4 Houston innovators to know this week

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This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund, Denis Akhiyarov of AiKYNETIX, and Sean Harkins and Brien Beach of AMPD Labs. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from additive manufacturing to venture capital — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Aleece Hobson, venture partner for the HX Venture Fund

Aleece Hobson of HX Venture Fund shares what people can expect from Venture Houston on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of HXVF

Today is a big day for Aleece Hobson — venture partner for the HX Venture Fund, a fund of funds investing in venture capital firms across the country that have interest in investing in Houston companies. She joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss Venture Houston, which takes place today, and why it is so important to HXVF to showcase Houston.

"Houston is a destination for innovation — we are not a flyover city," she says on the show. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Denis Akhiyarov, CEO and co-founder of AiKYNETIX

Houston-based AiKYNETIX is equipping runners with high-tech tracking tools. Image courtesy of AiKYNETIX

Houstonain Denis Akhiyarov wanted to design a way to easily improve running performance. He founded AiKYNETIX uses real-time technology to provide a new option for runners on treadmills.

“Runners spend a lot of time, energy and money to run better,” says Akhiyarov, CEO and co-founder of the company. “In my personal life with training for nine marathons, I’ve seen limitations with wearables, they don’t actually track running form while running. Overall, our technology tracks not only your basic parameters but it can also analyze the human running form while in motion.”

AiKYNETIX, which was founded in January 2021, is positioned to replace power meters and can make a treadmill smarter. It has ability to plug into interactive video platforms for sports and serves as a much cheaper and more widely available analysis tool outside of motion capture labs, he says. Click here to read more.

Sean Harkins and Brien Beach, co-founders of AMPD Labs

Sean Harkins and Brien Beach opened AmPd Labs' space in the Heights last month. Images via ampdlabs.llc

Last year, Sean Harkins introduced his friend Brien Beach to the world of additive manufacturing, and together the duo saw a business opportunity not only for themselves — but also for all of Houston.

Harkins had been working in 3D printing and additive manufacturing — the process of creating an object by building it one layer at a time — for the last decade and studied industrial design at the University of Houston. Working together, Harkins and Beach launched AmPd Labs, Houston’s next-generation additive manufacturing facility for industrial design and production.

“There is a hill to climb with market acceptance, but we want to be the champions of that and Houston is just a great place to start this because it's the largest industrial city in America and there's so much industry here and there's tons of engineers in this community,” says Beach. “Houston is such a business-forward place. A ‘how can I help you’ type of business place.” Click here to read more.

Two innovators are bringing additive manufacturing opportunities to Houston. Image via Getty Images

New venture brings next-generation additive manufacturing to Houston

new to hou

Last year, Sean Harkins introduced his friend Brien Beach to the world of additive manufacturing, and together the duo saw a business opportunity not only for themselves — but also for all of Houston.

Harkins had been working in 3D printing and additive manufacturing — the process of creating an object by building it one layer at a time — for the last decade and studied industrial design at the University of Houston. Working together, Harkins and Beach launched AmPd Labs, Houston’s next-generation additive manufacturing facility for industrial design and production.

“I met Brien through a mutual friend and we started discussing this idea of an additive manufacturing center in Houston,” says Harkins, president of AmPd Labs.

AmPD Lab’s focus is to break down traditional engineering design constraints, forcing the question “can this be additively manufactured?” The facility uniquely enables the printing of metals through metal binder jetting technology.

Last week, the company opened its first dedicated space near the Heights that was built to be the production studio as well as a place to bring in potential partners interested in additive manufacturing.

“There is a hill to climb with market acceptance, but we want to be the champions of that and Houston is just a great place to start this because it's the largest industrial city in America and there's so much industry here and there's tons of engineers in this community,” says Beach. “Houston is such a business-forward place. A ‘how can I help you’ type of business place.”

In addition to the launch of the new facility, Beach and Harkins visualize they will soon create a trade-school-type concept of “Digital Craftsmen” for additive manufacturing and offer an educational platform to help build a skilled workforce in this space.

“AM is not a fit for everything, but by working together, we can find those parts and products in which an AM solution can give you an operational or competitive advantage,” says Beach. “We will work with you through the design process, provide samples for testing, work through parts quality and qualification, and eventually find some products that you can permanently implement into your business.”

AmPd Labs will focus its business on these dedicated areas of impact:

  • Manufacturing technology choice
  • Part design
  • Material selection
  • Material performance
  • Assembly and workflow assessment
  • Business model impact
  • Supply chain impact
  • Increased data generation
  • Sales and marketing approach

Sean Harkins and Brien Beach opened AmPd Labs' space in the Heights last week. Images via ampdlabs.llc

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

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It's time to look at what's on the agenda for February for Houston innovators — from pitch competitions to networking events.

