's executive team says in an email to investors. "We have known and worked with the Republic team for over four years, as both firms tried to strengthen and grow this industry since the very beginning of this movement."

Republic's founders are alums from AngelList and have made Republic one of the top private investing platforms in the industry with around 1 million members and more than $200 million facilitated through individual and institutional investors, according to the email.

According to NextSeed's email to its investors, little will change on the platform for investors, aside from access to new deals from Republic and its subsidiaries. Additionally, NextSeed will maintain its headquarters in Houston and the deal marks Republic's entrance into Houston and Texas.

WeWork Labs and NextSeed have teamed up to help Houston's food entrepreneurs. Photo courtesy of WeWork

WeWork accelerator partners with Houston-based investment platform for food entrepreneurship

food for thought

Two Houston programs that exist to help grow and develop food and hospitality startups have teamed up to combine their resources and programming.

WeWork Labs, a global acceleration program with a location in downtown Houston, and NextSeed, a Houston-based online investment platform, have announced a partnership set to begin in December. Together, the two entities will build a support system for Houston-based food entrepreneurs to provide workshops, programming, events, and more.

"Houston food entrepreneurs are keen to solve the big problems the food industry is facing today," says Carlos Estrada, head of WeWork Labs in Houston, in a news release. "Houston is among the leading cities for startup innovation and we see our partnership with NextSeed as an exciting first-of-its-kind initiative that will prove to support even more food entrepreneurs in the area, arming them with the network and tools they need to get their concepts off the ground and transform into leading businesses."

WeWork brings in its international food labs programming, and NextSeed will be able to provide access to capital through its platform. In March, the company launched NextSeed Space — a pop-up retail and kitchen space for startups to test their food and operations.

"Since inception, NextSeed has been focused on developing a world-class technology platform to democratize finance and strengthen local communities," says NextSeed CEO, Youngro Lee, in a news release. "By partnering with WeWork Labs, we are excited to be able to expand the level of support we can provide to our clients and member businesses through services like coaching, mentoring and dedicated workspace to help them ultimately reach their goals."

The first joint event hosted will be a reception and panel on December 12 from 6 to 8:30 pm at WeWork's Jones Building location in downtown. For event details, click here.

These three Houstonians have a lot up their sleeves for their companies. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's three Houston entrepreneurs are all about improving access for startups — either to capital or to resources — and that's no small undertaking in a market like Houston. With its urban sprawl and large population, Houston's been considered to have a connectivity problem. Luckily, these three folks have solutions.

Grace Rodriguez, executive director and co-founder of Impact Hub Houston

Grace Rodriguez is the co-founder and executive director of Impact Hub Houston. Courtesy of Grace Rodriguez

Grace Rodriguez has been working to launch Impact Hub Houston for a while now, but her and her team's moment has come. For Rodriguez, the goal is to both advance Houston startups, as well as the innovation ecosystem as a whole.

"Our real vision is to help Houston become a role model for how the world solves the most pressing issues," she says. "We want to show the rest of the world that Houston has the talent, expertise, insight, and resources to solve issues around the world." Read more about Rodriguez and Impact Hub Houston here.

Nicolas Carnrite, co-founder of LetsLaunch

Nicolas Carnrite founded LetsLaunch to improve access to funding. Courtesy of LetsLaunch

Something didn't add up for Nicolas Carnrite. The opportunity to invest in companies was limited to such a small percentage of the population.

"There's something like 30 million people globally that have a $1 million net worth, which is the definition of being an accredited investor," Carnrite says. "Thirty million people out of 7.7 billion, so it's a little less than half a percentage."

This translated into an opportunity to create LetsLaunch, a securities investment online platform that democratizes investment. The Houston company has taken it a step further in its recent partnership with The Cannon. Read more about this partnership here.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed

Youngro Lee NextSeed

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed, wants to create a connection between business and their communities. Courtesy of NextSeed

Thanks to a recent SEC accreditation, Youngro Lee is now able to announce that his Houston online fundraising platform, NextSeed, is a broker-dealer. The platform, which has helped the likes of Buffalo Bayou Brewery and The Waffle Bus raise thousands of capital dollars, is now able to offer its community more investment opportunities. Read more about what the deal means for the company here.

