3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's innovators to know are Sean Guerre of Innovate Energy, Carolyn Rodz of Hello Alice, and Aziz Gilani of Mercury Fund. Courtesy photos

From quickly making face masks to preparing meals for hospital workers, Houstonians everywhere are finding the best way for them to give back. For these three innovators to know this week, their way of giving back is helping startups navigate this unprecedented time.

Sean Guerre, managing director of Innovate Energy

Photo courtesy of Innovate Energy

The oil and gas industry is going through an unprecedented time. Never before have energy companies had to deal with such a large discrepancy between supply and demand, and COVID-19 closures is just the cherry on top. A victim of the situation is going to be early-stage energy tech startups. However, Guerre says he is seeing interest in startups that specialize in a specific type of technology.

"We're seeing a huge interest in autonomous, unmanned solutions," Guerre says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Anything in that remote, autonomous area that allows people to continue to do inspections, mapping, surveying, and all kinds of work that don't involve more people being involved in the process — we're seeing a real acceleration there."

Click here to read more.

Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Hello Alice

Courtesy of Hello Alice

While a bunch of companies are left idle with not much to do during the COVID-19-caused shutdown, Carolyn Rodz, CEO and co-founder of Houston-based Hello Alice, has been busier than ever. Her company, which provides digital resources for startups and small businesses, has kicked their operations into high gear.

Rodz and her team created a COVID-19 Business Center free for entrepreneurs to use, as well as announced emergency grants to businesses affected by COVID-19.

Click here to read more.

Aziz Gilani, managing director of Mercury Fund

Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

The repercussions of the pandemic has forced Aziz Gilani to become an expert in the CARES Act in order to help Mercury Fund's portfolio companies, but Gilani has been more than willing to share his newfound expertise. He joined Rodz on a virtual panel hosted by Houston Exponential and the duo offered pertinent advice for Houston startups — especially in light of the lack of clarity in the quickly passed legislature.

"One of the challenges of the program is that it is being administered by the Small Business Administration, which traditionally hasn't worked with venture-backed and angel-backed companies," Gilani says, adding that now is the time to document everything and involve a lawyer to help you mitigate the act's details.

Click here to read more.

Carolyn Rodz of Hello Alice and Aziz Gilani of Mercury Fund discuss their advice for startups looking for federal grants. Courtesy photos

Houston experts give advice for startups seeking financial aid from the CARES Act

from the profesisonals

The United States Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, and it includes several initiatives that provide financial relief for startups and small businesses — but there are a few things these companies should know about the programs.

Houston Exponential hosted a virtual panel with Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Hello Alice, and Aziz Gilani, managing director of Mercury Fund. They broke down some of the concerns with some of the most popular programs.

The Payroll Tax Deferral stipulation allows you to push back paying your payroll tax, which is 6.2 percent of payroll, Gilani says in the livestream. Companies will be required to pay back half that tax in a year's time and the other half in two year's time.

Small businesses can also apply for emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loans, or EIDL loans, that won't require the first payment for a full year. The interest rate is 3.75 percent for for-profit businesses and 2.75 percent for nonprofits with up to a 30-year term. Businesses could even submit to receive a $10,000 grant on their application.

Then, there's the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

"The PPP program is probably the most lucrative of the three programs for startups," says Gilani, "It's the one that has the largest financial impact."

To submit for PPP, business owners look at their last year's worth of payroll and utility expenses, then average out their monthly expenses, and multiply that by 2.5. Small businesses can submit for that amount or up to $10 million. If the loan is spent on their employees and utilities, it's turned into a grant and not required to be paid back. Gilani recommends checking with the SBA for the specific details, but notes that contract workers can't benefit from PPP and must submit individually for aid.

Regarding these programs, Rodz and Gilani shared some other advice as it pertains to Houston's small businesses and tech startups.

Apply ASAP

Banks are already overwhelmed with applications, and some have paused accepting new applications from some entities. Plus, you have no excuse, Rodz says, since the application is simple and can be completed in one sitting.

"Compared to what a normal government loan application looks like, it is light years better in terms of simplicity," says Rodz.

