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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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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