P97 Networks, a Houston-based mobile payments company, has fresh funds to scale its operations. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston company that has created a mobile commerce platform for the convenience retail, fuels marketing, and automotive industries has fresh funding to support its growth.

P97 Networks has raised $40 million of venture debt financing from an affiliate of Peak Rock Capital, a leading middle-market private investment firm, according to a news release from the company.

“We will use this new capital to fund P97’s high growth initiatives, which include accelerating user adoption across our Consumer Engagement platform, Energy Transition programs for our clients, and our Mobility Services platform,” said Donald Frieden, president and CEO of P97, in the release.

Frieden says that over the past 18 months, the company has doubled the number of sites on its platform, which includes five largest energy brands in the world, and over 60,000 convenience retail sites in North America.

“With this new capital, we will continue to grow our install base and strategic partnerships," Frieden continues. "We look forward to working with Peak Rock to bring our company to its next stage of growth and further establish our position as the leading provider of mobile commerce technology in the convenience & fuel retailing industry.”

P97's last raise was a series B round in 2019 that saw contribution from Accenture. The startup's series A closed in 2014 and was led by Emerald Technology Ventures.

The company's platform operates as a payments platform as well as a digital marketing solution that prioritizes payment security and customer customization.

“P97 has become the industry standard in the convenience retail and fuel marketing industry, and we are very pleased to help the company reach its next level of scale and growth,” says Nick Basso, managing director at Peak Rock Capital. “We are excited by the compelling opportunities ahead for P97 as the market for mobile payment solutions continues to expand and gain broad adoption by consumers.”

Last year, P97 announced a partnership with Chevron that meant implementing the digital platform into more than 7,800 Chevron and Texaco retail stations across the country.

“Chevron is dedicated to providing products and services for people on the go and continuing to address their needs in the retail of the future,” says Harry Hazen, Chevron senior manager of Americas Marketing, in a 2021 press release. “Our collaboration with P97 strengthens that commitment – delivering a premium consumer experience at Chevron and Texaco locations by enabling our offerings with consistency, speed, consumer value, and security.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Allie Danziger of Ampersand Professionals, Jane Stricker of the Greater Houston Partnership, and Summer Reeves of Accenture's Houston Fjord Studio. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from energy to design innovation — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals

The ongoing trend of businesses struggling to onboard new employees is likely going to continue through the new year. Allie Danziger shares what you need to know. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

The Great Resignation is among us, and companies need to respond accordingly, Allie Danziger, CEO and co-founder of Ampersand Professionals, writes in her guest column for InnovationMap.

"It has been particularly difficult to hire and retain Gen Z employees, the newest generation in the workforce, as we navigate the expectations of these employees, as compared to past generations," she writes. "Fortunately, businesses can bounce back from 'The Great Resignation' or protect themselves before they experience a similar mass exodus by taking the time to understand employees' preferences and motivations, and make a few small changes accordingly."

Danziger shares four tips with hiring and retaining talent in this challenging time. Click here to read more.

Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative at the GHP

The former BP executive will lead Houston's role in the energy transition as the executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, a brand new position at the Greater Houston Partnership. Photo courtesy of GHP

Jane Stricker, a longtime Houston-based executive at oil and gas giant BP, has been tapped to be the executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative and senior vice president of energy transition.

The Greater Houston Partnership unveiled HETI in June. As the partnership explained then, HETI "aims to drive sustainable and equitable economic growth in the Greater Houston region through a portfolio of technology, policy, and market initiatives that scale and export solutions for realizing a low-carbon energy world."

"This is an exciting time for Houston and our energy ecosystem as we focus our efforts on leading the global energy transition," Stricker says. "The challenge of our lifetime is addressing this dual challenge of meeting increased global energy demand while confronting global climate change. Houston is known for solving problems that matter. I believe through innovation, collaboration, and focus, our region can lead the way and deliver solutions that change the world." Click here to read more.

Summer Reeves, director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio

Summer Reeves says Houston is changing for the better when it comes to attracting design talent. Photo courtesy of Accenture

The winds have changed in Houston when it comes to attracting design talent, Summer Reeves — the director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio — says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Reeves is currently responsible for growing the team of Accenture's new Houston Fjord studio. She say she's excited for the way the design industry in Houston has developed. It's been second chair to Austin on the Texas landscape, but that's changing.