Go to your own bank

Banks are giving priority to existing customers, Rodz explains.

"Go talk to your banker, and really take the time," Rodz says. "They are prioritizing the clients they have relationships with."

There's a technical reason too, Gilani adds. It's easier for banks to submit for a pre-existing customer, and new customers require more paperwork.

Document everything

Currently, Gilani says, the way the program is working right now is it relies on good-faith self-certification of the business owner. The banks, based on approval, will just put the federal money into your bank account. However, there are people put in roles for this act that will come back to verify that everything was honest.

"Lying to the federal government about money they grant you is a felony that comes with jail time," Gilani says. "It's very important that — after all this craziness passes by and the government comes back to audit what happened — you have a lot of documentation in place in order to show that you were fulfilling your good-faith requirement of answering these questions honestly."

Gilani recommends keeping track of how you calculated your payroll, as well as being able to show the effect of the crisis is key. Then, after you receive the funds, you need to be able to show that you used the funds on your employees.

Consult a lawyer if you have questions on eligibility

There's been a lot of discussion on whether or not venture-backed startups qualify for PPP.

"One of the challenges of the program is that it is being administered by the Small Business Administration, which traditionally hasn't worked with venture-backed and angel-backed companies," Gilani says.

Usually, the SBA requires startups to indicate their employee count, which is not to exceed 500. However, if the company is venture-backed, the SBA requires the inclusion of all the employees of all the portfolio companies. Certain legislators have expressed that this wasn't the intention of the program and are working to provide solutions, Gilani explains, and he and Mercury Fund have been working with a legal team to find immediate work arounds.

"There have been lots of lawyers who have been working really hard on trying to solve this problem," Aziz "If anything, we've now created the lawyer stimulus act in the amount of billable hours we've had trying to figure out this problem."

Gilani also recommends getting your lawyer to sign a document confirming that, especially if you are a venture-backed company, that you intended to adhere to the rules of the program.

Money moves, big deals, and more lead this roundup of innovation news. Pexels

Houston biomedical startup granted $1.5M, Chevron taps into Plug and Play, and more innovation news

Short stories

Hitting headlines this month are innovation news stories from battling the opioid crisis and funding to TMCx companies and Houston as a whole earning recognition.

In this innovation news roundup, two Houston startups pocket some cash, Chevron links up with Plug and Play, and more.

BreviTest receives grant to combat opioid crisis

BreviTest Technologies

Houston-based BreviTest can rapidly and accurately test for opioid use. Photo via brevitest.com

National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health — through a Small Business Innovation Research Phase II grant — has granted $1.5 million to Houston-based BreviTest Technologies to take its opioid testing technology to the next level. With 47,600 opioid overdose deaths reported in 2017 in the United States, the startup's analyzer has a lot of potential to aid in the crisis.

"Because of the delay in receiving laboratory results, many physicians use urine drug testing sparingly. The BreviTest analyzer will allow any doctor to measure opioid urine levels in-office, which will help them identify individuals who are misusing the drugs," says BreviTest's Michael J. Heffernan, Ph.D., principal investigator on the project, in a news release.

BreviTest is a Fannin Innovation Studio company. The early-stage biomedical commercialization firm that's based in Houston is proud to see the startup's success and the difference the technology is making.

"Our BreviTest team is excited to receive this support from NIDA to advance our point-of-care diagnostics technology into the clinic," said Fannin executive chairman, Leo Linbeck III, in the release. "Putting a convenient, accurate opioid test in the hands of physicians will be an important step in combating the opioid overdose epidemic facing our country."

Houston's Plug and Play operation names Chevron as founding partner

Chevron has linked up with Plug and Play in Houston. Courtesy of CTV

Plug and Play Tech Center, which just announced the participating companies in its inaugural energy and sustainability cohort in Houston, has named Chevron as a founding partner.

"We are incredibly excited to announce Chevron as a Founding Partner of Plug and Play in Houston," says Wade Bitaraf, founder of Plug and Play's Energy & Sustainability program, in a news release. "Their commitment to invest in digital transformation and reduce the environmental impact of the industry is directly aligned with our Energy & Sustainability program in Houston, Silicon Valley, and around the world."

