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Head of Accenture's Houston innovation hub leads the charge for energy ingenuity

Brian Richards created Accenture's innovation hub before his clients even knew they needed it. Courtesy of Accenture

Brian Richards knew from his first college internship that, even as an engineer, he wasn't interested in a typical engineering position after college.

"The pace was slow and structures are rigorous — as they have to be," says Richards, managing director at Accenture's Houston office. "So, there's not much room for experimentation and innovation. I could tell that those were things that were going to excite me."

He found a position in Accenture's technology labs in Chicago that focused on spotting tech trends ahead of market demand. In 2011, he transitioned to energy innovation, noticing the potential for innovation in the energy industry, yet a lot of companies weren't focusing on new ways to do business more effectively.

Now, that's all changed, and Richards says he's seen an increased demand from energy companies seeking innovation projects.

Last year, Richards opened the doors to Accenture's innovation hub in Houston. The hub acts as a one-stop shop for Accenture clients looking for a new tool or better process to do something. Once Richards and his team find a solution for the client, Accenture is able to deploy its team of consultants to scale up that innovation to the entire company.

A steward for Houston innovation, Richards is on the board of Houston Exponential, the city-created innovation arm dedicated to making Houston optimized for innovation. With both of his HX and Accenture roles, he sees the same goals and ideas — from the need for resources to the need to execute plans.

"What we're trying to do in the city of Houston and within the innovation Hub are similar," Richards says. "Houston needs the right skillsets and mindsets, and we need the right skillsets and mindsets in our talent. You got to bring these people together, which we're doing in the city with the Innovation District, and what we did in our offices."

InnovationMap: You started developing ideas and processes for the innovation hub when you were still in Chicago, but when did you move to Houston?

Brian Richards: In 2015, I decided to move my family down to Houston to give it a real shot — we obviously wanted to build [the innovation hub] in Houston. I got approval in 2016, and we launched in February of 2017.

IM: Did your colleagues question your move to Houston?

BR: It was an odd path. Very few people in Chicago aspire to move into the energy industry. When I was looking at the potential in moving down for this, many of my friends told me to go to Austin or Silicon Valley and not to go to Houston — that's not where innovation is happening. On one hand, [at the time], they were right, but on the other hand, they definitely [ended up being] wrong. It's the fourth largest city, with energy and health industries booming. It makes all the sense in the world to try innovation in this city.

IM: What was the reception of the hub?

BR: I saw the innovation hub as something people didn't know they needed it until it was built — within both the market and within Accenture. Obviously, it was a big investment — it takes time, people, and space — and we were in the middle of an oil downturn, which isn't really a good time. But when it came to digital innovation, it was the right time and the right opportunity to make that investment. It took a lot of advocating, sponsorships, and ongoing support. When we look at repeat visits from clients who have been here a couple dozen times, that to me speaks to the demand and the experiences.

IM: Who are the innovation hub's clients?

BR: Most all fall within the resources — chemical, utilities, mining, oil and gas — range from all over the world. They come here because they are interested in what the market is doing. To develop your own innovation, you need different types of skills. These companies aren't able to have the teams of experts we have.

IM: What types of projects do you work on?

BR: All sorts of things, but I obviously can't talk about specific projects, but we organize our studio to have different domains. We have the data science team, which is focused on AI and things of that nature. We have an Industry X.0 cyber team, focused on automation and securing that. We have a design and engineering team. And then we focus on our platforms and partners as our last pillar.

Then, we use three core methodologies together: Design thinking, agile software delivery, and lean startup. Design thinking is putting the user at the center of what you're designing. Agile is running tests and workshops to ensure we're creating value. … They all fundamentally sit at the intersection of improving the business operations by bringing design capability and bringing developers to create the novel product. Then using the leverage and power of Accenture to scale that up.

IM: What does the scaling up process look like?

BR: Most of the time, if you're trying to do innovation, you're going to come up with ideas, use a whiteboard, concept, but it's usually going to have a mix of a different type of process or use of data. Any time you're doing something with new processes or something, there's risk inherent to that. Our innovation projects are designed around you not wanting to spend a bunch of money, because you don't know what you don't know until you start building it. So, we're very much focused on building it, and then when it works well at one plant, and they want to deploy it at 50 plants. Now, it's not about innovation, it's about the ability to deliver that across time zones and geography. That's where the rest of Accenture comes into play.

