The electric buses are expected to debut in about a year. Photo via ridemetro.org

Get ready to ride a new fleet of zero emission shuttles from Houston METRO. Global consulting firm AECOM and METRO partnered on new electric bus initiative and have recently been granted $1.5 million from the Federal Transit Administration to bring the service to Texas Southern University, University of Houston, and Houston's Third Ward neighborhood.

The grant was awarded through the FTA's Accelerating Innovative Mobility, or AIM, initiative and was one of only 25 initiatives across the U.S. to receive FTA funding. The new buses are expected to be fully operational in spring of next year.

"The shuttle will connect to METRO buses and light rail and be studied for potential use in urban, suburban, and rural environments," says Kim Williams, METRO's chief innovation officer, in a news release. "Our industry continues to evolve with new technology that prioritizes clean air quality."

AECOM will manage, plan, and provide engineering support services for the project for METRO, which is a founding member of AECOM's Automated Bus Consortium.

"We're thrilled to work with our longtime partner, METRO, on this exciting AIM initiative and to further progress mobility and innovation in the transit industry while helping our clients achieve their sustainability goals," says Andrew Bui, AECOM's vice president of global transportation electrification, in the release.

"This project will strengthen our ongoing efforts through our Automated Bus Consortium and contribute to Houston's already expansive work in deploying emerging technologies," Bui adds.

The vehicle will be provided by the project's partner Phoenix Motorcars, which makes zero emission, all-electric vehicles via software from EasyMile, a leader in cutting-edge autonomous technology.

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Lenny Saizan of Urban Capital Network, Katie Eick of Rollin' Vets, and Tony Loyd of AECOM. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Editor'snote: This year has made for some pivotal moments for various Houston companies across industries. For some, the pandemic has meant reevaluating their business plans or increased a need for their product or service. For others, social unrest has called for systemic change. Technology emerges for these needs. This week's Houston innovators are addressing these needs with their innovative efforts.

Lenny Saizan, co-founder and managing partner

Lenny Saizan — along with three other Houston innovation leaders — founded Urban Capital Network to increase diversity and inclusion within the venture capital space. Photo via urbancapitalnetwork.com

While venture capital firms usually operate in a similar structure, Lenny Saizan and his co-founders wanted to set up Urban Capital Network differently in order to "democratize access to premium VC-backed investments," Saizan says. UCN invests into VCs that meet their diversity and inclusion requirements as a limited partner, but then also invests directly into startups as a sort of hybrid investor.

"We take a portion of our proceeds and invest in entrepreneurs of color, and we also donate to nonprofits that provide support resources for those entrepreneurs," Saizan says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're completing the cycle. We find that it's easier to go to a VC and offer to give them money and also help them diversify their investor portfolio."

Saizan shares more about the group in the podcast episode and discusses what they've already accomplished in just a few months. Read more.

Katie Eick, founder of Rollin' Vets

Katie Eick always wanted to be able to offer mobile services. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

Katie Eick founded her mobile vet company in 2016 after years of wanting to be able to provide the type and level of service she has now at Rollin' Vets. While convenience technologies like delivery apps buoyed her company's steady growth, the pandemic really established market need for her business model.

"We were continuously growing slowly — then COVID hit. It really cemented that … all the convenience services are in the forefront of people's minds." Eick tells InnovationMap. "COVID made it clear that this was a necessary service."

Now, she plans to adopt a franchising model and is planning an expansion into San Antonio and Dallas before going national. Read more.

Tony Loyd, vice president at AECOM

Just like Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 is causing Houstonians to rethink how they operate — and that tech and innovation inversion is opening the door to new opportunities. CourtesyPhoto

COVID-19 is affecting the evolution of technology — it's as simple as that, according to Tony Loyd. And it's not the first time — nor the last — that consumer needs affect tech innovation.

"Could COVID-19 be triggering an inversion paradigm? An inversion paradigm puts needs first rather than product first," writes Loyd in a guest column for InnovationMap. "We have experienced many historic technology inversions. Remember when our televisions were air-wave dependent and telephones were tethered to the wall? Because the need evolved for a phone that was mobile, today our TV's are wired, and our telephones are untethered." Read more.