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, the company's venture and innovation arm, is responsible for identifying pathways to innovation for the company.

"Chevron is a proud supporter of the Houston innovation community, and our support of Plug and Play's Energy & Sustainability platform demonstrates our commitment to growing the Houston innovation ecosystem," Burger says in the release. "Innovation will play a critical role in the future of energy, and our partnership with Plug and Play reinforces our commitment to invest in breakthrough technologies to enable the ongoing energy transition."

Houston recognized as a top 10 city for female founder success

According to Inc. 5000, Houston's great for female founders. Getty Images

Texas cities are great for fostering female founder success, according to a new ranking from Inc. 5000. Houston ranked at No. 10 of the top 10 list that factored in the women-led businesses among the magazine's 5,000 fastest-growing private U.S. companies.

"The Houston metropolitan area is home to 15 women-owned Inc. 5000 companies, including online marketing startup Decode Digital Marketing (No. 973) and health care staffing firm Restore Rehab Services (No. 2,645)," reads the ranking. "Together the 15 firms grew their collective revenue 142 percent between 2015 and 2018."

Dallas and Austin both appeared on the ranking, at No. 4 and No. 6, respectively.

Alice closes series A of funding

Alice founders, Elizabeth Gore (left) and Carolyn Rodz, closed their series A of funding. Getty Images

Though the company did not disclose an amount raised, Alice, an artificial intelligence-powered platform for business advice, closed a series A funding round led by SVB Financial Group, the parent company to Silicon Valley Bank.

Per a news release, the company will use the funding to "build its predictive technology, using data analytics to guide each entrepreneur through every stage of their business."

Alice, which has operations in Houston and San Francisco, reached a deal with Austin-based Bumble for funding earlier this year.

TMCx companies win big

TMCx

Three TMCx alumni companies earned some recognition at the UCSF Digital Health Awards last month. Courtesy of TMCx

Three health tech companies coming out of the Texas Medical Center's accelerator program have won big at the UCSF Digital Health Awards last month.

  • Sana Health, member of TMCx07 in 2018, won in the best behavioral health digital therapeutic category for its light-based neuromodulation pain treatment technology.
  • Meru Health, member of TMCx08 in 2019, won in the best mental health digital health therapeutic category for its mental health platform.
  • Luma Health, member of TMCx08 in 2019, won in the best EHR-integrated platform for patient engagement category for its patient communication technology.

Check out these conferences, pitch competitions, networking, and more. Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for October

Where to be

October is another busy one for Houston innovation. Data-focused conferences, a rescheduled grand opening for The Cannon, and so much more.

If you know of innovation-focused events for this month or next, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

October 2 — Startup Communication: Post Funding Investor Relations with Eric Danziger

Join Eric Danziger, chief revenue officer at Innowatts, on discussing post-funding investor relations. Danziger has been in the cleantech and smart grid industry for the past 10 years, and Innowatts closed its $18.2 million round earlier this year.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7 pm on Wednesday, October 2, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

October 3 — Raising That First Round with Steve Gray, ATX Venture Partners

Where do you start? This workshop will cover the basics of preparation for that first round of capital raising. There is a rhythm to fundraising, but more importantly, the preparation is vital. Every goal to which you aspire must have a plan and fundraising is no different. At this workshop, Steve Gray of ATX Venture Partners will discuss some lessons learned over the years as well as share ideas on what works and what doesn't.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7 pm on Thursday, October 3, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

October 3 — Growth Tour: Houston

Join Alice, Salesforce Essentials, and the Houston small business community for an unforgettable morning of workshops, networking, and real takeaways to help you reach your goals and strengthen your business.

Details: The event is from 8:30 am to 1 pm on Thursday, October 3, at The Space HTX (2005 Commerce St). Learn more.

