Houston voices

Rice University professor and startup founder talks advocating for change and strategy

Robyn O'Brien joined the Liu Idea Lab of Innovation and Entrepreneurship to discuss how she's found success in advocating for change with her latest startup. Photo via robynobrien.com

Robyn O'Brien, co-founder of rePlant Capital and Rice adjunct professor, joined the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the first virtual Ladies who LaUNCH. RePlant Capital is working with food industry players to invest in resilient and sustainable agricultural practices. She continues working toward her goal to "make clean and safe food affordable and accessible to anyone who wants it."

After receiving an MBA from Rice, O'Brien found herself thrust into the world of food as a financial analyst. Years later when her one-year old child had a severe allergic reaction, Robyn's previous work experience in the food industry suddenly became much more personal. She dug into the data and unearthed injustice hidden in the US food industry, resulting in her book, The Unhealthy Truth. She brought to light some shocking realities about the rise in food related allergies in the US and the double standards of food quality in the US versus other international markets. Companies were selling one product in Europe with wholesome ingredients, while "the same" product in the US was made of artificial ingredients and chemicals.

As a rebel-rousing public figure, Robyn has received her fair share of push back, but she has come out of the storm more resilient and compassionate because of it. Over the course of her hour-long talk, Robyn shared some of the ways that she has been able to advocate for change, as a mom up against industry giants and those with power to silence her. A few of the strategies she has found to be fool proof are:

1. Although her story about the US food market is quite shocking, O'Brien explained that she has lead and advocated from a place of love, not fear. O'Brien reminds us, "The reason we're hurting… is because we love." Whether she's communicating with a national audience or working on a team, Robyn has found success by turning to empathy and encourages us to do the same. Even internally, when there is discourse in her team, she says, "Start with compassion."

2. Lead with data. Despite how personal the issue felt to Robyn and the anger we are justified in feeling about this issue, Robyn continually relies on the data to do the convincing as opposed to an emotional response. "Don't exaggerate… data will tell it's own story." She encourages us to do our homework, know our facts, and walk into meetings confidently.

3. You have to exercise courage daily. ""Courage is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets." And when your internal meter senses something is misaligned, listen to it. There is room for change in departments and large organizations and it takes courage to address these issues. But it also takes courage to recognize the "gut check" and acknowledge when the misalignment is too great, and to walk away.

O'Brien is a great example of sticking to your guns, even when you're up against a global industry. Now, I leave you with the challenge of taking smaller steps – plant seeds of change where you are and advocate for individuals in need.

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This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

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Building Houston

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and Don Whaley of OhmConnect Texas. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

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