Eyes to see

Low-vision technology allow for the seeing impaired to have access to Houston venues

Houston First Corp. will sponsor the Aira technology at several venues across the city so that the blind and vision impaired can enjoy each area. Photo by Micahl Wycoff

A partnership between the Houston First Corporation and Aira, an app that helps blind and low-vision people gain independence by navigating tasks and public spaces, is now live at venues around the city.

Houston First will cover the costs of use for the app in its venues, including the George R. Brown Convention Center, Avenida Houston, Wortham Theater Center, and Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts. The organization has plans to expand to the Miller Outdoor Theatre, said John Gonzalez, senior vice president of operations and general manager for Houston First.

"Technology is changing the experiences users have at our events," Gonzalez said. "We want to make our venues as accessible as possible."

California-based Aira's role in offering a vessel for facilities to be more accessible to low-vision and blind Houstonians is groundbreaking, said Vince Morvillo, an account executive with Aira who is blind.

"This technology is as important to a blind person as it is to a sighted person," Morvillo said. "You, as a person with sight, have the opportunity to look, to see things, to interact with people. When you're blind, you're not out and about; you don't have too many people to interact with. The ability to be able to go and do something when you choose to do so is really important."

The app essentially creates sight on demand. Users can use the Aira app on their smartphones and be connected to a trained operator, who will help them navigate the scene around them using video being fed to the app through their phone. The operators will then guide the user to their destination or even help them with everyday necessities like grocery shopping.

"The blind world needs this," Morvillo said. "This technology gets blind people out in the world. Businesses know how successful they are by how many people support them. I just don't understand why blind people are an untapped resource. Nobody's out there trying to get the blind shopper."

In addition to the blind population, Morvillo says that this will also help the aging population, who may often struggle with their vision later in life, and will increase accessibility options around the city.

Aira and Houston First's efforts to increase accessibility for patrons are now being recognized nationally. The National Federation of the Blind recently announced it would be bringing its annual convention to Houston in 2020.

"We are thrilled to host the group and are committed to providing a safe and enjoyable experience for all visitors," Houston First said in an email to InnovationMap. "It is our goal that Houston First venues provide an entertaining and immersive experience for all guests, and our partnership with Aira puts us one step closer to achieving that goal."

Houston, named the most diverse city in the country, also has a strong representation of minority-owned startups. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

While Houston's population is considered diverse, the breakdown of startup founders doesn't necessarily follow suite. However, according to a new report, the city of Houston has among the highest percentage of minority-owned startups in the United States.

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Annual Survey of Entrepreneurs, Volusion published a report naming the 15 cities with the most minority-owned startups, and the Houston, The Woodlands, and Sugar Land market ranked at No. 13. The city has 35.4 of its startups (3,697 startups) owned by minorities. While this percentage is enough to secure placement on the list, Houston's actual minority population is 62.8 percent, so the Bayou City still has room to close the gap.

According to Volusion's study, 15,673 people work at Houston's minority-owned startups and the gross sales of these companies ranges from $1 billion to less than $5 billion. The top industry for minority-owned startups is accommodation and food services.

"One of the major resources for minority business owners is the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, which offers a Business Readiness Training Program to help new entrepreneurs develop their skills," the report reads. "Although Houston is well-known for its petroleum and technology industries, minority-owned businesses are most active in accommodation and food services."

The Dallas, Fort Worth, and Arlington market ranks immediately ahead of Houston at No. 12 with the slightest edge of a fraction of a percentage. Dallas startups are 35.5 percent minority owned, making up 4,357 startups with 23,992 employees. Meanwhile, San Antonio and New Branfels slides into the No. 6 spot on the list with 45 percent of its startups (1,534 companies) being minority owned and employing 4,160.

Five of the top 15 companies on this list are in California, and the top three markets are all in California: No. 1 San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, No. 2 Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, and No. 3 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim. Each of the top three boast around 50 percent of their startups being minority owned.

According to Volusion's report, the national trend is disproprotionate when you compare the markets' population diversity to its minority-owned startups. Chart via Volusion

All of the Texas markets have a higher percentage of minority-owned startups compared to the national average, which is 27.4 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 40 percent of the country's population identifies as nonwhite, and some estimates, predict the U.S. will be considered a "majority-minority" country by 2044.

According to Volusion, some of the aspects that are holding back these types of companies include lack of resources and access to capital.

"In fact, a recent survey by Morgan Stanley found that while eight out of 10 investors perceive the funding landscape as balanced, investments in minority and women-owned ventures fall short by as much as 80 percent," reads the report. "The researchers cite increased risk perception, as well as lack of access and familiarity with minority and women-led businesses as key drivers of what they coin The Trillion-Dollar Blind Spot."

According to another report, money isn't the city's biggest issue. Houston was named as an affordable city for startups in a national report last month.

In April, Houston was named as the most diverse city in the nation, and earlier this month, a report found that diversity was well represented in Houston's STEM industries.