October 4 — Houston Next: ERG Summit 2019

To reflect Houston's unique position as the most diverse city in the nation, the Greater Houston Partnership is hosting the Houston NEXT: An ERG Summit with a focus on corporate culture and talent. Join business leaders, HR executives, diversity and inclusion officers and ERG leaders for thoughtful conversations on building diverse and inclusive workplaces.

Details: The event is from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm on Friday, October 4, at Marriott Marquis (1777 Walker Street). Learn more.

October 8 — The Dolphin Tank: Houston

The Dolphin Tank is a "friendly-feedback" pitch session for women entrepreneurs. Springboard Enterprises Dolphin Tank® programs are "helpful feedback-driven" pitch sessions for entrepreneurs to receive constructive insights from knowledgeable professionals. Dolphin Tanks aren't about sharks, piranhas, dragons, or competing for the best idea – they're about channeling the expertise of the people in the room.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, October 8, at Lilie Lab (Rice University).Learn more.

October 9 — Founders Bootcamp: A Roadmap For Your Startup

JLabs is sitting down with local seasoned investors and entrepreneurs to take a deep dive into key topics designed to equip you with a roadmap for elevating your startup, no matter what stage, into a great company and we'll be swapping war stories along the way.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1 pm on Wednesday, October 9, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

October 8-16 — Sesh Coworking

Houston's first female-focused coworking popup event is taking over the town with networking, growth opportunities, and more. Day passes start at $25.

Details: The event is from Tuesday, October 8, to Wednesday, October 16, at Sharespace (1120 Naylor St). Learn more.

October 10 — DataCon Houston

This annual data-focused event is a social and networking opportunity combined with educational programming for business technology.

Details: The event is from 8 am to 8 pm on Thursday, October 10, at TopGolf (1030 Memorial Brook Boulevard). Learn more.

October 17 — Lunch & Learn: CPRIT Information Session


Join the CPRIT team at JLABS to learn about CPRIT's grant funding opportunities available to companies that are developing cancer-focused therapeutics, diagnostics/devices, tools and other non-traditional oncology products.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1 pm on Thursday, October 17, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

October 17 — Ignite Healthcare's Annual Fire Pitch Event

The Ignite Healthcare Network Fire Pitch Competition is held each year to encourage innovation in emerging women-led healthcare companies. The program provides an opportunity for women entrepreneurs to engage with advisors, potential customers, and investors to accelerate and refine the growth of their companies.

Details: The event is from 5 to 8:30 pm on Thursday, October 17, at JLabs @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.) Learn more.

October 17 — JLABS x UH: Startup Pains: From Academia to Startup (Med Device)

JLABS and the University of Houston Technology Bridge present a special installment of Startup Pains, a monthly talk given by entrepreneurs who share their journey of launching a company and overcoming unanticipated obstacles in order to find success in their industry.

Details: The event is from 5 to 7 pm on Thursday, October 17, at UH Technology Bridge, Building 4, Floor 2 (5000 Gulf Freewa7).

October 24 — Central Houston's Annual Innovatech Meeting

This year's program advances the conversation on how not only build, but sustain and support successful and robust innovation ecosystems. Attending the event will be a group of nationally known experts in the fields of placemaking, startup incubators, venture capital and entrepreneurship, and guest speakers will include Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris Country Judge Lina Hidalgo, Central Houston's President Bob Eury, and Central Houston's Board Chair, Scott Prochazaka, who is the president and CEO of CenterPoint Energy, will inaugurate the meeting.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1 pm on Thursday, October 24, at Lanier Grand Ballroom at the Hilton Americas (1600 Lamar St.). Learn more.

October 24 — The Cannon Grand Opening

The Cannon, an entrepreneurial hub in West Houston, is celebrating its new digs. Join the party to learn about coworking at The Cannon, to network with Houston's innovation ecosystem, and more. Note: This event was pushed back due to Tropical Storm Imelda's flooding across Houston.

Details: The event is from 4 to 9 pm on Thursday, October 24, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Road). Invite only.

