Stephanie Hertzog, CEO of Houston-based Sodexo, shares how she's embracing diversity and innovation within the energy industry. Photo courtesy of Sodexo

When Stephanie Hertzog first started her role as CEO of Houston-based Sodexo Energy & Resources North America in the fall of 2019, she was on the road every week visiting some of the facility management company's 100 million customers.

"I actually had a conversation with my assistant in early March, and said, 'Okay, our goal is that by April, I not be on the road every week. Let's try to get this to at least every other week,'" she recalls. Shortly after, the world changed, and by March 10 she halted all travel and was forced to lead her company to innovate in more ways than one.

"When we think about innovation, we often think about technology, but we've had to innovate so much in the last 12 months, in how we do everything," she says. "We've really asked a lot of our teams over the last year in regard to having to rethink how they do things and be innovative and adapt."

To Hertzog, it's this adaptation and innovation she's seen in the last year that will allow her industry to support an energy transition and, as she says, "preserve" beyond the pandemic and inevitable future downturns.

InnovationMap talked with Hertzog about the importance of adaptation in the energy industry, new technologies that Sodexo has implemented in that effort, and how a diverse workforce plays a role in all of it.

InnovationMap: Why is it important for the energy industry to continue to adapt and be innovative?

StephanieHertzog: Oftentimes, the energy industry gets viewed a bit as being old school. We, as an industry, have really embraced technology for decades now. And I really think that it's what's allowed us to continue to survive during all of the down cycles.

In today's age, where we have renewables growing their percentage of the market, and there's a lot of enhanced enthusiasm around carbon reduction efforts. And technology will be at the forefront of that energy transition. Technology is going to be a big part of how we continue to provide affordable energy for the foreseeable future.

IM: You're originally from the Houston area. How has it changed and what makes you excited for Houston's future?

SH: I'm most excited about Houston and most proud of Houston in that we've always been a very diverse and international city. I think a lot of that has been driven over the years by energy business, bringing in people from all over, but we also have a high immigrant population. And I think that diversity has really led us to be entrepreneurial. Thinking about innovation and technology, having that diversity of thought and opinion has helped us to continue to be a leader in that space over time. We've always been a large city ever since I was young, but we're continuing to grow. And we're seeing more and more people transplanting here from other parts of the country. And I think that's exciting to see us getting more diversity in our economy as well.

IM: Why is it important — from a business perspective — to have a diverse workforce?

SH: There's a lot of research on this topic. It's very clear that businesses that have more diverse leadership teams outperform those that don't, and so having diversity in the room leads people to ask different questions, to have more discussion and to have more questioning of the status quo.

IM: What has been the most impactful adaptation in your industry in recent years?

SH: It's really been embracing software technology. The mobile aspects of being able to get data on your phone has really allowed us to put in a lot of systems that have allowed us to, for example, better track tasks and make sure that things get done to optimize janitorial cleaning schedule. There's a lot of stuff that we used to do on paper at a site that we now do electronically, which allows us to compare site versus site and see not just how well can that site do, but how well is that site doing versus other sites. It's all about doing what we do really well and as efficiently as possible.

We have a recent innovation that we've been working on: augmented reality glasses that allow someone on an offshore platform, for example, to wear the glasses and someone back in Houston in an office tower to see what that person is seeing almost through their own eyes. That is an example being able to get things done faster. I don't have to physically travel someone to the platform, I can just be able to get them in real time. And so there are a lot of things like that. It opens up all new worlds.

IM: Why is augmented reality an especially useful tool in the energy industry? 

SH: We already discussed from an efficiency standpoint of being able to get the expertise on site without physically having to get out there. But another aspect of that is the safety element. We always try to keep as few people on site as possible, just because these environments inherently have some amount of safety precautions that we have to take. Some of the things are as simple as to be able to actually get out to an offshore platform, you have to have been helicopter trained. But also, Heaven forbid, something should happen on that platform you want the least amount of people out there as possible.

IM: Did the pandemic play any role in terms of expediting the adaptation of these technologies?

