UH is officially part of an initiative to diversify machine learning research. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

A $50 million grant from the National Institutes of Health is expanding research in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and the University of Houston now has a seat at the table.

UH has joined in on a national initiative to increase the diversity of artificial intelligence researchers, according to a news release from the school. Thanks to a $50 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the University of North Texas Health Science Center will lead the coordinating center of the AIM-AHEAD program, which stands for Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity.

"Beyond health care, AI has been used in areas from facial recognition to self-driving cars and beyond, but there is an extreme lack of diversity among the developers of AI/ML tools. Many studies have shown that flawed AI systems and algorithms perpetuate gender and racial biases and have resulted in untoward outcomes," says Bettina Beech, chief population health officer at the University of Houston and newly named AIM-AHEAD coordinating center team member.

The initiative will bring together collaborators and experts across AI and machine learning, health equity research, data science training, data infrastructure and more. The other universities involved include: University of Colorado-Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora; University of California, Los Angeles; Meharry Medical College in Nashville; Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta; Johns Hopkins University, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

"This network will be foundational to achieving the goals of the AIM-AHEAD program, which include providing more inclusive data for health disparities research, and enhancing the diversity of AI/ML leadership," says Susan Gregurick, NIH associate director for data science, in the release.

Unfortunately, AI — designed by humans — mimics human decision making through its choice of algorithms. This means that the same biases humans deal with have made it into the AI decision making too. These gaps can lead to continued disparities and inequities for underrepresented communities especially in regards to health care, job hiring, and more.

"AI solutions need to be implemented in a responsible manner and are now guided by AI ethical FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) principles," says Beech in the release. "The AIM-AHEAD project directly connects with the University of Houston's plan to train and diversify the future workforce in population health, increase the use of digital tools for chronic disease self-management, and to advance population health research."

Bettina Beech is the chief population health officer at the University of Houston and newly named AIM-AHEAD coordinating center team member. Photo via UH.edu

This Houston startup has a game-changing technology for deep learning. Photo via Getty Images

Houston artificial intelligence startup raises $6M in seed funding

money moves

A computer science professor at Rice University has raised seed funding last month in order to grow his company that's focused on democratizing artificial intelligence tools.

ThirdAI, founded by Anshumali Shrivastava in April, raised $6 million in a seed funding round from three California-based VCs — Neotribe Ventures and Cervin Ventures, which co-led the round with support from Firebolt Ventures.

Shrivastava, CEO, co-founded the company with Tharun Medini, a recent Ph.D. who graduated under Shrivastava from Rice's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Medini serves as the CTO of ThirdAI — pronounced "third eye." The startup is building the next generation of scalable and sustainable AI tools and deep learning systems.

"We are democratizing artificial intelligence through software innovations," says Shrivastava in a news release from Rice. "Our innovation would not only benefit current AI training by shifting to lower-cost CPUs, but it should also allow the 'unlocking' of AI training workloads on GPUs that were not previously feasible."

The technology ThirdAI is working with comes from 10 years of deep learning research and innovation. The company's technology has the potential to make computing 15-times faster.

"ThirdAI has developed a breakthrough approach to train deep learning models with a large number of parameters that run efficiently on general purpose CPUs. This technology has the potential to result in a gigantic leap forward in the accuracy of deep learning models," per and announcement from Cervin Ventures. "Our investment in ThirdAI was a no-brainer and we are fortunate to have had the opportunity to invest."

Anshumali Shrivastava is an associate professor of computer science at Rice University. Photo via rice.edu

In a guest column, these lawyers explain the pros and cons of using AI for hiring. Photo via Getty Images

Here's what Houston employers need to know about using artificial intelligence in the hiring process

guest column

Workplace automation has entered the human resource department. Companies rely increasingly on artificial intelligence to source, interview, and hire job applicants. These AI tools are marketed to save time, improve the quality of a workforce, and eliminate unlawful hiring biases. But is AI incapable of hiring discrimination? Can a company escape liability for discriminatory hiring because, "the computer did it?"

Ultimately, whether AI is a solution or a landmine depends on how carefully companies implement the technology. AI is not immune from discrimination and federal law holds companies accountable for their hiring decisions, even if those decisions were made in a black server cabinet. The technology can mitigate bias, but only if used properly and monitored closely.

