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5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

Catch up on trending innovation news, like Houston innovators to know, a splashy new app comes to town, a Q&A with a local innovation leader, and more. Photo courtesy of Nuro

Editor's note:Another week has come and gone, and it's time to round up the top headlines from the past few days. Trending Houston tech and startup news on InnovationMap included innovators to know, a new autonomous delivery pilot, an European app makes a splash locally, and more.

Autonomous delivery company joins forces with FedEx for new pilot in Houston

FedEx and Nuro are bringing last-mile delivery to Houstonians. Photo courtesy of Nuro

A tech company with self-driving robots deployed across Houston delivering pizza, groceries, and more has yet again launched a new pilot program — this time focused on parcel delivery.

Nuro and FedEx announced a new partnership to deploy Nuro's technology for last-mile delivery at a large scale with FedEx.

"FedEx was built on innovation, and it continues to be an integral part of our culture and business strategy," says Rebecca Yeung, vice president of advanced technology and innovation at FedEx, in a news release. "We are excited to collaborate with an industry leader like Nuro as we continue to explore the use of autonomous technologies within our operations." Click here to read more.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Houston, Misha Govshteyn of MacroFab, and Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance. Courtesy photos

In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to two local innovators, as well as one honorary Houstonian, across industries — energy, manufacturing, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation. Click here to read more.

Splashy European pool-sharing app dives into Houston just in time for summer

Houston pools like this are available to rent through Swimmy. Photo courtesy of Swimmy

Scorching temps. Baking cars. ERCOT begging locals to set their thermostats to 78 (say what?). Why, it's almost like it's summer in Houston or something.

After a long sweat, nothing cools off like a long swim in a sparkling pool. To that end, a European pool-sharing service is diving into Houston, allow H-Towners to visit safe, secure spaces that come certified and ready to make a splash.

Dubbed Swimmy, the app (available for download on Apple and Android) connects swimmers and sunbathers with pool rentals in their area. Booking sessions range by pool between $25-$35 per person per half day, per a release. Click here to read more.

Greentown Houston names local leader as climate tech enters 'perfect storm' for the energy transition

Juliana Garaizar is transitioning her role at Greentown Houston. Courtesy photo

When Greentown Labs opened its doors in Houston on Earth Day this year, Launch Director Juliana Garaizar had worked diligently with the Greentown team in Boston and Houston to make that day possible. Now, she's preparing for her next role within the organization.

Garaizar — who has worked in Houston over the past several years at organizations like the Houston Angel Network, TMC Innovation, Portfolia, and more — is transitioning into her new role as head of Greentown Houston and vice president of innovation for Greentown Labs. Click here to read more.

Houston researchers snag government funds for net-zero emissions projects

Both Rice University and the University of Houston were selected by the Department of Energy to receive funds for ongoing research projects. Photo via Getty Images

Rice University and the University of Houston were two of four national institutions to receive sizable grants from the Department of Energy last month to go toward the research and development of projects that will improve CO2 storage to help move the country toward the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Each of the four projects works to advance long-term, commercial-scale geologic sequestration of CO2. According to a release from the DOE, the process of carbon capture and storage (known as CSS) separates and captures CO2 from the emissions of industrial processes before it is released into the atmosphere. Once captured, the CO2 is then injected into deep underground geologic formations, known as caprock. 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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