Featured Innovator

Accelerator program executive to connect the dots within Houston's innovation ecosystem

Yvette Casares Willis leads partnerships for MassChallenge Texas. Courtesy of MassChallenge

For Yvette Casares Willis, Houston already has what it takes to be a strong innovation ecosystem. Now, it's about working together to get the city where it needs to be, and MassChallenge hopes to do that with its new chapter in Houston.

"I'm excited about what Houston has to offer," says Willis, who is the director of partnerships for the organization. "We have everything we could possibly provide in this ecosystem to be amazing, as long as we all work together. If we can all collaborate and if we all have the same mission, we can really make a difference in Houston."

MassChallenge Texas announced its new Houston program in January. Applications for the inaugural cohort will be officially open as of tonight's launch party for the program. The organization, which has locations around the world, looks for early stage startups that haven't raised more than $500,000 in equity-based funding and have generated less than $1 million in revenue over the past year. The cohort will support 25 startups with free GreenStreet office space, mentorship, investment opportunities, and more, all the while taking no equity in the companies.

Willis has been the organization's boots on the ground in Houston, since MassChallenge Texas is run out of Austin. She spoke with InnovationMap about what MassChallenge's Houston program means to her and the city.

InnovationMap: Why did the city need something like this?

Yvette Casares Willis: We're a little unique to what Houston already has. Houston has a lot of great organizations, but MassChallenge is unique in the fact that we're industry agnostic, we're a nonprofit, and we offer a different business model to be added into the local ecosystem.

IM: Having worked in Houston, what do you feel you bring to the table for MassChallenge?

YCW: My role covers the entire state, but I have been boots on the ground for MassChallenge in Houston and it's been exciting to bring this to where I'm from. I have over 20 years in the Houston market in the corporate environment — my background is in professional sports and entertainment.

IM: As the director of partnerships for MassChallenge, what have you been able to accomplish?

YCW: In the last 10 months, I've been able to meet with several community and corporate partners to talk about MassChallenge. I've seen a lot of excitement. We're working on collaborating, so that when we do have our cohort, we can provide them with the best opportunities to partner with the community and corporations."

IM: What are you most excited about for Houston's MassChallenge program?

YCW: I feel like Houston has all of the best ingredients to be an amazing ecosystem. MassChallenge is going to play a big part of bridging all of the different organizations together. I see that everything is here, but it needs to come together, and I think MassChallenge is really good at doing that wherever they are.

IM: What's next for MassChallenge?

YCW: In my role, when I talk to other organizations, I see a lot of interest between collaborations between Houston and other cities in Texas, but I also see a lot of excitement globally. Houston's a global city and a lot of people are excited about the network MassChallenge has around the world.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

A Houston entrepreneur has brought in a technology to prevent major flood damage. Photo courtesy of HAR

Tasha Nielsen was on a trip to Denmark when she came across a Danish company making strides in flood prevention techniques.

"We were visiting family one day when we turn on the news and see FloodFrame's brand launch," Nielsen says. "The inventors live in Denmark, and they've done installations in Denmark, Germany and England, and they've been very successful."

That company partnered with the Danish Technological Institute and the Danish Hydraulic Institute and worked for years perfecting their flood prevention system. After Nielsen asked whether she could contract FloodFrame to install their system at her home back in Houston, she learned the founders weren't interested in coming over themselves to expand their business to the United States.

So, Nielsen took the reins to create the U.S. iteration of FloodFrame. The company provides flood protection to any building, including your home or business. And while it definitely takes inspiration from its European counterpart, Nielsen used her degree in civil engineering from Texas A&M — specifically her speciality in hydraulics, hydrology and storm design — to launch the business in one of the most flood-ravaged cities in the United States: Houston.

FLOODFRAME USA Video via youtube.com

FloodFrame works by using buoyancy. A lightweight cloth is wrapped around a tube is installed underground outside the perimeter of your home or business. One end of that cloth is attached to a box that is also installed underground. As flooding begins, an automatic system will release the lids to deploy the inflation of the tube that will protect the structure. When the flood comes in, the system will float on top of the flood — kind of like a pool noodle — and protect the structure from the water.

FloodFrame adds a level of security during flooding events and can be considered more cost-effective when compared to the high cost of renovating or rebuilding after flooding.

"Right now we are focused on residential but I think there's a huge potential for it to go commercial. A lot of commercial buildings are self insured, and commercial developers, industrial developers, this would be a drop in the bucket for the overall cost of the entire project," Nielsen tells InnovationMap. "For homeowners, it's kind of a bigger expense, but I think there is the potential for homebuilders to include it as an option in the entire package of a new house because when you put it in to a mortgage, it's only another like $0.50 a month."

Nielsen and the company are wrapping up their time in MassChallenge Texas' inaugural Houston cohort, which concludes early September.

Two years after Harvey, Nielsen thinks the city of Houston is doing the right thing by having workshops and meetings in order to work on ways to redesign the city so flooding isn't an issue.

"I do think there needs to be a better plan for what happens next year, instead of trying to prevent what happens in 20 years," she says. "They're already doing that part; they're working on it. I think there just needs to be more of an emphasis on 'what can we actually do to help people right now.'"