SH: Yes. We were looking for better ways to do anything remotely that we could. That was everything from these glasses to just straight up video conferencing. We normally do a safety walk in-person, but how can you do a safety walk remotely? So I think any opportunity, we had to try to enhance the experience of being there, but not being there — everything got escalated.

IM: In light of Women's History month, why is it important for the energy industry to focus on inclusion of women as it moves forward?

SH: I think the business case is the same as we discussed earlier: better outcomes, more success if we have diversity at all levels in the energy space. And it's really important in energy, because we've been bad at this. Particularly around the gender dynamic, if we look at the highest levels in the energy space, there's just not historically been a lot of representation of women there. We're starting to make some inroads, but we still have a long way to go. Part of it's been a pipeline issue. A lot of the leaders of energy businesses are engineers. Women are now coming out of undergraduate around 40 percent of chemical engineers, so we're getting we're getting close to having parity there – but overall engineering is still only 20 percent female. And from that first manager position and on up, there are big gaps where we lose women along the way.

We're not keeping up with the pace that we've been putting women into the business for a long time. Companies have got to make some real effort here. Certainly the year that the United States had around some of the racial divide, I think that's an important topic for us to be talking about. And we need to all be focusing on getting more of not only diversity, but inclusion as well. It's not just about hiring a diverse group, it's about making those people feel included when they get here and having them want to stay and be a part of our industry. From a Houston perspective, we continue to be a big part of the economy here. And so if we're not getting it right, then Houston's going to struggle.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Now is the time to invest and embrace new technology or else you run the risk of being left behind. Photo via Getty Images

Expert: This is the difference AR can make in your business

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In our most recent article, we spoke to how you can strategize your company's technology adoption. One of the methods mentioned was augmented reality, which is the overlaying of digitally created content on top of the real world. This allows the user to interact with both the real world and digital elements or augmentations.

Currently, the market is saturated with digital content and everyday businesses are trying to decipher new ways to stand out. Now, connecting with an audience must go above and beyond passive digital content and take an innovative, interactive approach.

That said, engaging technology and content should not be used solely to grab attention, but rather be implemented in a strategic way. Glitzy technology such as AR is an excellent way to pique an audience's initial interest, but the real challenge is not getting them to come, it's getting them to stay.

User tendencies

Augmented reality affords brands the opportunity to utilize unique technology in a way that attracts users and immerses them in an experience from start to finish that passive digital content cannot accomplish. To create this enticing experience, the first step is to understand user tendencies.

For example, some users prefer to watch content but not listen. With that in mind, it's important that your content is created and designed in a way that can be enjoyed without audio. Thinking through what type of user you are targeting will inspire efforts that resonate with them most.

The next key tendency to keep in mind is user patience. Consumers are constantly fed new content daily and are becoming desensitized to digital mediums, and in order to make a lasting impression a producer is tasked with creating an impactful moment within the first five seconds of the user's interaction. From there, this will most likely prompt the user to click, listen to the audio and experience the full content.

Lastly, having a clear explanation of what app is needed and how they can operate the technology is key to AR success.

Identifying the right audience

As mentioned, AR is a great tool that checks many boxes for companies. However, before you can begin checking those boxes, you must address what your needs are first. These goals will vary dependent upon the type of company — B2C or B2B.

B2B companies must keep in mind that their purchaser is most likely not the end technology user. For these strategies, technology will most likely be implemented by a sales team or another internal position. The process then begins by identifying their sales team's needs. From there, it's important to determine how much the sales group wants to drive the experience as opposed to their potential customer. Finally, a custom experience is created that the team can deploy. One example is developing AR technology for trade shows. In some instances, the product being sold is too large or complicated to physically bring to the event, and the inner workings might be too difficult to dismantle. This is where the power of AR can truly shine.

Through the use of innovative augmented reality technology, VISION was able to help Emerson, a valve manufacturing company, create a memorable and immersive exhibit experience that stood out amongst the many other vendors on the expo floor competing for the attention of Valve World attendees.

