Dining delivered

Houston startup is making stadium food a whole new ballgame

A new app, sEATz, is the UberEats of stadium food. You order right from your phone in your seat. Getty Images

Marshall Law's wife, Melissa, surprised him and his two sons with tickets to see the Astros play at home in the 2017 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, but a rush to get to the game and a packed stadium lead to him waiting in a long concessions line in the second inning.

Law watched on a TV screen next to the food counter as the fourth pitch from Yu Darvish to Yuli Gurriel hit two rows past the Laws' seats, bouncing back toward where they were supposed to be sitting. Law couldn't shake the feeling of missing out on the homer. Why couldn't someone have brought them the food, he thought. He'd have paid $50 — maybe more — to not miss that moment.

"Everything gets delivered these days. Any kind of food to your groceries, all right to you. Why isn't someone doing this?" Law says he was thought as he walked out of the game.

From the parking lot, he called his friend, Aaron Knape, and an idea was born.

"I never want a dad to miss a moment as I did ever again," Law said.

Play in motion
Law and Knape set out on finding, designing, and implementing an app and process, now known as sEATz, that would keep fans from ever having to miss a moment of a game again.

Knape got his master's degree from Rice University and stayed in touch with his fellow alumni over the years. It was actually at Rice where Knape realized Houston might just be the perfect place for something like sEATz to get off the ground. Houston, he says, is in the midst of an entrepreneur revolution.

At the forefront of that revolution is Lawson Gow, founder, and CEO of The Cannon, a startup and tech hub for companies to grow and get support. Gow — son of David Gow, owner of InnovationMap's parent company Gow Media — says the Cannon houses almost 85 companies in a 20,000 square foot space where they attempt to meet all their companies needs. Cannon Ventures, one of those support systems, is an investment network which focuses on assisting startups.

"We ran into to Lawson at an event, and he loved the idea," Knape said.

Sports technology is a focus of one of The Cannon, and Gow says he feels like sEATz is "off to the races" as a startup, with hosting early events at Rice football and the Sugar Land Skeeters games.

Getting on base
Having met Tanner Gardner of Rice's athletics department, Knape approached him with the idea. When Gardner saw the opportunity to add concession stand deliveries to the Owls fan's experience with sEATz, he took it, though he said he was "cautiously optimistic."

"I told them I thought they had a solution to a problem that exists and the challenge for you is convincing the concessionaires that this is something worth their while."

He mentioned to sEATz he believed stadium concessions wasn't a type of business to easily to take innovation and change their style especially if they believed their model worked. Law said there were reservations from concessions at first but the vendors eventually saw the benefit. sEATz orders regularly exceeded the typical total of purchase by a customer.

Rice Stadium is the first of what Knape and Law hope will be many venues to offer sEATz compatibility. The two sEATz leaders aren't reinventing the wheel, but their wheel is finally ready for the road. For years, stadiums lagged behind the digital demands of fans. Many lacked the capability for in-venue phone usage just a couple of years ago. Most venues now support and even encourage the use of apps and phones to improve the fan experience.

"I think it's worked very well," Gardner added. "Often the best sign a new product or a new service is working at our events is the lack of complaints about it. People are always quick to provide you with constructive criticism on things that are not going well."

But Gardner hasn't heard much other than praise so far.

"I didn't hear one negative thing about sEATz during the season and I also heard positive things."

Gametime decisions
The positive feedback comes in part from the user-friendly interface of the app. From your seat, you open the app and select the venue you are in and then type in your section, row, and seat number. The next screen is the stadium's finest fare at your fingertips. While perusing the stadium's offerings — with pictures — you make your selections and head to your cart. There you check out with whatever credit or debit card you've added to your profile. Then, sit back and enjoy the game.

On the sEATz's end of things, their work has just started. One team member assigns the order to a runner. The runner can see the entire order on their phone through a web portal. They head to each vendor who has a particular item, sometimes involving stops at multiple locations. The runners have their own line. The vendors, depending on preference, either keep track of what sEATz picks up and settles at the end of the day or checks them out right there with a sEATz credit card. After all the items in the order are picked up the sEATz runner presses "picked up" in their web portal. Then they head off to the patron's seat to deliver the order. Then, after delivery, the runner presses "delivered" on their end and is ready to be assigned another order.

The sEATz runners currently carry their own trays which are repurposed drink crates. Law says that runners will eventually carry specially designed and branded sEATz trays. Runners have the option to call or text the person who has ordered through the sEATz app to clarify their location or if they aren't in their seat. Runners are assigned to different regions of the stadium, so they aren't running all around.

There's an educational component to the delivery process too.

"We get to teach the runners about the game while doing this too," Law said.

He says that when they are in Constellation Field for Sugar Land Skeeters games, runners try not to deliver in the middle of an at-bat or while the ball is in play. Law wants other fans to notice runners and be jealous by their speedy delivery — not angry for interrupting.

