Featured Innovator

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

 
 

From biomolecular research to oral cancer immunotherapy, here are three research projects to watch out for in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, a couple local scientists are honored by awards while another duo of specialists tackle a new project.

University of Houston professor recognized with award

Mehmet Orman of UH has been selected to receive an award for his research on persister cells. Photo via UH.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. The award comes with a $500,000 grant to study persister cells — cells that go dormant and then become tolerant to extraordinary levels of antibiotics.

"Nearly all bacterial cultures contain a small population of persister cells," says Orman in a news release. "Persisters are thought to be responsible for recurring chronic infections such as those of the urinary tract and for creating drug-resistant mutants."

Previously, Orman developed the first methods to directly measure the metabolism of persister cells. He also developed cell sorting strategies to segregate persisters from highly heterogeneous bacterial cell populations, and, according to the release, he will be using his methods in the NSF research project.

Houston researchers collaborate on oral cancer innovation

Dr. Simon Young of UTHealth and Jeffrey Hartgerink of Rice University are working on a new use for an innovative gel they developed. Photo via Rice.edu

Two Houston researchers — chemist and bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink at Rice University and Dr. Simon Young at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — have again teamed up to advance their previous development of a sophisticated hydrogel called STINGel. This time, they are using it to destroy oral cancer tumors.

SynerGel combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors. Once there, the gel controls the release of its cargo to not only trigger cells' immune response but also to remove other suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment. The duo reported on the technology in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

SynerGel, combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors, where they not only control the release of the drugs but also remove suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment.

"We are really excited about this new material," Hartgerink says in a news release. "SynerGel is formulated from a specially synthesized peptide which itself acts as an enzyme inhibitor, but it also assembles into a nanofibrous gel that can entrap and release other drugs in a controlled fashion.

In 2018, the pair published research on the use of a multidomain peptide gel — the original STINGel — to deliver ADU-S100, an immunotherapy drug from a class of "stimulator of interferon gene (STING) agonists."

The research is supported by the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Welch Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.

Texas Heart Institute researcher honored by national organization

Dr. James Martin of Texas Heart Institute has been named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo courtesy of THI

The National Academy of Inventors have named Houston-based Texas Heart Institute's Dr. James Martin, director of the Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab, a senior member.

Martin is an internationally recognized developmental and regenerative biologist and his research is focused on understanding how signaling pathways are related to development and tissue regeneration.

"Dr. Martin has long been a steward of scientific advancement and has proven to be a tremendous asset to the Texas Heart Institute and to its Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab through his efforts to translate fundamental biological discoveries in cardiac development and disease into novel treatment strategies for cardiac regeneration," says Dr. Darren Woodside, vice president for research at THI, in a news release. "Everyone at the Texas Heart Institute is thrilled for Dr. Martin, whose induction into the NAI as a Senior Member is well-deserved."

Martin has authored over 170 peer-reviewed papers in top journals he holds nine U.S. patents and applications, including one provisional application, all of which have been licensed to Yap Therapeutics, a company he co-founded.

The full list of incoming NAI Senior Members, which includes three professionals from the University of Houston, is available on the NAI website.

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