Who's who

3 Houston innovators to know this week

From smart pillboxes to innovation incubators, here are three people you need to know this week in innovation. Courtesy photos

One of the cornerstones of InnovationMap is shining a spotlight on the individuals who are leading innovation in Houston, which is why we created a section dedicated to this. Our Featured Innovators section will have a Q&A with a startup owner, entrepreneur, or thought leader every week.

Another weekly article on InnovationMap that's geared toward introducing the city to prominent innovators is a roundup of who's who in the industry — not just the forces to be reckoned with in town, but people whose names you need not forget. Why? Because they've got big plans up their sleeves.

Here are this week's innovators to know, who, it just so happens, are our inaugural Featured Innovators.

Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston

Courtesy of Gabriella Rowe

It's been a winding road for Gabriella Rowe, but she's finally made it to a city she adores and in a position she says is her dream job. The New York native has worked in consulting, banking, education, tech, and more, and she has learned a lot of valuable lessons on the way.

Rowe accepted her position as CEO of Station Houston in August — a decision she says took her all of four seconds to make. The acceleration hub has a lot going on ahead of Houston's Innovation District launch, including announcing Station 3.0 in January. Read more about that — and why Rowe says wild horses couldn't drag her out of Houston —in her Featured Innovator piece.

Brian Richards, managing partner at Accenture

Courtesy of Accenture

Brian Richards is in the business of being lightyears ahead of everyone else. His job is to start thinking of solutions for tomorrow's problems, from consulting clients on innovative technologies to serving on the board of Houston Exponential.

In fact, Richards came up with the vision for Accenture's innovation hub before clients even knew they needed it. He also moved to Houston against the advice of many colleagues because he sees the potential this city has as a mecca for innovation. Read more about the hub and his career here.

Regina Vatterott, COO and co-founder of EllieGrid

Courtesy of Regina Vatterott

The idea for Regina Vatterott's smart pillbox, called EllieGrid, hit her in one fell swoop — literally. She fainted on the way to lunch and decided it was time to start taking her health seriously. She created EllieGrid shortly after and realized that medical devices don't have to be clunky or purely functional.

Now, she's got big plans to reinvent the wheel on a few other medical devices by focusing on the user experience, because, as she likes to say, people are always people first, before they are patients. Learn more about EllieGrid 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.