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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Growing Houston-based drone software company snags government contract

ready for liftoff

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Report: Houstonians lose days-worth of time each year due to rush hour

not in the fast lane

Traffic is a part of life in Houston. But a new study quantifies just how much time the average Bayou City dweller spends sitting in rush hour gridlock every year—and the results are eye opening.

According to a study released this month by CoPilot, Houstonians lose nearly four days of time each year due to rush hour commuting.

The report found that rush hour extends Houstonians' commute by an extra 22 minutes per day. Annually, that totaled an additional 91.6 hours commuting due to rush hour.

This earned the Houston area (including the Woodlands and Sugar Land) a No. 8 spot on CoPilot's list of cities where commuters lose the most time to rush hour.

Evening commutes saw the highest increase in time in Houston, with the average commuter spending 14 additional minutes on roadways due to rush hour. Morning rush hour in Houston added about eight minutes to commuters' daily drives.

Houston was the only Texas city to make CoPilot's list of the top 15 cities that lost the most time to rush hour traffic. New York drivers lost the most time to rush hour, which adds about 32 minutes to daily commutes and 132 hours a year, according to the report. Los Angeles drivers lost the second-most time, followed by urban Honolulu, Miami, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Birmingham, Alabama.

The report found that drivers in Houston spend about eight more minutes commuting during rush hour than the average driver in the county. That totals to about 30 more hours per year than the average U.S. driver.

Commute times have been dropping nationally, reaching a low of 25.6 minutes in 2021 compared to 27.6 minutes in 2019, as more workers have transitioned to hybrid schedules or working from home, according to CoPilot

In 2020, Houston drivers even witnessed a 33 percent drop in traffic compared to in 2019, according to a study from Rice.

Still, Houston roadways are consistently ranked among the most congested in the country. Last year, a similar study found that the typical Houston driver wasted 46 hours due to traffic congestion.

Portions of the 610 West Loop are notorious for being ranked as the state's most congested roadways, and other stretches of roads are known as some of the worst bottlenecks in Texas.