October 27 — Implicit Bias Workshop

Impact Hub Houston and The Cannon believe that equitable organizations and equitable opportunities stem from a community of equity-focused leaders, but that is a mindset that must be developed. Through this workshop, participants will develop a shared language around diversity, equity, and inclusion, and understand the importance of these concepts when creating changing and lasting impact.

Details: The event is from 1 to 5 pm on Sunday, October 27, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

October 29 — Houston Startup Happy Hour

Mix and mingle with the city's local entrepreneurs, investors, and more. The event is free to attend, but space is limited. Happy hour specials are available all night for attendees.

Details: The event is from 6 to 9 pm on Tuesday, October 29, at Poitin Bar and Kitchen (2313 Edwards Street). Learn more.

October 31 — State of Texas Medical Center

This luncheon focuses on TMC's role in advancing life sciences. Home to the brightest minds in medicine, TMC nurtures cross-institutional collaboration, creativity and innovation. Houston is not only recognized as a global leader in health care delivery and research, but also as an emerging center for biotech commercialization.

Details: The event is from 10:30 am to 1:30 pm on Thursday, October 31, at Marriott Marquis (1777 Walker Street). Learn more.

Blockchain-as-a-service company closes $6 million Series A round. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo closes $6M round, Alice partners with accelerator, and more Houston innovation news

Short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been busy, and the ongoing 50th anniversary of the Offshore Technology Conference has claimed a lot of attention in town lately. While I'm sure you've seen the big news pieces, like the Texas Medical Center's new details about TMC3 or WeWork's third Houston location, you may have missed some of these short stories.

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Data Gumbo closes a $6 million Series A round

Data Gumbo's executive team will use the round of funding to grow its operations. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo Corp., a Houston-based blockchain-as-a-service company, completed a $6M Series A equity funding round. Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures — the venture subsidiary of Saudi Aramco — and Equinor Technology Ventures —the venture subsidiary of Equinor — co-led the round.

The new capital will be used to grow the company's commercial blockchain network, as well as Data Gumbo's technical, sales and marketing teams at their Houston headquarters and office in Stavanger, Norway. This Series A round brings Data Gumbo's total funding to $9.3 million.

"We enabled the first application of blockchain technology in the offshore drilling industry and will continue to break new ground with applications of BaaS to improve the bottom line of companies of all sizes. Blockchain will have a major impact on the oil and gas industry - and all global industries - and we will lead the charge in its broad adoption for sweeping operational improvements," says Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, in a release. "The partnership with Equinor and Saudi Aramco, and their associated supply chains and partnerships, will provide the momentum for the Data Gumbo BaaS network to gain critical mass." Learn more about Bruce and Data Gumbo here.

Alice and Founder Institute team up

Houston's new Founder Institute chapter has teamed up with Alice. Image courtesy Founder Institute

Pre-seed accelerator, the Founder Institute and Houston-based AI startup resource platform, Alice, announced a partnership to present the "Alice Fellowship" within the Founder Institute Program to help aspiring female founders build impactful and enduring startup companies.

The fellowship allows for female entrepreneurs in the Alice community to apply to the Houston FI program for free, waiving the $50 fee. The best applicants will then be selected to receive the fellowship for free as well. Interested female founders can apply https://fi.co/join/Alice before the application deadline of May 19.

Report shows how Houston fares as a startup city

Houston didn't rank among the best cities for startups — but it didn't make the worst either. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

Houston performed averagely on a new study from SimpleTexting. The report ranked cities based on their startups' performance — valuation of startups, startup jobs available, number of investors in the region, etc. Here's how Houston ranked. (Note: only the top and bottom 10 cities were ranked, and Houston doesn't appear on any of the top or bottom 10 lists.)

  • Average startup valuation: $4 million (This seems to be about the middle of the pack compared to other cities.)
  • Investor to startup ratio: 2.9 (Houston outranks Austin, which has a 1.5 ratio, in this category but seems to be closer to the bottom than the top.)
  • Startups per 100,000 people: 27.1 (Houston ranks pretty low on the spectrum for this. The 10th worst city is Rochester, New York, which has 17.8.)
  • Startup jobs per 100,000 people: 1.8 (Houston again falls closer to the bottom than the top with this number. The 10th worst city is Tuscon, Arizona, which has 0.88.)