The Waffle Bus' brick-and-mortar location is NextSeed Space's first tenant. Courtesy of NextSeed

Houston-based online fundraising platform launches new turnkey retail space opportunity

what's next for NextSeed

Houston-based NextSeed makes it easier for retail and restaurant startups to get funding, and the company is releasing a new line of services to help these startups on the next step after funding: Finding retail space.

NextSeed Space now exists to help consumer-facing companies have access to move-in-ready spaces with short-term leases. The idea is to give the concept a low-risk place to debut their business, generate customers, and work out the kinks of their business model before locking in a permanent location.

"One of the biggest hurdles for a small business is the build-out process," Abe Chu, CMO of NextSeed says in the release. "A talented chef or designer might be very skilled at their craft, but many other factors are critical to opening a storefront including the capital raise, lease negotiation, design, permitting, construction and marketing. Finding ways to assist the entrepreneur in reducing complexity and controlling risks at this juncture is critical."

NextSeed has partnered with Greenway Plaza, where it offices, to bring turnkey retail space in The Hub, a new, recently renovated space in the office park.

The first NextSeed Space tenant is Houston's The Waffle Bus, which just raised $107,000 on the NextSeed fundraising platform. While the company has a popular brand and fleet of trucks, retail space has changed in Houston, and leasing companies are looking for safe tenants, the release says, meaning it's become more difficult for new tenants to find an ideal space.

"We see what's happening in the marketplace as our window to minimize obstacles for everyone's gain," Chu says in the release. "You've got creative small businesses that lack experience and funds, banks and investors that rely on longer leases for capital, and landlords who are not always equipped to handle the additional time and resources necessary to curate and nurture a revolving mix of pop-up tenants."

NextSeed's fundraising platform launched around four years ago and, since then, has helped almost 50 companies raise money totaling more than $10 million. NextSeed co-founder and CEO, Youngro Lee, spoke to InnovationMap last fall about how the company has grown and is always looking to expand.

"The goal was for NextSeed to keep innovating and bring in new technologies and processes," Lee says.

These three entrepreneurs didn't see their careers coming. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's Who

The career paths of startup or innovation leaders isn't usually a direct path. All three of this week's innovators to know took a roundabout way to their current gigs, which included a leap of faith or two for each of them. If their winding careers are any indication, they've got more exciting leadership ahead.

Youngro Lee, CEO and co-founder of NextSeed

Courtesy of NextSeed

Starting off on Wall Street as a private equity lawyer, Youngro Lee knows money. And he knew when the Jobs Act went into effect several years ago, there was a huge opportunity for companies to raise money from non-accredited individual investors, rather than just the super wealthy private investors. He left his legal career to leverage this new law to start NextSeed, which is a platform for businesses to raise capital for from anybody. Read more here.

Jane Henry, founder and CEO of SeeHerWork

Courtesy of SeeHerWork

Jane Henry watched as her glove flew right off her hand when she was cleaning up after Hurricane Harvey — her house got three feet of mud, and she got the idea for her company. SeeHerWork goes above and beyond the normal "pink it and shrink it" approach to women's workwear. Henry wants to see female workers with better fitting safety gear. Read more here.

Erik Halvorsen, director of the TMC Innovation Institute

Courtesy of TMC

As a kid, Erik Halvorsen wanted to be a doctor — he even took the MCAT and was on track for med school. He decided to look into other avenues that combined his passion for medicine and his entrepreneurial spirit. As director of TMCx, he helps innovative medical technologies become standard practice in hospitals. Read more here.

Editor's note: Halvorsen reportedly left his position at TMC on December 13, 2018.

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.