Available AI tools

The landscape of AI technology is continually growing and covers all portions of the hiring process — recruiting, interviewing, selection, and onboarding. Some companies use automated candidate sourcing technology to search social media profiles to determine which job postings should be advertised to particular candidates. Others use complex algorithms to determine which candidates' resumes best match the requirements of open positions. And some employers use video interview software to analyze facial expressions, body language, and tone to assess whether a candidate exhibits preferred traits.

Federal anti-discrimination law

Although AI tools likely have no intent to unlawfully discriminate, that does not absolve them from liability. This is because the law contemplates both intentional discrimination (disparate treatment) as well as unintentional discrimination (disparate impact). The larger risk for AI lies with disparate impact claims. In such lawsuits, intent is irrelevant. The question is whether a facially neutral policy or practice (e.g., use of an AI tool) has a disparate impact on a particular protected group, such as on one's race, color, national origin, gender, or religion.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency in charge of enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws, has demonstrated an interest in AI and has indicated that such technology is not an excuse for discriminatory impacts.

Discrimination associated with AI tools

The diversity of AI tools means that each type of technology presents unique potential for discrimination. One common thread, however, is the potential for input data to create a discriminatory impact. Many algorithms rely on a set of inputs to understand search parameters. For example, a resume screening tool is often set up by uploading sample resumes of high-performing employees. If those resumes favor a particular race or gender, and the tool is instructed to find comparable resumes, then the technology will likely reinforce the existing homogeneity.

Some examples are less obvious. Sample resumes may include employees from certain zip codes that are home to predominately one race or color. An AI tool may favor those zip codes, disfavoring applicants from other zip codes of different racial composition. Older candidates may be disfavored by an algorithm's preference for ".edu" email addresses. In short, if a workforce is largely comprised of one race or one gender, having the tool rely on past hiring decisions could negatively impact applicants of another race or gender.

Steps to mitigate risk

There are a handful of steps that employers can take to use these technologies and remain compliant with anti-discrimination laws.

First, companies should demand that AI vendors disclose as much as possible about how their products work. Vendors may be reticent to disclose details about proprietary information, but employers will ultimately be responsible for discriminatory impacts. Thus, as part of contract negotiations, a company should consider seeking indemnification from the vendor for discrimination claims.

Second, companies should consider auditing the tool to ensure it does not yield a disparate impact on protected individuals. Along the same lines, companies should be careful in selecting input data. If the inputs reflect a diverse workforce, a properly functioning algorithm should, in theory, replicate that diversity.

Third, employers should stay abreast of developments in the law. This is an emerging field and state legislators have taken notice. Illinois recently passed regulation governing the use of AI in the workplace and other states, including New York, have introduced similar bills.

AI can solve many hiring challenges and help cultivate a more diverse and qualified workforce. But the tools are often only as unbiased as the creators and users of that technology. Careful implementation will ensure AI becomes a discrimination solution — not a landmine.

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Kevin White is a partner and Dan Butler is an associate with Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, which has an office in Houston.

Jim Havelka, founder and CEO of InformAI, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the difference his technology can make on the health care industry. Photo courtesy of InformAI

Houston health tech founder shares the monumental impact data can have on health care

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 68

Hospitals are processing massive amounts of data on a daily basis — but few are optimizing this information in life-saving capacities. A Houston company is seeking to change that.

InformAI has created several tech products to allow hospitals to tap into their data for game-changing health care.

"The convergence of technology, data, and deep learning has really opened up an avenue to look at large volumes of information and look at patterns that can be helpful in patient diagnosis and treatment planning," says CEO Jim Havelka on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

The InformAI team has developed two platforms that each of the company's tech products works within. One focuses on medical images and looks for subtle patterns of a medical condition, while the other can datamine patient information to identify patient risk predictors.

Currently, InformAI's sinusitis-focused product is undergoing Food and Drug Administration approval. About a quarter of the population has sinus-related issues, and the technology can help treatment and diagnosis, Havelka says.

"The data that we train our algorithms on are equivalent of 30 careers of a typical ear, nose, and throat surgeon. We see 30 times more patients in our training set than an ENT physician would see in a lifetime," Havelka says. "Being able to bring into play the patterns and unique subtleties that this data can bring into the decision making only makes the ENT more productive and more efficient, as well as creates better outcomes for patients."

InformAI has received venture capital support as well as a National Science Foundation award to advance its work. The company hopes to introduce a new round of funding later this year.

Havelka doesn't mince words when it comes to the importance of InformAI being located in Houston. The company's team works out of JLABS @ TMC as well as TMC Innovation Institute.

