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Houston Innovators Podcast Episode 42

Autonomous vehicle delivery service is driving access to food in Houston’s vulnerable communities

Native Houstonian Sola Lawal is looking into how AI and robotics can help increase access to fresh foods in local food deserts. Photo courtesy of Nuro

When Silicon Valley-based artificial intelligence and robotics company Nuro was looking for a city to roll out its autonomous vehicle delivery technology, Houston checked off all the boxes.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Since rolling out its first pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, launched three more across six of Houston's ZIP codes from Bellaire to the Heights, including pizza delivery from Domino's that was announced in June 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched this summer.

Lately, Nuro's presence in Houston has expanded from these business development partnerships, and the tech company has started focusing on providing a service to the community.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, we started looking for ways we could contribute and help with the things we have — which includes a fleet of vehicles and product tools that allow that fleet to move around and do delivery."

This got Nuro in touch with the Houston Food Bank, and a partnership formed between the tech company and the nonprofit that has resulted in food deliveries across the city — including Third Ward and Acres Homes.

"That for us was eye opening as we went into those locations we started to understand and see that there really isn't any other grocery store that's in those areas," Lawal says. "It was a moment of reflection for us where we said, 'Hey, the AV works here. These are streets that are acceptable. What can we do?'"

In the future, Nuro, as Lawal explains, is moving forward these initiatives to use its AV technology to help increase access to fresh foods in Houston, as well as continuing developing the city as a leader in self-driving innovation.

"I think that autonomous vehicles are going to become an industry in the same way your standard vehicles are," Lawal says."One really strong way the Houston ecosystem and Nuro can partner is essentially building out the ancillary."

Lawal shares more about the future of AVs in Houston and the impact Nuro will continue to have on the city. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Building Houston

 
 

In this roundup of short stories, Houston has been recognized as an emerging hub for life sciences, HCC wins an award for entrepreneurship, and more local innovation news. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, see why Houston has been named a top emerging hub for life sciences, Hatch Pitch reveals its cybersecurity startup winners, and more.

Houston named an emerging life science hub

A new report finds that Houston's life sciences scene — soon to be home to TMC3 — is growing. Courtesy of Elkus Manfredi Architects

According to a new report from CBRE, Houston is on track to be a top market for life sciences. The report factored in size and growth of life-sciences employment, the venture capital and National Institutes of Health funding, and more.

"Interest in Houston's life sciences sector from developers, investors and financial backers has grown significantly in recent years," says Nelson Udstuen, senior vice president at CBRE, in a press release. "Several factors have contributed to this, including an increase in both federal funding from NIH and private venture capital, a growth in R&D employment and commitments from Texas Medical Center member institutions and other private developers to establish new life science buildings and campuses."

Houston's life-sciences industry, which comes in at No. 2 on the list behind Pittsburgh and ahead of Austin, ranks within the 20 largest in the U.S. by employment. In terms of growth, Houston is expanding at a 6.5 percent pace from 2018 to 2019. Houston institutes received around $600 million in funding from NIH last year, which amounted to the 12th-largest sum by market.

"Houston is also a draw for the life sciences industry due to its large cluster of life science employees," continues Udstuen. "Our market is home to a large population with the technical ability to perform Research and Development, meaning employers do not have to focus as heavily on recruiting from other markets."

Inaugural pitch competition names winners

pitch

Hatch Pitch named the winners of its inaugural cybersecurity-focused competition. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based Hatch Pitch announced its Cyber Pitch competition in December, and, other than having to pivot to virtual, the competition went off without a hitch. The winners at the Houston Cyber Summit were revealed on October 22.

  • Toronto-based Paqt took first place
  • PixoAnalytics, based in Bonn, Germany, came in second
  • And Austin-based Clocr placed in third place as well as the Audience Favorite.

Hatch Pitch will return in March 2021 for the Hatch Pitch Digital Summit, but until then, check out video clips and the pitches from Cyber Pitch 2020 online.

Houston college receives national entrepreneurship award

Houston Community College has been named the 2020 Heather Van Sickle Entrepreneurial College of the Year. Photo via HCC.edu

The National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship has named Houston Community College as the 2020 Heather Van Sickle Entrepreneurial College of the Year at its 18th Annual Conference in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this month.

"Houston Community College is a model of how colleges contribute to their local entrepreneurial ecosystems," says Rebecca Corbin, president and CEO of NACCE, in a news release. "Through persistence and entrepreneurial mindset and action, HCC has scaled replicable and sustainable entrepreneurial programs that have impacted thousands of students over the past several years. It is a pleasure to recognize this outstanding college, which was selected by an independent judging panel, as the winner of NACCE's 2020 Entrepreneurial College of the Year Award."

Energy tech startup names new CEO

Tachyus has a new head honcho. Photo via tachyus.com

Data-focused energy software startup Tachyus has announced the promotion of Fernando Gutierrez to CEO — formerly vice president of customer success.

"We are in a unique time within the upstream oil and gas space, and I truly believe Tachyus has the ability to pioneer the acceleration of the digital transformation within the industry," says Gutierrez, in a news release. "We are at the intersection of innovation and conventionalism, and I'm excited to lead the organization in a movement that continues to establish our technical solutions with our unique product signature."

Tachyus was founded in 2013 in Silicon Valley and recently relocated to Houston. The fresh funds will go into growing its cloud-based, artificial intelligence-enabled platform. Last year, the company raised $15 million in a round led by Houston-based Cottonwood Venture Partners.

Former CEO and Co-Founder Paul Orland has assumed the role of chairman.

Female founder selected for new program backed by Houston organization

Kim Roxie, founder of LAMIK Beauty, is among the 15 recipients of a new initiative. Photo via stacysrise.helloalice.com

Plano, Texas-based Stacy's Rise Project expanded its annual grant and mentorship program in order to give more aid to Black female business founders, who on average only receive 0.2 percent of venture capitalist funding, according to a press release. The organization teamed up with its longtime partner, Houston-founded Hello Alice, to back an additional 15 Black female founders with a total of $150,000.

Among the 15 recipients was Houston's own Kim Roxie of LAMIK Beauty. LAMIK Beauty is a beauty-tech company designed for multicultural women with products made with natural and organic ingredients.

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