Just like Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 is causing Houstonians to rethink how they operate — and that tech and innovation inversion is opening the door to new opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Houston primed for opportunity within the tech inversion caused by the pandemic

Guest column

For has long as I can remember, I had to live near water. That's why I moved to Houston. Recently, new neighbors moved next door from the downtown Galleria area. They loved it there until coronavirus turned shopping habits into stay-at-home habits. The experience led them to recognize they could do just fine without the Galleria-area routine, pivoting instead to a maritime lifestyle.

Could COVID-19 be triggering an inversion paradigm? An inversion paradigm puts needs first rather than product first. We have experienced many historic technology inversions. Remember when our televisions were air-wave dependent and telephones were tethered to the wall? Because the need evolved for a phone that was mobile, today our TV's are wired, and our telephones are untethered.

This technology inversion fundamentally found its way to the individual consumer and transformed entire industries. Houston businesses are responding to a rare COVID-19-induced disruption. Inversions are rare, but when they occur, opportunity follows.

Large infrastructure challenges are normally led by bureaucratic funding processes that result in productized solutions. Hurricane Harvey was a wake-up call to take decisive action to protect decades of private and public investment against future flood events. It was an analogue to removing the board with the nail in it from the driveway to avoid endless tire repairs.

Now, Houston's resilience infrastructure is going through a Hurricane Harvey-induced inversion. The fundamental approach to water management is experiencing a historic reversal which focuses on need rather than a response cycle. Largely dependent on surface run-off systems, Houston experienced a river running through it during Hurricane Harvey. In response, studies and projects are underway to consider a major underground storm drainage system. Water management is fundamentally changing to move stormwater from above ground to below grade, while domestic water is moving away from underground sources to surface supplies, such as lakes. These programs reduce threats to downtown, allowing urbanism and businesses to flourish, simply by addressing a human need in lieu of building another drainage product.

Fortunately for the Houston economy, pre-COVID, quasi-inversion programs already in place to address mobility needs, such as the $7.5 billion METRONext program and $4.8 billion for flood control essentials, are injecting billions of dollars into the local economy. At the federal level, future stimulus funding designed to address infrastructure needs and the economic impact of Coronavirus are likely to follow next year. Consequently, the current Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 inversion could position Houston to rebound from a time of trial reimagining what a next generation city in the modern age should look like.

Graphic courtesy of AECOM

In fact, infrastructure programs have a long history of creating sustainable jobs and transforming cities. Did you know the River Walk in San Antonio, a downtown centerpiece that thrives today and contributes to thousands of job opportunities, was a construction project born during the Great Depression to address a disastrous flood occurring in the early 1920s? San Antonio architect Robert H. H. Hugman was elected to address a need to save lives and reimagine San Antonio's downtown. The city was altered forever by creating a flood resilience infrastructure that also transformed its city center into a civic gathering place that made San Antonio one of the largest destination cities in Texas.

While technology inversions are occurring more often than before, they are still rare, and each one is very important. Infrastructure inversions that transform cites are even more exceptional. In a COVID-19-induced inversion period, the possibilities are limitless, and the time is now. With programs underway and potential stimulus funding to support additional investment to address city needs, Houston is positioned for something amazing.

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Tony Loyd is based in Houston and vice president at AECOM.

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Education equity-focused nonprofit taps into robotics, AI to better serve Houston children

the future is bright

Generally, when children are under the age of five, educators believe that they are best suited for and interested in learning, because those are the years in which there is the strongest opportunity to build a broad and solid foundation for lifelong literacy and well-being.

That sentiment is deeply held by Collaborative for Children, the Houston-based nonprofit organization with the mission to meaningfully improve the quality of early childhood education and provide access to cutting-edge technology through its Centers of Excellence to all children, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities.

“The reason the organization was started about 40 years ago is that a group of philanthropists in the greater Houston area suggested that this was so important because 90 percent of the brain develops or grows in the time frame between ages zero to five years of age,” Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, tells InnovationMap.