Augmented reality proved to be a powerful tool in garnering interest at the trade show, driving traffic to their booth and granting the sales team more time to make connections and less time explaining, what can be, a complex product.

B2C businesses who want to incorporate AR technology have different challenges that need to be considered. That challenge is the numerous variables that are presented outside of a controlled environment. For instance, B2B AR will most likely consist of a handful of trained sales team members driving the experience on one type of device. For B2C, the consumer is the end user and many factors can play a role into the quality of their experience. Some dynamics the team has to consider is lighting, type of device, and current mobile software updates.

Additionally, it's important to recognize age as a factor. Some generations are more tech literate than others, so the challenge becomes creating an experience that is not only intriguing but has inherent usability. For this reason, testing is a vital part of our process due to the B2C margin for error being much smaller as patience levels thinner. If the production procedure is rushed the likelihood that an AR experience is glitchy rises. Having a production team with the ability to strike the balance of strategy, creativity and functionality is key to making a memorable consumer impression.

The future of AR

With the cancelation of live events, many companies are utilizing this time as an opportunity to prepare for the digital transformation. Brands are turning their marketing dollars towards the development of new technology such as AR and thinking long term about the approach they want to utilize moving forward.

By investing their budget into technology now, these organizations have the ability to advance and progress into what will be the future of marketing in the digital age.

COVID-19 has propelled AR technology and has forced companies to think outside of their typical efforts and adopt new ways of connecting. A few years ago, AR was a slow-moving technology, and now, the advancements are happening rapidly. Now is the time to invest and embrace new technology or else you run the risk of being left behind.

As AR continues to grow in popularity, we look forward to pushing the boundaries and creating immersive ideas that not only shape a user's experience with technology but encourage companies to utilize new ways of connecting.

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Dan Pratt is the creative director at Houston-based Vision Production Group.

The majority of McCarthy Building Companies' projects now include some sort of virtual or augmented reality technology. Courtesy of McCarthy Building Companies

Houston-area construction team utilizes technology to solve problems

Reality real estate

In recent years, the construction industry has begun embraced advancements in reality technology like virtual reality and augmented reality. While it has yet to reach critical mass in the industry, several contracting companies in the Houston region like McCarthy Building Companies are embracing the technology and blazing the trail for the construction industry.

Chris Patton, virtual design and construction manager for McCarthy's southern region, says many construction companies are consistently looking for ways to improve processes and procedures through reality technology.

"We really saw the potential and use cases for [VR] really early on, and it was really just a matter of the hardware and the software catching up to being something usable, consumable, deployable and cost effective on our projects," Patton says. "We were sitting there waiting for it and ready to go when it was."

Patton says these visualization tools have changed the way contractors display projects and have helped the partners on these projects — such as the design team, building owner and subcontractors — make better informed decisions earlier, more quickly and sometimes at a cheaper price point.

Before AR and VR technology entered the construction industry, companies either had to work with two-dimensional construction drawings or build very expensive, three-dimensional models, or mock ups, of construction sites that allowed clients to physically walk through a building space to interact with its features. Patton says the entire mock-up building process used to cost roughly $1 million — depending on the project size.

However, now this costly and time-consuming process is a thing of the past, as construction companies have found a way to utilize AR and VR technology to bring clients into a computer-generated environment. By putting on an AR or VR helmet, clients can immerse themselves and engage in a virtual environment that shows them all of the project's details and allows them to move about a virtual construction site the same way they would in a 3D model.

McCarthy's Houston division began utilizing reality technology in early 2015, with some of its other markets integrating the technology into their practices in late 2014. Since then, the company's use of AR and VR technology has grown exponentially, Patton says.

"When we first started evaluating and looking at virtual reality and augmented reality, [we] might have [used it on] one or two projects a year, and that was probably three years ago," Patton says. "Today, I'd say almost 60-75 percent of our projects—at some point in design or construction — utilize virtual reality or augmented reality or a combination of both."