The sEATz runners are currently all Westbury High School football players. Law reached out to a friend to see if his athletes would be interested in making a few extra dollars on the weekends.

"You get into the game and you get to make a few bucks doing it, these kids have been great for us," Law said.

He mentioned initially there was concern over who would be the workforce for sEATz, but now both sides of the equation are happy. Users can tip the runner like most delivery services, and some runners have made over $100 in tips in one day. Eventually, sEATz wants to institute a runner grading system to assist in rewarding runners who consistently perform well.

The game plan
The immediate future is making sure all parties associated with sEATz are successful, according to Knape. He said they have to service the fan but also make sure the concession stand is successful as well. They never want to hinder the operating procedure of a vendor. They also want to continue to tweak the app's design to make it even easier to use for fans. Right now food and non-alcoholic beverages are available on the app. In the future, sEATz plans to deliver alcohol and even apparel from the team stores.

Then, of course, there is the process of scaling up for larger events. Right now, sEATz has run test events on about 5,000 fans. However, when Rice hosted Houston they easily handled the stadium full of nearly 10,000 fans. Law said being in every venue is the eventual goal, but, he always wants to be ready for the size of the crowd.

Gow says that sEATz will be able to scale its technology, which is far more advanced than most products this early in their lifespan.

"We've been doing some walking before we've been doing some running," Gow said. "But, you can imagine the domino effect of one major professional sports team embracing it and the fans almost demanding that it exists in other stadiums and other sports teams and it spreading like wildfire."

Law knew they were on to something bigger than just delivering a hot dog and a drink. During one event, a mother stopped him and mentioned she loved the idea of the app. Her son was special needs and required a wheelchair. She told Law she loved sEATz because her son now didn't have to miss a moment of the game and they didn't have to make the daunting trek to the concession stand and the inevitable line with his chair. Another time Law was stopped by an elderly Rice fan. She explained sEATz could take her order and deliver her food to her before she could even leave her seat in the first few rows and make it to the concourse.

"I was just thinking about dads and kids not missing the game," Law said. "I was blown away to hear those stories."

Ease of use

Courtesy of sEATz

Users can download the free app and pay a small fee to get food delivered to their seats.

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Building Houston

 
 

Impact Hub Houston has signed a new lease for the Downtown Houston Launch Pad, Rice students re-think dorm design, and more local innovation news. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and not all make the news. For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a Houston startup incubator has a new home, a local school creates AI-focused program, Astros manager taps into sports tech, and more.

Impact Hub Houston makes downtown partnership

Impact Hub Houston has a new headquarters in downtown. Photo courtesy of Central Houston

Impact Hub Houston, a nonprofit organization that promotes and accelerates sustainability-focused startups, is resident partner at Downtown Launchpad, according to Central Houston and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The organization now has a 10-year lease and a new headquarters for its team and events. Impact Hub joins two accelerator programs — MassChallenge Texas and gener8tor — which both have a global presence and launched in Houston in the past two years.

"We celebrate Central Houston's vision in launching this 'vertical village' and appreciate their ongoing support in including Impact Hub Houston as a part of it," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "It takes a village to raise an entrepreneur, and now we have that village with the infrastructure and community to raise generations of diverse innovators. It's another exciting step towards our goal to build an authentically inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem that looks like Houston and works for all in our region."

HCC introduces artificial intelligence program

Data science startup based in Houston focus on neuroscience software nabs $3.78M grant

A local college system is training the future AI workforce. Getty Images

Houston Community College is the first community college in the state to introduce a new program focused on artificial intelligence. The new Associate of Applied Science degree program has been approved by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, according to a press release from HCC, and is available for the fall 2020 semester at HCC Southwest, HCC Northeast and HCC Southeast.

"It is the latest of HCC's ongoing efforts to embrace new technologies and keep a pulse on the ever-changing needs of the industry," HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado says in the release. "Offering an innovative program like AI will allow our students to take advantage of all the accelerated job openings in Houston, in Texas and beyond."

The new program exists to fill the rising need for AI professionals. Last year, the job site indeed.com identified machine learning engineers at the top of its annual list of the 25 best jobs, citing a 344 percent increase in job postings from 2015 to 2018 with an annual base salary of $146,000.

"Because of a dire shortage of AI specialists, many companies are offering big salaries," says G. Brown, Ph.D., program coordinator of Networking and Telecommunications at HCC Southwest, in the release. "AI specialists are in high demand by companies like Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, as well as NASA and SpaceX."

Rice project re-envisions dorm layouts

The dorm design created socially-distant spaces that can be used in times of a pandemic. Photo via rice.edu

Two Rice University students received top marks in the 2020 American Institute of Architects Houston (AIAH) Gulf Coast Green Student Competition for their pandemic-proof dorm design. Carrie Li and Mai Okimoto, both 2022 Rice master's of architecture students, won first place in the competition that challenged students to design a dorm for the University of Houston-Downtown that would adhere to the Centers for Disease Control's social distancing guidelines.