“And if we were losing children and not preparing them by third grade to be literate, and then subsequently losing them after that for high dropout rates and achievement gaps between poor and affluent children, that this would be the perfect place to start," she continues. "And so, they put the collaborative, the emphasis, and finances collaborative of every, most every early education effort around this region.”

Collaborative for Children’s work in the community is centered around making sure that there is educational equity for all children, regardless of financial status, and providing access to technologies in meaningful ways.

“Ultimately, we want to bridge the digital divide early on so that when children start off their academic journey, they're starting off equipped with the skills to be successful there on,” says Johnson.

Most recently, the institution has focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys like the Pepper — the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions — and NAO, which resembles human being and stimulates, robots to enhance learning in the classrooms of its Centers of Excellence.

“Technology enhances the learning experience in the Centers of Excellence in ways that a teacher might not be able to,” says Johnson. “Artificial intelligence is used in gamification to allow a child to play and learn while playing.”

For Collaborative for Children, gamification involves transforming typical academic components into gaming themes.

“While playing, the AI gauges the level of skills that they’ve been able to enter into that system and respond with even more challenging tasks or tasks that are still lateral so that they can continue to repeat that skill,” says Johnson.

The socio-emotional learning robots are indeed fascinating, but how does the nonprofit reach these children, and their parents, who might be skeptical of technology?

Ultimately, through the teachers. They draw them in via the technology. If teachers are excited, they act as a conductor of that energy to their students, making their innovative lessons well, electric.

That resonates with most all children, but especially with those diagnosed with autism.

“Robotics like NAO are great for children on the autism spectrum because they are emotionally sensitive and emotionally intelligent,” says Johnson. “They are low sensory, so as NAO runs around the classroom, it can literally have individual and unique conversations with each child based on facial recognition. But most importantly for me, is that this particular robot is able to evaluate children without statistical bias that a teacher might have.

“A teacher might think that because a child confuses the letter D and B, which are basically shaped the same in opposite directions, that they're not learning," she continues. "And the robot will have no prior knowledge in terms of, is this child the better child, or have they been learning throughout the year? The answers are accurate or inaccurate. So, they remove statistical bias when assessing children in the classroom.”

The misconception about teaching technologies is that it’s about screen time. According to Johnson, it’s not. It’s more about interacting with technology.

“We’ve added, you know, all kinds of modern-day technology so that this world that we're preparing these children for 80 percent of the jobs we don't even know will exist when they are adults,” says Johnson. “So, we're just trying to make sure that there is no divide in terms of 21st century skills and 21st century preparation.”

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Collaborative for Children has so many facets to assist children with their early development, but there are inherent challenges when attempting to reach their target audience in low-income and marginalized communities that the organization counters with programs like the Collab Lab, which is a mobile classroom that brings critical, future-focused early childhood education directly to the community at no cost.

Designed to be convenient for families, Collab Lab connects parents and their youngest children with experts, educators, resources, and proven programs whose goal is to make sure that kids have the skills essential to learning from the moment they walk into kindergarten for the first time.

“There are a myriad of challenges in these communities that we serve, specifically with technology,” says Johnson. “When children enter first grade, and especially second grade, they're given notepads, basically, digital notepads, because it's no good in pre-K oftentimes, but it is very helpful for children who will never have access or have limited access to iPads and things of that nature.

“So while we don't want them to be babysat by screen time and have social media impacting their self-image and self-worth, we definitely want them to have appropriate doses and appropriate uses of technology in the early education, so that those barriers that their parents face with limited means, that these children can go to first grade and into the robotics class and be able to be evaluated and assessed on the digital notepads that are required nowadays,” she continues.

While technology is very important, Collaborative for Children also focuses on the critical social and emotional skills children need as they develop and the all too important relationship between children and their parents and teachers.

“Theory leads our work,” says Johnson. “It's all focused on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social emotional, can a child build rapport with their teacher and with the students around them. Those things are paramount and will never change.

