who's who

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother, Blair Garrou of Mercury Fund, and Randa Duncan Williams. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the first weekly roundup of Houston innovators of 2021, I'm introducing you to three innovators across the city — one of the richest people in Houston, a venture capital expert, and a female founder with big plans for 2021.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell is looking forward to growing Work & Mother in 2021. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell is making sure that when new moms go back to work in downtown Houston in 2021, they'll have a suite of professional, spa-like rooms to pump in. Work & Mother has recently opened its latest location in Three Allen Center and designed it with comfort and safety in mind.

"Pumping at work has always been incredibly hard for mothers. Now, with the pandemic, there are the added complications of germ spread, closed community spaces, and repurposed wellness rooms, which makes pumping at work nearly impossible. Yet, most employers still have a legal obligation to provide a proper space for nursing mothers," says Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother, in a news release. Click here to read more.

Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund

Blair Garrou joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week. Photo via MercuryFund.com

Despite the rollercoaster of a year 2020 has been for venture capital, Blair Garrou says he's never been busier. One thing he's seen increased is an interest in early stage investing — this, he says, is happening as the pandemic has shown a spotlight on the importance of tech and ramped up digitization in business.

"People are realizing that money is in innovation and tech — especially in software," Garrou says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I can't tell you how many individual investors who call interested in investing in Mercury as a fund or our companies. People are not getting the return they desire from the markets and they are seeing tech companies do great things." Click here to read more and stream the podcast episode.

Randa Duncan Williams, owner of Texas Monthly

One of the four richest people in Houston, Randa Duncan Williams owns Texas Monthly. Photo courtesy of Texas Monthly

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the richest of them all? Nevermind, mirror. Forbes just told us. Houston's Duncan family, with a net worth of $22 billion, who once again appear on the annual Forbes ranking of America's richest families. (The Duncans come in at No. 11 on the Forbeslist.)

The four children of pipeline mogul Dan Duncan — Randa Duncan Williams, Milane Frantz, Dannine Duncan Avara, and Scott Duncan — inherited a $10 billion estate from their father when he died in 2010. The net worth of each heir exceeds $5 billion.

Randa enjoys the highest profile among the four Duncan siblings. She is chairwoman of Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners, the pipeline giant founded by her father, and owns Austin-based Texas Monthly magazine. Click here to read more.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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