Who's who

3 Houston innovators to know who are starting new roles

TMC Innovation, Station Houston, and FanReact all made executive hires last week. Courtesy photos

It's been a busy week for Houston innovators. TMC Innovation Institute hired its new director, and Station Houston created a new director position — and filled it too. Plus, FanReact decided to divide and conquer its esports business, which meant a new executive hire.

Tom Luby, director of the TMC Innovation Institute

Tom Luby will run the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMC

The Texas Medical Center has been searching for its new director over the past few months, but turns out, their pick was right next door at JLABS @ TMC serving as the site head. Tom Luby took the position, and has big plans to continue the institutes growth ahead of TMC3.

"What I hope to be helpful with is providing an overall strategic vision around TMC Innovation that allows us to scale from what's already been done here," Luby says in an InnovationMap interview.

Before moving to Houston, Luby worked in Boston's booming life sciences ecosystem. While it's not fair to compare Houston and Boston — a city that has had decades of growth in the space — he does note some similarities.

"If you roll the Boston tape back lets say 20 years where Boston was focused on generating a place where life science startups could have a chance to develop and be successful, that's where Houston is," Luby says. "We've gotten to a point where we're starting to see a really good density." Read more from the Tom Luby interview here.

Deanea LeFlore, director of community engagement, partnerships, and education at Station Houston

Deanea LeFlore is Station Houston's new director of community engagement, partnerships, and education. Courtesy of Station Houston

Station Houston hired Deanea LeFlore as director of community engagement, partnerships, and education. Previously, LeFlore served as chief of protocol for the city of Houston and a vice president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"My passion is promoting Houston as a world-class place to invest, work and live, and I am thrilled to join an organization that embodies this same spirit," says LeFlore in a release. "Station's dedication to accelerating Houston's tech growth through collaboration and innovation compliments my professional experience and I look forward to opening our doors to new partners, expanding programming with our long-time supporters, and introducing Station to a new network of leaders." Read more about Station's new hire here.

Patrick Schneidau, CEO of RanReact

Chris Buckner (left), who has served as FanReact's CEO since its founding in 2014, will be the CEO of Mainline, and Patrick Schneidau has been hired to serve as CEO of FanReact. Photos courtesy

Houston-based FanReact has spun off its esports business as its own company, Mainline. Former FanReact CEO Chris Buckner will take the reins of the new business as CEO, and Patrick Schneidau has been hired as FanReact CEO.

Schneidau has has a long career in Houston's tech scene. He spent 12 years at Houston software company PROS and was on the leadership team when the company went public in 2007. Since he left his position as CMO at PROS, he served as the chair of the Talent Committee for Houston Exponential and serves on the board for InnovationMap.

"The Mainline business has been so successful in recent history, that it just made sense for us to dedicate resources toward building that market," Schneidau says. "The momentum in that market as a whole — and in Mainline specifically — is just too large to ignore and not put 100 percent of Chris' time in." Read more about the spinoff company here.

Wyzerr, a member of Station Houston's Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, has a way to better collect information from citizens. Photo courtesy of Wyzerr

In a 2019 report card handed out by Cincinnati-based startup Wyzerr, Houston didn't do too well — It got a C, a 2.5 out of 4. Houston is passing, but just barely.

Wyzerr didn't give the city a bad rating; Houstonians did. In July, Wyzerr sent two researchers downtown to hang out near public places — bus stops, street corners, etc. Overall, respondents said they are satisfied with dining options, shopping, and the airports but were really struggling to embrace long commutes, poor local transit, and even public services: the police department, local government, schools and parking all got grades of C minus.

Wyzerr, which has ventured to Houston to partake in the ongoing Ion Smart Cities Accelerator out of Station Houston, is focused on creating surveys that make it easier for companies — and, increasingly, cities and airports — to collect useful information to improve their offerings.

"You can't build perfect cities," says Natasia Malaihollo, founder of Wyzerr. "But if you make small, incremental improvements, you can start to see a difference in communities (through Wyzerr's smart surveys)."

Wyzerr began in June 2014 and focused on designing smart survey for retailers. Now, the company works with more than 2,100 small and large businesses, including Kroger, Walmart, Facebook, Unilever — a lot of consumer packaged goods, Malaihollo says.

Wyzerr is focused on creating engaging surveys to better collect information. Photo courtesy of Wyzerr

Consumers interact with many of these brands on a near-daily basis, and Malaihollo estimates a person might get his with 7 surveys in a day — some of which require dialing in, or going online, or filling out responses on a sheet of receipt paper.

But Wyzerr makes surveys fun — they're interactive and game-like. Most importantly, though, they're short. Nearly every survey is designed to wind a customer through 25 questions about their experience with a certain retailer, product or service in 30 to 60 seconds. There's a science to it — shorter word counts on survey questions, for example, and making the final questions as engaging as possible, because people usually start answering more quickly, and maybe less thoughtfully, toward the end of a survey form.

Malaihollo calls this a design-focused approach to market research, and it has gotten results. In some surveys, Wyzerr was able to gather data on up to 20 percent of total consumers. Unlike most survey engagement, which usually falls lower, Wyzerr's data meets the threshold for statistical analysis — a valid sample size, in mathematics, is 10 percent of the population.

Two years ago, the Cincinnati Airport approached them. Amid a stream of reports that airports would develop into great hubs for the future of retail, the Cincinnati Airport team wanted a way to track shoppers' satisfaction as they trafficked through the terminals. Wyzerr created a survey that connected to the airport's Wi-Fi system — if users wanted to log on, they had to take a brief survey first.

"That ended up being our most successful campaign," Malaihollo says.

Wyzer, which has a team of 12, has raised $2 million and is getting ready to raise more. Upon completion of the accelerator program, the company will work with a Houston neighborhood for a pilot program, and the team hopes to get their survey system on the Wi-Fi system in Houston airports early next year.

Now, Wyzerr focuses on gathering data for smart cities — urban spaces that offer higher-tech solutions to regular city activities, like parking, and use electronic sensors to collect data that helps monitor the public. For example, cities across the U.S. have adapted free Wi-Fi on public transit, parking lot trackers, smart traffic lights to reduce congestion, automated bike-sharing programs and pedestrian detectors at intersections.