3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's batch of innovators have had to be pretty creative in their industries. Courtesy photos

The ability to innovate lives in one's ability to think outside of the box — no matter the industry. This week's Houston innovators to know have had to get creative and think of new ways of doing things, from retailing to creating greeting cards.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Harvin Moore, who has a 20-year career in tech and innovation, has been named as president of Houston Exponential. Courtesy of HX

Harvin Moore has been a banker, an educator, an elected official, and more — but his newest title is president of Houston Exponential, which suits him just fine.

Now, under his new role, he's leading the nonprofit that's focused on connecting, promoting, and attracting within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"There's no question that five years from now, or 10 years from now, Houston will be a very large and continually rapidly growing tech economy," Moore tells InnovationMap. "The question is just how fast it is going to get here." Read more.

Alex Kurkowski, founder of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski wanted to tell a better story. Courtesy of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski has a problem with traditional greeting cards.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

The Rice University MBA grad decided he would do something about it. He created his business, Tellinga — short for "telling a story" — to create a new avenue for people to communicate a message to their loved ones. Kurkowski has big plans for his company and the platform he's creating. Read more.

Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development for DiCentral

Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

Something's brewing in retail — and it's scaring the industry. Steve Scala writes in a guest column for InnovationMap that dropshipping — the process of shipping products direct from vendors to customers, cutting out warehouses and storage facilities — is only going to gain traction in the industry.

"The study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success," Scala writes. "According to 87 percent of those retailers surveyed also experienced an increase in revenue as a result of dropshipping. Customer service also benefitted from dropship, with 84 percent of retailers noting improvements to customer service after adopting the dropshipping fulfillment model." Read more.

Tellinga creates artistic and personal cards for every occasion. Courtesy of Tellinga

Houston entrepreneur has big plans for his art-driven, storytelling card company

bringing snail mail back

Alex Kurkowski can't count how many times he's gone looking for a greeting card — before some holiday, birthday, or special occasion — and found nothing that suited his recipient. He doesn't remember when he started editing them, either. For a few years now, he's been taking markers and pens to the greeting cards, blacking out words and scribbling new ones to say what he wanted to.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

But he can remember a few moments that changed that for him — and for Houston. When he started sending his family cards he'd sketched that depicted scenes from their lives, his classmates in the Rice University MBA program told him that, despite his pharmaceuticals background, this might actually be the right business for him.

Tellinga is hardly just a maker of greeting cards; it's in the business of storytelling, and customers can have personalized artworks delivered right to their mailboxes — a site for reclaiming, Kurkowski says, from the dread of bills and marketing materials.

"I'm trying to tap back into the tangible, physical and real side of life," Kurkowski says.

A year ago, Kurkowski sent his first Tellingas — short for "Telling a Story" — as an official business. He made the initial cards himself, but soon couldn't meet the demand on his own. Today, Tellingas are crafted from a cohort of more than 20 artists who are mostly Houston-based and, as Kurkowski says, make his work look like garbage.

Customers can select a few purchase options for customers, ranging from a one-panel story to 12 scenes. They upload a photo of the people they want drawn and submit their idea for the artwork on the website — they can create renderings of real-life events they want to remember or they might tell a wacky, fantasy story. For Kurkowski, the most important part is receiving the art over time — for example, the 12-panel pieces are sent over a one-month period.

Currently, Tellinga's only full-time staff is Kurkowski, but he's looking to hire a CTO to manage the growing demands of the website, where orders are placed. He also wants Tellinga to grow into the Airbnb model, with artists posting their works on his site and setting the price of their commissions themselves. Kurkoswki will be raising funds in the next investment round.

Until then, he's hoping to grow Tellinga's ability to turn stories into keepsakes — by offering ways to frame and preserve them, and by introducing a subscription model, so that customers can select days from of an entire calendar year to send their personalized artworks—constantly tapping back into that physical side of life like Kurkowsi wants.

"It's just cool because it's different," Kurkowski says. "It's getting away from the digital media world."

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.