Although McCarthy has been around since 1864, the general contracting company made its Texas debut in Dallas in 1981. Since then McCarthy expanded to create a Houston office in 2011, building a portfolio of renowned Houston clients such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Holocaust Museum Houston, Texas Children's Hospital as well as the recent completion of Houston ISD's Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

A notable project McCarthy's Houston Division took on was phase one the MFAH's master plan that included building The Glassell School of Art. The company also continues its work on phase two, which includes new developments for the MFAH for which McCarthy's virtual design and construction group created VR and AR models for the museum.

By using software like HoloLive and Fuzor for AR technology and Fuzor for VR technology, McCarthy's VDC group can visualize and combine digital creations with the real world, Patton says. With the growing number of projects utilizing the technology, Patton says McCarthy has invested greatly in personnel who will help grow the VDC group and continue to look for advancements in the construction industry.

"Some of the folks that we have those [VDC] positions in our company, some of them come from construction technology backgrounds and construction management backgrounds but others come from graphical design and have like a gaming background, some come from architectural backgrounds," Patton says. "[Reality technology] really kind of opened the door to a new opportunity for people to get engaged with the construction industry that we hadn't seen in the past."

Lori-Lee Emshey's Future Sight AR is revolutionizing antiquated construction tools using augmented reality. Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Houston company has sight set on AR solutions for industrial construction

Visual aid

When Lori-Lee Emshey got her first oil and gas construction job in Australia, she was carrying around a backpack full of papers.

"I was really shocked at how much work they were doing with such little technology," Emshey says. "I thought, 'there's so much room for innovation here.'"

She realized that it wasn't just that site or the company she was working for — this was a problem across the industry. So, she came up with a solution. Houston-based Future Sight AR is an augmented reality technology to more efficient work on industrial construction sites. Workers can use a smart device in the field, point it at a problem on site, log the issue, and see the steps needed to fix it.

Constructing a company
Emshey realized the potential for a company in January 2016. Since then, she's partnered up with her co-founders, Sofia Lazaro and Veena Somareddy, attended accelerators and conferences across the country, completed a proof of concept, until finally incorporated this year.

It was a well-paced start for the company because they got to prove time and time again there was a need for the company. Emshey says she never wanted to start a company just to start a company. They worked tirelessly at the beginning to ensure there was no one out there already doing this in the way they were doing it.

"I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs now become an entrepreneur because it's trendy and cool, and you want to put it in your Instagram bio," she says. "The three of us aren't like that. We did this because we had to. It wasn't going to get done another way, and we couldn't let this giant opportunity float on by."

Once they got a firm footing, one of the challenges they faced was communicating the company's market need and how the technology works to individuals outside the industry. For Emshey, this was particularly annoying.

"I came from a journalism background, and it's storytelling," she says. "I thought, 'I should be able to do this.'"

Something eventually just clicked, and Emshey stopped seeing confused faces in response to her presentation, and she started seeing more head nodding. However, another challenge she says she occasionally faces is how she looks.

"It is tough. I'm pitching this industrial construction startup, and I show up and I'm a 5-foot-5 blond woman," she says. "And some people don't care, and some people would prefer I looked a different way."

Foreseeing the company's future
Raising capital has been the latest focus for Future Sight AR. Aside from some grants and accelerator money, the company hasn't raised much. They've only just started meeting with investors and have a plan to launch a round of fundraising next year. Emshey also says they are looking to partner with three companies to conduct a few pilots early next year.

It's a great time in technology for Future Sight AR as more and more people are using AR and virtual reality. People use AR or VR often — in SnapChat filters or through Pokemon Go!

Emshey says she thinks VR will grow first in gaming, while AR will take off through enterprise.

"Unlike VR when you're completely immersed, in AR, you're seeing your actual environment and one of the places you have to do that is at work," Emshey says.

Whether it's through being acquired or growing the company on its own, Emshey says she wants Future Sight AR to evolve the industry as a whole.

"If we could permanently change the way that we build projects — oil and gas or another industry — and move it toward something more efficient, safer, more productive, and a better experience for workers, and accomplish that in a permanent way in a permanent way, then we're successful," she says. "We really built this for me — I was the worker out in the field trying to do things, and it was unnecessarily difficult."