"There's a reason why Accenture is building a Fjord studio here in Houston — and now, versus in the past," Reeves says.

She describes Austin employers overly competitive for designers — making it hard to attract and retain design talent. This has caused a wave of designers coming to Houston. She's also seeing Houston employers — mostly in the energy industry — shift their thinking in hiring these types of positions. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Summer Reeves, the director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio, says Houston is changing for the better when it comes to attracting design talent. Photo courtesy of Accenture

This expert shares why Houston has a bright future as a design-led innovation city

Houston innovators podcast episode 110

When you think of design in terms of the role it plays in innovation and technology, you might picture a graphic designer or maybe one step in a product's path to market. But for Summer Reeves, design is an integral part of the entire innovation process.

"When people think about design, they think about visual design — UX/UI digital products," Reeves says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "But what we do from a service design or, what I like to say, a holistic design approach is very different."

Reeves is the director of the Houston Fjord studio — which operates under Accenture Interactive. She's currently standing up the new studio in Houston, which has iterations across the world from Austin and New York to Barcelona and Singapore. The new studio in Houston will help Accenture clients think through the design of their solutions, rather than jump the gun on deploying a technology.

"We want to be a design-led company," Reeves says. "Fjord is what I call the tip of the spear of what we do."

Fjord's design team focus on understanding the root cause of the problem, who's impacted, and what the scale of the solution should be. On the podcast, she gives the example of a coffee shop that wants a mobile app to engage with customers. Reeves says rather than just creating the app, Fjord would look at what the customer wants via surveys and observations.

"It's human nature to jump to solutioning," she says, "but we need to do research to make sure that's the right call."

Reeves is currently responsible for growing the team of the studio — something not too unfamiliar to her. She was instrumental in setting up Accenture's Houston Innovation Center. She say she's excited for the way the design industry in Houston has developed. It's been second chair to Austin on the Texas landscape, but that's changing.

"There's a reason why Accenture is building a Fjord studio here in Houston — and now, versus in the past," Reeves says.

She describes Austin employers overly competitive for designers — making it hard to attract and retain design talent. This has caused a wave of designers coming to Houston. She's also seeing Houston employers — mostly in the energy industry — shift their thinking in hiring these types of positions.

Reeves shares more on the intersection between design and innovation — as well as how COVID-19 affected consulting — on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Digital Fight Club is making its triumphant Houston return next week. Have you gotten your virtual tickets? Photo by Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Interactive Houston innovation event pivots to virtual platform for engaging discussions

ready to fight?

In 2019, Houston innovators went head to head for the first Houston Digital Fight Club. While COVID-19 postponed a repeat match-up, the organizers have teamed up to put on a virtual event like none other.

Dallas-based Digital Fight Club, which first premiered in 2016, was founded by Michael Pratt who wanted the event structure to be intentionally different from your run-of-the-mill tech networking events. In Digital Fight Club, two innovation specialists "fight" against one another, with a referee steering the conversation, and the audience is involved and votes in real time for the winner.

The event came to Houston two years ago, presented by Accenture, and the two organizations wanted to be able to replicate the high-energy event online for 2021. (Note: InnovationMap is on the steering committee for the event.)

"We as Accenture are stoked to bring back Digital Fight club to our amazing city where provocative Houston topics will be debated by some of H-Town's most brilliant minds," says Accenture Houston Innovation Hub's Jessica Guerrero, who serves as the associate hub director.

The previous Houston event covered innovative topics, such as artificial intelligence, the future of primary care, and technology's hold on humans. Check out overheard moments and photos from the last event.

"Houston's well deserved reputation as an innovation city is the perfect ingredient for Digital Fight Club," Pratt tells InnovationMap. "What better forum to see the best minds debate the most pressing issues in business and technology."

