The University of Houston's College of Technology is looking to optimize the shopping experience. Photo via UH.edu

A new AI-powered lab at the University of Houston will supply real-time intelligence about the behavior of retail shoppers to help spur development of new technology for the retail industry.

The University of Houston College of Technology and Houston-based Relationshop announced the launch of the AI Retail Innovation Lab on November 10. Relationshop provides digital engagement and shopper loyalty technology to customers like Albertsons, United Supermarkets, Save On Foods, Market Street, and Big Y Foods.

The cloud-based lab, located at the College of Technology building in Sugar Land, will enable students, faculty, and industry professionals from across the U.S. to sift through in-store and online shopper data and then come up with new technology for the retail sector.

"This academic and commercial partnership with Relationshop accelerates the understanding and advancement of applied technology to keep pace with the unparalleled growth of digital retail as a result of COVID," Anthony Ambler, dean of the UH College of Technology, says in a news release.

The news release indicates new technology arising from the lab-supplied data "will optimize the shopper journey through more personalized and curated digital interactions across all forms of digital engagement and commerce … ."

Randy Crimmins, president of Relationshop, says his company will work alongside UH faculty and data science teams to advance the use of AI and big data in the retail sector.

"We see this partnership as a perfect blending of our strengths, with great synergy in the incredible work they are doing in academia, and our key areas of focus and experience in the retail marketplace," Crimmins says.

The AI lab, part of the College of Technology's Advanced Technology Innovation & Research Center, also will be a hub for industry training, undergraduate and graduate studies, and other initiatives.

The lab's activities will be carried out in concert with the AI Innovation Consortium, a think tank of IT and advanced technology thought leaders. Aside from UH, members of the consortium include Pennsylvania State University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Louisville.

The UH announcement comes two days after the official debut of a retail innovation lab at McGill University in Montreal. The lab, which includes a "fully frictionless" Couche-Tard Connecté convenience store, fosters collaboration among key players in the retail, emerging technology, and startup communities.

"By combining artificial intelligence and retail management, this retail innovation lab at the Bensadoun School of Retail Management will allow our researchers to develop new initiatives and technologies to improve the customer experience for the retail sector with the help of industry partners," says professor Morty Yalovsky, dean of McGill's Desautels Faculty of Management.

In the U.S., Alimentation Couche-Tard is the parent company of the Circle K chain of convenience stores. Circle K currently is rolling out frictionless technology, including AI-supported self-checkout systems, at stores in Tempe and Tucson, Arizona.

New funds, new classes, and new opportunities for mentorship — these are this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know with exciting new announcements

Who's who

While last week's innovators to know were all starting new jobs, these three for this week are starting new endeavors — from multi-million-dollar funds to education programs. Here are this week's three innovators to know.

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Courtesy of CTV

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures announced a new $90 million fund to focus scalable tech companies that could improve and advance Chevron's oil and gas business.

Leading Fund VII is CTV president, Barbara Burger. According to the release, the fund will target early- to mid-stage companies and limited partnership funds.

"CTV serves as an excellent source within Chevron for new business models and novel technologies that can deliver value to the enterprise through their integration," Burger says in the release. "We are using venture capital as a conduit for early access to innovation and to build a pipeline of innovation for Chevron." Read the full story here.

Anthony Ambler, dean of the College of Technology at the University of Houston

Courtesy of UH

Undergraduate students at the University of Houston now have the option to major or minor in Technology Leadership and Innovation Management or minor in Applied Innovation, thanks, in part, to the College of Technology dean Anthony P. Ambler. All three options begin in the fall semester of this year, and the college is also interested in adding a master's and a PhD. program in Innovation Management or a post-graduate certificate program.

"We are about giving people the right tools to innovate," says Ambler in a release. "How do you get more people to the position where they are able to innovate?" Read the full story here.

Myrtle Jones, senior vice president at Halliburton

Courtesy of Myrtle Jones

Despite climbing through the ranks within the energy industry, Myrtle Jones says mentorship wasn't a big priority when she was in the early part of her career.

"I started working in the energy business in the early '80s, and women were new to the industry," Jones says. "We were somewhat getting ourselves established in the business world – there was no such thing as someone saying, 'We're going to get you linked up with mentors,' so you had to find role models."

Now, Jones has teamed up with Austin-based tech company, Bumble Bizz, that helps connect industry professionals and foster networking and mentoring opportunities. As of 2019, users have the option to see only women on the app, too, in order to foster their professional network of women. Read the full story here.

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Booming Houston suburb, other Texas towns among the fastest-growing U.S. cities in 2023

by the numbers

One Houston suburb experienced one of the most rapid growth spurts in the country last year: Fulshear, whose population grew by 25.6 percent, more than 51 times that of the nation’s growth rate of 0.5 percent. The city's population was 42,616 as of July 1, 2023.

According to U.S. Census Bureau's Vintage 2023 Population Estimates, released Thursday, May 16, Fulshear — which lies west of Katy in northwest Fort Bend County - ranked No. 2 on the list of fastest-growing cities with a population of 20,000 or more. It's no wonder iconic Houston restaurants like Molina's Cantina see opportunities there.

