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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Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.

Report: Federal funding, increased life science space drive industry growth in Houston

by the numbers

Federal funding, not venture capital, continues to be the main driver of growth in Houston’s life sciences sector, a new report suggests.

The new Houston Life Science Insight report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows Houston accounted for more than half (52.7 percent) of total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across major Texas markets through the third quarter of this year. NIH funding in the Houston area totaled $769.6 million for the first nine months of 2022, exceeding the five-year average by 19.3 percent.

VC funding for Houston’s life sciences sector pales in comparison.

For the first nine months of this year, companies in life sciences raised $147.3 million in VC, according to the report. Based on that figure, Houston is on pace in 2022 to meet or surpass recent life sciences VC totals for most other years except 2021. JLL describes 2021 as an “outlier” when it comes to annual VC hauls for the region’s life sciences companies.

JLL notes that “limited venture capital interest in private industry has remained a challenge for the city’s life sciences sector. Furthermore, it may persist as venture capital strategies are reevaluated and investment strategies shift toward near-term profits.”

While life sciences VC funding has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with NIH funding, there are other bright spots for the sector.

One of those bright spots is the region’s rising amount of life sciences space.

The Houston area boasts more than 2.4 million square feet of space for life sciences operations, with another 1.1 million under construction and an additional 1.5 million square feet on the drawing board, the report says. This includes a soon-to-open lab spanning 25,000 square feet in the first phase of Levit Green.

A second bright spot is the migration of life sciences companies to the region. Two Southern California-based life sciences companies, Cellipoint Bioservices and Obagi Cosmeceuticals, plan to move their headquarters and relocate more than half of their employees to The Woodlands by the first half of 2023, according to the report.

“Houston’s low tax rate and cost of living were primary drivers for the decisions, supported by a strong labor pool that creates advantages for companies’ expansion and relocation considerations,” JLL says.

Here's what Houston startups need to know about internal communications

guest column

Startup founders often focus on outward victories. However, if they look inward and get internal communications right, this can prioritize, inspire, and retain talent, which is the heart of the company.

Consistent internal communication helps employees to understand the company's core values and mission and the evolving internal policies and procedures — health care benefits, reorganizations, remote work — that accompany a young business. Investing in internal communications also supports external public relations efforts because the best company storytellers are well-informed employees.

Consider these tactics for effective internal communications.

Prioritize messaging

In any startup, internal procedures evolve as the company grows. Take control of the narrative while easing employees' minds by prioritizing internal messaging.

Whether transitioning to a more flexible work schedule, updating healthcare benefits, or rolling out a performance review process, planning messages in advance can help team members understand the change, the impact, and how they can contribute positively to the development.

Well-informed employees help mitigate uneasiness and tend to achieve business goals more quickly. Make sure to allow the employees time to reflect and react.

Support managers

Leaders and mid-level managers play an integral role in internal communications by cascading information throughout the organization. They regularly engage with their employees, so it is important that managers feel confident and supported in their communication skills.

Managers can benefit from a common company language, talking points, or communications training for more effective and productive conversations. By identifying, clarifying, and reinforcing common goals and key objectives for managers, companies can strengthen productivity and eliminate confusion, especially if the company changes teams' roles and responsibilities.

Be consistent

Make sure that the drumbeat remains steady, whether this includes a monthly town hall meeting or weekly CEO emails. Since communication is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, use a communication approach tailored to the workforce.

For example, there might be more effective communication methods than email for employees not behind a desk. As a smaller company, take that time to connect with the team directly because as the company swells, that one-on-one experience will become increasingly difficult to manage.

Listen to employees

Delivering top-down messaging that resonates with the workforce remains critical. However, internal communication is a two-way street.

Allow team members to give valuable feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about the company, concerns, and how to improve communications. Issue internal surveys or hold face-to-face meetings to gain useful insight.

Understanding these critical proof points will enable more effective communication and quick action on any issues.

Be a human

Keep humanity at the heart of internal communications. Amid the company's transition, maintain transparency and recognize the emotional toll some changes can have on teammates. The best talent will remain when they feel connected, informed and listened to.

Greater employee engagement can help build a strong company culture of accountability, authenticity and communication, setting up the business for bigger success.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.