Q&A

New Greater Houston Partnership chair asks business community to spread the word

Houston, we have a perception problem — but the Greater Houston Partnership's new chair, Amy Chronis, is here to fix it. Photo courtesy Deloitte/AlexandersPortraits.com

If there's one thing Amy Chronis — the Greater Houston Partnership's 2021 chair and the Houston managing partner at Deloitte — wants you to know, it's that now's the time to spread the word about what's happening in Houston.

"We just don't brag enough about how much the city has changed and its trajectory," she tells InnovationMap.

While Houston has long been innovative in the health, space, and energy industries, it has a perception problem. Recently, Chronis addressed some of these concerns in her address at the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting. She joined InnovationMap for an interview to zero in on how the business community can work to change this perception problem and continue to grow its innovation and tech community.

InnovationMap: You describe your new role at GHP as a convening one. As you begin your tenure, what do you have your eye on?

AmyChronis: Well, if you told me a year ago that we would still be virtual, I would never believe it. I think that's one thing. And I think the GHP staff is really doing a great job in trying to bring connectivity despite the virtual times. Expanding the programming to more opportunities for people to hear experts and to connect — that's positive. On the other hand, people are tired of virtual meetings, and there's a fatigue factor. So, I worry about how much longer we're going to be virtual and can't get back together safely. It hinders us making more progress.

IM: In your address, you highlighted the importance of fostering innovation. Why is this top of mind?

AC: A university board that I participate on basically said it had taken them seven to eight years to get an eighth of their curriculum online. They accomplished the other seven-eighths in three weeks last spring when they went completely virtual. And that happened over and over again in terms of whole companies, including ours, going virtual in the space of a week, basically. And now we are all very accustomed to using technology to get our work done, to do breakout sessions, to do strategy sessions, focus groups. We can do all kinds of things virtually that just a year ago. So, I think that's really positive though, because the digitalization needed to happen.

IM: Looking back over the past few years, what were some key indicators of progress within Houston innovation that you have seen?

AC: Well, TMC3 is one of those things. There are so many great things happening in and around the medical center and the development. And frankly, the pandemic forced parties that hadn't worked that well together in the past to work really well and really fast together in terms of the development of the vaccines. The fact that we can now do that and prove that can happen is just going to continue to accelerate the sharing of knowledge and data.

The Ion too — Rice University stepping up and thinking through a really generous lens to make it so all the higher institutions of education to use it through the business community can be part of this. That was a landmark decision that will change our landscape in terms of enabling that whole Midtown corridor and all the other accelerators and incubators that are creating a density hub in that area. That's another foundational accomplishment that we'll look back in Houston and say we needed to create those hubs of density.

IM: Have you seen the pandemic’s effect slow this type of growth in any kind of real major way? Or are we still kind of on track to promote these hubs that are popping up?

AC: No, I think it's making them move faster. And it's not just because of the pandemic, but it's also because of all the other societal pressures around climate change, renewables, and clean energy. And, it's a business opportunity — it really is like a new frontier where people are rushing in, like Greentown Labs deciding to be here. They very smartly said, "well, where's the smartest place for us to be?" And it's at the hub where the energy companies and the huge R&D capacity, budgets, and the expertise already reside. I like to think this is like the next iteration of our frontier.

IM: Of course in Houston, the energy transition is a big focus. Is Houston were it needs to be to maintain its title of Energy Capital of the world?

AC: I think there are many great things going on, but if you talk to a typical person in New York and they think of Houston is old energy. There is certainly a perception campaign to be waged. And we as individual citizens all need to help. I think both the industry and everybody in the industry needs to do a better job of educating the world. We power the world.

IM: What must Houston do to continue to attract big tech companies?

AC: We are blessed that Texas is almost always in the consideration is kind of companies on both coasts look to move to more business-friendly and lower cost places to put either their operations and or their headquarters. And so we're lucky, Texas almost always gets a look. I think we do lose out more than our fair share to some of the other cities in Texas — especially the tech companies coming from San Jose, with the exception of HPE recently. I do think there are so many coming to central Texas right now that the ability to get lower cost housing and infrastructure needs at some point is going to be an issue. I think Houston needs to step up and state our case as often as possible.

IM: Why does Houston struggle to compete with other Texas cities for new corporate business?

AC: There's this perception issue that Houston is just not a great place or an attractive place to live. And that a lot of executives and their families don't see themselves living in Houston, but they have kind of an image around Austin and Dallas from TV or music festivals. We need to get those aerial images out that show us as a city with a lot of green space and a lot of fun capabilities for families and people that live here.

IM: How can the city continue to support startups?

AC: I think we need to continue on all cylinders — both internally and externally. So, externally, that's really continuing to reach out in welcoming venture capitalists here. Even though we've accelerated greatly over the last four years, in terms of venture capital coming into the city, there are still impressions around old energy.

I think we need to continue to press our story of advancing and how not only are we part of the solution, but we will be the center for clean energy too. I think we need to really continue aggressively selling our story to venture capitalists, especially on the coast. And then internally, you know, I sound like a broken drum, but we need to keep educating people around the opportunities with these accelerators and startups.

IM: What do you hope to leave behind at the end of your tenure?

AC: Well, I'm hoping by the end of my tenure that we are back meeting and networking together in person — working in an easier way with all of our constituencies in our city and county region. I hope I'm into my tenure that we will announce several more really exciting relocations to Houston.

Lastly, I try to weave D&I into all my goals, both inside Deloitte and this role too. It's my job to bring along future leaders. I've been talking to former chairs about making sure we get more D&I leaders onto our committees and participating in the partnership. So they also can grow and become hopefully the future chairs of in future years. So I would to leave that as a legacy as well.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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