Here's a roundup of events not to miss this month. Mark your calendars and register accordingly.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

Feb. 8 — Digital Marketing Luncheon

Join Insperity, a partner of The Cannon, and digital marketing expert, Danny Gavin, at The Cannon Downtown for a lunch and learn.

The event is Wednesday, February 8, at noon, at The Cannon Downtown. Click here to register.

Feb. 9 — Innovation on Tap: Fred Higgs, Engineering at Rice University

Discuss research in the speaker’s engineering lab at Rice University on key Industry 4.0 technologies, namely additive manufacturing.

The event is Thursday, February 9, at 4 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

February 10 — Women in Leadership Conference 

The 23rd annual Women in Leadership Conference will be held in-person at Rice University. The conference has been a beacon of inspiration in the Houston community, empowering women to accomplish their career goals. In panel discussions and interactive workshops, attendees hear from leaders across different industries, explore various approaches to leadership, and discuss future opportunities for success.

The event is Friday, February 10, at 8 am, at McNair Hall at Rice University. Click here to register.

Feb. 15 — Real Talk from Real VCs

Join this event for a candid fireside chat on venture capital and its role in supporting and growing innovative startups.

The event is Wednesday, February 15, at 5:30 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Engage VC: Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau is an early-stage venture capital firm founded and operated in New York City. Since 2010, they have invested in entrepreneurs who embody audacity, endurance, and winning mindset – good people with great ideas who aren't afraid to do hard things. Join the HX Venture Fund to hear Caitlin Strandberg, Partner at Lerer Hippeau discuss her perspective on how to build and scale a great company, what early-stage investors are looking for, why Houston, and market trends among other topics.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 8:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Female Founders and Funders

Calling all rockstar female founders and investors in the Houston area. Mark your calendars for this month's Female Founders and Funders meetup. Coffee and breakfast is provided and the event is free to attend.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 9 am, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 21 — Web3 & HOU: Demystifying the Web3 Space Panel I

Join us to learn more about Web3 and its numerous applications.

The event is Tuesday, February 21, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — The Trailblazer’s Guide to Cultivating Authenticity

In this fun and interactive workshop presented by Erica D’Eramo of Two Peirs Consulting, we’ll look at how to foster a leadership style that works for you, even in the absence of role models.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 2 pm, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions. Founders will pitch at the Ion and compete for the grand prize package. Watch the startups pitch their company and see who the judges will name the champion of the Houston Startup Showcase 2023.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 23 — Navigating Innovation in the Corporate World

Join us for a fireside chat with leaders from Houston's largest employers, including Microsoft and Chevron to discuss how they have navigated successful careers in technology and innovation.

The event is Thursday, February 23, at 11:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 27-March 2 — Houston Tech Rodeo

The Houston Tech Rodeo is a conference showcasing the best and brightest of the Houston startup community in the region and beyond by putting investors, entrepreneurs, industry leaders, and creative minds in a room to talk about the biggest innovations and the future of tech sandwiched by some happy hours and friendly competition.

The events run Monday, February 27, through Thursday, March 2, at various locations in Houston. Click here to register.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


Houston innovator aims to connect the dots between data science and phenomena

eyes to the sky

As artificial intelligence continues to expand its sphere of influence, Spring-based expert Joe Schurman is looking to take this technology to an out-of-this-world space.

With his background includes working with advising defense and aerospace organizations like NASA, Schurman's latest venture PhenomAInon is perfectly aligned with what he’s been working towards since 2019. The company aims to be a multi-tiered subscription service and application that will be the world’s first cloud native data and AI platform for phenomenon-based data analysis that can analyze data from any source for space domain awareness and threat detection, according to Schurman.

The platform aims to provide end-to-end data and AI analysis, publish insights, build community, and provide cloud, data, and software consulting. PhenomAInon deploys data and AI services alongside modern data and AI engineering, per the website, to surface insights to explorers, researchers, organizations, publications, and communities through advanced data and AI analysis. Schurman has worked with the U.S. government's task force for unidentified anomalous phenomenon — any perceived aerial phenomenon that cannot be immediately identified or explained — known as UAPTF. The tool will run sensitive information and then get back custom video analysis. The public version of the tool will give the public the option to view videos and cases, and form their own analysis.

“We are working together with multiple teams both public and private to continue to curate the data sets, clear documents for public review, and provide advanced analytics and AI capabilities never seen before to the public,” Schurman tells InnovationMap. “From a data and analytics perspective, we are applying machine learning and advanced analytics to find correlations and anomalies in the incident reports across multiple data sets.