“What we use technology to do is enhance and remove biases from teacher-pupil interaction, but also to bridge any kind of divide in terms of 21st century skills. And in addition to that, we engage the families. So families who might not know about hydro-fueled cars in those communities that we serve will be able to be exposed to those concepts, as well through our group connections or parent partnerships.”

Ultimately, the last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world.

“At Collaborative for Children,” adds Johnson. “We are continuously pushing the envelope at our Centers for Excellence so that the children that we serve will always be on the cutting edge.

The last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world. Photo courtesy of Collaborative for Children

Houston med school develops revolutionary mRNA vaccine for elephants

zoology biology

An innovative team from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital has worked with the Houston Zoo to develop a first-of-its-kind treatment for elephants, which has been administered to its first patient.

Tess, the beloved, 40-year-old matriarch of the Houston Zoo’s elephant herd, is recovering well after receiving the first-ever mRNA vaccine against elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) 1A on Tuesday, June 18. The veterinary staff at the Houston Zoo will monitor Tess in the coming weeks to check her reaction and the efficacy of the vaccine.

EEHV 1A is a deadly infection for Asian Elephants. While generally benign in African Elephants, Asian Elephants can develop fatal hemorrhages. The fatality rate is a whopping 80 percent, making it one of the most serous threats to elephant populations outside of humans.

Anti-viral drugs have some effect on the disease, but two-thirds show no improvement. This has led to a search for a vaccine. For 15 years, the Houston Zoo and Dr. Paul Ling at Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Virology and Microbiology have partnered to develop the drug. They have been helped by worldwide research from zoos and animal specialists, as well as graduate student Jessica Watts and Dr. Jeroen Pollet at Houston's Texas Children’s Hospital. The research has been funded by private donations, research partnerships, and grants.

Before being inoculated, the mRNA vaccine was exhaustively tested, with the dosage being extrapolated from data involving horses.

Houston Zoo veterinarians will periodically test Tess to see if she is developing the appropriate antibodies. If she is and there are no adverse reactions, the next step will be to administer the vaccine to the rest of the Houston herd. Many of these are Tess’s own children (Tucker, Tupelo, Tilly, and Teddy) and grandchildren (Winnie).

Should the vaccine prove effective, the doses will be made available worldwide to zoos and private elephant sanctuaries. It is likely to have a significant benefit on protecting and preserving the Asian Elephant population. As of January, there are fewer than 50,000 of the animas left in the wild. They are currently listed as endangered, and breeding programs and research done through the Houston Zoo are essential to keeping the animals from going extinct.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

New study says Houston is best city to grow business

Report

The Bayou City has again received recognition as a top hub for business.

According to a new study by business revenue experts The RevOps Team, Houston is one of the cities in the US with 10 or more companies listed in the S&P 500, and has been named as the number one city with the fastest growing businesses in the U.S. Houston scored the highest Average Business Growth (ABG) at 26.7 percent. The business experts divided the data from the S&P 500 Index to see what businesses had the highest share-price growth in the last year.

Out of the 28 states and the cities with 10 or more businesses listed in the S&P 500, Houston was No. 1t for growing businesses with Atlanta, in second place with 15 companies listed and reaching an ABG of 24.2 percent. Two cities in Texas ranked in the top five with Dallas taking third place at 14.9 percent.

Texas ranked fifth place overall in the top five states for business growth with high-performing businesses like Vistra. Vistra was the company with the highest growth in Texas at 277.68 percent, followed by NRG Energy (NRG) with 170.43 percent and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) at 69.13 percent.

“You need to be ready to both leverage opportunity and adapt to challenges,” Kerri Linsenbigler of RevOps Team said in a news release. “Growing a business wherever you are in the U.S. is not for the faint-hearted, and business owners in Texas will be proud that they have ranked highly in the top five.”

Earlier this month, over a dozen Houston-based companies madeU.S. News and World Report's collection of the "Best Companies to Work For" in 2024-2025.

In December, the city was ranked among the 25 best metropolitan areas to start a small business in a report by personal finance website The Credit Review placed Houston in the No. 22 spot.