Flood tech

These Houston entrepreneurs and startups are searching for flooding solutions

From a water-absorbing tower to sensor-enabled rubber ducks, here are some flooding solution ideas coming out of Houston. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston.

Self-deploying flood protection for buildings

FloodFrame's technology can protect a home or commercial building from flood water damage. Photo via floodframe.com

A self-deploying flood damage prevention device caught Tasha Nielsen's eye on a trip to Denmark, and then launched the U.S. iteration of FloodFrame to bring the technology here.

FloodFrame works by using buoyancy. A lightweight cloth is wrapped around a tube is installed underground outside the perimeter of your home or business. One end of that cloth is attached to a box that is also installed underground. As flooding begins, an automatic system will release the lids to deploy the inflation of the tube that will protect the structure. When the flood comes in, the system will float on top of the flood — kind of like a pool noodle — and protect the structure from the water.

FloodFrame adds a level of security during flooding events and can be considered more cost-effective when compared to the high cost of renovating or rebuilding after flooding.

"Right now we are focused on residential but I think there's a huge potential for it to go commercial. A lot of commercial buildings are self insured, and commercial developers, industrial developers, this would be a drop in the bucket for the overall cost of the entire project," Nielsen tells InnovationMap. "For homeowners, it's kind of a bigger expense, but I think there is the potential for homebuilders to include it as an option in the entire package of a new house because when you put it in to a mortgage, it's only another like $0.50 a month."

A waterproof container for your car.

After the floods from Hurricane Harvey totaled her car, Rahel Abraham wanted to find a solution. ClimaGuard/Facebook

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey seriously damaged about 600,000 vehicles in the Houston area, which included Rahel Abraham's 2008 Infiniti G35. Now, Abraham's brainchild forms the backbone of her Houston-based startup, ClimaGuard LLC. The company's waterproof, temperature-resistant, portable Temporary Protective Enclosure (TPE) can entirely cover a compact car, sedan, or midsize SUV. It comes in three sizes; the cost ranges from $349 to $499.

To protect a vehicle, someone sets a TPE on the ground, a driveway, or another flat surface, then drives the vehicle onto the bottom part of the product, and connects the bottom and top parts with the zipper. Abraham likens it to a clamshell preserving a pearl.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham tells InnovationMap.

A network to find shelter.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks tells InnovationMap. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Now Hicks is growing GotSpot in hopes that short-term rental space and emergency housing can be smooth sailing no matter the circumstances. Recently, the company was named a finalist for MassChallenge Texas in Austin.

A water-absorbing tower. 

Fil Trat would be able to absorb water, filter it, and release it into the body of water when the time comes. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many Houstonians began to think of solutions for the next time Mother Nature struck with her full-force of flooding. Gensler designers Chelsea Bryant, Jordan Gomez, Luisa Melendez, Barbara Novoa, Benjamin Nanson, Maria Qi, and Melinda Ubera created a solution as a part of Gensler's By Design program called Fil Trat. The tower can absorb, filter, and store flood waters until the bayou is ready for the water to be released — cleaner than it was before.

During Harvey, thousands of people were displaced, but Fil Trat has a solution for that too. The tower's floors would alternate between filtration floors and shelters, which could house up to 24 families per floor.

While the suggested Houston locale would be by Buffalo Bayou, the group suggests putting the tower in other coastal cities at risk of devastating flooding.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks that can track weather developments.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl, tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

Restored native wetland coastal prairies.

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water. Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership, has been taking every opportunity to raise awareness on the importance of prairie restoration.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Memorial Park Conservancy's master plan redevelopment project, which is being supported by the Kinder Foundation, includes a lot of prairie restoration plans is expected to deliver by 2028.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks, Kinder Foundation, and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. An ongoing part of the transformation will be stormwater management upgrades. MPC has budgeted $3 million to this asset of the renovation. While a part of the plan is tributaries for run-off water, bringing back prairie and wetlands will do a great deal to help abate stormwater.

"We're taking ball fields, parking lots, and roads and converting them back to what was here — native wetland coastal prairie," MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold tells InnovationMap. "This serves important stormwater purposes."

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Building Houston

 
 

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

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