This Houston hospital is tapping into tech to best optimize its COVID-19 vaccination process. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson

Across the country, millions of people eagerly await their COVID-19 vaccinations. But many of them are encountering a big roadblock on the path toward eradicating the pandemic: scheduling their shots.

To overcome that hurdle, some organizations have turned to technology. San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B, for instance, will let customers schedule COVID-19 vaccinations through a web-based scheduler. As with H-E-B's app, many vaccination-scheduling tools are just now becoming available.

Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center is one huge step ahead of the vaccination curve, though. Back in September, the hospital — part of the massive Texas Medical Center complex — started planning how it would roll out vaccinations for its more than 21,000-member workforce. As part of that planning, MD Anderson developed an in-house app enabling its employees to schedule their own vaccination appointments.

"We have an incredible team of informatics developers who worked in conjunction with our human resource and employee health leaders to design an app that's accessible on your phone or from any computer," says Dr. Welela Tereffe, chief medical executive at MD Anderson. "The app feeds you information about what appointments are available and then floats an appointment reminder to your calendar as well as sending you text reminders."

Beginning December 15, MD Anderson employees received the hospital's initial round of shots. They were the first employees who used the app to schedule appointments at workplace vaccination clinics. As of January 5, more than 8,700 hospital employees had been vaccinated with the first dose of either the Pfizer vaccine or Moderna vaccine. The immunizations are not mandatory. In all, 10,700 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been shipped to MD Anderson since December 14, and every one of them is already spoken for.

Yolan Campbell, associate vice president of HR operations at MD Anderson, says the vaccination scheduling app built on knowledge the hospital's team had accumulated throughout 2020 in producing apps for COVID-19 tests and other pandemic-related purposes.

Tereffe notes that COVID-19 vaccination scheduling has "caused a lot of stress" for health care providers. MD Anderson hoped to avoid that stress by incorporating the app into its vaccination plan.

"The app that that our teams have designed is very simple, very user-friendly," Tereffe says. "It prompts you to put in your preferred contact information, both email and phone. It allows you to choose a block of time and a day that you'd like to be vaccinated. And it puts the information right there at your fingertips about the vaccine and the vaccine clinic process so that you can review it in real time."

As soon as an employee chooses an appointment slot, they receive conformation via the app. Through the app, an employee can cancel or reschedule an appointment.

"I think that level of access and control really helps to reassure people that they can trust the process," Tereffe said.

The app also gives MD Anderson more control over the vaccination clinics, according to Campbell and Tereffe. For instance, a dashboard created by IT professionals at the hospital gathers data from the app to track how many vaccinations have been given, how many appointments have been canceled, and which times and days are most popular for vaccinations. Tereffe said those real-time insights have enabled MD Anderson to adjust the operating hours for vaccination clinics.

To supplement the app, MD Anderson provides extra assistance with vaccination scheduling for employees with language or technology barriers, Tereffe said. The hospital also runs a vaccination hotline staffed by HR professionals.

Looking ahead, Tereffe said MD Anderson will accept any COVID-19 vaccine that's been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So far, that's limited to the Pfizer and Moderna versions.

"We have a process in place to hold unique clinics for each type of vaccine and each dose of vaccine to ensure that people get the vaccine that they have chosen … and that they always get the correct second dose," Tereffe said. "Our intent is to help our employees make informed decisions."

Wayt is a new app that makes both sides of a shopping transaction smoother and social distancing compliant. Photo courtesy of Wayt

Houston-area student creates new app to help businesses operate safely during COVID-19

there's an app for that

A 17-year-old high school student from the Houston area stepped up to help his local community, as the coronavirus continues to keep many customers from shopping the way they used to.

The Wayt app, created during the stay-at-home order in March, presents itself as an efficient and easy-to-use platform to streamline shopping during the times of the coronavirus. The app provides businesses and their customers with a platform to communicate making curbside pickup, booking appointments, and joining a virtual line a breeze.

"The platform provides a new set of tools for both the customers and the employees of businesses," says Ethan Saadia, app developer and Wayt creator. "With the use of this app, businesses can streamline the process and remove the hassle of shopping for customers."