Through the work of the two teams, Digital Fight Club will return to Houston on Tuesday, October 26, at 7 pm, virtually. Tickets are $20 per person and can be purchased online. This year's topics and fighters includes:

  • Energy Transition: What technology is king to get us there? Fighters: Moji Karimi, CEO of Cemvita Factory, vs Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics
  • Space Race: Who will lead space commercialization? Fighters: Trent Martin, vice president of aerospace at Intuitive Machines, vs Steve Gonzalez, partner at Seldor Capital (retired NASA)
  • Digital Divide: The greatest barrier to bridging the divide? Fighters: Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, vs Jesse Martinez, co-founder of LatinX Startup Alliance
  • Sweet Teams are Made of This: The post-pandemic employee experience. Fighters: Brad Deutser, CEO of Deutser, vs Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard
  • Innovation in a Virtual World: Impossible? Fighters: Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon, vs Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc.

Each fighter will open with 45 seconds each, followed by two 30 seconds rebuttals each. Referees will have a chance to ask a follow up, then each fighter will respond for 15 seconds. Referees include:

  • Mary Beth Gracy, managing director of Accenture's Houston office
  • Scott Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs
  • Sam Gunderson, director of partnership development at NASA
  • Elizabeth Haines McGee, director of innovation and engagement at Intel
  • Steve Rader, deputy director of collaborative innovation at NASA

Clearly, you shouldn't expect your average business event call. The platform that's hosting the event allows for attendees to join "rooms" with friends, coworkers, and more. Within the rooms, you can chat about the fighter's argument and even respond with emojis. You can even throw a tomato at a fighter you disagree with.

"As an attendee get ready to move beyond the traditional Zoom call and be immersed in an interactive environment where you can cheer on your favorite fights or even show your disagreement with digital tomatoes, all from your own virtual pink couch," Guerrero says. "So grab your favorite humans, come attend this entertaining experience and witness the throw down."

The virtual edition of Digital Fight Club first took place in Dallas. Now the interactive event is coming to Houston. Photo courtesy of Accenture

Accenture and Aon have teamed up to promote the creation of apprenticeship programs across Houston. Photo via Getty Images

Houston business leaders join forces to create innovative apprenticeship program

paths to employment

Much of the business world has operated under the belief that to enter the workforce, one must have a four-year degree. While this belief might be evolving naturally over recent years, two corporations have teamed up to move the needle even more and are launching a program that opens the hiring door much wider to promote a diversified workforce.

Last week, Accenture and Aon – with support from the Greater Houston Partnership — announced the launch of the Greater Houston Apprenticeship Network in Houston. The program aims to promote and support apprentice programs across companies in town. The duo has already rolled out similar programs across six cities in the United States and plans to create 500 new jobs by 2025.

The initiative began in 2016 in Chicago, where both Accenture and Aon were re-evaluating their workforce.

"It was a CEO to CEO initiative between Aon and Accenture," Mary Beth Gracy, Accenture Houston's managing director, tells InnovationMap. "We realized we could have more of an impact together than we could separately."

Both companies took inventory of their workforce and what jobs they had and established what positions could be adjusted to be suitable to non-traditional hires.

"We took a look at our talent to see if there are roles where we could create hiring that didn't require a four-year degree," says Dawn Spreeman-Heine, managing director of commercial risk solutions at Aon. "We felt like that would boost our diversity and create a more diverse talent pipeline. At the same time, it would hopefully address an issue we had with attrition."

The programs are substantially different from internships — which are short term, part time, and don't necessarily lead to permanent jobs. The apprentices hired through the program would serve one or two years of paid on-the-job training with a path to permanent employment.

With all the work the two institutions put into creating their own programs, it became apparent that a network of support between companies — as well as other players — to create an ecosystem, as Gracy says.

"In this case, the ecosystem is the employers and the apprentices themselves – as well as the educators we get our talent from and the nonprofit partners that help surface the candidates," Gracy explains. "This is an ecosystem play about strengthening our pipelines, communities, and job opportunities."

With the launch, five founding members have joined the Greater Houston Apprenticeship Network: Dow Chemical, Whorley, Texas Mutual Insurance, Amazon Web Services, and University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. These companies have committed to creating apprenticeship positions within their institutions, as well as to promote the program to others.

As the initiative continues, interested companies can learn more online. The network is interested in bringing on companies of all sizes and across industries — whether a company wants to hire 100 apprentices or startup is looking to findjust one.