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Houston startup recognized for inclusivity on journey to commercialize next-gen therapeutics

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A new Houston biotech company won a special award at the 16th Annual SXSW Pitch Award Ceremony earlier this month.

Phiogen, one of 45 companies that competed in nine categories, was the winner for best inclusivity, much to the surprise of the company’s CEO, Amanda Burkhardt.

Burkhardt tells InnovationMap that while she wanted to represent the heavily female patient population that Phiogen seeks to treat, really she just hires the most skilled scientists.

“The best talent was the folks that we have and it ends up being we have three green card holders on our team. As far as ethnicities, we have on our team we have Indian, African-American, Korean, Chinese Pakistani, Moroccan and Hispanic people and that just kind of just makes up the people who helped us on a day-to-day basis,” she explains.

Phiogen was selected out of 670 companies to be in the health and nutrition category at SXSW.

“We did really well, but there was another company that also did really well. And so we were not selected for the pitch competition, which we were a little bummed about because I killed the pitch,” Burkhardt recalls.

But Phiogen is worthy of note, pitch competition or not. The new company spun off from research at Dr. Anthony Maresso’s TAILOR Labs, a personalized phage therapy center at Baylor College of Medicine, last June.

“Our whole goal is to create the next generation of anti-infectives,” says Burkhardt.

That means that the company is making alternatives to antibiotics, but as Burkhardt says, “We’re hoping to be better than antibiotics.”

How does it work? Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria.

“You can imagine them as the predators in the bacteria world, but they don't infect humans. They don't affect animals. They only infect bacteria,” Burkhardt explains.

Phiogen utilizes carefully honed bacteriophages to attack bacteria that include the baddies behind urinary tract infection (UTI), bacteremia (bacteria in the blood), and skin wounds.

The team’s primary focus is on treatment-resistant UTI. One example was a male patient who received Phiogen’s treatment thanks to an emergency-use authorization from the FDA. The gentleman had been suffering from an infection for 20 years. He was treated with Phiogen’s bacteriophage therapy for two weeks and completely cleared his infection with no recurrence.

Amanda Burkhardt is the CEO of Phiogen. Photo via LinkedIn

But Phiogen has its sights set well beyond the first maladies it’s treated. An oft-quoted 2016 report projected that by 2050, 10 million people a year will be dying from drug-resistant infections.

“A lot of scientists call it the silent pandemic because it's happening now, we're living in it, but there's just not as much being said about it because it normally happens to people who are already in the hospital for something else, or it's a comorbidity, but that's not always the case, especially when we're talking about urinary tract infections,” says Burkhardt.

Bacteriophages are important because they can be quickly trained to fight against resistant strains, whereas it takes years and millions of dollars to develop new antibiotics. There are 13 clinical trials that are currently taking place for bacteriophage therapy. Burkhardt estimates that the treatment method will likely gain FDA approval in the next five years.

“The FDA actually has been super flexible on progressing forward. Because they are naturally occurring, there's not really a safety risk with these products,” she says.

And Burkhardt, whose background is in life-science commercialization, says there’s no better place to build Phiogen than in Houston.

“You have Boston, you have the Bay [Area], and you have the Gulf Coast,” she says. “And Houston is cheaper, the people are friendlier, and it’s not a bad place to be in the winter.”

She also mentions the impressive shadow that Helix Park will cast over the ecosystem. Phiogen will move later this year to the new campus — one of the labs selected to join Baylor College of Medicine.

And as for that prize, chances are, it won’t be Phiogen’s last.

Houston student selected for prestigious health care research program

bright future

A Houston-area undergraduate student has been tapped for a prestigious national program that pairs early-career investigators with health research professionals.

Mielad Ziaee was selected for the National Institutes of Health’s 2023-2024 All of Us Research Scholar Program, which connects young innovators with experts "working to advance the field of precision medicine," according to a statement from UH. Ziaee – a 20-year-old majoring in psychology and minoring in biology, medicine and society who plans to graduate in 2025 — plans to research how genomics, or the studying of a person's DNA, can be used to impact health.

