3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes James Hury of TRISH, Serafina Lalany of HX, and Andrew Ramirez of Village Insights. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from space health to virtual collaboration — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

James Hury, deputy director and chief innovation officer of TRISH

James Hury joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the role of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health. Photo courtesy of TRISH

Only about 500 humans have made it to space, and that number is getting bigger thanks to commercial space travel.

"If you look at all the people who have gone into space, they've mostly been employees of nations — astronauts from different governments," says James Hury of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're going to start to get people from all different ages and backgrounds."

Hury is the deputy director and chief innovation officer for Houston-based TRISH, and he's focused on identifying space tech and research ahead of the market that has the potential to impact human health in space. From devices that allow astronauts to perform remote health care on themselves to addressing behavioral health challenges, TRISH is supporting the future of space health. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Serafina Lalany, executive director of Houston Exponential

Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

HX has its new permanent leader. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Houston's nonprofit focused on accelerating the growth of the local innovation ecosystem has named its new leader.

Serafina Lalany has been named Houston Exponential's executive director. She has been serving in the position as interim since July when Harvin Moore stepped down. Prior to that, she served as vice president of operations and chief of staff at HX.

"I'm proud to be leading an organization that is focused on elevating Houston's startup strengths on a global scale while helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," Lalany says in a news release. "My team and I will be building upon the great deal of momentum that has already been established in this effort, and I look forward to collaborating closely with members of our community and convening board in this next chapter of HX." Click here to read more.

Andrew Ramirez, CEO of Village Insights

Andrew Ramirez originally worked on a similar project 10 years ago. Photo via LinkedIn

Innovation thrives on collisions, but how do innovators connect without face-to-face connection? Andrew Ramirez and Mike Francis set out to design a virtual village to promote collisions and innovation, and their platform is arriving at an apt time.

"The world has changed," Ramirez says. "I feel like people are trying to find the right balance of the physical but also the productivity gain from being able to do things digitally."

Ramirez leads Village Insights as CEO and the new platform is expected to formally launch it's Open World platform next month. Click here to read more.

This Houston startup is creating a digital platform to create collisions and spark innovation. Image via villageinsights.com

Exclusive: Houston startup is creating a unique digital network to connect innovative communities

virtually innovating

About 10 years ago, Andrew Ramirez was working internally with a corporate team at a Fortune 500 company to build a digital platform that would connect employees to work collaboratively.

"What we really realized is that once you put a lot of people together with a common theme or mission, we started to see a lot of interesting ideas pop up organically," Ramirez tells InnovationMap. "They were creating these collisions without any geographical boundaries."

About a decade later, Ramirez and his former co-worker on the project Mike Francis, revisited the idea of creating this collaborative digital space — with today's technology — for the greater innovation community, and Village Insights was born. Ramirez leads the company as CEO and the new platform is expected to formally launch it's Open World platform next month.

Village Insights allows users to join groups connected under a larger network. Image via villageinsights.com

Currently, Ramirez says Village Insights is targeting all the major players within innovation — startup development organizations, incubators, accelerators, academic partners, and more — to both house their internal networks but also connect them to the greater innovation landscape for idea sharing and problem solving collaboration on the web-based app.

"It's an organizational network — you can bring your community together," Ramirez says. "And on top of that, we have social and productivity features. Really what we're trying to do is create collisions. We feel that innovation and solving problems is best done with a group — the village concept."

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the need for Village Insights became even greater.

"The world has changed," Ramirez says. "I feel like people are trying to find the right balance of the physical but also the productivity gain from being able to do things digitally."

But Village Insights — which grew throughout the pandemic, hiring a team Ramirez hadn't even met — isn't just a pandemic solution, nor is Ramirez trying to replace in-person collisions.

"We want to be the digital mesh around the physical world," he says.

Sensing an opportunity amid the pandemic, Francis approached Halliburton Labs with his idea. Francis, founder and CEO of Nanotech was a member of the accelerator. Halliburton Labs and Village Insights collaborated to create a beta of the technology focused on clean energy innovation, called Constellation. The platform has been used by Halliburton's network and will be featured as a part of their Pitch Day event on Sept. 30.

"We learned a lot as a startup working with a corporate entity," Ramirez says. "We got to collaborate together and think about different ways to provide value for Constellation and the clean energy community. We learned that people are looking for a way to connect, and we're just now getting started on that journey."

Buoyed by the success with Constellation, Ramirez says Village Insights is in fundraising mode to support its growth. The company has plans for a $1 million seed round with a series A round to follow in the next eight to 12 months.

Andrew Ramirez and Mike Francis originally worked on a similar project 10 years ago. Photos courtesy

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Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

Houston's biggest benefactors gift massive $50M to pivotal Rice University institute

big money

Houston’s most generous couple has once again gifted a massive sum to a local institution. Rich and Nancy Kinder’s Kinder Foundation has donated $50 million to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the organization announced.

The Kinder's generous grant will assist the institute’s focus on what it dubs “inclusive prosperity” — that is, “ensuring that everyone can contribute to Houston's success and share in its opportunities.”

This new grant follows the approximately $30 million he Kinder Foundation previously gifted Rice’s Kinder Institute and its affiliates to facilitate its headquarters.

“Over the past decade, the Kinder Institute has played an integral role in shaping Houston,” said Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder Foundation. “However, we can do more to inform and more directly address the challenges our communities face, particularly in the areas of housing, education, economic mobility, health and population research.”

To that end, the Kinders’ funds will ensure the institute can assist its partners regardless of their ability to pay for research. Funds will also help the institute respond to community research needs quickly during times of crisis — such as a catastrophic storm or pandemic — when funds aren’t readily available.

Kinder Institute director Ruth López Turley calls the grant “a gift to all of Houston,” speaking to the institute’s work to improve lives through data, research, engagement and action.

“Inclusive prosperity doesn’t just happen spontaneously,” she noted in a statement. “It requires an explicit effort informed by research. Lots of organizations are working hard to make things better, but most of them have very limited research capacity, and that’s what the Kinder Institute is primed to do.”

Founded in 2010, the institute has evolved into a leader in research, data, and policy analysis of critical issues such as housing, transportation, and education. The institute also releases the familiar Kinder Houston Area Survey, which charts significant changes in the way area residents perceive and understand Houston’s ongoing challenges and opportunities.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.