on-demand

Houston-area early childhood education startup launches app to find at-home educators

A Houston startup is using technology to provide on-demand educators. Educational First Steps/Facebook

A Houston-area early childhood care and education startup and MassChallenge Texas in Austin 2020 participant, recently launched its 24/7 on-demand, two-sided marketplace platform that provides benefits for both parents and guardians or child care operators who need qualified educators quickly.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many parents are still juggling a full-time job and childcare at the same time. The launch of a marketplace platform app like OpenStaff aims to solve that problem, providing temporary or permanent childcare and teacher personnel to families and childcare operators across the Houston area, until children are able to safely go back to their daycare centers or classrooms.

"OpenStaff's Educational Mentors provide a structure that allows your child and family to retain some much-needed normalcy," says Jose Rodriguez, CEO and founder. "Our fully certified early childhood teachers and practitioners use their knowledge and experience to further a child's education while providing a safe, fun, and caring learning experience at home."

The app was launched on iOS platforms and is actively being user tested while they continue to build their database of qualified early childhood educators and substitute teachers for families and centers. All their educators comply with child care licensing regulations, completing a rigorous vetting process before they are allowed to join the platform.

"When you hire someone through our platform," says Rodriguez, "you have the peace of mind and our assurance that this teacher has been qualified, certified, background checked, and licensed in order to become a member of the OpenStaff educator community."

The early-stage startup came about from Rodriguez's first business, a childcare center that he took over six years ago with his wife. For them, the biggest challenge in this industry was staff management, dealing with unplanned absences would change plans drastically, sometimes changing teaching plans or restructuring classes.

"Even though we have an amazing team, sometimes life happens and they are not available to come into work that morning," says Rodriguez. "It was very stressful for office managers and owners as well as the rest of the team and if we were unable to find anyone to cover, even my wife or I would end up in the classroom."

That's when he started using staffing agencies for unplanned temporary workers but those, he says, are time-consuming and overpriced.

"We wanted to offer a different option that really works for everyone, not just parents during this crisis but also daycare centers," says Rodriguez. "Our app provides an open marketplace where centers can post a job by simply using their phone and receive applicants in minutes."

OpenStaff is currently focused on taking its service to the market, using the data and feedback as a way to make their offering better to then accelerate and scale, as many childcare centers continue to struggle to operate or find a sense of normalcy amid the social distancing measures that are the new normal.

"Many childcare centers have been hard hit during the coronavirus pandemic," says Rodriguez. "Many are struggling, closing their business, or operating with limited staff and children. With our app, we can, in the short term, help Houston families by providing quality education for their children."

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Moonflower Farms grows lettuce hydroponically. Courtesy of Moonflower Farms

A Houston urban farm has earned national recognition for its innovative approach to water conservation. Moonflower Farms won the American Heart Association's Foodscape Innovation Excellence Award, which recognizes positive changes in the foodscape, a term for all of the places where food is produced, purchased, or consumed.

The Heart Association selected Moonflower's submission, titled "Sustainable Farming Through Water Conservation," from 26 entries. Dallas' Restorative Farms earns the Foodscape Innovation Consumer Choice Award.

"These two innovations demonstrate a way of producing food that promotes affordability and equitable access, and the American Heart Association is proud to recognize these efforts," AHA chief medical officer for prevention Eduardo Sanchez said in a release.

Located in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse south of downtown, Moonflower operates what it describes as Houston's first vertical indoor farm. The method both reduces the amount of space needed to grow the farm's microgreens, lettuces, herbs and edible flowers and it eliminates the disruptions caused by adverse weather conditions, which allows the farm to produce year round.

Moonflower uses a closed-loop system for capturing rainwater to feed its crops. The water is treated and oxygenated so that it can be reused. Not having to pay for water from the City of Houston allows the farm to operate more economically and sell its produce at an affordable price to restaurants and individuals.

"Our hydroponic farm uses 90-percent less water than conventional farms," Moonflower founder and CEO Federico Marques said in a statement. "We provide year-round produce to residents in historically underserved communities and donate produce to local charitable food systems."

One of those charities is Houston non-profit Second Servings, which "rescues" food from restaurants and events and distributes it to food pantries and other resources.

"The donations we receive from Moonflower Farms are incredible," Second Servings founder and president Barbara Bronstein said. "Their hydroponically grown greens are so appreciated by the needy Houstonians we serve, who lack affordable, convenient access to fresh produce."

Recently, Moonflower introduced a SupaGreens subscription box that allows customers to purchase greens weekly, bimonthly, or monthly. The box is delivered directly to consumers.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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