“I’ll be one of the ones that define what this field of personalized, precision medicine will look like in the future,” Ziaee said in a statement. “It’s exciting and it’s a big responsibility that will involve engaging diverse populations and stakeholders from different systems – from researchers to health care providers to policymakers.”

Ziaee aims to become a physician who can use an understanding of social health conditions to guide his clinical practice. At a young age, he was inspired to go into the field by his family's own experience.

According to UH, Ziaee is the oldest child of Iranian American immigrants. He saw firsthand the challenges of how language and cultural barriers can impact patients' access to and level of care.

“I think a lot of people define health as purely biological, but a lot of other factors influence our well-being, such as mental health, financial health, and even access to good food, medical care and the internet,” he said in a statement. “I am interested in seeing the relationship among all these things and how they impact our health. So far, a lot of health policies and systems have not really looked beyond biology.”

"I want everyone to have an equal chance to access health care and take charge of their well-being. We need to have the systems in place that let people do that,” he added.

Ziaee is already on his way to helping Houston-based and national health systems and organizations make headway in this area.

He was named as a student regent on the UH System Board of Regents last year, sits on the board of the Houston chapter of the American Red Cross, and is an Albert Schweitzer Fellow.

Last year he was a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention John R. Lewis scholar, for which he presented his research project about predicting food insecurity in pediatric clinical settings and recommendations to improve the assessment based off his summer research with the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

Prior to this, he completed a 10-week guided research experience using data visualization and predictive modeling techniques to assess food insecurity in the Third Ward.

“I just took every opportunity that came to me,” Ziaee said. “All my experiences connect with my central desire to increase health access and improve health care. I am very intentional about connecting the dots to my passion.”

Earlier this year, three UH student researchers were named among 16 other early-stage research projects at U.S. colleges and universities to receive a total of $17.4 million from the DOE's Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM). The projects were each awarded between about $750,000 to up to $1.5 million.

Houston tech entrepreneur expands energy data co. in Europe, continues to scale

houston innovators podcast episode 229

The technology that Amperon provides its customers — a comprehensive, AI-backed data analytics platform — is majorly key to the energy industry and the transition of the sector. But CEO Sean Kelly says he doesn't run his business like an energy company.

Kelly explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that he chooses to run Amperon as a tech company when it comes to hiring and scaling.

"There are a lot of energy companies that do tech — they'll hire a large IT department, they'll outsource a bunch of things, and they'll try to undergo a product themselves because they think it should be IP," he says on the show. "A tech company means that at your core, you're trying to build the best and brightest technology."

To Kelly, Amperon should be hiring in the same field as Google and other big tech companies that sit at the top of the market. And Kelly has done a lot of hiring recently. Recently closing the company's $20 million series B round last fall led by Energize Capital, Amperon has tripled its team in the past 14 months.

With his growing team, Kelly also speaks to the importance of partnerships as the company scales. Earlier this month, Amperon announced that it is replatforming its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure. The partnership with the tech giant allows Amperon's energy sector clients to use Microsoft's analytics stack with Amperon data.

And there are more collaborations where that comes from.

"For Amperon, 2024 is the year of partnerships," Kelly says on the podcast. "I think you'll see partnership announcements here in the next couple of quarters."

Along with more partners, Amperon is entering an era of expansion, specifically in Europe, which Kelly says has taken place at a fast pace.

"Amperon will be live in a month in 25 countries," he says.

While Amperon's technology isn't energy transition specific, Kelly shares how it's been surprising how many clean tech and climate tech lists Amperon has made it on.

"We don't brand ourselves as a clean tech company," Kelly says, "but we have four of the top six or eight wind providers who have all invested in Amperon. So, there's something there."

Amperon, which originally founded in 2018 before relocating to Houston a couple of years ago, is providing technology that helps customers move toward a lower carbon future.

"If you look at our customer base, Amperon is the heart of the energy transition. And Houston is the heart of the energy transition," he says.