IM: What's next for innovation hub?

BR: The key for us is growth in general — we need to be able to support that demand we have. We are looking at our capabilities, the people and the skillsets we need, the facilities we need — we're looking at all of that.

IM: In the few years you've been here, how has Houston's innovation scene changed?

BR: I think it's pretty impressive. In 2016, was when we first got the innovation round table at the Greater Houston Partnership together. There were very passionate people in Houston for some time, so I don't want to make it sound like they finally came to their senses; that's not the case, people have been working on this for a long period time. But, what changed in 2016, was that it really hit at the institutional level of Houston — the mayor's office, GHP, Rice University. That's what led to the innovation strategy and to the commitment from leaders. We can't be the Energy Capital of the World or have the world's largest medical center and not have a focus on startups, venture capital, and more. We need that to maintain our superiority. Companies in Houston are growing these capabilities and working with different types of startups — if they can't find that here to improve their companies, they are going to go somewhere else. That was the major shift in 2016.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Seven startups walked away with cash prizes from this year's MassChallenge accelerator program in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

MassChallenge named its winners of its 2020 accelerator at a virtual event on October 22. The program awarded a total of $200,000 in equity-free prizes across seven startups from its second Houston cohort.

This year's program took place completely virtually due to the pandemic. Already, the 56 startups involved in the cohort have raised $44.4 million funding, generated $24 million in revenue, and created 297 jobs, says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, in a news release.

"This has been a year full of change, to say the least," he says. "But startups thrive in uncertain times — because they can move fast and remain agile, they are able quickly meet each new need that arises. I'm extremely proud of the startups in our 2020 cohort — during the course of the program, they've pivoted, adjusted, and evolved in order to grow their businesses."

The startups that won across the Houston cohort included Houston-based PATH EX Inc., which won the $100,000 Diamond Award, is focused on the rapid diagnosis and treatment of sepsis through an unique pathogen extraction platform.

Four companies won $25,000 Gold Awards:

  • Healium, based in Columbia, Missouri, is an extended reality device created for self-management of anxiety.
  • Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, specializes in problem solving using technology and software in the harshest environments – from jet engines to earth orbit.
  • PREEMIEr Diagnostics, based in Southfield, Michigan, created a way to identify which premature infants need an adjustment to their glucose levels to prevent them from losing vision.
  • Scout Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia, is developing the first commercial in-space satellite inspection service.

Two companies won the Sidecar Awards, securing each a $25,000 Innospark Artificial Intelligence Prize.

  • Articulate Labs, based in Dallas, makes mobile, adaptive devices to help knee osteoarthritis and knee replacement patients rehabilitate on the go during everyday activity.
  • Houston-based Starling Medical has tapped into tech to optimize urinary catheter for patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction.
The Houston Angel Network awarded Ozark Integrated Circuits their prize of $50,000.
"The progress these entrepreneurs made in just a few months has all of the hope, drama, anticipation, and optimism of seeing dawn break after a particularly difficult night," says Wogbe Ofori, Principal at 360Approach and a MassChallenge mentor, in the release. "It's fulfilling, actually, and makes me proud to be a MassChallenge mentor."
The seven startups were awarded alongside 27 other startups from this year's Austin, Boston, and Rhode Island accelerators at the virtual event. The event was hosted by Chris Denson of Innovation Crush, and featured a fireside chat between Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director at the Boston Globe.
Earlier this fall, MassChallenge named its 10 startup finalists, whittled down from 56 from 13 countries and 13 states to its first-ever virtual accelerator, which began in June.

"In the face of great uncertainty, MassChallenge Texas in Houston charged forward and did exactly what they ask their startups to do: love the problem," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "The successful pivot to virtual is a testament to the strength of their global community and the motivation of the Houston ecosystem to get behind new ideas and create businesses that will set roots and grow here.

"As one of the most innovative cities, Houston is a place where startups can thrive – even in the midst of a pandemic. Programs like MassChallenge provide the best practices and networks to ensure startups get the access they need to create sustainable businesses and lasting change."

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