Amazon Dash Cart is now available at a Whole Foods in Texas. Courtesy Amazon

If being more efficient with your time is one of your new year's goals, a faster way to shop is on the horizon in 2023.

Amazon Dash Cart just arrived at one local San Antonio Whole Foods Market, allowing shoppers to skip the checkout line altogether.

Located at 18403 Blanco Road, the Vineyard Whole Foods Market store is one of the first three locations in the country to make Amazon Dash Carts available to customers.

The smart grocery carts lets you scan items as you go, place them directly into your grocery bags, and head straight to the car when you're done shopping. Shoppers log in through a QR code in the Whole Foods Market app, which prompts a quick sign in process before you can begin using the cart.

As you scan each item while shipping, the Amazon Dash Cart’s screen shows a real-time receipt of all items in the cart. When ready to check out, shoppers can skip the checkout line, exiting the store through the designated Amazon Dash Cart lane. Payment is then processed using the credit card associated with the shopper's Amazon account, and an automated receipt arrives at the associated email account after exiting the store.

While the carts have been in Amazon Fresh Stores across the country since 2020, they are now available in select Whole Foods Markets. Several 2022 updates included doubled capacity in the carts, new shelves for delicates and oversized items alike, weather-resistant features, and extended all-day batter life.

"As many of our customers return to their in-store grocery shopping routines, it's exciting to introduce new and unique ways for them to shop our stores," says Leandro Balbinot, chief technology officer for Whole Foods Market, in the 2022 announcement about the carts' new features.

Customers can find more detailed information on the technology here, along with a number of FAQs.

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This article previously ran on CultureMap.

Shop smarter with these tech-enabled carts. Image via Amazon

Electric vans will now be delivering to Houston. Photo courtesy of Amazon

Amazon rolls out hundreds of new electric vans for Houston's holiday delivery season

Electric avenue

Amazon CEO/occasional space traveler Jeff Bezos is doing his best to supplant a certain jolly fellow from the North Pole as tops for holiday gift delivery.

His latest move: Amazon is rolling out more than 1,000 electric delivery vehicles, designed by electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian, ready to make deliveries in more than 100 cities across the U.S. On the Texas good list: Houston, Austin, and Dallas. Bezos' juggernaut began deliveries in Dallas in July, along with Baltimore, Chicago, Kansas City, Nashville, Phoenix, San Diego, Seattle, and St. Louis.

These zero-emissions vans have delivered more than 5 million packages to customers in the U.S., according to Amazon. The latest boost in vehicles now includes Houston and Austin; Boston; Denver; Indianapolis; Las Vegas; Madison, Wisconsin; Newark, New Jersey; New York, Oakland, California; Pittsburgh, Portland, Oregon; Provo, Utah; and Salt Lake City.

Plans for the Amazon and Rivian partnership call for thousands of vehicles on the road by the end of the year and 100,000 vehicles by 2030.

“We’re always excited for the holiday season, but making deliveries to customers across the country with our new zero-emission vehicles for the first time makes this year unique,” said Udit Madan, vice president of Amazon Transportation, in a statement. “We’ve already delivered over 5 million packages with our vehicles produced by Rivian, and this is still just the beginning—that figure will grow exponentially as we continue to make progress toward our 100,000-vehicle goal.”

This all comes as part of Amazon's commitment to reaching net-zero carbon by 2040, as a part of its The Climate Pledge; Amazon promises to eliminate millions of metric tons of carbon per year with it s commitment to 100,000 electric delivery vehicles by 2030, press materials note.

Additionally, Amazon announced plans to invest more than $1 billion over the next five years to further electrify and decarbonize its transportation network across Europe. This investment is meant to spark innovation and encourage more public charging infrastructure across the continent.

“Fleet electrification is essential to reaching the world’s zero-emissions goal,” said Jiten Behl, chief growth officer at Rivian, in a statement. “So, to see our ramp up in production supporting Amazon’s rollout in cities across the country is amazing. Not just for the environment, but also for our teams working hard to get tens of thousands of electric delivery vehicles on the road. They continue to be motivated by our combined mission and the great feedback about the vehicle’s performance and quality.”

A little about the vans: Drivers’ favorite features include a spacious cabin and cargo area, superior visibility with a large windshield and 360-degree cameras, and ventilated seats for fast heating and cooling — a must for Bayou City summers ... or winters, for that matter.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Amazon's accelerator focused on founders of color has helped Houston startup ChurchSpace reach new milestones. Image via bookchurchspace.com

Houston-based 'AirBNB for churches' startup completes Amazon accelerator, gathers fresh funding

now accelerating

Houston startup, ChurchSpace, recently participated in the inaugural cohort of the AWS Impact Accelerator for Black Founders, which included a pre-seed fundraising campaign and a $125,000 equity-free grant from Amazon.

