2021 in review

Editor's Picks: 7 favorite Houston interviews of 2021

The ultimate who's who of 2021 — favorite Houston Innovators Podcast guests of last year. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In 2021, I recorded 50 episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast — a weekly discussion with a Houston innovator. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each and every conversation I’ve had this year, I picked a few of my favorites based on a few parameters. Maybe I learned something new or got to break a developing story — or maybe I just really loved chatting with someone. Whatever the reason, I’ve rounded up these seven podcast episodes I really liked, and explained why I selected each episode as a favorite on the last episode for the year.




To stream each episode in its entirety, see below or find the Houston Innovators Podcast wherever you stream your podcasts.

Ashley DeWalt of DivInc, Episode 79

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss diversity and inclusion, sports tech, and all things Houston. Photo courtesy of DivInc

Ashley DeWalt is the managing director of DivInc, a diversity-focused startup development nonprofit that expanded to Houston officially this year. He has a huge passion for his hometown of Houston and a long career in supporting innovators — particularly within diversity as well as sports tech. In the episode, he discussed both his passions and why Houston is on the path to being a hub for sports innovation.

Deeanna Zhang of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., episode 69

Deeanna Zhang of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. on the energy crisis that occured in 2020. Photo courtesy of TPH

Deeana Zhang, director of energy technology at Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., joined the show to look back on the effect 2020 had on energy tech in Houston, which took a double whammy of a hit between the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented drop in oil prices. The combo was a shock to the system and the industry, which Houston is home to a significant portion of. Deeanna shared that, while the hit to the economy was devastating, it positively affected the need to focus on the energy transition.

Gaurav Khandelwal of Velostics, episode 99

Velostics is a growing logistics software solution. Photo courtesy of Velostics

Houston has several startups solving complex problems within the logistics industry, and Gaurav Khandelwal is at the helm of one called Velostics. Also the founder of ChaiOne, another Houston software startup, Khandelwal explains a specific part of trucking logistics that is ripe for optimization. This middle mile represents a $700 billion market, and Velostics is ready to make an impact in that space.

Allison Post of the Texas Heart Institute, episode 80

Allison Post joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share what she's focused on in cardiac innovation. Photo courtesy of THI

The Texas Medical Center is home to over a dozen member organizations all treating thousands and thousands of patients who need care now — as well as supporting research and student health care professionals. And when it comes to innovation within these organizations, the past few years have made for remarkable evolution. Allison Post joined the Texas Heart Institute in October of 2020 in a newly created position of manager of innovation partnerships, and it's her one and only goal to keep THI an innovative force.

Aaron Knape of sEATz, episode 109

Houston-based sEATz is expanding. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Growing Houston startup sEATz, a company that works with vendors in entertainment venues to provide food and drinks directly to fans in their seats. Aaron Knape, CEO and co-founder, joined the show in November to discuss how the pandemic affected his business and the new exciting vertical they were expanding into, which is health care.

Emily Cisek of The Postage, episode 95

Emily Cisek started her company after losing two family members back to back. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Entrepreneurs possess both their ability to recognize a gap in the market as well as the initiative to develop a solution. On episode 95 of the podcast, Emily Cisek discussed her new company, The Postage. She came up with the idea to help families navigate end of life decision making based off a personal experience she had. Now she’s growing and expanding her brand and capabilities while changing the way we discuss death.

Kevin Coker of Proxima Clinical Research, episode 82

Proxima Clinical Research is a contract research organization. Photo courtesy of Proxima

It’s been a trying time for health care innovation, and no one understands that more than Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, a Houston-based contract research organization focused on supporting life science startups as they grow and scale. On episode 82 of the show, Coker discussed the effects the pandemic had on life science innovation and shared how in sync with Houston his organization is.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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