who's who

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Kirsten Siebach of Rice University, Mike Francis of NanoTech Inc., and Kim Raath of Topl. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from space exploration to materials science.

Kirsten Siebach, assistant professor at Rice University

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

Kirsten Siebach is getting ready for her Mars mission — one that keeps her firmly planted on Earth, but will allow her to search for ancient microbial life on the Red Planet nonetheless. The Rice University professor has again been selected by NASA to join a research team overseeing a rover that is currently en route to Mars.

"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." Read more.

Mike Francis, co-founder of NanoTech Inc.

Mike Francis, co-founder of NanoTech, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his plans to fireproof California. Photo courtesy of NanoTech

Mike Francis wants to fireproof the state of California. It's a lofty goal, but he has the means. His company, NanoTech Inc., has an innovative product that can insulate and fireproof materials, and, buoyed by a $5 million seed round, he's well on his way to being able to slowly but surely fireproof existing infrastructure in the West Coast.

"We're working with all of the major players in the state of California to not only fireproof the utility infrastructure, but eventually homes and businesses," Francis says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal, if we're looking into the future, is to fireproof that state — and we're working with the right people and companies to make it happen." Read more and listen to the podcast.

Kim Raath, CEO of Topl

More and more consumers are expecting transparency from companies, and this Houston startup is on a mission to use blockchain to make businesses more transparent. Courtesy of Topl

Nowadays, consumers care about where their products come from — and if they exist due to a humanitarian or sustainable supply chain — and the onus is on businesses to increase transparency. That's where Topl, a Houston-based blockchain company, and its new partner Trackz, a Denver-based supply chain software company, come in.

"Topl and TrackX's solution will be a great option for companies having to comply with new regulations and compliance mandates," says Kim Raath, CEO of Topl. "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."

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

Domino's and Nuro announced their partnership in 2019 — and now the robots are hitting the roads. Photo courtesy of Nuro

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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