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.

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Houston blockchain startup to collaborate to increase supply chain transparency

impact shopping

More than two-thirds of the country's consumers have been reported saying that a business's social reputation will influence their buying decisions. A Houston blockchain startup has teamed up with another company to increase transparency.

Topl and Denver-based TrackX, a software-as-a-service asset management and supply chain solution provider, have entered into a partnership aimed at combining technology to create a verifiable tracking and tracing solution to equip company supply chains with sustainability, transparency, and efficiency.

According to Topl CEO, Kim Raath, the FDA announced new requirements in September, and the new rule requires full traceability in several agri-food products.

"This new rule will force many agri-food brands to take a deep look across their supply chains and find a way to track and trace their products," says Raath in a press release. "Topl and TrackX's solution will be a great option for these companies having to comply with new regulations and compliance mandates. Further, our joint solution allows users to visualize their supply chain data, monitor suppliers, and easily report the progress of ESG initiatives to all stakeholders."

Kim Raath is the CEO of Topl. Photo courtesy of Topl

Together with Topl's purpose-built blockchain technology and TrackX's core enterprise asset management and supply chain optimization capabilities, companies can securely share verified event data to lower costs and increase transparency.

"Our clients have a unique opportunity to turn supply chain optimization into a competitive advantage," says Tim Harvie, TrackX CEO, in the release. "TrackX already automates supply chain execution and analytics for many leading brands and retailers.

"Tight integration with Topl's blockchain will now provide the 'proof' to all supply chain stakeholders that certain events have occurred," he continues. "In partnership with Topl, our enterprise customers will have the tracing, tracking, visibility and accountability they need to meet their digital supply chain and ESG initiatives."

Houston energy expert on how big data yields more reliable results

Guest column

Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of need tells us that at our core, humans crave safety and sustenance. When you turn on the light each morning while getting ready for work, or when you check your bank account and see your paycheck arrived on schedule, we expect every aspect of our daily lives to work.

In today's world, we often take these things for granted, until reliability is threatened. Our dependency is revealed in the frenzy over a potential toilet paper shortage and in the panic buying of gasoline in a hurricane. When things in society are consistent, economies thrive. However, when you introduce fear and uncertainty, things begin to spiral. It is in these times that the decisions we make can have the biggest impact on the world around us.

The link between impactful decisions and reliability has brought our society to a pivotal moment in history. We have created a society so reliable and developed that even during the coronavirus lockdown, the basic needs of Americans could be met with only 25 percent of our workforce actively working. By increasing productivity using machines and systems, we have been able to improve our overall quality of life, but not without a price. As a result of such high improvement, we as a society have come to not only expect, but demand, reliability at all times.

When dependability waivers and anxiety rises, those in key decision-making positions are faced with unprecedented situations. Due to distress and a lack of understanding of certain situations, those in decision making positions are often times forced to make decisions based on rapid response and emotion. Because of this, consistency and reliability suffer.

A prime example of an emotional response is the coronavirus shutdown that occurred earlier this year. As a response to the growing fear and panic over the virus, major portions of our economy were shut down; schools were closed; and citizens were confined to their homes.

What followed was the bankruptcy of thousands of businesses, an unprecedented wave of fear throughout society and a disruption to the consistency of our daily lives. We have yet to know what lasting impacts this decision will have on our future economy or livelihood, but we now understand that rapid decision making is often met with long-term consequences.

While there will continue to be disagreements on all sides regarding the handling of the shutdown, what is undisputable is that we as a society have gained an opportunity to learn. We now have the unique advantage of using data in ways that has never been used before in order to make consistently better decisions, allowing us the opportunity to perform at levels we have never thought possible.

Whether it be data advancements in sports (think Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics), or the progression of technology (continuous iPhone updates), we are able to study the improvements of data on society in order to make more reliable decisions. With more powerful data analytics and innovations in data sciences, we are able to positively impact the most vital components of our society in order to make decisions that will drive evolution and reliability.

As the world continues to progress, the decisions we are forced to make have become more complex. With each complicated decision comes the potential for lasting positive or negative impact on society. In shifting from emotional, rapid reactions towards more data and quantitative focused methods, we have the unique and unprecedented opportunity to make our world a more reliable, stable and creative place.

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Ryan Sitton is the founder of Pinnacle and the author of "Crucial Decisions."

Rice scientist tapped by NASA for Mars mission

robo-naut

A Rice University Martian geologist has been chosen by NASA as one of the 13 scientists who will be working on a new Mars rover.

Perseverance, the rover that launched in July and is expected to land on Mars in February. It will be scouting for samples to bring back to study for ancient microbial life, and Kirsten Siebach — an assistant professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences — will be among the researchers to work on the project. Her proposal was one of 119 submitted to NASA for funding, according to a Rice press release.

"Everybody selected to be on the team is expected to put some time into general operations as well as accomplishing their own research," she says in the release. "My co-investigators here at Rice and I will do research to understand the origin of the rocks Perseverance observes, and I will also participate in operating the rover."

It's Kirsten Siebach's second Mars rover mission to work on. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Perseverance is headed for Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide area that once hosted a lake and river delta where, according to scientists, microbial life may have existed over 3 billion years ago. Siebach is particularly excited hopefully find fossils existing in atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in water — which usually exists as limestone on Earth.

"There are huge packages of limestone all over Earth, but for some reason it's extremely rare on Mars," she says. "This particular landing site includes one of the few orbital detections of carbonate and it appears to have a couple of different units including carbonates within this lake deposit. The carbonates will be a highlight of we're looking for, but we're interested in basically all types of minerals."

Siebach is familiar with rovers — she was a member of the team for NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012. For this new rover, Siebach knows what to expect.

"Because there is only one rover, the whole team at NASA has to agree about what to look at, or analyze, or where to drive on any given day," Siebach says in the release. "None of the rovers' actions are unilateral decisions. But it is a privilege to be part of the discussion and to get to argue for observations of rocks that will be important to our understanding of Mars for decades."

Siebach and her team — which includes Rice data scientist Yueyang Jiang and mineralogist Gelu Costin — are planning to tap into computational and machine-learning methods to map out minerals and discover evidence for former life on Mars. They will also be using a Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, to analyze the materials.

The return mission isn't expected to return until the early 2030s, so it's a long game for the scientists. However, the samples have the potential to revolutionize what we know about life on Mars with more context than before.

"Occasionally, something hits Mars hard enough to knock a meteorite out, and it lands on Earth," she says in the release. "We have a few of those. But we've never been able to select where a sample came from and to understand its geologic context. So these samples will be revolutionary."