Investor Jason Calacanis lent his time and expertise to seven Houston startups. Photo via twitter.com/houex

Imagine having to pitch your company to a famed investor who has made investments in over 200 companies — seven of which achieved unicorn status. Now, imagine having to do that onstage in front of an audience — in person and virtually viewing.

That was seven Houston entrepreneurs' morning on March 4 during Houston Tech Rodeo. Jason Calacanis heard from the founders and gave his feedback on their business models, as well as general pitch advice. While some of his notes were in the realm of constructive criticism, he stayed pretty positive — for the most part.

"If you're a founder, you're signing up for a 70 percent failure. It's basically a suicide mission, except you don't actually die. You just hit the reset button and go again," Calacanis says to the crowd.

Calacanis also has a great deal of optimism for the region itself, noting on the potential of the innovation ecosystem, and, as an aside, the local basketball team.

"There's no reason Houston as big as a center as Austin has become," Calacanis says. "All it takes is for some of the rich people to say, 'instead of investing in some bond or Wall Street somewhere where they don't know what's going on and to take it and pay it forward with an entrepreneur."

Here are the seven Houston companies that pitched fir Calacanis, as well as some of his feedback.

Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair

goodfair

Houston-based Goodfair sells bundles of used clothing at a low cost. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

Kicking things off was Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair, CEO and founder of Goodfair. On a mission to counteract the pollution of fast fashion, the company, which launched in 2018, sells second-hand clothing using "mystery shopping," shipping all of their clothing in variety packs chosen according to a customer's size and taste. This eliminates the cost of photographing, measuring, lowering the price for both the customer and the company.

"Climate chance is Gen Z's crisis, and they are our customers," Luciani tells Calacanis and the crowd.

Goodfair expects to do $5 million in revenue this year, as well as raise its seed round. Calacanis give Luciani advice to make sure he answers the question of, in a world with recycled clothing stores and a growing need for environmentalism, why now?

Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio

Balancing is important throughout your life, and Zibrio has the tools and tips for you to use to stay centered. Pexels

From NASA to your bathroom floor — Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio, has found a new way to track balance. With her company, people can have the everyday ability to figure out how balanced they are on scale of 1 to 10. The scale gathers data from your weight, your postural control, your muscles and other factors to calculate the rating.

But Forth's business is split between two products — a consumer-focused scale and a scale made for medical professionals to use. Calacanis says it's one scale too many and to focus on just one for now. He compared the company to if Uber tried to launch its upgrades its made over the years all at once.

"You're coming out of the gate with UberPool and UberBlack. Big mistake," he says.

Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc

vinesleuth

Houston-based VineSleuth created a custom algorithm to match you with new wines based on wines you've had in the past. Courtesy of VineSleuth

Picking wine out isn't rocket science, and yet, "confusion is costing the industry billions," says Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc. The company's custom algorithm is backed by research from sensory scientists at Cornell University, and relies on both data collection and machine learning to determine specific wines that will match an individual customer's tastes.

The B2B approach has launched in a few restaurants around town and, as of this week, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Wine Garden. But how Gross is currently approaching business isn't exactly attractive to investors.

"The business comes across as a small niche business, which is going to cause investors to run," Calacanis explains.

His advice is to use the technology to prove to restaurants and bars that they are overpaying for their wines.

Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder, Zenus Biometrics

Zenus Biometrics uses its facial recognition software to provide seamless check in at events around the world. Courtesy of Zenus Biometrics

What started as a convenient way to check into events is now a facial recognition solution to event data. Zenus Biometrics can scan faces of event attendees for security — but also for data analytics, says Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder.

While the tech company has already evolved, Calacanis saw even more potential for the software, comparing it to the iPhone. The device is used more for a camera and app usage than an actual phone.

"As technologists we build something," Calacanis says. "Then we find out what people actually use it for."

While based in Houston now, Moutafis mentions that he will soon be relocated to Austin.

Safir Ali, co-founder and CEO of Hamper

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Safir Ali grew up in his parents' dry cleaning store, and he observed that the biggest inconvenience for customers was them trying to make it to the cleaners to get their clothes before it closed. His company, Hamper, aims to provide a solution as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered to pick-up locations.

Calacanis liked that Ali has a background in the dry cleaning business."It takes somebody who is so obsessed that they aren't going to give up," he says, adding that he liked Ali's story.

"When you have something new – something that's novel, you could get a lot of attention," Calacanis says. "For things that are not novel, you have to use performance. You have to use the metrics."

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, Trumbull Unmanned

Trumbull Unmanned equips energy companies with data-retrieving drones. Photo via trumbullunmanned.com

Trumbull Unmanned has created an enterprise software company to analyze data collected from drones flying over oil and gas sites. The technology allows workers to maintain a safe distance and still collect the information needed. Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, has secured some impressive contracts with companies, including Exxon.