The app offers a new way to open businesses by using technology that can manage capacity and keep them connected as many businesses move to curbside pickup. The platform allows customers to receive notifications about their order and tap a button to tell the business they're here, removing the hassle of calling customers to tell them their order is ready.

Wayt provides businesses with the customer name and car information, it even lets them know if the customer wants the order delivered directly to their trunk or other areas of their vehicle. This instant notification system keeps businesses and clients safe allowing them to practice strict social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"The use of this app will be able to remove a lot of the anxiousness that we have currently," says Saadia. "It will allow for a more convenient shopping experience as we continue to deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in all of our lives."

The platform also allows businesses to offer shopping appointments to abide with reduced capacity mandates, letting customers pick when they can come in within the constraints customized by the business. The app also makes standing in line while keeping social distancing recommendations easy by having customers tap a button on the app to get in line.

According to Saadia, a lot of these changes — like curbside pickup and virtual lines — are here to stay.

"From my perspective and experiences from my friends and family," says Saadia. "Curbside pickup and virtual lines are definitely here to stay because even before the pandemic, popular places used to have long lines and that presented many new challenges. The pandemic is just accelerating technological change that will make our lives easier."

Saadia, a serial innovator and app developer, started his first company in 2013 called PCs for Me where he sells DIY computer kits that help kids learn computer science. While he expects to continue that venture and Wayt, Saadia says he's conscious that things can change unexpectedly as he enters his senior year.

"I know we live under a very uncertain time and I don't really know what's going to happen with school a month from now or a year from now," says Saadia. "My plan is to keep taking it day by day working on Wayt to improve the user experience and work on other apps that I have on the pipeline."

Ethan Saadia, a 17-year-old high school student, created an app to improve the user experience of shopping during a pandemic.

OrangeCrate provides a locally-owned option for delivery. Courtesy of OrangeCrate

New locally owned food delivery app rolls into Houston area

orange you glad?

A new delivery app aims to give diners a locally owned alternative to the big national names. Meet OrangeCrate, an app that does things a little differently.

Unlike the national brands, each OrangeCrate affiliate is locally owned and has a specific geographic territory. Franchisee Cody Lee has brought the company to two areas of Houston, Fort Bend County and the greater Memorial area. Lee launched in Fort Bend on June 1 and will bring Memorial online August 24.

"We're just like UberEats or DoorDash, but we're locally owned and locally operated, so I have a lot of control and flexibility versus some of the bigger name brands," Lee tells CultureMap.

That flexibility starts with the cost restaurants pay to use OrangeCrate. While national operators might charge as much as 30 percent to deliver a meal, Lee says OrangeCrate's fees are typically half that, usually between 10 and 15 percent.

Customer fees start at $2.99 and go up depending on how far away from the restaurant they live. Most orders also have a $10 minimum.

In terms of control, Lee trains each driver personally and monitors them when they're working. Unlike other services, drivers may only make one delivery at once, and they're only allowed to make OrangeCrate deliveries while they're on the company's schedule.

"I can chat with them and understand if there's an issue and minimize the impact to the customer," Lee says. "There's a lot of control where I can maintain a lot of variables to ensure the customer experience."

From a user's perspective, the experience will feel familiar. Order and pay via OrangeCrate's website and app. A driver — wearing masks and gloves, of course — will arrive with a bright orange bag containing the food order.

Lee says that so far his biggest challenge has been building awareness of the brand and convincing restaurateurs that he's a viable alternative to the more familiar names. From his perspective, restaurants that promote his company can save money on delivery fees and expand their reach, which is particularly important at a time when some people don't feel comfortable eating in restaurants.

"Most people know the bigger guys," Lee says. "It's important to hear Orange Crate, and that we're a local option; we're also a cheaper option. They get the same or better service for their customers."

In Fort Bend County, Lee has started with a roster of mostly national and regional chains like Chili's, 5 Guys, and Chuy's, but he says he's trying to add as many local restaurants as possible. In the Memorial area, he hopes to launch with between 50 and 60 establishments.

"My focus is on local restaurants and earning their business," Lee says. "I will only be adding local restaurants as we go forward."