Gracy and Spreeman-Heine agree that — while the program was always intended to expand — the timing of the program launching in a time of economic growth amid the pandemic makes the plans even more relevant.

"Unfortunate events sometimes spur on some really great things. It's even more compelling now — and employers are hurting even more now trying to fill these roles," Spreeman-Heine says. "It's perfect timing."

The program hopes to bring more diverse workforces to Houston corporations — as well as eliminate the stigma of hiring non-four-year-degree employees.

"Nothing breeds success like success," Gracy says. "The more we have people come into these roles and be successful, then the more momentum that's going to build upon that."

According to a new study, women are switching away from tech majors during college at a higher rate than any other areas of study, and it comes down to culture. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Increasing women in tech comes down to improving culture

guest column

Like anyone pursuing a technical career, I had to overcome certain hurdles on my way to graduating with a degree in aerospace engineering. When one of my professors suggested that women should not be engineers and I would be better served pursuing a career like nursing or teaching, I realized that my hurdles might be a little different than others.

Luckily, I was raised to view this as a challenge and opportunity rather than an insurmountable obstacle.

Unfortunately, not everyone maintains my positive outlook on situations like this, and too often, young women are ultimately dissuaded from pursuing engineering and other similar technical degrees.

In fact, according to the research by Accenture and Girls Who Code, women are switching away from tech majors during college at a higher rate than any other areas of study. What's more, 50 percent of women pursuing a career in technology after graduation change paths by age 35, compared to 20 percent in other jobs. Female workers also leave tech jobs at a 45 percent higher rate than men.

Even more alarming, the same study found that in the last 35 years, the proportion of women in tech careers has actually declined despite the increase in the absolute number of female technology workers.

What's going on? Our research shows women in tech often don't feel at home or comfortable during college or at the workplace.

While there are many reasons women abandon a career in technology, the highest percentage of respondents cite culture as the leading cause. Although 45 percent of senior human resources leaders say that it is easy for women to thrive in tech, only 21 percent of women agree, and that number falls to just 8 percent for women of color. Conversely, women in college who find themselves in inclusive learning environments tend to enjoy their majors, network more and are more likely to stay in their STEM degrees.

The current labor market is struggling to keep pace with the explosive demand for tech talent, and I can attest — having met many of these amazing ladies — that women are willing, able and ready to help meet this demand.

Here are some ideas to create a culture that encourages more women to stay with STEM degrees and thrive in technology careers.

In college, having strong mentoring programs for female students in technology is key. Being part of study groups and student organizations, like the Society of Women Engineers, encourages learning and teaming and drives collaboration, innovation and inclusion. Based on our analysis, inclusive colleges are those that have at least 35 percent women in their STEM faculty. Publicizing faculty and student diversity data is a courageous way for colleges to ensure accountability and show their commitment to a culture of equality.

In business, we all know that what's measured gets managed. Applying this principle, it's both bold and important for companies to set targets for diversity in the leadership teams and publish those goals, as well as create clear KPIs governing compensation to the accountable leaders.

Furthermore, workplace support such as mentors, sponsors and employee resource networks can go a long way in creating the right culture and boost women in tech. Remember that many women enter tech careers because they want to make a difference in the world. Fostering collaborative environments where workers are rewarded for creativity and innovation does much more than — but certainly helps — to retain women.

Organizations that have diverse talent and a welcoming culture of equality help enable success and unleash human ingenuity. Rewarding excellence with the right innovative, supportive culture is a winning philosophy not only for women but for companies overall.

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Sondra Ruhman is a Houston-based managing director at Accenture Operations. She helps North American and Global clients embark on major technology and operational transformation projects.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston-based health tech startup is revolutionizing patient selection for clinical trials

working smarter

On many occasions in her early career, Dr. Arti Bhosale, co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health, found herself frustrated with having to manually sift through thousands of digital files.

The documents, each containing the medical records of a patient seeking advanced treatment through a clinical trial, were always there to review — and there were always more to read.

Despite the tediousness of prescreening, which could take years, the idea of missing a patient and not giving them the opportunity to go through a potentially life-altering trial is what kept her going. The one she didn’t read could have slipped through the cracks and potentially not given someone care they needed.