Calacanis asked Gibbens about those contracts and how much they were usually for, but didn't like her first answer.

"Every answer we get as investors is, 'It depends,'" Calacanis says, explaining a "pro tip" for entrepreneurs. " You want to lead with some examples and get some ground truth. Sell us that ground truth."

Calacanis' next piece of advice for Gibbens was to add a second set of data collecting technology, such as a moisture sensor or heat sensor, creating two sets of data for clients.

"Being agnostic to how you solve the problem is [a big opportunity]. Also, that becomes an upsell," Calacanis says.

Ksenia Yudina, founder and CEO, UNest

UNest is a tax-free way to save money for your children's education. Photo via unestapp.com

UNest is using user-friendly app technology to set up college funds for millennial parents. And Founder Ksenia Yudina has gotten some great reception, which has caused financial advisers to take note and even reach out. But Calacanis says they are, in a way, the enemy for her product and she needs to not spread out her resources trying to partner with financial advisers.

"Part of being a successful founder is knowing what you need more and what to stay focused on," Calacanis says. "If you remain a product that people like, everyone is going to drown you in opportunities. And as CEO you have to know when to say no."

Zenus Biometrics uses its facial recognition software to provide seamless check in at events around the world. Courtesy of Zenus Biometrics

Growing Houston tech company using facial recognition for event security

Face first

Long, inefficient check-in lines at events or conferences could be a thing of the past with the technology from a Houston company.

Zenus Biometrics, is changing the game of event registration and security through facial recognition.

"Over the last 12 months, we've done more than 50 events all over the world," says co-founder Panos Moutafis. "And for the most part, what we're hearing from these planners is that this is a very new technology and they want to be at the forefront of it."

The software system overlays on already-existing ticketing and registration platforms for event hosting companies. During the registration process, attendees are prompted to either take a selfie or upload an existing headshot. Those who are leery of the process or simply don't want to participate can easily opt out.

Zenus' programming can take a group photo, select all the faces in it and prompt the attendee to select himself. It will also advise whether an image is too blurry for use and suggest uploading another image instead. Once participants arrive at the conference, they approach a camera at check-in. The software recognizes their faces and pops up a menu that asks them to confirm their identity. The process takes seconds.

"This really allows for controlled access," said Moutafis. "Some people might look to game the system – they might register for themselves and then hand off their conference badge to someone who didn't pay to attend. Zenus allows companies to have more security over attendees."

He said the system can also work to limit access. If a company wants to set up a VIP or secure space, they can upload images of those they wish to allow beyond a certain point into Zenus' platform and anyone who doesn't match the facial recognition will be turned away.

The pioneering company operates from a headquarters in Houston's EaDo, and has clients around the globe. Back in November, it took home the prestigious Tech Award at IBTM World in Barcelona, one of the world's leading conferences for the meetings and event industries.

Moutafis said that in addition to being a leading-edge service provider, Zenus balances privacy with innovation. The company doesn't record the emails, contact information or credit cards for conference attendees using the facial recognition platform — only the uploaded images. And those are deleted days after the conference ends. The opt-in feature means that anyone who might feel skittish about the technology doesn't need to use it, and traditional check-in methods will be available onsite for them.

Over the next year, Zenus is perfecting and rolling out a new high-resolution camera that can be mounted in event rooms that will count the faces of those in the meeting or seminar. It's designed to provide a layer of analytics for event planners, capturing how many people attended the session. It can also record their expressions and provide data that can be used to determined how well the session was liked by the audience.

"We just added two more people to our team, so we have a staff of about seven now," he said. "We also work with a team of consultants. Here in Houston, our headquarters has a vibrant, cool feel to it. We're growing and it's exciting."

Born in Greece, Moutafis came to Houston in 2011 to work on his Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Houston. Armed with a B.A. in statistics, he was seeking a way to combine his analytical background with developing algorithms in artificial intelligence. It turned out that the lab he was attached to at UH was focused on facial recognition software.

"That was a different kind of problem to me, and I like a challenge," he says. "And I was attracted to the idea of using facial recognition as a security measure. No matter where you go, whether it's the bank or using a credit card for a purchase in some places, you have to verify your ID. Facial recognition is one of the most frictionless ways to do this."

In 2015, his last year of doctoral studies, he received an National Science Foundation grant that gave him funding to build a team and research what would become Zenus. He also received mentorship and advising about whether he had a viable idea and how to bring it to the marketplace. The following year, he massaged his concept, changed its logo and name, and Zenus was born.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.

Texas organization grants $68.5M to Houston institutions 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.