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."

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Building Houston

 
 

The latest Houston innovation news includes a name for the burgeoning Texas A&M University campus in the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy of TAMU

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks. From a Texas university naming its burgeoning new campus to a Houston SaaS startup with fresh funds, here are some short stories in Houston innovation.

ThoughtTrace raises $10M series B

ThoughtTrace has received investment from Chevron Technology Ventures. Photo via thoughttrace.com

ThoughtTrace Inc., a Houston-based software-as-a-service startup closed a $10 million series B round led by Canadian venture capital fund McRock Capital with contribution from Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures.

"Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV) pursues externally-developed technologies and new business solutions that have the potential to enhance the way Chevron produces and delivers affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in a release. "ThoughtTrace fits that mandate with the potential to automate the complex, time-consuming, and document-intensive workflows required for our ongoing business operations."

ThoughtTrace's software quickly analyzes documents and contracts and produces results at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional methods. With the fundraising deal, Scott MacDonald, McRock's co-founder and managing partner, will join ThoughtTrace's Board of Directors.

"We are extraordinarily excited to have both McRock and Chevron join the team. McRock brings a great background in the industrial space, which we see as a great fit. In the case of Chevron, they went from being a new customer in 2019 to an investor in 2020," says Nick Vandivere, ThoughtTrace CEO, in a release.

"With the new capital raise, ThoughtTrace will accelerate its investment in creating AI with unparalleled speed and accuracy, grow strategic partnerships and platform integrations, and add to its existing team of talented professionals, all of which will bring further value to the growing ThoughtTrace customer-base," Vandivere continues.

Texas A&M names its Texas Medical Center campus

The new campus will be called Texas A&M Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

After announcing its plans for a $546 million medical complex in Houston's Texas Medical Center in February, Texas A&M University has released the name of the 5-acre campus rising at the intersection of Holcombe Boulevard and Main Street: Texas A&M Innovation Plaza.

The project will be completed in phases. The first phase, which will open later this year, is a renovation of an 18-floor building at 1020 Holcombe Blvd., which will to be the new home for EnMed, a dual degree program that produces both a master's in engineering and a medical degree.

"EnMed is just the first example of innovation that Texas A&M System intends to bring to the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza," says Chancellor John Sharp in a news release. "We are excited to have such a visible location in the Texas Medical Center."

Rice Business Plan Competition lays out virtual plans

The competition must go on. Photo via rbpc.rice.edu

This year's Rice Business Plan Competition, which was planned for March 26 to 28, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has decided to offer up an alternative: A virtual RBPC. Forty two student teams will compete over three virtual events.

  • Elevator Pitch Competition on June 17 (Open to the public): Each team will deliver 60-second pitches.
  • Round 1 on June 18 (Open to startups and judges only ): Each team will deliver 10-minutes to pitch to a panel of judges followed by Q&A.
  • Live finals on June 19 (open to the public): The seven finalists will pitch to the judges, and following a round of questions from judges, the winners and prizes will be announced.

Two health care educational institutions team up for new program

Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine have launched a collaborative medical track. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Louisiana's Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have joined forces to allow Xavier students a smooth transition into Baylor's graduate programs. Xavier students, including traditionally underrepresented minorities — according to a press release — will have the opportunity to apply for the program in November. Three students will be selected for the program, which facilitates acceptance into the medical school.

"Our commitment at Baylor College of Medicine to diversity and inclusion creates the best environment for success across our mission areas of healthcare, research, education and community outreach," says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. "This important collaboration with Xavier University will strengthen this commitment, and I look forward to welcoming students from this new partnership into the Baylor family."

Klotman continues to express how inclusiveness is a priority for BCM and for this partnership.

"We live in a world where healthcare is changing and evolving," says Dr. Anne McCall, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Xavier, in the release. "This partnership will further equip our students with the diverse tools and training that they'll need to foster equity in the medical field and compete on an international level."

University of Houston begins offering virtual tours for perspective students

Potential UH Cougars can get the 411 on campus via a virtual tour tool. Photo via uh.edu

Before COVID-19 sent everyone home and canceled gatherings, classes, and events across the world, the University of Houston was already working on a way for potential students to tour and learn more about the campus. Now, in light of the pandemic, UH has released this virtual tour offering complete with live interaction from UH student ambassadors.

"I'm really excited about the live component we just added because prospective students can ask questions just like during a face-to-face campus tour and that interaction is invaluable," says Mardell Maxwell, executive director of UH Admissions, in a release. "UH is so committed to access, and we see this as a great opportunity not only for students in Houston and Texas, but for those coming from out of state. We are opening up access to campus across the world."

Anyone can sign up for a tour online through the university's website.

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