HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 24

COVID-19 provides huge opportunity for telehealth, says Houston health tech leader

Lance Black says the COVID-19 outbreak has led to some interesting opportunities for Houston startups and health tech as a whole. Photo courtesy of TMCx

The Texas Medical Center's accelerator program has one foot in the health care system of today — operating in collaboration with the TMC's wide network of member institutions — as well as representing the future of health care as it cultivates new technologies those medical institutions need.

This unique setting makes Lance Black, associate director of TMCx, an interesting perspective on the COVID-19 outbreak, and something he says he's excited to see rise to the occasion — and, in this case, crisis — is telehealth.

"One of the things we focus on at TMCx is the ability to remotely monitor and care for patients outside the four walls," Black says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "and this particular crisis really lends to that."

For better or for worse, the outbreak has forced a turning point in health care, and it's also put telehealth and other health tech companies to the test.

"This is going to force the health care system to take a hard look at what these platforms are capable of doing," Black says. "And it's going to stress the capabilities of these companies. To be honest, if there's a silver lining, that is one of them in my mind, that this will prove out the technology [in telehealth.]"

In the episode, Black provides some tips for startups going through the crisis, as well as praises the collaborative effort within the tech community in Houston. And in a way, something felt familiar to Black, a medical doctor who previously served in the United States Air Force.

"In the military, we joked about how there's a 'hurry up and wait' attitude. You hurry up to get things ready, and then you're just sitting there waiting for the right time to respond," Black says. "I feel like that's what our startups are doing now."

Black says he has seen startups taking inventory of their resources, accommodating their products for different uses, assessing their personnel, and waiting to see where they fit in to help.

Meanwhile, there's plenty Black can do to help serve TMCx's startups. This year marked the first cohort of TMCx's revamped program, and last month the TMC Innovation Institute welcomed in 19 startups for a bootcamp. While that went off without a hitch, Black says, the next phase — due to start in May — could be pushed back.

"Out of respect for our hospitals and member institutions, we want to delay the physical presence of the companies in Houston," Black says. "But that doesn't mean we're not able to call or virtually meet with the companies. There's a lot of pre-work we can do in order to prep the companies appropriately so that when they do have meetings face to face, they can put their best foot forward."

Black discusses the coronavirus' effects and offers his advice to startups on the podcast. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

Domino's and Nuro announced their partnership in 2019 — and now the robots are hitting the roads. Photo courtesy of Nuro

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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