The startup, coined as the “AirBNB for churches” is a tech-enabled marketplace that has a mission to minimize low utilization rate of church real estate across the country. Per the website, ChurchSpace is accepting congregations on its waitlist and is expected to launch this fall.

The AWS Impact Accelerator strengthened ChurchSpace’s efforts of turning underutilized church real estate into on-demand event, worship, and kitchen space. The program provides high-potential, pre-seed startups the tools and knowledge to reach key milestones such as raising funding or being accepted to a seed-stage accelerator program.

"Being a part of the inaugural Aws Impact Accelerator has changed the trajectory and tech build of ChurchSpace," says Day Edwards, CEO and co-founder of the company. "From the grant, to have the tech stack and resources needed to build Version 2 of ChurchSpace to ensure Churches can share their space safely has truly been a blessing. Before AWS we weren’t clear on our fundraising strategy. Now after ending AWS we are clear, with a date to open our pre seed round, and even better we have investors waiting! I urge any female founder to definitely take the time to apply this is a life-changing opportunity for all start-ups."

As one of 25 startups selected for the program, ChurchSpace also received credits, extensive training, mentoring and technical guidance, as well as introductions to Amazon leaders and teams, networking opportunities with potential investors, and ongoing advisory support.

“For underrepresented founders, access is power. And as Black founders with an audacious mission to eradicate high church underutilization rates, the access to capital, mentorship and tech innovation support will create tidal waves of positive impact that reach far beyond our internal operations but spread to thousands of local communities across the nation,” says Emmanuel Brown, ChurchSpace co-founder and COO.

AWS recently announced its three-year, $30 million commitment to the program. Amazon is currently looking for female founders for the next cohort that is now open with the deadline date of August 26.

MassChallenge Texas alum, ChurchSpace was founded in 2020 by two Black millennial pastors’ kids who witnessed the crippling effects that large church financial overhead placed on church leaders. The marketplace allows churches to earn extra revenue while remaining compliant with IRS nonprofit regulations. ChurchSpace is expecting to launch in 10 states with over 6,000 waitlisted users.

“I want to congratulate a truly innovative and inspiring group of startups selected from thousands of applicants for this opportunity. On behalf of the entire team, we are honored to support them on their journey,” says Howard Wright, vice president of startups at AWS.

Day Edwards is the co-founder and CEO of Church Space, which was founded in 2020. Photo courtesy of Church Space

Houston Prime members have a new option for skipping mall parking and lines. Photo via Amazon

Amazon tries on same-day mall delivery in Houston

prime shopping

Amazon has tapped more than 10 markets to roll out its new retail delivery service — and Houston makes the list.

Prime members can browse a handful of retail stores online on Amazon or through the app if they reside in one of the selected ZIP codes in Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Miami, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Seattle, Washington D.C., and more. The initial roll out of the service includes brands PacSun, GNC, SuperDry, and Diesel, but, according to Amazon, Sur La Table and 100% Pure will also be added into the mix over the next few months.

“We see high potential in our expanded seller partnership with Amazon, which includes delivery directly from select PacSun retail locations,” says Mimi Ruiz, vice president of ecommerce at PacSun, in a news release. “This is one more way for us to offer our customers the styles they want and love, when they want them.”

Users can check online to see if the service is available in their area. Some stores offer pickup too, but delivery is $2.99 or free for Prime members as long as they meet the $25 order minimum.

“The expansion of Amazon’s Same-Day Delivery to include beloved brands delivered directly from nearby retail locations is just another way we are offering customers even greater selection, at faster speeds,” says Sarah Mathew, director of Amazon Delivery Experience, in the release. “We are excited to see this new model come to life and look forward to adding more brands, stores, and locations to the program.”

The delivery service is free to Prime members who spend $25 or more. Photo via Amazon

Amazon Prime Air drones will fly into College Station later this year. Photo courtesy of Amazon

Amazon plans to land drone delivery down the road from Houston

prime spot

A Houston neighbor will be among the first in the nation to test pilot a game-changing delivery system. Amazon has announced plans to deploy its state-of-the art Prime Air drone delivery in College Station, Texas later this year.

The online juggernaut is already reaching out to College Station customers, telling them that they’ll soon receive free and fast drone delivery on thousands of everyday items. The deployment marks the largest selection of items to ever be available for drone delivery, per Amazon. College Station joins Lockeford, California as targeted test sites for drone launch.

