who's who

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Bill Voss of Everest, Day Edwards of ChurchSpace, and Tim Neal of GoExpedi. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from e-commerce to the '"AirBNB for churches" — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Bill Voss, founder and CEO of Everest

Bill Voss joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss upcoming upgrades to Everest. Photo via LinkedIn

Bill Voss wanted to create a digital marketplace that would be a one-stop shop for outdoor activity equipment, apparel, and sporting goods. He had the vision, and he launched Everest. But it's taken some time to develop the platform he dreamt of.

"Our biggest challenge to date was technology. For the past two years, we have been developing our own technology," Voss says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Before the end of this year, there will be a brand new website with a better user experience and an amazing marketplace app. It's going to be really exciting."

Voss says he has mountainous goals for Everest — and the potential for impact on the entire sports and outdoors industry is there. As the new website, app, and streaming service all deliver over the next year, Voss says the company will take a huge step toward being able to disrupt the industry. Click here to read more.

Day Edwards, co-founder and CEO of ChurchSpace

Day Edwards and her startup, ChurchSpace, are fresh off an Amazon accelerator. Photo courtesy of Church Space

Houston startup, ChurchSpace, recently participated in the inaugural cohort of the AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders, which included a pre-seed fundraising campaign and a $125,000 equity injection from Amazon.

"Being a part of the inaugural AWS Impact Accelerator has changed the trajectory and tech build of ChurchSpace," says Day Edwards, CEO and co-founder of the company. "From the grant time to having the ability to build a platform using the latest technologies to ensure churches can share their space safely has truly been a blessing. I urge any female founder to definitely take time to apply. This is a life changing opportunity for all startups."

The AWS Impact Accelerator strengthened ChurchSpace’s efforts of turning underutilized church real estate into on-demand event, worship, and kitchen space. The program provides high-potential, pre-seed startups the tools and knowledge to reach key milestones such as raising funding or being accepted to a seed-stage accelerator program. Click here to read more.

Tim Neal, founder and CEO of GoExpedi

Houston-based GoExpedi placed on this year's Inc. 5000. Photo by Colt Melrose for GoExpedi

In the latest edition of its roundup of fastest growing privately held companies, Inc. magazine has recognized dozens of Houston organizations.

Houston startup GoExpedi, an industrial supply chain and analytics company, is the highest ranking local tech company on the list. GoExpedi ranked No. 675 in the 2022 edition of Inc. 5000, with a 924 percent growth rate between 2018 and 2021.

"The team at GoExpedi is honored to rank number 675 among America's Fastest-Growing Private Companies on the Inc. 5000 Annual List," says Tim Neal, CEO of GoExpedi, in a news release. "GoExpedi has grown exponentially since launching in 2017 due to our forward-thinking and innovative supply chain solutions." 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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