While using different metrics, WalletHub found that Houston is a strong city to start a business. Read that story here.

Clean energy company awarded at EarthX

Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics, walked away from EarthX $100,000 richer. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics won $100,000 as one Texas' top CleanTech startup companies at the 2019 EarthX CleanTech Investment Challenge in Dallas. Syzygy is a chemicals startup out of Rice University, and one of their technologies focuses on hydrogen as a fuel option and alternative to gasoline.

TMCx company raises $5.14 million Series A

Philadelphia-based RoundTrip, which is in TMCx's current cohort, closed a hefty Series A round. Photo via roundtriphealth.com

An estimated 3.6 million patients miss or postpone their medical appointments annually, which leads to bigger medical issues that could have been prevented or treated earlier. Philadelphia-based RoundTrip created a platform where patients can book transportation to and from appointments. The startup, which is currently completing TMCx's digital health accelerator program, recently closed its Series A round of $5.14 million led by Motley Fool Ventures.

Houston energy professional publishes female-focused book

The new novel tells the stories of the women within the offshore oil and gas industries. Courtesy of Rebecca Ponton

Rebecca Ponton has published her series of 23 short biographies of women in the offshore oil and gas industry called, Breaking the GAS Ceiling: Women in the Offshore Oil & Gas Industry. Ponton timed the publication ahead of the 2019 Offshore Technology Conference. The book is available on Amazon.

The book features a number of Texas women, including:

  • Marni Zabarsky (MADCON Corp.)
  • Mieko Mahi (freelance petroleum photographer)
  • Alyssa Michalke (previously of TAMKO)
  • Jerry Tardivo Alcoser (works in Chevron's Bakersfield office, but has a home in Houston)
  • Melody Meyer, Katie Mehnert, and Ally Cedeno, who wrote endorsements for the book, live and work in Houston.

Houston O&G consulting company named Great Place to Work

oil and gas

EAG Services received a national recognition for its work environment and employee happiness. Getty Images

Great Place to Work and FORTUNE selected Houston-based EAG Services as one of the 2019 Best Workplaces in Consulting and Professional Services in the small to mid-sized company category. The rankings were based on employees' feedback. EAG Services took the Number 17 spot on the list.

"EAG Services is proud to be recognized by our people for creating one of the best workplaces in the consulting and professional services industry. Our ongoing commitment to keeping culture our priority as well as playing an ever-critical role in hiring has proven to be successful in attracting and building an empowering place to work," says Elizabeth Gerbal, CEO and Founder of EAG Services, in a release.

It's WeWork Labs' second Texas location — the first opened last fall in Dallas. Courtesy of WeWork

WeWork brings early-stage startup program to downtown Houston

lab work

WeWork is betting on the Bayou City as it plans to open up WeWork Labs in its downtown Houston coworking space. The early-stage program will provide up to 30 startups with mentorship and resources coordinated by its partner organization, Alice, an entrepreneurial digital resource with Texas ties.

"At Alice, our research has shown that entrepreneurs are hungry for guidance that gets into the nitty gritty: 'What next step should I take?' 'How exactly do I go about fundraising?' 'What should my to-do list look like if customer acquisition is my No. 1 goal?'' says Carolyn Rodz, CEO and co-founder of Alice, in a release. "We're really excited to collaborate with WeWork Labs to bring these answers to their members through both programming and online support."

WeWork Labs launches this month in the WeWork Jones Building at 708 Main St. It's the second Texas location — Dallas' location opened last fall. Prices for the program begin at $300 a month for entrepreneurs, and the program does not take equity in the participating startups.

Leading the program is Labs Manager Carlos Estrada and WeWork Managing Director Emily Keeton — both have long careers in innovation and startups across the country. Keeton was among the original founders of Station Houston and is based in Houston. A Houston native, Estrada most recently launched Roots Venture Group, which focused on growing startups within the agricultural and rural industries.

