innovating for disasters

Flood-focused startups pitch at virtual event held by Houston's new resiliency innovation hub

These three startups are innovating flood damage mitigation tools so that Houstonians can have peace of mind this hurricane season. Getty Images

In light of Houston's frequent floods, a local organization has formed to encourage innovation in resiliency — especially as the city moves throughout the 2020 hurricane season.

The Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub was founded last month by the Insurance Information Institute and ResilientH20 Partners in The Cannon's downtown location. The organization is looking into the best innovations within resiliency — especially as it pertains to Houston, where nine of the 10 most expensive hurricanes in the United States have occurred in the past 16 years.

"There has been a widespread interest in, and demand for, best-in-class actionable, alternative disaster mitigation solutions since 2017's Hurricane Harvey and subsequent storms caused extensive insured losses to autos, homes, businesses, and governmental properties," says Richard Seline, managing partner of ResilientH2O Partners, in a news release.

The organization held a virtual panel and pitch session that featured three flood-focused startups. Here are the three companies and their innovative solutions to flood mitigation.

True Flood Risk

True Flood Risk uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to assess a home's flood risk. Image via truefloodrisk.com

Shelly Klose founded her company, True Flood Risk, after she observed Hurricane Sandy devastating New Jersey. But, she wondered, why some homes were hit harder than others. So, she created an artificial intelligence-driven property risk management platform that would easily indicate how susceptible to flood damage each home is. The company even has a way to measure the property's first-floor height based street view images.

"With this key data point for structural height coupled with ground elevation and flood zone data, you have a good indication if that property is at risk," Klose says.

The New York-based company allows users to run their address and learn about their flood damage risk for free — and that's something Klose says thats a tool she's seen used more frequently amid the pandemic.

"What we're finding is people have been so emotionally and financially hit so hard during this pandemic," Klose says. "The last thing you want to do is lose your house."

FloodFrame

Self-deploying flood protection for buildings

FloodFrame is a self-deploying flood protection for buildings. Photo via floodframe.com

Part of the challenge of mitigating flood damage is that it can happen in an instant with little to no warning. FloodFrame provides a solution to that in its self-inflating technology that can detect and prevent flood damage.

FloodFrame works by using buoyancy. A lightweight cloth is wrapped around a tube is installed underground outside the perimeter of your home or business. One end of that cloth is attached to a box that is also installed underground. As flooding begins, an automatic system will release the lids to deploy the inflation of the tube that will protect the structure. When the flood comes in, the system will float on top of the flood — kind of like a pool noodle — and protect the structure from the water. It's easier to install than raising a house, for instance, and can be reused as a long-term solution.

Tasha Nielsen launched the U.S. iteration of FloodFrame — which originated in Denmark — by becoming the company's first franchisee. Now, that process how the company plans to grow and expand and Nielsen is working with home builders and contractors to provide the invention in new homes and buildings. Nielsen also hopes to work with insurance companies, since the device helps prevent costly payouts.

Climaguard

A waterproof container for your car.

Houston-based ClimaGuard is looking to help drivers protect their vehicles from floods. Photo via ClimaGuard/Facebook

Hundreds of thousands of cars were damaged during Hurricane Harvey, and those car owners faced financial burdens from having to find temporary transportation to repairing or even buying a new vehicle. Rahel Abraham, who lost her car during the storm, founded Houston-based ClimaGuard to help enable people to help protect their cars or possessions from the elements.

"We're providing a resilient, practical, and real-time solution," says Abraham.

The tool is easy to use and affordable, considering the costs of potential damages, with a starting price of $399. The average insurance payout for vehicles was $12,000, Abraham says, so it's actually a great risk mitigation tool for auto insurers.

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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