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How tech boot camps can help solve the Houston innovation equation

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. Getty Images

It's been a little over a year since Houston lost out on the Amazon HQ2 bid and left the city pondering its approach to innovation. Houston is known for taking risks and bouncing back from adversity. We're known for growth and entrepreneurship. But are we still known for innovation? Are we positioned for growth as a creative class and digital skills city?

It's my belief that we need to invest in the professional skills of our local workforce and ensure we can attract companies that will help our city and Houstonians thrive. Amazon pointed us in the right direction. It highlighted our need of more professional upskilling programs and increased investment in the city's innovation infrastructure.

At Rice University, we listened, and launched fast-track, intensive tech training programs designed specifically for working adults to help solve these problems. We launched a pilot program in late 2018, a data analytics boot camp in partnership with a national workforce accelerator called Trilogy Education. It was met with such an enthusiastic response from students that we are expanding the initiative by adding programs in cybersecurity and other high demand fields later this year.

These tech boot camps are designed to augment Rice's other efforts to foster innovation in our community like a recent $100 million investment in a new innovation hub for all of Houston and an already ambitious innovation and technology ecosystem, highlighted by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. Combined, we hope these efforts will help Houston to secure its position as a magnet for technology employers and workers alike.

By many standards, Houston's tech industry is booming. Digital middle-skill jobs — the kinds that provide a stepping stone between lower-paid non-tech roles and high-earning careers in tech — represent 42 percent of overall job postings in Houston. And these jobs are on the rise. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Houston job postings requiring web development skills rose by 57 percent, earning the city 6th-place ranking among the top 10 U.S. cities for coding job growth.

With numbers like these, it's easy to grow complacent. But Houston is by no means immune to the widening digital skills gap that is holding back business growth nationwide. And unless we create programs to support upskilling and career mobility, even the people currently driving Houston's tech renaissance may struggle to keep their skills sets up to date.

These programs help us address Amazon's core area of critique: innovation. This is something Houston has historically been known for; in 1969 alone, we helped put the first astronaut on the moon and the first artificial heart in a patient. But like all important skills, innovation must be regularly nurtured, enhanced, and relearned.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. These employers are starting to look beyond traditional degrees for people who can simply prove they have the skills for the job. The relatively lower barrier to entry for a technology boot camp opens the door for candidates of all races, genders, and walks of life to bring their unique perspectives and insights to an industry sorely in need of more diversity.

As one of the country's most racially diverse metros, Houston reflects the nation's demographic future, and can make a unique contribution to the diversity of our workforce. We already rank among the top five best U.S. cities for women in tech (number four, to be exact). And if the demographics of Rice's earliest boot camp enrollees are any indication, a widespread rollout of these kinds of programs may be a part of Houston's ability to garner the number one spot in coming years. Among our boot camp students to date, 35 percent are white, 20 percent are Hispanic, 17 percent are African American, and 23 percent are Asian. Women made up 25 percent of our first class, a good start that we plan to improve.

Houston has the potential to become a nationwide leader in tech innovation. The problems we face in getting there are complicated, but like all equations, they can be solved with resilience and hard work.

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Robert Bruce is the dean of Rice University's Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

TMCx is looking for members for its ninth cohort. Courtesy of TMCx

From rounds closing to accelerator applications opening, there's a lot of Houston innovation news that might not have reached your radar. Here's a roundup of short stories within tech and innovation in the Bayou City.

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Houston software company closes a $16.3 million Series A

Industrial software

Innovapptive raised its round lead by a New York-based firm. Getty Images

Innovapptive, a software-as-a-service company with clients in industrial industries, announced it closed on a $16.3 million Series A investment led by New york-based Tiger Global Management LLC. The company will use the funds for continued global growth. As of the raise's completion, company's valuation is now more than $65 million.

"We are connecting the enterprise by providing a platform that improves real-time data collaboration and communications between the field and back office. The communications and collaboration data are captured and converted into executive insights for continuous workforce optimization," says Sundeep Ravande, CEO and co-founder of Innovapptive, in a press release. "This additional capital will allow us to accelerate our strategy and development to transform the digital experience of the industrial worker to help increase revenues and margins for our customers."

TMCx opens its medical device cohort applications

The deadline to apply for the next TMCx cohort is May 24. Courtesy of TMC

The Texas Medical Center has announced that TMCx's 2019 medical device cohort applications are now open. The deadline to apply is May 24, and selected companies will be notified by June 21. The program will run from August 5 to November 8th. For more information, click here.