“Those stories have stayed with me,” she says. “That’s why we developed Sieve.”

When standard health care is not an option, advances in medical treatment could be offered through clinical trials. But matching patients to those trials is one of the longest standing problems in the health care industry. Now with the use of new technology as of 2018, the solution to the bottleneck may be a new automated approach.

“Across the globe, more than 30 percent of clinical trials shut down as a result of not enrolling enough patients,” says Bhosale. “The remaining 80 percent never end up reaching their target enrollment and are shut down by the FDA.”

In 2020, Bhosale and her team developed Sieve Health, an AI cloud-based SaaS platform designed to automate and accelerate matching patients with clinical trials and increase access to clinical trials.

Sieve’s main goal is to reduce the administrative burden involved in matching enrollments, which in turn will accelerate the trial execution. They provide the matching for physicians, study sponsors and research sites to enhance operations for faster enrollment of the trials.

The technology mimics but automates the traditional enrollment process — reading medical notes and reviewing in the same way a human would.

“I would have loved to use something like this when I was on the front lines,” Bhosale says, who worked in clinical research for over 12 years. “Can you imagine going through 10,000 records manually? Some of the bigger hospitals have upwards of 100,000 records and you still have to manually review those charts to make sure that the patient is eligible for the trial. That process is called prescreening. It is painful.”

Because physicians wear many hats and have many clinical efforts on their plates, research tends to fall to the bottom of the to-do list. Finding 10-20 patients can take the research team on average 15-20 months to find those people — five of which end up unenrolling, she says.

“We have designed the platform so that the magic can happen in the background, and it allows the physician and research team to get a jumpstart,” she says.” They don’t have to worry about reviewing 10,000 records — they know what their efforts are going to be and will ensure that the entire database has been scanned.”

With Sieve, the team was able to help some commercial pilot programs have a curated data pool for their trials – cutting the administrative burden and time spent searching to less than a week.

Sieve is in early-stage start up mode and the commercial platform has been rolled out. Currently, the team is conducting commercial projects with different research sites and hospitals.

“Our focus now is seeing how many providers we can connect into this,” she says. “There’s a bigger pool out there who want to participate in research but don’t know where to start. That’s where Sieve is stepping in and enabling them to do this — partnering with those and other groups in the ecosystem to bring trials to wherever the physicians and the patients are.”

Arti Bhosale is the co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health. Photo courtesy of Sieve

Houston nonprofit unveils new and improved bayou cleaning vessel

litter free

For over 20 years, a nonprofit organization has hired people to clean 14 miles of bayou in Houston. And with a newly updated innovative boat, keeping Buffalo Bayou clean just got a lot more efficient.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership unveils its newest version of the Bayou-Vac this week, and it's expected to be fully operational this month. BBP Board Member Mike Garver designed both the initial model of the custom-designed and fabricated boat as well as the 2022 version. BBP's Clean & Green team — using Garver's boat — has removed around 2,000 cubic yards of trash annually, which is the equivalent of about 167 commercial dump trucks. The new and improved version is expected to make an even bigger impact.

“The Bayou-Vac is a game changer for our program,” says BBP field operations manager, Robby Robinson, in a news release. “Once up and running, we foresee being able to gain an entire workday worth of time for every offload, making us twice as efficient at clearing trash from the bayou.”

Keeping the bayou clean is important, since the water — and whatever trash its carrying — runs off into Galveston Bay, and ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. The improvements made to the Bayou-Vac include removable dumpsters that can be easily swapped out, slid off, and attached to a dump truck. The older model included workers having to manually handle trash and debris and a secondary, land-based vacuum used to suck out the trash from onboard.

Additionally, the Bayou-Vac now has a moveable, hydraulic arm attached to the bow of the vessel that can support the weight of the 16-foot vacuum hose. Again, this task was something done manually on the previous model of the Bayou-Vac.

“BBP deeply appreciates the ingenuity of our board member Mike Garver and the generosity of Sis and Hasty Johnson and the Kinder Foundation, the funders of the new Bayou-Vac,” BBP President Anne Olson says in the release. “We also thank the Harris County Flood Control District and Port Houston for their longtime support of BBP’s Clean & Green Program.”