"As the fourth largest city, Houston is in a unique position to launch high-impact startups," Estrada says in the release. "We see WeWork Labs in Houston as a tremendous platform for innovation, as our founder-focused approach to supporting early-stage startups will nurture and accelerate the work of entrepreneurs to scale their solutions to today's biggest challenges. We look forward to growing our community here and bringing together key players across the region to drive innovation throughout Houston, the state of Texas, and beyond."

WeWork Labs launched around a year ago and now has over 30 locations worldwide. The program hopes to connect the dots for startups and the corporate world by providing education, mentorship, and a global network. The downtown Houston location will operate alongside WeWork's Veterans in Residence program and the Flatiron School campus.

"We are incredibly honored to have WeWork Labs join our community to support an already growing network of startups within the city of Houston," says Nathan Lenahan, WeWork's general manager for Texas, in the release. "Housing WeWork Labs with both our Flatiron School campus and Veterans in Residence program is a true testament to the innovative community we strive to create within our spaces. We are thrilled to expand on our commitment to Houston and its entrepreneurs and can't wait to see the impact we can have together on it's diverse community."

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Rice University physicists granted $1.3 million to continue study on dark matter

researching the universe

Two Rice University physicists and professors have received a federal grant to continue research on dark matter in the universe.

Paul Padley and Karl Ecklund, professors of physics and astronomy at Rice, have received a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Energy for their research to continue the university's ongoing research at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a particle accelerator consisting of a 17-mile ring of superconducting magnets buried beneath Switzerland and France.

"With this grant we will be able to continue our investigations into the nature of the matter that comprises the universe, what the dark matter that permeates the universe is, and if there is physics beyond what we already know," Padley says in a press release.

This grant is a part of the DOE's $132 million in funding for high-energy physics research. The LHC has received a total of $4.5 million to date to continue this research. Most recently, Ecklund and Padley received a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to go toward updates to the LHC.

"High-energy physics research improves our understanding of the universe and is an essential element for maintaining America's leadership in science," says Paul Dabbar, undersecretary for science at the DOE, in the release. "These projects at 53 different institutions across our nation will advance efforts both in theory and through experiments that explore the subatomic world and study the cosmos. They will also support American scientists serving key roles in important international collaborations at institutions across our nation."

In 2012, Padley and his team discovered the Higgs boson, a feat that was extremely key to the continuance of exploring the Standard Model of particle physics. Since then, the physicists have been working hard to answer the many questions involved in studying physics and the universe.

"Over many decades, the particle physics group at Rice has been making fundamental contributions to our understanding of the basic building blocks of the universe," Padley says in the release. "With this grant we will be able to continue this long tradition of important work."

Paul Padley and his team as made important dark matter findings at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. Photo via rice.ed

Startup aims for goal of connecting Houston sports community

game on

In virtually no time at all, Sportlo has built its reputation on the simplest of foundations: community.

Thilo Borgmann and Sebastian Henke founded the local hub for sports parents earlier this year as a tool for sports moms and dads to stay connected with local leagues, sports clubs, coaches, and other parents with children involved in youth sports in the greater Houston area.

"We make it easy for sports parents to keep up with what's happening in their local youth sports community," says Henke. "With our platform, they can discover tryouts, camps, and sports clubs. They can also join and create groups, find private coaches for their kids, and more."

Borgmann and Henke are both former NCAA Division 1 soccer players who starred while they were student athletes at Houston Baptist University, then went on to become well-known private coaches.

The sports-loving duo saw a dearth of useful information for sports parents on popular social media sites, so they created the platform to give users a central place to communicate with each other, join and create groups, discover tryouts and camps for their children and find private coaches across the city to help their young athletes reach their goals.

"We were both involved in sports for most of our lives and then got into private coaching," says Henke. "Overall, what we saw was that there is an entire ecosystem of youth sports and it was very much unorganized."

Henke says sports clubs weren't able to reach potential members and their parents. He says they envisioned a one-stop-shop approach to the sports ecosystem.

"So, Sportlo is focused on sports parents, but within the community, we try to connect persons with coaches, with clubs, with colleges and so on," Henke says. "That's the vision behind it, so people will have a place to have a community, to get advice and tips and then they will have access to certain services and information."