Nesh closes Seed round of funding

Aristos Ventures lead the round for the Houston energy startup. Courtesy of Nesh

The Siri of oil and gas, Hello Nesh Inc, has raised its first round of funding thanks to seed funding from Aristos Ventures and a LOOP contract with Equinor Technology Ventures. The funding will be used for new hires and expansion plans.

"Securing LOOP funding from ETV and seed funding from Aristos provides us with a unique mix of strategic knowledge and domain expertise, coupled with investment experience in digital technologies, artificial intelligence, and SaaS," says co-founder and CEO of Nesh, Sidd Gupta in a release. "This will enable us to further build Nesh's petrotechnical and natural language understanding and scale our business in the North America market."

ETV has chosen not to disclose the dollar amount of the round, however last fall Gupta at the Texas Digital Summit, Gupta announced that the company was seeking to close a $800,000 seed round. Read more about the company here.

Shell Oil Co. gives $2.5M to fund research, inform public policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute

Shell and Rice University have entered a partnership. Courtesy of Rice University

Following a $2.5 million commitment from Shell Oil Co., the Center for Energy Studies at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy has announced five-year research program to study the global energy system — including the policies, regulations, geopolitical forces, market developments and technologies.

"We are grateful for Shell's commitment to advancing the study of critical energy issues affecting our region, the nation and the world," says Baker Institute Director Edward Djerejian in a release. "This partnership with Shell furthers our mission to provide unbiased, data-driven analysis of factors that will shape our energy future with the aim of engaging policymakers, corporate leaders and the general public with the results."

Texas improves its ranking as an innovative state

The Lone Star State is moving on up as an innovative state. Getty Images

Texas is slowly but surely moving on up as an innovative state. According to Bloomberg's newest U.S. State Innovation Index, Texas is the 17th best state for innovation. The study factors in six metrics: research and development intensity, productivity, clusters of companies in technology, "STEM" jobs, populous with degrees in science and engineering disciplines, and patent activity. Last year, the study found Texas at the No. 19 spot.

Texas' score was 60.1 — which is just over a point's difference from being in the top 15. It's also worth noting that the Lone Star State is the highest ranked in the south.

"What is most important is the construction and catalyzation of super vibrant advanced industry sectors and clusters in a state," says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at Brookings, a think tank in Washington DC, to Bloomberg. "Commercialization has not been a top priority of universities in the heartland, especially in the South."

Houston companies take home Napier Rice Launch Challenge prizes

Abbey Donnell's startup, Work & Mother, won the award for the Best Alumni team at the H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge at Rice University. Courtesy of Work & Mother

On April 4, 10 teams competed in the H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge at Rice University. Here are the Rice University alumni- and student-led companies that won awards.

  • LilySpec took home $2,500 as the Audience Favorite award winner.
  • CardStock Exchange won $12,500 in the Best Undergraduate category.
  • WellWorth walked away with $12,500 as the Best Graduate team winner.
  • Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother, took home first place the Best Alumni category — along with $12,500.
  • UrinControl was the Grand Prize winner and scored $20,000.

BBL reverse pitch contest extends deadline

The deadline for a new pitch competition with ExxonMobil and BBL Ventures has been extended. Getty Images

BBL Ventures, which announced its reverse pitch competition with ExxonMobil earlier this year, has extended the challenge deadline to May 13.

"BBL Ventures is excited to be working with a forward-thinking partner like ExxonMobil, engaging the external innovation ecosystem is a key step in advancing the energy industry's continued success," says Patrick Lewis, managing partner of BBL Ventures, in a release. Full details for the competition are available here.

Startup Grind Houston is calling all female founders

pitch

Calling all female founders. Getty Images

Houston's Startup Grind chapter announced a female founder pitch event on May 2 at the TMC Innovation Institute. The organization is calling for teams to pitch at the event. The deadline to apply is April 23 at 5 pm.

Click here to nominate yourself or someone else for the pitch.

Sysco invites UH tech students to first-ever UHacks Hackathon competition

Sysco and AWS are teaming up for a hackathon. Getty Images

Houston-based Sysco Corp. — along with Amazon Web Services — is hosting its first-ever, university student-led hackathon event. The one-day competition takes place on Friday, April 19, from 8 am to 5 pm at the new Houston office of AWS ( 825 Town & Country Lane, 10th floor).

The student teams with focus on four hypothetical themes in Sysco's business landscape, including a spend management platform enhancing the customer shopping experience, identifying locally grown foods, proof of purchase technology, and a "best before" portal to streamline expiration data.