who's who

4 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Health, Rafael Verduzco of Rice University, and Sujata “Su” Bajaj and Dakisha Allen of Yuvo Health. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local innovators across industries — from digital health to research — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda Health

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss her company's growth. Image via LinkedIn

It's Tatiana Fofanova's goal to have Koda Health's platform — a B2B Enterprise SaaS solution that guides patients through the process of proactive healthcare planning and document authentication — active in all 50 states by the end of the first quarter of 2023. She's already halfway there.

The tech platform allows for patients and their providers to get on the same page for their care. Fofanova describes the platform as similar to TurboTax — users answer a series of questions and the program provides a care plan then shared with the patient's doctors. This greatly simplifies — and democratizes — the process for patients and providers both.

"The standard of care for advanced care planning has traditionally been left to patients to do on their own — with estate planning attorney or through a direct-to-consumer solution," Fofanova says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Read more.

Rafael Verduzco, associate chair and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University

Rafael Verduzco is leading the research and development. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A team of researchers from Rice University have received a $2 million grant to develop a unique technology that speeds up the analysis of wastewater for viruses from hours to seconds. The team is based out of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and led by Rafael Verduzco, associate chair and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering. The four-year grant from the National Science Foundation will support the development of the technology, which includes wastewater-testing bioelectric sensors that deliver immediate notice of presence of viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, according to a news release from Rice.

“Monitoring wastewater for COVID has been pretty effective as a way to get an idea of where we are as a population,” says Verduzco in the release. “But the way it’s done is you have to sample it, you have to do a PCR test and there’s a delay. Our selling point was to get real-time, continuous monitoring to see just how much of this virus is in the wastewater.” Read more.

Sujata “Su” Bajaj as CTO and Dakisha Allen as head of product of Yuvo Health

Two Houstonians have been named to the executive board of a New York startup. Photos courtesy of Yuvo Health

ANew York City-based, tech-enabled health administrative and managed care solution has announced the latest addition to its C-suite — including two executives based in Houston.

Yuvo Health, which provides community health centers a tech platform for managing care, announced the appointment of Sujata “Su” Bajaj as CTO and Dakisha Allen as head of product. Additionally, the startup named New York-based Anthony Thompson as head of development and Ishaan Jalan as chief of staff.

“It is with tremendous pride and excitement that we announce the growth of our leadership team, especially as it is less than six months since our last corporate expansion,” says Cesar Herrera, CEO and co-founder of Yuvo Health. Read more.

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Building Houston

 
 

No matter what stage your company is in, here's what you need to know about navigating a communications strategy. Photo via Getty Images

The significance of effective communication and its contribution to a company’s success are points regularly stressed by conference panelists and forum speakers. Yet for many founders it’s advice that fuels frustration for how to make communications a priority with a lack of understanding of the practice.

This article combines insights from investors, customers, advisers, and founders, with actionable recommendations that benefit both startups and growth stage leaders who are scaling the impact of their companies.

Why marketing communications is important

Marketing communications combines the use of messages and a broad spectrum of tools to communicate with target audiences in attracting customers, cultivating relationships, acquiring funding, increasing visibility, and growing influence.

To define marketing communications in singular terms limits its impact. “For some, communications is simply a pretty graphic,” says Adam Lipman, managing partner of Ecliptic Capital, “and they don’t think about the importance of communications that speak to the needs of their key audiences in language that will resonate with them.”

It can be tempting to jump straight to producing tools that you can touch, hear and see, but applying thoughtful strategies first has everything to do with how successful those tools will be.

A dangerous misconception

Regardless of how innovative your device, therapeutic or service, there is always competition, including the option of customers doing nothing. “We call it the good enough problem,” says Lipman. “If what’s currently being done is considered good enough, what is the incentive to improve or change it with your idea?”

Comparison is a common method for comprehending a disruptor’s unprecedented concept. Your wearable device that does something no one else’s does will, at the very least, be categorized and compared to other wearables. Your innovative concept for improving cardiovascular patient outcomes will be compared within the broad category of cardiovascular care. To believe there’s no competition to challenge your success, regardless of how unique, is a false sense of security that requires proactive messaging.

“If you don’t define your brand, someone else is going to do it for you, and it may not be what you want,” warns Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda Health.

The analogy we use when formulating messaging for our clients is to define their “seat at the table” so that no matter who or how many competitors are seated alongside them, the advantage their solution offers and the beneficial role they fill within the ecosystem is very clear.

Strategically connecting the dots

Distinguishing your company from its competition and motivating action on the part of investors or customers requires communication strategies that connect all the dots.

“Many entrepreneurs think their technology will sell itself,” says Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications for Houston Methodist. “But for me to understand what we gain by utilizing their product, I want to know what problem are they solving. Does their product increase efficiencies, improve patient satisfaction, or answer a financial problem? Answering these questions is fundamental.”

In addition to messaging that clearly defines how your company is uniquely capable of delivering valuable solutions, it’s important to apply strategies for speaking your audience’s language and identifying the pain points you are capable of relieving. It also requires considering the perspective and experience of an audience’s different members. For instance, if presenting to an investor who is also a neurologist, sharing scientific data will be appreciated. For others, the why and how of what you offer may be better told through story.

The homework you do to fully understand your audience’s needs will not only produce beneficial insights but also demonstrate a level of commitment that can impress influencers and potential funders.

“I’m drawn to founders who want to walk in their customer’s shoes. They are generally deeply empathetic because they've spent time literally walking the halls with them and sat in the chairs next to them,” says John “JR” Reale, venture lead for the Texas Medical Center Venture Fund. “It’s very endearing to see a founder who wants to understand and continue to learn from who they want to serve.”

Actionable advice

Just as marketing communications is defined by multiple components, there are several actionable strategies for getting past the understanding phase. Here are three key recommendations to implement, whether a startup with limited resources or a company experiencing accelerated growth.

As a startup

  • Develop brand messaging that distinguishes your solutions from the competition and captures the compelling purpose and passion of your company’s mission.
  • Establish a working relationship with professional communicators. Though your budget is small, it’s a great way to develop trust and familiarity within the parameters of a single project for when greater resources allow expanded assistance in the future.
  • Identify each of your key audiences, including strategic partners, community influencers, and end users, as well as potential investors and other funding sources. The list may be daunting, so rank contacts in each category and unleash your entrepreneurial curiosity to research their needs and priorities.

The growth stage company

  • Invest in comprehensive communication consultation to elevate your startup marketing communications to the 2.0 level of expected sophistication. This is when the working relationship seeds you planted with a professional communicator really pays off. Trust has been established and there is a fundamental understanding for who you are and why it matters.
  • Just as your business plan provides vital direction, a strategic communications plan functions as an essential blueprint for achieving your goals, including connecting with target audiences, increasing visibility, marketing your company’s services or products, and strengthening your bottom line. Strategies should be tailored to your organization’s specific needs and identify the tools necessary for achieving success.
  • Prioritize and produce marketing tools identified in your plan that promote the company’s impact and build on the brand reputation it has achieved.

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Kelli Newman is president of the Houston-based communication strategies firm, Newman & Newman Inc., where she leads a talented team of marketing professionals advancing the success of their purpose-driven clients.

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