The plan for Sportlo has already evolved in its short life. Originally the platform was going to support just private coaching.

"After we got more feedback from parents and first users, we started to adapt the product and rebuilt the product," Henke says. "Based on the surveys we collected online, parents wanted us to find ways how to connect them with each other, so that's why we started building it as a new page and that's how we realized where it needed to go."

The biggest lesson in listening to their users was understanding that any initial vision to help a community must also be focused on or include what's intrinsically valuable to the users.

"Too often, people get focused on their own ideas and forget that feedback offers surprising moments," says Henke. "Users gave us a whole new path, which kept us from going in the direction where users wouldn't want the product to go."

Feedback from users is key, Henke says, and he recommends startup founders prioritize user experience and constructive criticism.

"All of the ideas that we had in our head, at some point we had to stop and reevaluate them and then focus on the most important thing first and then go from there," he says.

Still, the launch of Sportlo was not without its own unique challenges. Its March go-live date coincided in point of time with the spread of COVID-19, which ultimately turned into a worldwide pandemic.

"We haven't had to make any major changes," says Henke. "But groups on the platform have focused on that topic because there are no sports happening at the moment and they are eager to get them back. But other than that, it's not something we've had to focus on. But for parents, they've focused on related topics, like how to keep their kids busy at home doing exercises, things like that, or when discussing when their kids' clubs are starting back up and how to keep kids safe."

In addition to forming groups and sharing a variety of sports-related topics, parents can post pictures and videos of their child's latest tournament or game, get access to useful articles shared by fellow parents and find recommended sports products for themselves or their child.

"The main reason we added that social component was because we wanted to have a user timeline so when they log in, all the users can see something sports related," says Borgmann. "There's so much noise, with politics and posts that are only about the coronavirus and all that, so we wanted to focus on sports and have parents be able to show how their kid is doing, see other kids in action and support each other with a focus on sports without seeing all the other distractions that might be on other platforms."

For now, Sportlo is focused solely on keeping Houston informed, but it will look to expand to other cities and states when the time comes.

"We are focused right now only on Houston, because we know Houston and Texas and we've experienced different levels of sports in this area, so we want to stay local," says Henke. "Then, the next step is we intend to take it to other cities within Texas. And at some point, our vision is to have the entire youth ecosystem of the United States."

Now is the time to expand machine learning, says Houston researcher

Houston voices

One might not expect the game of checkers to have anything to do with artificial intelligence, but the game really marked the beginning of machine learning in 1959. Pioneered by an MIT professor named Arthur Lee Samuel, it was discovered that teaching a simple strategy game to a computer is not so simple when every move needs to be anticipated.

Smart machines Additionally, in a Forbes article about the difference between artificial intelligence and machine learning, Bernard Marr comments, "Artificial Intelligence is the broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in a way that we would consider 'smart'. And, machine learning is a current application of AI based around the idea that we should really just be able to give machines access to data and let them learn for themselves."

That's the premise of many a movie involving computers which become sentient, but is it really science fiction anymore?

Meet the new boss

Teaching a computer to think like a human is advantageous and includes the added bonus of increased speed. Computers aren't biased, either — which is why huge corporations, such as Unilever, use computers to thin out their first wave of applicants. You actually interview with a bot when you begin the employment process there.

Cause and effect AI and ML are often used in cybersecurity efforts — at least one would suppose. But in Security magazine, Jordan Mauriello writes: "AI/ML cannot do causation." That means artificial intelligence cannot, at this point in time, tell you why something happened. The why? is best left to experts who deal with game theory and other ways of determining how to defend against hypothetical attacks.

Get in on the ground floor

The field is growing and students at colleges across the country are beginning to train for careers in it in droves.

"America's top colleges are ramping up their research efforts and developing concentrations for their computer science degree programs to accommodate this high-tech field," writes Great Value Colleges on their blog. It looks as though this discipline is on an upward trajectory and shows no sign of slowing down.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.