Eavesdropping in Houston

Overheard: Houston female entrepreneurs share advice and experience

At a conference focused on women in business, three Houston entrepreneurs gave their advice for the next generation of female innovators. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Hundreds of women gathered for the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce's annual Greater Houston Conference for Women. The full-day event on April 18th shined a spotlight on the work women are doing in business in the Bayou City.

One part of the programing included a panel of three Houston entrepreneurs who told their stories and meant to inspire the next generation of businesswomen.

"Innovation is critically important to our city," says Tandra Jackson, KPMG's Houston office partner and moderator of the panel. "Having an ecosystem where we bring innovative capabilities, solutions, and organizations to our community is absolutely paramount to the longevity of our city."

If you missed the event, here are some powerful quotes overheard at the panel.

“I look for a passionate entrepreneur with a point of difference — there’s got to be a reason for you to be doing this company. What are you bringing to [the industry]?”

—Janet Gurwitch, founder of Laura Mercier Cosmetics and private equity investor focused on cosmetics companies, when asked if there was a difference between male and female entrepreneurs. "Other than biologically, no," she says.

“It’s extraordinarily important that you find an investor who basically gets it — whether it’s the financial [concern of] how to you do revenue recognition in the software world, or how do you capitalize and understand the valuations. It’s important that you get the right player.”

— Samina Farid, founder of Merrick Systems Inc., an energy software company when asked about advice for young women interested in starting their own company.

“One of the things I see is [the importance of] really knowing the problem that you solve. When you’re early on, [you have to know] what is the core market that you’re going to serve and is the market large enough that you’re going to attract enough customers to solve that problem.”

— Janette Marx, CEO of Airswift, an international workforce solutions provider. Marx contributes as a mentor in GHWCC's office hours and advises entrepreneurs to look into the program.

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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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