Featured Innovator

Meet the Houston Methodist executive at the helm of the new innovation-focused initiative

Roberta Schwartz is leading the innovation initiative at Houston Methodist. Courtesy of Houston Methodist

In an effort to be at the forefront of technology in the health care industry, Houston Methodist recently premiered its Center for Innovation, a group of leaders charged with finding new technologies for the hospital system for patients, physicians, and staff.

Roberta Schwartz — executive vice president, chief innovation officer, and chief executive officer of Houston Methodist Hospital — is at the helm of the initiative. After 17 years at Houston Methodist, Schwartz says she's seen the evolution of tech and is taking note of where the industry is going.

"I think we're an industry that is transforming itself. We're either going to be disrupted or we're going to do the disruption ourselves," Schwartz says. "There's nobody who knows health care better than we do, so if we're going to transform the industry, I want that transformation to come from the inside."

The hospital is instituting new pilot programs for tech advancements across the organization. Schwartz talks about the program and what she's excited about.

InnovationMap: Tell me about Houston Methodist's new Center for Innovation. How did it come about?

Roberta Schwartz: Methodist has always been an innovative institution. As we really saw the onset of a lot of disruption particularly in digital technology, we had already upgraded our electronic medical records. What we saw was with the onslaught of technology in other fields, they were figuring out how to layer pieces on top of our electronic medical record system to make that information usable — more patient friendly and smarter. As we watched these technologies come in, we found that there were a number of us within the organization that were just talking about it all the time and watching how we could really revolutionize the way we worked by embracing these new technologies. So, it probably started about 18 months ago where we found a group of us talking all the time, emailing articles, and figuring out how to hitch up our budgets for new technologies. Our CEO, Marc Boom was so supportive of us. We started meeting every other week for an hour. We called our group the DIOP — the digital innovation obsessed people. That's how it began.

IM: How did DIOP become the Center for Innovation?

RS: We spoke with our CFO and CEO. They said go ahead and provided us with some budget dollars for some pilots. We have now embraced a series of pilots in different areas of need. DIOP became formalized early this year and the Center for Innovation was born. We're now looking at a vision statement of how we can transform almost every aspect of our patient, physician, and administrative experience to make everyone's lives easier and better.

IM: What new innovative efforts are you most excited about introducing to the hospital?

RS: On the patient engagement front, we partner with a platform that breaks up bite-sized content that allows you in text form through — videos or two-way communication — so that we can engage with you before you even make a phone call to our office. For instance, after a visit we can ask you, "how bad is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10," and if you respond "10" we're going to call you before you call the office and have to press one, two, or three on our call board.

A second area we're excited about is a way to text back and forth with your doctor's office. We're changing to a much more modern communication style.

We're also changing how we recruit. We have a chatbot that's available 24/7. We find that we are communicating with night nurses at 1 am asking about benefits. A lot of the people we are trying to recruit are working at night when we don't have HR staff in the office all night long.

We are also looking robotic process automation and trying to take some of the menial work away from our staff so we can get them closer to the bedside or on more tasks.

Methodist went mobile. Our app is online — you can do virtual care, urgent care, or second opinion. Soon, we'll have virtual behavioral health and nutrition. You can also request an appointment.

IM: How is the technology changing the footprint of the hospital?

RS: We want to make Houston Methodist services available all over the country and the world, where it's appropriate. We're going to serve primarily Houston, but if we want to help those institutions in a more rural area, send them to us when appropriate, but for those who can stay at home and in bed, we want to keep them where they are and still provide them with the same level of care.

IM: With the 100-year anniversary of Houston Methodist, what do you hope to put in place for the next 100 years?

RS: We're an organization built on the pillars of success, and we constantly evolve. I can't even tell you where we'll be in a hundred years. I can tell you is that in a few years every type of ease of interaction that you have with Alexa and Amazon, that you have that type of interaction with your hospital.

I'm thrilled to be on this journey, and we're loving it.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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