green for green

University of Houston-Downtown receives $250,000 gift to go greener

UHD's science building has received funding from a nonprofit affiliate of Green Mountain Energy to install green energy technology. Courtesy of NRG

The University of Houston-Downtown has gotten some green to make its new College of Sciences & Technology Building even more green.

The Green Mountain Energy Sun Club, a nonprofit affiliated with the Green Mountain Energy utility provider, has pledged more than $250,000 to UHD for installation of solar panels at the building, as well as the purchase of photosynthesis equipment.

Akif Uzman, dean of UHD's College of Sciences & Technology, says in a release that the Green Mountain Energy Sun Club gift propels "our drive to show students and our local community our commitment to energy conservation and sustainable energy practices."

By the spring of 2020, UHD will install a 54-panel, 16.7-kilowatt, off-grid solar system that will help power two environmental science teaching labs in the College of Sciences & Technology Building. One of the labs, the Green Mountain Energy Sun Club Environmental Science Lab, will host classes by next year's spring semester.

"Our mission is to change the way power is made, and we share UHD's dedication to renewable energy, environmental education, and reducing carbon emissions," Mark Parsons, vice president and general manager of Houston-based Green Mountain Energy, says in a release.

Houston-based NRG Energy owns Green Mountain Energy.

Donations to the Sun Club come from Green Mountain Energy and its customers and employees. Since 1997, Green Mountain Energy has promoted energy efficiency, conservation, and environmental stewardship.

The Sun Club gift also will help buy a portable photosynthesis system. Michael Tobin, associate professor of biology, says the equipment will take measurements of plants in courses such as Plant Biology Laboratory, General Ecology Laboratory, and Environmental Lab and Field Studies. In addition, it will be used by students conducting faculty-guided research projects.

"A research-grade instrument to make photosynthesis and water use measurements will enhance students' research experiences and increase the likelihood that their project results can be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal," Tobin says in a release.

UHD opened the College of Sciences & Technology Building in August. It's the first University of Houston System building constructed to meet LEED Gold standards, reflecting a commitment to sustainability features such as energy-efficient lighting, recycled construction materials, and "smart" design components.

Spanning 105,000 square feet, the College of Sciences & Technology Building contains nearly 30 labs for teaching and research, as well as classrooms, meeting and study spaces, and a café. UHD envisions the building will be a "model for sustainability in Houston."

Environmental highlights of the building include a 6,000-gallon cistern that provides water for the outdoor urban gardens, and the addition of native grasses in the surrounding landscape to create a micro-pocket prairie and, in effect, an outdoor classroom.

Aside from classes and resources for students and faculty in biology, biotechnology, biological and physical sciences, and chemistry, the building houses UHD's Center for Urban Agriculture & Sustainability.

The center is "a game changer for UHD initiatives and scholarly activities centered on sustainability," Lisa Morano, director of the Center for Urban Agriculture & Sustainability, says in a release. "It also serves as an example of how planners and architects can incorporate environmentally sound decisions in the design and construction of academic facilities."

Juan Sánchez Muñoz, president of UHD, says the College of Sciences & Technology Building is a hub for academic exploration and a catalyst for community collaboration.

"Its labs and learning spaces will elevate UHD's ability to prepare the next generation of Houston's scientists and innovators. The facility also will serve as a place where Houstonians can gather to address issues affecting our city and to learn how UHD is leading positive change in the region," Muñoz says in a release. "It's a major addition to our campus and an incredible asset to Houston."

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AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

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