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Turner's plans

Mayor Turner recognized nationally for progress of moving Houston toward resiliency

Mayor Sylvester Turner was just named chairman of the Resilient Cities Network. Photo courtesy of The Ion

In the past five years, six federally declared flooding disasters have wreaked havoc in Houston — most notably Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Now, you might say Houston stands tall as a hub of resilience when it comes to disaster preparedness and myriad other pressing issues.

The Texas chapter of the American Planning Association recently honored Mayor Sylvester Turner's Resilient Houston initiative as the top entry in the resilience category of the chapter's annual awards program. In addition, Turner was just named chairman of the Resilient Cities Network.

With backing from Shell Oil Co., the City of Houston hired its first chief resilience officer, Marissa Aho, in 2019 and developed a multibillion-dollar resilience strategy to address threats from hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, and climate change. The plan also seeks to boost the resilience of Houston's economy, neighborhoods and natural resources.

"Our efforts need to be bold, transformative, and aligned to achieve the outcomes Houstonians deserve," Turner said in unveiling the resilience plan in February. "Resilient Houston is a framework for transformative change that comes from thinking and acting together to build and grow Houston's long-term resilience. We will need our partners and every Houstonian at the table to achieve this vision."

Dallas and El Paso also have resilience plans in place.

Houston's resilience effort outlines a number of ambitious goals, such as:

  • Updating city building codes and standards by 2030 to reduce damage from disasters.
  • Attracting or incubating 50 Energy 2.0 companies in the Houston area by 2025.
  • Planting 4.6 million new native trees by 2030.
  • Building at least 375,000 homes in Houston for all income levels by 2050.
  • Providing all Houstonians with easy access to high-frequency public transportation by 2050.

As explained by Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, hurricanes and floods are examples of "acute shocks" in terms of resilience. These are sudden, large-scale events that disrupt and endanger life. Other shocks include economic crisis, cyberattacks, terrorism, chemical disasters, and extreme heat.

The Kinder Institute points out that Houston's resilience strategy not only addresses these shocks but also takes on "chronic stresses" that hamper recovery from these shocks. Those stresses include poor air quality, health disparities, crime, economic inequality, urban sprawl, and limited access to education.

"Stresses do not impact every Houstonian the same way," says the institute, which helped develop the Resilient Houston project.

Startups participating in Houston's Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator are tackling many of the same challenges that Resilient Houston is. The accelerator's second cohort launched in April with six startups.

Funded by Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp., the accelerator "is committed to solving challenges Houstonians face every day," Christine Galib, director of the accelerator, said in an April release. "We connect participating startups with mentors, partners, and stakeholders so they gain access to the resources they need to build, validate, and scale their technologies. Together, we are building a safer, smarter, and more accessible city for all Houstonians."

Houston's push for resilience meshes with Turner's new role as chairman of the Resilient Cities Network. The network is a global city-led nonprofit that aims to "empower cities to help them build a safe, equitable, and sustainable future for all."

"The reach, achievements, and vision of the Resilient Cities Network are impressive. I'm honored to be part of an organization that supports the critical needs of vulnerable communities by implementing projects that address multiple shocks and stresses and are improving the lives of people," Turner says in a release.

Among other goals, the network strives to strengthen local economies and bolster local campaigns to combat climate change.

Supported by $1.8 million from Shell, the City of Houston joined the Resilient Cities Network in August 2018. Houston is the U.S. headquarters for Shell.

"A year after Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians can clearly say we didn't let the storm get the best of us. Nevertheless, there's still work to be done across a wide range of challenges that we share as a community," Bruce Culpepper, who then was president and U.S. chairman of Shell, said in a 2018 release about his company's backing of Resilient Houston.

"Building long-term resiliency is much more than disaster response," Culpepper added. "It's about enabling the people of our city to thrive."

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Building Houston

 
 

Constantine Zotos (left) and Mitchell Webber pivoted their coffee business toward hand sanitizer manufacturing amid the pandemic. Today, the company has around 60 employees and produces 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day. Photo courtesy of Modern Chemical

Houstonians' workday routines look much different today than they did seven months ago. With a large percentage of people working from home, office rituals have come to a halt and few habits have been immune to change — including our coffee consumption.

In early March, Constantine Zotos and Mitchell Webber already knew this didn't mean good things for their local nitro coffee company, Recharge Brewing Co. Though the brand had grown steadily over the better course of two years, the duo had focused their business on installing and supplying their nitro coffee taps to two of the most taboo markets at the time: office spaces and restaurants.The duo aptly predicted that the demand for their product would soon dry up and quickly shifted their operations to focus on a product that was considered a necessity: hand sanitizer.

To get started, the young entrepreneurs and their small team of six began cold calling down a list of Purell distributors they found online. They soon found that many businesses could hardly keep the product in stock.

"They asked us if they could fly a jet down to pick up the hand sanitizer themselves," Zottos says of one distributor. "I told them not to get ahead of themselves, but it just speaks to the sense of urgency everyone had."

The team studied up on the basic ingredients of hand sanitizer to make the liquid, alcohol-based form that infiltrated the market in the first few weeks of the pandemic. At the time there was such a rush for the product, and such a low supply of the material needed to make it, that the team resorted to selling the product without traditional pump tops or plastic caps. Instead they used the slow release plastic pourers that are often used on liquor bottles.

Still, they were focused on doing it right. In addition to the long hours spend to get the product out the door, Zotos and Webber took special care to ensure that their sanitizer met all FDA and EPA requirements by working with consultants and lawyers, as well as reading up on all the pertinent documents and literature between sleeping shifts and time on the shop floor.

"We took the stance that we would rather rush toward compliance rather than run from it," Zotos says.

It didn't seem to slow down the demand. One week in they formed Modern Chemical, and by the middle of the month the company was fulfilling substantial orders with a team of 40 employees. By the summer, Modern Chemical released a gel-based, FDA-registered sanitizer that got them in with giant B2B clients, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Jefferson Parish School District, and recently the City of Austin.

The pair agrees that their background with Recharge gave them a leg up in the beginning.

"Knowing the pumps and hoses and all the stuff you really need to run a bottle facility and a hand sanitizer facility, we already had," Webber says. "On top of that when all this started, there were some long days and long nights, but being in the nitro coffee business, we were used to long hours. It prepared us for this huge push for the drastic demand that needed to be filled."

Location and timing also played a huge role in their success, Zotos adds. "When the pandemic struck we were able to bring on a lot of people who are extraordinarily talented throughout the company. If we weren't hiring in the pandemic environment like this I think we would be hard pressed to find people as talented as we did as quickly as we did," he says. "And Houston really played a big part in that."

Today, the company of about 60 employees is producing about 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day and is in the process of launching disinfectant wipes and spray. They recently moved all of the Modern Chemical operations into a new and improved facility off Air Tec and Interstate 45 that will allow for more efficient packaging and loading of products and — in another pivot — are even offering custom labeling, scenting and color dyes, plus specialty dispensing stands for their product.

"Neither of us have a chemical background and we are not ignorant to that. But we know how the equipment works from an operational side of things and if we can make the packaging look the best. If we can package the most for the best price then people are going to want to buy it," Zotos says. "Instead of taking the let's do everything route, we found our niche in the chemical supply chain, which is packaging."

And as Modern Chemical continues to settle into its new space and eventually a post-pandemic market, Zotos and Webber plan to revisit and revamp Recharge Brewing with the lessons they've learned. The duo plans to use their original facilities to help other small business owners launch and produce beverage brands of their own by early 2021.

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