Smart Cities

Exclusive: New Houston accelerator reveals its inaugural cohort and announces strategic partner

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator — named for its to-be home, The Ion — announced the 10 companies selected for the first cohort. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator launched earlier this year with a goal of engaging startups from around the world to solve some of Houston's most prevalent challenges. Backed by Intel and Microsoft and partnered with the city of Houston and Station Houston, the program has developed a curriculum and selected its first cohort.

Ten startups from around the world — half of which from right here in Houston — were selected to be a part of the program. And narrowing down to 10 was tough for the program's judges, says Christine Galib, director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator.

"Selecting the participants for our first cohort was difficult, due to this amazing pool of talent — that's always the problem you want to have," she tells InnovationMap.

The program will be a 10-month process, beginning Wednesday, September 4. The accelerator's Demo Day is scheduled for December 4, and then the participants will complete a pilot program with the city from January to June, Galib says.

Based on the issues the cohort aims to solve — resilience and mobility — the program and the city of Houston decided on Near Northside as a focus for the companies.

"We focused on aligning to the needs of the city of Houston and our spotlight community, Near Northside," Galib says. "We really considered the focus areas that we have identified that were needs or challenges in the area, like aging infrastructure or health and safety."

The entrepreneurs will attend local meetings, connect with the community, and zero in on the neighborhood for solutions. This provides a more accessible avenue of integration for each of the companies' technologies and allows for the entrepreneurs to receive feedback in real time from the community.

"One of my biggest things with the accelerator is technology will be for the people, and not the other way around. We're really hoping that we can build relationships with community members in Near Northside such that they'll be able to have access to our startups and their technology in a very integrated way."

Along with this new neighborhood focus, the program also announced a partnership with the University of Houston.

"We're collaborating with the UH Technology Bridge such that professors, researchers, and startups associated with UH can have a pipeline from the world of academia and research to industry and urban planning," says Galib.

Here are 10 selected startups for the inaugural cohort.

Aatonomy

Houston-based Aatonomy has developed a device that allows for Houston drivers to instal self-driving technology in their own vehicles.

"They're basically Tesla's autopilot — but for cars we already own," Galib says.

The technology makes for safer, smarter driving around town.

AeoShape

Another homegrown company, AeoShape is in the business of compiling data and making it easier to use — from facial analysis to location-based services, the company is taking data and organizing it to more easily use it for finding solutions or strategies.

"Imagine having all the big data served up anywhere at any time in a comprehensive, visual way," Galib says.

BlocPower

Based in New York, BlocPower is connecting the dots in the consumer energy world. The startup links up with government entities, utilities contractors and more to engage IoT, machine learning, and structured finance technology to better provide clean energy in American cities.

"This is pairing the different segments in the building and infrastructure world in a way that makes sense so that they can build in an integrated way," Galib says.

GoKid

Another New York company, GoKid has a solution for carpooling. In a world so conveniently filled with ridesharing technology, busy parents still struggle to find safe rides home for their kids. The free app allows for parents to connect with one another in a way never before been optimized for school pick-up and drop-off.

"We see GoKid really working with our schools here to make ridesharing safer," Galib says. "We really like them because they were a solution for the ridesharing challenge — a lot of parents who might need carpooling services don't necessarily trust an Uber driving that they don't know."

Kriterion

Artificial intelligence company Kriterion is based in South Africa, but will soon call Houston home. The company takes AI a step further in its industry and infrastructure approach.

"We see their platform shaping three areas of Houston: waste management, power system management, and pothole detection and maintenance management," says Galib.

Sensytec

Sensytec comes out of the University of Houston and uses is technology to monitor, analyze, and quantify cement and concrete conditions.

"We thought this was pretty cool to have in our cohort because Houston is quite the concrete jungle," says Galib.

The company was also recently named a top startup in MassChallenge Texas' inaugural Houston cohort.

SlideX

Houston-based SlideX has solutions for everyone's daily struggle: Parking. The company's technology has applications for finding parking in the city — including a 3D map to help direct you — and even for paying for parking.

"They call themselves 'the next generation of intelligent parking,'" Galib says.

Umanity

San Francisco-based Umanity has created a philanthropic supply chain tool. The technology can match and map local nonprofit needs to volunteers and donations, plus provide real-time analytics.

"This is kind of the epitome of doing good and adds a very strong social enterprise and community base component to our startups," says Galib.

Wyzerr

Kentucky startup Wyzerr specializes in easy-to-use surveys.

"We think Wyzerr can provide a good feedback platform where the city of Houston, businesses, and nonprofits can easily engage with people all over the city to find out how satisfied they are with the businesses and services the city provides," Galib says.

The company's technology can be crucial for tracking KPIs and progress.

"When you're creating a Smart City, there are obviously objectives you set for what you consider to be a Smart City, but also there are ways to measure how well you're meeting those objectives," she adds.

Reality IMT

Houston-based Reality IMT is engaging the latest technology tools to digitize infrastructure.

"This really speaks to understanding our infrastructure and ways to make it safer and more efficient, and also understanding the data associated with that," says Galib.

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Building Houston

 
 

UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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