So far, Lee has seen enough growth that he's optimistic about the service's future. He's got his eyes on Galveston and The Woodlands as potential market for expansive, with Inner Loop neighborhoods in his long term plans.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

You can order Mala Sichuan to be delivered thanks to newly launched Chowbus. Photo by Isabel Protomartir

Chicago-based food delivery app launches to serve Houstonians

introducing chowbus

A new delivery app wants to make it easier for Houstonians to access the best dishes from Chinatown. Chowbus, a nationwide service that focuses on Asian cuisines, has arrived in Houston.

Among the 80-plus restaurants available at launch, diners may use the app to order dishes from Chinatown favorites such as Mala Sichuan Bistro, Arco Seafood, and Ocean Palace as well as relative newcomers like Chengdu Taste, Chongqing Chicken Pot, and Meet Fresh. Deliveries are available from 11 am to 10 pm to points within the Houston city limits as well as to suburbs such as Pearland, Sugar Land, and Katy.

Customers pay a delivery fee that costs between $2.99 and $4.99 depending on their proximity to the restaurant, but the app does provide a bundling option that allows people to order dishes from multiple restaurants without paying an additional fee. True die-hards can subscribe to Chowbus Plus; for $9.99 per month, all deliveries over $25 are free and deliveries between $15 and $25 cost $1.99.

"We are excited to roll out our service to the Houston community," Chowbus co-founder and CEO Linxin Wen said in a statement. "The city is known for its vibrant culinary scene, which includes tons of great authentic Asian restaurants. We're proud to help Space City discover them."

Beyond helping restaurants expand their reach, Chowbus aims to be a good partner to its restaurants by providing them with analysis of best-selling dishes as well as high quality digital photography. On average, Chowbus claims to boost delivery revenue by 25-percent for restaurants on the platform.

"We're thrilled by the opportunity to partner with Chowbus," said Shanjian Li, the owner of Chongqing Chicken Pot, a Szechuan restaurant in Chinatown's Bellaire Food Street complex. "We hope this will help more Houstonians discover the flavorful dishes that we work so hard to create every day."

Based in Chicago, Chowbus has been a growth spurt. The platform now offers delivery from more than 3,000 restaurants in over 20 cities across North America such as Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, and Boston.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

A Houston software startup has created a communication tool and is allowing free access amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Getty Images

Houston tech startup offers free survey app to help companies manage COVID-19 response

software solutions

Keeping employees and employers connected is crucial during a crisis. A Houston-based software startup recognizes the importance of communication during the COVID-19 pandemic, providing its digital form and surveys app for free for six months.

Unvired Inc. recently unveiled its Digital Forms app to help employees voice their concerns and keep businesses with their finger on the pulse of employee morale. The survey is customizable for each business and contains questions with the most important factors such as employee health and well being, communication, confidence, and leadership.

"Digital Forms fits in with a whole new paradigm in the software world," says CEO Alok Pant. "It allows a business user to make their own specialized applications fast and easy with no coding necessary."

The low-code platform has a drag-and-drop form building feature to instantly deploy surveys, can store data in the Unvired Cloud, and instantly generate reports for insights in the administration portal.

The startup already has customers using it for their COVID-19 response, with users choosing to use it as a sort of information hub with frequently asked questions along with questions regarding employee and health wellbeing. While other companies use for surveying the number of masks and hand sanitizer supplies available.

The forms app, already in the works months before the virus changed the scope of daily life, will be officially launched in July.

"Digital Forms inadvertently became the perfect tool to easily build forms and create workflows during the time of the coronavirus pandemic," says Pant. "We wanted to help our community in any small way we can, so we saw offering this app for free as a great opportunity to help our business community."

Unvired, which is based out of Station Houston, has nationwide and international clients in a variety of different industries. According to Pant, Unvired's platform for surveys and customizable forms was first born out of their own customer's need for an app with form digitization capabilities.

"Many of our customers, especially in the oil field use many paper forms as part of their process," says Plant. "Our app is a very form-centric application that can serve our customers with automated digitization of forms, making it easier for employees to reduce manual data entry, enable real-time decision making, and lower operational costs."

This launch is only part of Unvired's new line of products. The startup is also releasing Chyme Bots, a digital communications solution that can be tailored to a specific business to answer frequently asked questions quickly and remotely.

"Many businesses will have to start to invest in digital in the near future," says Pant. "If they want to get out of the slump the pandemic has landed many businesses, digitization along with digital applications will be key to growth and efficiency."