"Some of these are public, some are private, and some we are clearing for public review," he continues. "The analytics will go far beyond incident reporting and showcase heat maps, correlative incident maps to key private and public sector facilities, and trends analysis never reported — e.g. incident reporting correlated with time, weather, FAA, and drone flight data, etc. We also have a new content analysis platform where users will be able to eventually run their own AI and ML analysis on their own videos.”

Schurman was first able to show this to the world in 2019, when as an adviser for To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, or TTSA. He also appeared on History Channel’s “Unidentified: Inside America's UFO Investigation” to show the Pentagon’s former Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program head and TTSA Director of Special Programs Luis Elizondo how the AI platform could be helpful in tracking data related to Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

Now, PhenomAInon's app is a work-in-progress. While it soft launched in May of 2022, Schurman says they have several data sets that are awaiting clearing from the U.S. government, as well as the content analysis tool in development to launch possibly by the summer. Schurman also hopes they will curate the largest library of incident videos, images, and audio recordings.

The subject of UAP continues to attract new discussions from government officials and industry professions across aerospace, academia, and more. In Houston, Rice University's Woodson Research Center and its humanities department host one of the largest archives of UAP and paranormal data, notes, and research that include documents from CIA programs on remote viewing.

Schurman says he's looking to provide even more data and information in this space.

“This phenomenon, it’s implications to multiple aspects of our lives and possible security threats, all come down to a data problem and the organizations that have been in place to-date just have not had the level of cloud, data and AI engineering capabilities we take for granted and have access to in the private sector,” says Schurman. “My goal is to bring this all together, starting with PhenomAInon.”

Houston expert: Build workforce resiliency by investing in a long-term, low-cost internship strategy

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Short-term talent shortages can feel overwhelming, especially if your company is navigating staff shortages, while also planning for future growth.

While internship programs can get a bad rap, there are many benefits to providing opportunities for early career professionals in any organization. By building a pipeline of eager, talented employees, and embedding institutional knowledge in your organization, you can reduce the burden of extra work on remaining employees and reinvigorate your business.

Get more engagement and develop champions at your company by incorporating three vital ingredients into your internship program strategy:

  1. Hire based on core values & interns’ ability to thrive at your company
  2. Invest in training
  3. Provide meaningful work

Build a strong team: hire based on ability to thrive 

To ensure your organization’s growth is coming from a diverse talent pool, build a hiring process around employees' future ability and core values, instead of what they have done in the past. Oftentimes, you’ll find that an intern’s coachability, willingness to learn and growth mindset are better determining factors towards future success than past experience.

During the recruitment and hiring process, ask your interns questions to probe values, interests, and passions. To determine if they have a growth mindset, you can ask, “What do you read in your time off to stay up to date with the latest trends in the industry? What did you learn yesterday?” or “Tell me about a time you received feedback. What did you do with this?”

Make sure that each intern that comes on board feels like a part of the team. Let them immerse themselves into your company’s culture, work environment, and industry by inviting them to your employee team-building activities, monthly company-wide conference calls, and other events that provide them with more context about your culture. Schedule weekly touchpoints with each intern to regularly check in on goals, their progress on tasks, and overall concerns. Not only will these meetings strengthen trust, but they will also position interns to succeed at your company.

Build resilience: invest in training

When you invest in a thoughtful, effective training experience, your interns will be more committed to the role because they’ll see the added effort you’re making towards their career.

Consider how your current training is structured and implemented so that your internship training experience is up to speed with the expectations of Gen-Z. Explore out-of-the-box training options, including coaching, virtual learning, and assessments that they will actually use.

In addition to the hard skills that are essential to supporting any company, ensure that you are training interns on core competencies. The National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies eight core competencies that are vital to career readiness: career & self-development, communication, critical thinking, equity & inclusion, leadership, professionalism, teamwork, and technology. When you teach interns these core competencies as soon as they join your organization, you will see an immediate boost in productivity, and you can objectively assess for future full-time employment.

Build momentum: provide meaningful work

After you’ve clearly mapped out your internship training experience, clearly outline projects from each of your company’s departments before you onboard interns. By planning ahead, and having a running list of projects that don’t require much explanation, you can give your interns a sense of purpose as soon as they join, which in turn will prevent bored interns from disengaging.

Ask interns what their goals are for their internship so you can not only help them make those goals a reality, but also tie their goals back to your company’s overall goals. As you offer meaningful enrichment opportunities, you will land top talent through your internship programs, and word will spread to bring in better talent for future internships.

Come out on top with a strong team

Businesses that take advantage of bringing on interns during a talent shortage can come out of hard times better prepared for the future. Once you have a strong and sustainable internship program, it will only grow and gain momentum.

Weather any storm that’s ahead by continuing to attract the best talent. Your company deserves it.

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Allie Danziger is the co-founder of Ampersand, an online training platform for businesses and professionals looking to level up their talent.