Design thinking

How a Houston entrepreneur is bringing design to startups — and making the world a better place

Jez Babarczy, along with his company, NUU Group, is changing the world — one pixel at a time. Courtesy of NUU Group

Six years ago, Jez Babarczy and Gabriel Gurrola launched a startup in Babarczy's living room in Katy. The goal was to launch a company that was based in Houston, but known around the world for doing top-notch creative work.

"I saw a gap in the market," Babarczy says. "Houston [was] not known for world-renowned creatives. Companies tend to gravitate toward other cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta. I think we have amazing talent in Houston, and I saw an opportunity and a need for an agency doing [work] in a creative field."

Fast-forward six years, and NUU Group has worked on tech and branding projects with Fortune 500 companies, such as Bechtel and Cemex, as well as the Houston Texans, FIFA, Civic Nation, and a slew of startups. Its mission is simple: to provide design and creative services to companies seeking to do good in their industries or communities. NUU Group works with companies in all industries, and is planning to grow its footprint by opening more offices in the U.S. and around the globe.

The company, which employs 40 people, has its main headquarters office in Houston and opened an office in Querataro, Mexico last year. NUU Group's Querataro office, which has 20 employees, works to capitalize on Mexico City's thriving business sector.

NUU Group is led by Babarczy, Gurrola, and Kevin Daughtry. Babarczy spoke with InnovationMap about what led him to start NUU Group, as well as what's on-tap for his company — and Houston's broader startup community as a whole.

InnovationMap: What differentiates NUU Group from the competition?

Jez Babarczy: I think NUU Group offers something unique and different. We have a global mission and mantra that we remind ourselves of daily, and it fuels the work we do. Our mission is to explore new things that inspire us, and the clients we work with, and how we approach the work.

If we're truly going to have an impact within culture, within our industry, and within the lives of our clients, I think we need to look at our potential for doing good. That's something we've really embraced. It's part of NUU's existence to give back to empower others. It's easy to say you're a good-person organization, but it's different to advocate for others in a consistent manner.

IM: What core services does NUU Group provide?

JB: More than anything, we're designers first. The agency started as being very design-centric, but it's expanded beyond that. We're not just design-first, but focus on human-centric design and creating experiences that really resonate with the end user.

IM: What brought NUU Group to Mexico?

JB: So, Mexico was an attempt to explore new things, along with some business opportunities that were there for us. The stars aligned when we were looking at a second office location, and there were several options on the table. Querataro is a city around two-and-a-half hours from Mexico City, which is definitely a hub for things going on around the world. It's a great place and, given the business opportunities there, it made a lot of sense.

IM: What's you client portfolio look like? What industries have the most need for NUU Group's services?

JB: We're pretty industry agnostic in terms of clientele. There's definitely an ability to gravitate toward Houston's primary industries — energy and health care — but, we purposefully to work with clients across industries. A lot of the time, we bring in someone who's a little on the outside or on the fringe to look at a problem from a unique perspective. That that's where we shine. We also work with global nonprofits, startups and companies that we believe are doing some awesome stuff.

IM: What are the pros and cons of being based in Houston?

JB: The pros are that Houston is a great city, and it's a great city for business. We have a lot of big companies here, and attitude of, 'Let's get stuff done, let's collaborate and let's work together.' I think that permeates Houston's culture, which is great for doing business. Some of the cons, I think, are battling the stereotype that Houston isn't creative, that Houston is just an oil and gas city, or that Houston is flat and hot and humid. There's a little bit of an uphill battle in terms of recruiting. We've seen that people see Houston as a place to go if you have to go, but not a place you'd necessarily want to go to. There's an opportunity to tell a better story for Houston.

IM: Over the past five years, how have you seen Houston's innovation community grow or change?

JB: Innovation has definitely become more of a popular buzzword to the point where it's slightly nauseating. Along with the boom in technology and the rate at which it advances, our position in the national and global marketplace has led to accelerating these different innovation hubs within companies and coworking spaces. I think there's still an opportunity for Houston to define what innovation really looks like, and to ask ourselves, 'How are we accelerating it? How are we empowering it? How are we really doing it, when the rubber meets the road?' It's definitely something that's evolving, and it's evolving in the right direction. …

There's this anxiety over being left behind, and this frantic sense of [needing] to do what others are doing. Just because one thing is working in California, doesn't mean that's exactly what needs to happen here. I hope Houston can be willing to be open to really move innovation forward for Houston and Houston companies.

IM: What's next for NUU Group?

JB: We started off very branding-focused, and focused on visual identity design. Last year, we made some pretty significant shifts and positioned the agency stronger on the strategy and technology side. So, we have a team of not only graphic designers and visual storytellers, but of strategists, software engineers, frontier technology thought leaders and experts. We're really bringing together design strategy and technology to solve for business challenges.

IM: Where do you see NUU Group expanding to next? Any target cities in mind?

JB: There's no target city right now that I can share. We'll probably open another office in the U.S., and we have sights set on a couple of places internationally. Those offices will probably open in the next three or five years.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

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