Trivie, which gamifies corporate training, has launched a new way for employees to connect with remote learning amid the pandemic. Photo via Trivie.com

Houston founder's corporate training app shifts to enhance remote learning for employees

there's an app for that

How much of corporate training do employees actually remember? Texas-based Trivie, a training reinforcement app, sought to not only answer that question, but change the results entirely. Using adaptive learning and gamification, the Trivie app is reshaping online learning while the world adapts to remote working in a global pandemic.

According to Gallup Panel data, 62 percent of Americans currently say they have worked from home during the coronavirus pandemic. In a connected yet socially distanced environment, corporations are choosing to automate remote learning and disseminate critical COVID-19 guidelines with the help of Trivie.

One of Trivie's founders, Leland Putterman, who is based in Houston, first had the idea for a consumer-facing trivia game 18 years ago. When the app rolled out in 2013, it garnered more than three million downloads. Like anything in technology, App Store games were diversifying. Competing applications were deviating into in-app purchases — a move Putterman's app hadn't planned.

Rather than sink under the pressures of an unfit revenue model, the founders pivoted to a more fruitful investment in an untapped space: corporate training. After receiving multiple emails from users asking if developers had ever thought of using the app for company training, Putterman jumped into research on information retention and learned that trivia vastly benefits human memory.

With a new business plan and research backed by neuroscientists, the Trivie app launched in 2016. Reaching a broad list of organizations with five to over 40,000 users, Trivie has generated the praise and trust of business goliaths such as Subway, Unilever, and Anheuser-Busch. The app has been used to roll out onboarding, marketing training, safety protocols, sales information, remote learning and more.

"The vast majority of companies and organizations do nothing after a training event," he says, adding that, according to Trivie's own research, the app has found 50 to 75 percent of people had forgotten workplace education within a month. "It makes training one of the least effective business processes out there because everybody knows people don't remember their training unless it gets reinforced."

What if the secret to remembering is forgetting? Studies have shown that re-learning information over time strengthens memory recall.

"The way our solution works is very unique in that we want you to forget so you can re-remember again. The process of re-remembering is what pushes things into durable memory," explains Putterman.

When a company sets up a training on the Trivie app, the program serves each employee personalized training refreshers over time that are balanced with the retention levels of each unique learner. Using adaptive learning, the app prompts employees to remember previous facts until they master the subject.

"The AI [artificial intelligence] on the backend predicts when you're going to forget again, and it automates the whole thing," Putterman says.

In a Trivie control group, half of the test subjects used Trivie and half received basic employee training. Putterman stated the Trivie users typically have 95 percent retention after a month while non-Trivie users show less than 60 percent retention.

Employers can see the results of each Trivie assessment, pinpointed down to individual questions — a feature that is especially crucial for compliance and safety protocol. One of Trivie's university clients published a training on Title IX, where students passed yet 65 percent missed the question: "Whose responsibility is it to gain consent during a sexual encounter?"

When the university received the results, "they were able to see down to that level of detail—and that knowledge gap is pretty darn important," explains Putterman.

"Training is important but nowadays it's mission-critical," he says.

While Trivie already had many clients with needs for safety training, COVID-19 has brought new compliance guidelines to the forefront of every industry. Currently, Trivie has made the CDC's coronavirus guidelines available to all of its clients for no additional charge to be used across their entire employment bases.

Putterman acknowledges the pitfalls of sending out a corporate memo only to hear crickets.

"In a Trivie platform you would send a video, PDF, or word document via Trivie. You'd know people opened it up and after they're required to take a quiz so you know they understand what was in the message," Putterman explains.

An internal discussion board also allows company employees to discuss why the communication is essential to the organization. Another prominent feature of the app is a customizable survey.

"You know as well as I do that there's a ton of anxiety out there [about the coronavirus]. Wouldn't it be nice to push out a survey and then have a discussion around how people are dealing with it?" he questions.

With most of America's workforce working from home, Putterman expressed that it's common for employees to feel disconnected.

"The only way to maintain that company culture and close communication with confidence is to use something like Trivie," he says. "There's no feedback loop right now. The only way to bridge that gap is to have something like Trivie that's the glue."

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.