who's who

4 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Angela Holmes of Mercury Data Science, Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich of Sesh Coworking, and Shaun Zhang of the University of Houston. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from data science to cancer therapeutics — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Angela Holmes, CEO of Mercury Data Science

Angela Holmes is the CEO of MDS. Photo via mercuryds.com

A Houston-based AI solutions consultancy has made changes to its C-suite. Dan Watkins is passing on the CEO baton to Angela Holmes, who has served on MDS's board and as COO. As Holmes moves into the top leadership position, Watkins will transition to chief strategy officer and maintain his role on the board of directors.

"It is an exciting time to lead Mercury Data Science as we advance the development of innovative data science platforms at the intersection of biology, behavior, and AI," says Holmes in the release. "I am particularly excited about the demand for our Ergo insights platform for life sciences, allowing scientists to aggregate a vast set of biomedical data to better inform decisions around drug development priorities." Click here to read more.

Meredith Wheeler and Maggie Segrich, co-founders of Sesh Coworking

Sesh Coworking and its founders Maggie Segrich and Meredith Wheeler are on a roll. Photo courtesy of Sesh

Sesh Coworking, described as Houston’s first female-focused and LGBTQIA+ affirming coworking, has been operating its 2808 Caroline Street location's second-floor space since January, but the first floor, as of this week, is now open to membership and visitors. The new build-out brings the location to over 20,000 square feet of space.

Called The Parlor, the new space includes additional desks, common areas, a wellness room, and a retail pop-up space. Since its inception in early 2020, Sesh has overcome the pandemic-related obstacles in its path and even seen a 60 percent increase in membership with an overall 240 percent increase in sales over the past year.

“Our growth is a testament to the ever-changing landscape of Houston’s office and retail industry after the workplace dramatically changed in 2020,” says Maggie Segrich, co-founder of Sesh Coworking, in a news release. “We are ecstatic to welcome current and prospective members to our new, inclusive space.” Click here to read more.

The duo also joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Sesh's growth. Click here to listen.

Shaun Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston

A UH professor is fighting cancer with a newly created virus that targets the bad cells and leaves the good ones alone. Photo via UH.edu

A Houston researcher is developing a cancer treatment — called oncolytic virotherapy — that can kill cancer cells while being ineffective to surrounding cells and tissue. Basically, the virus targets the bad guys by "activating an antitumor immune response made of immune cells such as natural killer (NK) cells," according to a news release from the University of Houston.

However exciting this rising OV treatment seems, the early stage development is far from perfect. Shaun Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston, is hoping his work will help improve OV treatment and make it more effective.

“We have developed a novel strategy that not only can prevent NK cells from clearing the administered oncolytic virus, but also goes one step further by guiding them to attack tumor cells. We took an entirely different approach to create this oncolytic virotherapy by deleting a region of the gene which has been shown to activate the signaling pathway that enables the virus to replicate in normal cells,” Zhang says in the release. Click here to read more.

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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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