The South still dominates the nation's growth, even as America’s Northeast and Midwest cities are rebounding slightly from years of population drops. The census estimates showed 13 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. were in the South — eight in Texas alone.

The Texas cities joining Fulshear on the fastest-growing-cities list are:

  • Celina (No. 1) with 26.6 percent growth (42,616 total population)
  • Princeton (No. 3) with 22.3 percent growth (28,027 total population)
  • Anna (No. 4) with 16.9 percent growth (27,501 total population)
  • Georgetown (No. 8) with 10.6 percent growth (96,312 total population)
  • Prosper (No. 9) with 10.5 percent growth (41,660 total population)
  • Forney (No. 10) with 10.4 percent growth (35,470 total population)
  • Kyle (No. 11) with 9 percent growth (62,548 total population)

Texas trends
San Antonio saw the biggest growth spurt in the United States last year, numbers-wise. The Alamo City added about 22,000 residents. San Antonio now has nearly 1.5 million people, making it the the seventh largest city in the U.S. and second largest in Texas.

Its population boom was followed by those of other Southern cities, including Fort Worth; Charlotte, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Fast-growing Fort Worth (978,000) surpassed San Jose, California (970,000) to become the 12th most populous city in the country.

Meanwhile, population slowed in the Austin area. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000), outpaced Austin (980,000), pushing the Texas capital to 11th largest city in the U.S. (barely ahead of Fort Worth).

Population growth in Georgetown, outside Austin, slowed by more than one-fourth its population growth in 2022, the report says, from 14.4 percent to 10.6 percent. It's the same story in the Central Texas city of Kyle, whose population growth decreased by nearly 2 percent to 9 percent in 2023.

Most populated cities
New York City with nearly 8.3 million people remained the nation's largest city in population as of July 1, 2023. Los Angeles was second at close to 4 million residents, while Chicago was third at 2.7 million and Houston was fourth at 2.3 million residents.

The 15 populous U.S. cities in 2023 were:

  1. New York, New York (8.3 million)
  2. Los Angeles, California (4 million)
  3. Chicago, Illinois (2.7 million)
  4. Houston, Texas (2.3 million)
  5. Phoenix, Arizona (1.7 million)
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1.6 million)
  7. San Antonio (1.5 million)
  8. San Diego, California (1.4 million)
  9. Dallas (1.3 million)
  10. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000)
  11. Austin (980,000)
  12. Fort Worth (978,000)
  13. San Jose (970,000)
  14. Columbus, Ohio (913,000)
  15. Charlotte, North Carolina (911,000)

Modest reversals of population declines were seen last year in large cities in the nation's Northeast and Midwest. Detroit, for example, which grew for the first time in decades, had seen an exodus of people since the 1950s. Yet the estimates released Thursday show the population of Michigan’s largest city rose by just 1,852 people from 631,366 in 2022 to 633,218 last year.

It's a milestone for Detroit, which had 1.8 million residents in the 1950s only to see its population dwindle and then plummet through suburban white flight, a 1967 race riot, the migration to the suburbs by many of the Black middle class and the national economic downturn that foreshadowed the city's 2013 bankruptcy filing.

Three of the largest cities in the U.S. that had been bleeding residents this decade staunched those departures somewhat. New York City, which has lost almost 550,000 residents this decade so far, saw a drop of only 77,000 residents last year, about three-fifths the numbers from the previous year.

Los Angeles lost only 1,800 people last year, following a decline in the 2020s of almost 78,000 residents. Chicago, which has lost almost 82,000 people this decade, only had a population drop of 8,200 residents last year.

And San Francisco, which has lost a greater share of residents this decade than any other big city — almost 7.5 percent — actually grew by more than 1,200 residents last year.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How this Houston clean energy entrepreneur is navigating geothermal's hype to 100x business growth

houston innovators podcast Episode 237

Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

"Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that.

And the bet has more than paid off. Since officially launching in 2017, Fervo Energy has raised over $430 million — most recently collecting a $244 million series D round. Even more impressive to Latimer — his idea for drilling horizontal wells works. The company celebrated a successful pilot program last summer by achieving continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production with Project Red, a northern Nevada site made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

Next up for Fervo is growing and scaling at around a 100x pace. While Project Red included three wells, Project Cape, a Southwest Utah site, will include around 100 wells with significantly reduced drilling cost and an estimated 2026 delivery. Latimer says there are a dozen other projects like Project Cape that are in the works.

"It's a huge ramp up in our drilling, construction, and powerplant programs from our pilot project, but we've already had tremendous success there," Latimer says of Project Cape. "We think our technology has a really bright future."

While Latimer looks ahead to the rapid growth of Fervo Energy, he says it's all due to the foundation he put in place for the company, which has a culture built on the motto, "Build things that last."

“You’re not going to get somewhere that really changes the world by cutting corners and taking short steps. And, if you want to move the needle on something as complicated as the global energy system that has been built up over hundreds of years with trillions of dollars of capital invested in it – you’re not going to do it overnight," he says on the show. "We’re all in this for the long haul together."

Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.