“We are impressed with so many aspects of College Station,” notes an Amazon blog post announcing the news. “The innovative research conducted by Texas A&M University, the small-town feel, and the sense of community that is clear from the minute you arrive in town all make it a very special place.”

Jeff Bezos’ empire plans to also collaborate with the Aggies on tech. “We are thrilled about the opportunity to launch this service in College Station and partner with the city and its world-class university on some of the great work they’ve been doing in the area drone technology,” the post adds.

How will it work? Once onboarded, College Station customers can then view Prime Air-eligible items on Amazon, where they can place orders and receive an estimated arrival time with a status tracker for their order.

Amazon Prime Air’s New Delivery Dronewww.youtube.com

Drones will then fly to the designated delivery location, descend to the customer’s backyard, and hover at a safe height. The drones will then safely release the package, rise back up to altitude, and return to base, per Amazon.

Amazon is touting the difference of its drone fleet versus the masses. Prime Air drones fly up to 50 miles per hour, up to an altitude of 400 feet, and carry packages of up to 5 pounds.

Unlike most drones, Amazon notes, Prime Air drones utilize a sophisticated, sense-and-avoid system allowing them to operate at greater distances while safely and reliably avoiding other aircraft, people, pets, and obstacles. That means the drones can identify objects such as aircraft, birds, or static places such as trees and chimneys, avoid them, and select a safe space to land and later, safely leave.

“Being one of the first drone delivery locations for Amazon puts College Station at the forefront of this exciting technology,” said John Sharp, chancellor of The Texas A&M University System, in a statement. “What happens here will help advance drone delivery for the rest of the country and perhaps the rest of the world. We welcome Amazon to our community and stand ready to assist however we can.”

College Station, Amazon promises, will benefit by more than just speedy, environmentally friendly delivery. “We’re bringing more than drone delivery to Lockeford and College Station,” notes the Amazon blog. “Through these Prime Air drone deliveries, we will create new jobs, build partnerships with local organizations, and help to reduce the impact of climate change on future generations.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The Houston Food Bank scored marks for its innovative use of tech and the cloud. Photo courtesy of Houston Food Bank

Houston food charity scores prestigious Amazon tech grant

high tech gift

One of Houston’s most cherished food charities has been recognized for its tech prowess. Houston Food Bank has been awarded the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Imagine Grant.

The endowment honors “the vision and work of nonprofit organizations as they seek to improve their communities and the world with the help of cloud technology,” per a press release.

Specifically, the food bank was recognized in the Go Further, Faster category for the launching of a cloud-native digital logistics platform to better serve vulnerable populations facing food insecurity (that insecurity was greatly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the food bank notes.

Each winner in this category receives up to $150,000 in unrestricted funding, up to $100,000 in AWS Promotional Credit, and essential engagement with AWS technical specialists.

The challenges of COVID and the pandemic forced the food bank to get creative — and it responded. The food bank began delivering meals in March 2020 as part of its COVID-19 response through partnerships with volunteers, staff, corporate donors, and organizations such as CrowdSource Rescue, Task Rabbit, and Amazon.

This pilot has been a success: to date, more than 2.3 million meals have been delivered to those in need, the food bank notes in press materials.

Tech-wise, the food bank’s Home Delivery Platform operates using a cloud-native serverless architecture which includes heavy use of AWS services (AWS Lambda, Amazon DynamoDB, Amazon API Gateway, AWS Amplify, and more), with a mobile web responsive front-end written in React/Typescript.

The client side is split across four responsive web applications, each with a different function: Home Delivery management, pantry management, client orders, and driver deliveries. All of these apps utilize shared components and APIs that communicate with each other based on the different user personas.

Pariveda Solutions serves as the technology partner for the implementation of this platform. The project is a capability expansion on top of an existing manual process to deliver food to clients.

Houston Food Bank applied for the Imagine Grant in order to enhance their process digitally, connect submitted orders to the client’s nearest pantry, and manage delivery operations more effectively, with an emphasis on time management and delivery logistics, the organization notes in a release.

“With the success of our home delivery operations, Houston Food Bank’s goal now is to scale operations to expand home delivery for greater reach and impact,” said HFB president/CEO Brian Greene in a statement. “Additionally, with the proposed improvements, we hope to shift to utilizing volunteers for this important service instead of third-party delivery providers, and to deliver food using the client choice model, where clients may select foods based on personal preference, cultural and dietary needs. We are thankful to AWS and Pariveda Solutions for providing their support and expertise as we continue to find new ways to solve the age-old problem of hunger and work towards our ultimate vision of a world that no longer needs food banks.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.