When Downtown’s innovation hub, Downtown Launchpad, opened in 2020, it was a bright light in a gloomy year. Even with the clouds of pandemic-induced uncertainty hanging over the city, the Houston innovation community showed that they weren’t just up for a challenge, but ready to come back stronger than before.
As MassChallenge and gener8tor, two of the Launchpad’s inaugural residents, prepared for their cohorts, they rolled with the punches, shifting to virtual programming and welcoming new companies in with enthusiasm.
In a short period of time, Downtown’s centralized innovation ecosystem has played host to some of the city’s most promising startups, including the following four companies taking their businesses to the next level.
“How can we make life easier?” With a simple question, many startups and entrepreneurs are born, including Houston-based Māk Studio and its co-founders (and married couple) Liz Cordill, COO, and Jose Aguilar, CEO.
The pair were working as architects when they noticed a specific pattern that was ripe for a solution emerging on their design projects.
“We would design something [custom] and then it would be pulled out of the project because the cost was just too high, or it was too complicated to make or they couldn’t find anyone to make it nearby,” says Cordill.
Designing custom pieces was fraught with unknowns, and no one had figured out a better way to bring the “wow” factor to high-impact projects without breaking the bank.
“Imagine the time spent by an architect or interior designer on a custom design,” says Cordill. “They spend all this time on the custom piece, it goes out to bid and comes back too expensive. So, what do you do in that scenario?”
The answer in 2021: Hire Māk Studio, which aims to make life easier for architects, interior designers and their clients through a mix of technology and fabrication. Specializing in the design and crafting of custom spaces, functional elements, furniture and surfaces, Māk has found a niche in the space between creativity and predictability, furthered by their experience as members of MassChallenge Houston’s inaugural cohort.
How MassChallenge “flipped the switch” for this Houston startup
Cordill originally thought they’d have to seek out-of-town resources and accelerators to better grow, expand and improve, but when MassChallenge expanded to Houston, “it really flipped the switch.”
Access to mentors and a well-connected network proved an invaluable takeaway from their time with MassChallenge, as well as guidance on streamlining their design and fabrication process to make it more scalable.
“We have a lot of high-tech equipment that isn’t traditionally found in architecture and interiors — that is new, but then what we got from MassChallenge was that we started to develop an app,” says Cordill.
Working with a developer they connected with through the accelerator, Māk broke down the custom design and fabrication process. First, they started with baseline designs of specific pieces like feature walls, reception desks, seating furniture and more. Next, they added customization options like colors, finishes, and materials, with upcoming features allowing for logo placement and branding.
“How are we going to execute something that’s more of a software platform? We’re not software developers,” says Cordill. “Working on the app really helped us focus on what products we needed to start offering in the catalog.”
A pandemic case study for their new process
That catalog expanded last year when Māk noticed a need for sanitization stations more stylish than the “Purell on a stick” options available on short notice. It took about a month to go from initial design sketch to prototype production, which Cordill explains is “pretty unheard of in the furniture world.”
Using technology to rapidly produce prototypes and simplify the process of customization has been a key element in Māk’s trajectory post-MassChallenge. Designers, architects and owners are empowered to create beautiful, unique spaces affordably, but still have the ability to put personal touches and artisanship into each piece.
“We’re trying to use the technology to enhance the craft. We’re not saying that this craft doesn’t matter anymore, but embracing the technology can really enhance the craft,” says Cordill.
“Houston is a hotbed”
A few years out from Māk’s MassChallenge experience, Cordill is proud to see how far Houston has come in fostering a healthy and supportive startup and innovation culture and ecosystem.
“I remember when we first started, there was really only one resource at the University of Houston. There was not much. We were ready to launch this idea and bring our world [of architecture] into software, and we thought we’d have to go to Silicon Valley or Austin, but not anymore,” says Cordill. “Houston is a hotbed of opportunities and intelligence now. I love to see the incubators happening, especially with women-owned and minority-owned businesses.”
Her advice for other startups in Houston? Take full advantage if you are selected into any accelerator or other Startup Development Organization (SDO) program. Engage with your cohort members, reach out to mentors, don’t just go through the motions and most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“You have all these resources. Go and use them. Get as much feedback as you can on your pitch. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are lots of experts out there that are willing to help you if you just ask,” Cordill says.
But perhaps the most important question to continue asking is the same one Cordill and Aguilar have been answering through Māk Studio’s evolution and the one Houston’s growing innovation ecosystem has started asking entrepreneurs: “How can we make life easier?”