protect your lunch

A Houston entrepreneur is thinking out of the box with smart lockers for food and personal items

Dommonic Nelson wants to make sure everyone's lunches are safe. Photo via cleverboxcompany.com

Someone kept taking Dommonic Nelson's lunch. A Texas Southern University student living at home and commuting from Greenspoint, Nelson only had a few minutes to scarf down his lunches between studying Maritime Transportation. But regularly, he'd reach into the community refrigerator on campus, only to find, well, nothing.

One night, Nelson was in the shower, wondering why his lunch had been taken again, and the long journey to Clever Box Co. began. He barged into his grandfather's room — it was 2:40 in the morning — and told him he had an idea for a series of high-tech boxes designed for storing various things. The boxes could keep personal items (the Stash Box) and packages (the Happy Box) in large companies and coworking spaces, and for people to quickly pick up their food from restaurants without having to wait in line (the Yummy Box). If Nelson couldn't get his lunches back, he was going to make an entire business on making sure no one got stolen from again.

"We're taking ordinary lockers normally found in office buildings and retrofitting them to make them smart lockers," Nelson says.

It wasn't a bad idea, given a 2017 Peapod study that claims 71 percent of Americans have had their lunch stolen. But like most late-night shower ideas, Nelson's didn't work. Firstly, it wasn't a locker — he was stuck on refashioning community refrigerators, and no one wanted to buy in. He denied a $70,000 job offer in the maritime industry to make $14.50 an hour at Southwest Airlines, which gave him free travel. That took him all over the country, and finally, on one trip to California, where a last-minute meeting with Michael Feinberg, whose firm Bluefish Concepts was featured on CNBC's Make Me A Millionaire Inventor, crushed his dreams. You have the right idea, Feinberg said, but the wrong formula. It seemed like nobody needed a smart refrigerator. On the flight home to Houston, Nelson cried.

Nelson had entered entrepreneurship early. As a kid, he found his stepdad's old CDs and asked to try selling them. He made $500 that first week, bought a CD burner, and made $4,000 in three months by ripping tunes from beloved artists and selling them on the cheap. He was making cash in a place where there wasn't a whole lot of it — and he didn't do it by reinventing how music was sold; he just made it a more efficient process for his Greenspoint neighbors.

It was the same idea that would save Nelson's forthcoming business. Back in Houston, some of Feinberg's words echoed in his head: We already have refrigerators, we already have lockers. Why not just enhance them? Nelson didn't need to reinvent the wheel, or the refrigerator. He just needed to bring high-tech efficiency to lockers, to make them more secure but still easy to use.

One day, not long after getting back from his California meeting, Nelson ordered food online. He was busy, trying to work through the kinks in the design and figure out new markets, but he had to wait in line at the restaurant. He thought about the way that many restaurants treat pick-ups as an honor system — leaving them out for anyone to take, just like he had left his food in a refrigerator at school. There had to be a better way to do this, he thought. So he made one.

The rest of 2018, Nelson and a software engineer locked themselves in an attic and coded the design for the Yummy Box, which won Station Houston's Demo Day Pitch Competition that December. The next month, Clever Box Co. received its first order and exhibited their technology at Station Houston 3.0. There, they found Station Houston was struggling to develop a way to store parcels — Nelson collaborated with the start-up hub and designed the Happy Box, which sends messages to users when they have a delivery.

"We looked at it as a great opportunity to diversify our offerings," Nelson says.

Recently, Nelson finalized the pilot program for the Yummy Box at SouthernQ BBQ, a decade-old East Texas barbecue joint that has gained attention in the last few years as one of Houston's best spots.

Clever Box Co., too, is getting awards. Last month, Nelson took home one of 26 Houston Business Journal Fast 100 and Innovation Awards. And right now, he's raising $200,000 in revenue and hopes to expand his teams of three to make smarter and more secure locks for all of the boxes. Eventually, he hopes to partner with food delivery companies like Grubhub and Uber Eats for residential spaces. He imagines a Yummy Box in the lobby of his own apartment building — a driver will drop it off, he says, and Nelson will take the elevator down, walk to the locker, and open it up. Inside, he'll find his lunch. No one will have taken it.

Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion."

To focus on the Ion's Academic Partner Network, Jan E. Odegard has been appointed senior director of industry and academic partners. Odegard's background includes research and leadership at Rice University in computing. Odegard will also oversee The Ion's labs, which include human/robotics interaction lab, an immersive reality lab and an industrial prototyping lab.

Deanea LeFlore has been named senior director of community and corporate engagement. Like Rowe, LeFlore had a similar role at Station Houston before this new position. Before that, she spent most of her career working for the city of Houston and served under four Mayors over 17 years.

Lastly, Chris Valka, has been hired as senior director of operations, overseeing finance, accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management. Prior to this position, Valka served in the president's cabinet overseeing a similar spectrum of responsibilities at the University of St. Thomas.

"As we prepare for The Ion's opening in early 2021, we are excited to welcome Deanea LeFlore, Dr. Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka, to our growing team," says Rowe in the release. "I am excited to see what this diverse group of experts will bring to our efforts to build an inclusive innovation hub in a tech-forward environment that promotes all that is great about Houston."

The 270,000-square-foot Ion building broke ground in July of last year and is slated to open in 2021. Recently, the organization announced its first programming partner — Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, and select courses have already begun.