Calling for cash

Houston nonprofit makerspace seeking donations as it prepares to move into its new home

TXRX's new East End Space will allow them to provide prototyping and manufacturing services to more innovators. Courtesy of TXRX

With grants and public funds secured, Houston-based TXRX Labs as one last round of fundraising to acquire before it's ready to head full-speed ahead into its new location.

TXRX launched a $85,000 fundraising campaign to help get the organization where it needs to be before it moves into its 60,000-square-foot space in the East End Maker Hub in spring or summer of next year. The organization, along with its sister nonprofit, Urban Partnership Community Development Corp., has been selected by the city of Houston for an $18 million award and by the federal government for a $5 million innovation grant.

"In the last two weeks, we were getting close to finalizing funding for the building and came up short," says Lauren Caldarera, development director at TXRX. "We wanted to reach out to our membership at TXRX and the broader Houston community to help see if people will help support this unique offering for Houston."

In order to receive those grants, TXRX needs to submit design materials — a process that they budget to cost $325,000. (TXRX has already procured $240,000.) An anonymous donor agreed to match donations, and the organization has until the end of May to raise. Anyone can donate online.

TXRX is focused on bringing back Houston's East End as a manufacturing hub. As manufacturing jobs left the second, third, and fifth wards, it's created a need for skilled labor, middle class jobs, says Roland von Kurnatowski, executive director of TXRX.

"We're looking to bring together innovative companies in the physical innovation space into the East End and creating these middle class jobs," says von Kurnatowski. "It's a modern approach to combating economic inequalities instead of providing handouts."

TXRX is already making a dent in their mission with their smaller space. The organization has over 400 members and incubates 20 or so companies. The new space will allow TXRX to incubate almost twice that amount, work with 75 companies who need prototyping and manufacturing services, and grow their classes and educational offerings.

"Having this space is critical as Houston moves forward in creating an innovation ecosystem," Caldarera says. "We need a space for people to develop their physical prototypes, have engineers and other experts to coach and mentor them, and create more startups and innovators here."

Wyzerr, a member of Station Houston's Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, has a way to better collect information from citizens. Photo courtesy of Wyzerr

In a 2019 report card handed out by Cincinnati-based startup Wyzerr, Houston didn't do too well — It got a C, a 2.5 out of 4. Houston is passing, but just barely.

Wyzerr didn't give the city a bad rating; Houstonians did. In July, Wyzerr sent two researchers downtown to hang out near public places — bus stops, street corners, etc. Overall, respondents said they are satisfied with dining options, shopping, and the airports but were really struggling to embrace long commutes, poor local transit, and even public services: the police department, local government, schools and parking all got grades of C minus.

Wyzerr, which has ventured to Houston to partake in the ongoing Ion Smart Cities Accelerator out of Station Houston, is focused on creating surveys that make it easier for companies — and, increasingly, cities and airports — to collect useful information to improve their offerings.

"You can't build perfect cities," says Natasia Malaihollo, founder of Wyzerr. "But if you make small, incremental improvements, you can start to see a difference in communities (through Wyzerr's smart surveys)."

Wyzerr began in June 2014 and focused on designing smart survey for retailers. Now, the company works with more than 2,100 small and large businesses, including Kroger, Walmart, Facebook, Unilever — a lot of consumer packaged goods, Malaihollo says.

Wyzerr is focused on creating engaging surveys to better collect information. Photo courtesy of Wyzerr

Consumers interact with many of these brands on a near-daily basis, and Malaihollo estimates a person might get his with 7 surveys in a day — some of which require dialing in, or going online, or filling out responses on a sheet of receipt paper.

But Wyzerr makes surveys fun — they're interactive and game-like. Most importantly, though, they're short. Nearly every survey is designed to wind a customer through 25 questions about their experience with a certain retailer, product or service in 30 to 60 seconds. There's a science to it — shorter word counts on survey questions, for example, and making the final questions as engaging as possible, because people usually start answering more quickly, and maybe less thoughtfully, toward the end of a survey form.

Malaihollo calls this a design-focused approach to market research, and it has gotten results. In some surveys, Wyzerr was able to gather data on up to 20 percent of total consumers. Unlike most survey engagement, which usually falls lower, Wyzerr's data meets the threshold for statistical analysis — a valid sample size, in mathematics, is 10 percent of the population.

Two years ago, the Cincinnati Airport approached them. Amid a stream of reports that airports would develop into great hubs for the future of retail, the Cincinnati Airport team wanted a way to track shoppers' satisfaction as they trafficked through the terminals. Wyzerr created a survey that connected to the airport's Wi-Fi system — if users wanted to log on, they had to take a brief survey first.

"That ended up being our most successful campaign," Malaihollo says.

Wyzer, which has a team of 12, has raised $2 million and is getting ready to raise more. Upon completion of the accelerator program, the company will work with a Houston neighborhood for a pilot program, and the team hopes to get their survey system on the Wi-Fi system in Houston airports early next year.

Now, Wyzerr focuses on gathering data for smart cities — urban spaces that offer higher-tech solutions to regular city activities, like parking, and use electronic sensors to collect data that helps monitor the public. For example, cities across the U.S. have adapted free Wi-Fi on public transit, parking lot trackers, smart traffic lights to reduce congestion, automated bike-sharing programs and pedestrian detectors at intersections.