"Carrie and Mai's timely and innovative proposal is beautifully conceived, highly resolved and elegantly presented," says interim dean, John J. Casbarian, in a news release. "I am particularly struck by how seamlessly it addresses the pressing issues of flooding, natural ventilation and social distancing, and how well sited it is in relation to UHD while mitigating the adversity of the freeway expansion.The competition consisted of eight teams from Texas and Louisiana which presented to judges from Kirksey, PDR Corporation, Gensler, Walter P Moore and UH-D. Li and Okimoto's project features 432 units across three villages and even factored in the area's flooding challenges.

"[Our design] aims to: allow social interaction to happen on different scales, from the one-on-one connection to larger scale gatherings; provide the users with safe but varied circulation paths, through which natural ventilation also occurs; treat dining as a key socializing program; and address the site's flooding risks and impacts of the I-45 corridor expansion," Li says in the release.

City of Houston passes small business-focused economic relief initiative

A new program from the city of Houston is helping to provide funds for businesses affected by COVID-19. Getty Images

Last week, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston City Council passed the city's Small Business Economic Relief Program, funded with $15 million of the City's allocated CARES Act 2020 funds. Small businesses can apply for up to $50,000 and the grant can be used for payroll, accounts payable, rent, mortgage, PPE for employees, marketing strategies, including creating an online presence and other sales alternatives.

"We know small businesses throughout Houston have suffered greatly due to the global pandemic, and it could take months or years before the business climate returns to normal," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "I thank Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Castex Tatum and other council members for bringing this program forward. We are working on other relief packages that will keep us Houston Strong as we navigate the public health crisis."

The program will be administered by Houston's Office of Business Opportunity and the Houston Business Development Inc.

To qualify for the SBERP, businesses must be located in Houston, have been in business for at least one year, provide evidence for revenue decrease due to COVID-19-caused closures, have less than $2 million in gross annual revenue pre-COVID-19, be in good standing with the city, and commit to complete technical assistance.

"The SBERP will help all sizes of small businesses move one step closer toward financial recovery. This program is intended to maximize the long-term, positive impact of these small businesses on our local economy through their contribution to job retention and the continued availability of their services," says Marsha Murray, director for the Office of Business Opportunity, in the release. "If our local small businesses did not qualify for other federal or local programs, or did not receive enough funds to mitigate the impact of the crisis, we encourage them to apply for this program."

Astros manager joins venture capital firm

Not only is Dusty Baker at the helm of the 2017 World Series-winning Astros, but he's also a founding partner of a sports-focused venture capital firm. Getty Images

The Houston Astros manager, Dusty Baker, is a founding partner of a new venture capital firm focused on sports tech and innovation. New York-based Turn2 Equity Partners is a new fund is beginning with a focus on amateur and professional baseball markets.

"For decades, baseball players, managers and executives have lended their credibility to brands as endorsers," Baker says in a press release. "With the establishment of Turn2 Equity, for the first time, faces of the game have the opportunity to own and influence people at all levels."

Co-founded by sports venture capitalists Jarett Sims and Peter Stein, the firm's team also includes Jim Duquette, New York Mets general manager; Bobby Evans, who was formerly with the San Francisco Giants as general manager; and John Haegele, the former CEO of Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment.

GotSpot Inc. wins veterans competition

A Houston startup that's using technology to optimize short-term real estate space took home a prize in a virtual pitch competition. Image via LinkedIn

Houston-based GotSpot Inc. has claimed another pitching competition prize for veteran-owned businesses. Reda Hicks, founder of the Houston startup, received third place and $10,000 at the Ford Fund Virtual Pitch Competition last month. Memphis-based Pure Light Clean Air Services took first place and $15,000 and Raleigh, North Carolina-based Blue Recruit won second place and $10,000.

"The experiences, teamwork and skills learned in service of our country can serve as a solid foundation for these men and women as they build sustainable businesses," says Yisel Cabrera, manager of the Ford Motor Company Fund, in a news release. "We're proud to work with Bunker Labs to assist these inspiring entrepreneurs as they pursue new roads to success."

Calling all energy startups

Upstream startups can submit to a new virtual pitch competition. Photo via atce.org

The Society of Petroleum Engineers is calling for applications from energy startups to compete in a virtual pitch competition. Applications for the ATCE Startup Village, which is a collaboration between SPE and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, are live online and due by August 14. The competition will take place Tuesday, October 13.

The competition is free to compete and to apply, and open to early stage upstream technology companies. Each company selected to present will have 5 to 8 minutes to provide a "quick pitch" about their company to a group of venture capitalists, angel investors, and industry leaders. Judging will be based on innovative technology, commercial strategy and business plan, market potential, and management team and advisers.

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