"Those relationships have been very helpful in getting data to build these particular products," Havelka says. "Just the Texas Medical Center alone has roughly 10 million patient encounters every year. The ability to get access to data and, equally important, the medical experts has been a tremendous benefit to InformAI."

Havelka discusses more about the revolutionary technology InformAI is working on — as well as advice he has for other health tech founders — on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Artificial intelligence is changing Houston — one industry at a time. Photo via Getty Images

3 ways artificial intelligence is changing Houston's future

Guest column

Artificial intelligence is the buzzword of the decade. From grocery shopping assistance to personal therapy apps, AI has sunk its teeth into every single industry. Houston is no exception to the AI boom. Enterprise-level companies and startups are already flocking to H-town to make their mark in AI and machine learning.

Since the world is generating more data every minute — 1,736 terabytes to be exact — Houston-based companies are already thinking ahead about how to make sense of all of that information in real-time. That's where AI comes in. By 2021, 80 percent of emerging technologies will have AI foundations — Houston is already ninth on the list of AI-ready cities in the world.

AI and machine learning can process large amounts of data quickly and use that data to inform decisions much like a human would. Here are three ways Houston-based companies are using these emerging technologies to revolutionize the city's future.

Health care

The health care industry is primed for AI's personalization capabilities. Each patient that doctors and nurses encounter has different symptoms, health backgrounds, and prescriptions they have to remember. Managing that amount of information can be dangerous if done incorrectly. With AI, diseases are diagnosed quicker, medications are administered more accurately, and nurses have help monitoring patients.

Decisio Health Inc., a Houston-based health tech startup has already made its mark in the healthcare industry with its AI software helping to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Their software, in collaboration with GE Healthcare Inc, allows health care providers to remotely monitor patients. By looking at data from ventilators, patient monitoring systems, health records, and other data sources, doctors can make better decisions about patients from a safe distance.

Climate change

Climate change isn't solved overnight. It's an issue that covers water salinity, deforestation, and even declining bee populations. With a problem as large as climate change, huge amounts of data are collected and need to be analyzed. AI can interpret all of that information, show possible future outcomes, track current weather patterns, and find solutions to environmental destruction.

One Houston-based company in the energy tech industry, Enovate Upstream, has created a new AI platform that will help digitize the oil and gas sector. Their AI-powered platform looks at data from digital drilling, digital completions, and digital production, to give oil companies real-time production forecasting. Their work will hopefully make their oil production more efficient and reduce their carbon emission output. Since oil drilling and fracking are a major cause for concern around climate change, their work will make a difference in slowing climate change and make their industry as a whole more climate-conscious.

Energy

Energy is an industry rich with data opportunities—and as Houston's energy sector grows, AI has become a core part of their work. Houston's large influence in the energy sector has primed it for AI integration from startups like Adapt2 Solutions Inc. By using AI and machine learning in their software, they hope to help energy companies make strategic predictions on how to serve energy to the public efficiently. Their work has become especially important in the wake of COVID-19 and the resulting changing energy needs.

Another Houston-based company using AI to influence the energy industry is the retail energy startup Evolve Energy. Their AI and machine learning system help customers find better prices on fluctuating renewable resource—helping them save money on electricity and reducing emissions. The positive feedback from the public on their AI model has shown how energy companies are using emerging technologies like AI in a positive way in their communities.

The bottom line

Houston is more primed than most cities to integrate AI and machine learning into every industry. While there are valid concerns as to how much we should lean on technology for necessary daily tasks, it's clear that AI isn't going anywhere. And it's clear that Houston is currently taking the right steps to continue its lead in this emerging AI market.

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Natasha Ramirez is a Utah-based tech writer.

This energy tech startup is using tech to change the game within the exploration and production industry. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based startup makes a splash with cloud technology for E&P in oil sector

big computing

A Houston area environmental and energy tech company offers a new pay-as-you-go SaaS application that uses chemistry, physics, artificial intelligence, and cloud technology to build simulation platforms for major exploration and production companies.

AquaNRG Consulting's new technology has already been used by major independent E&P companies, helping to increase energy production and optimization. With new products like aiRock™, it uses cloud-based technology to simulate the physical and chemical processes in natural and human-made porous media driven by data.

The company, founded in 2017 by Babak Shafei, a Ph.D. in Earth and Environmental Sciences, uses data chemistry-physics in a new scientific methodology that uses data-driven methods including machine learning to complement and enhance theoretical modeling on reactive transport modeling (RTM) principles.

"We have been working on the product while also thinking of new ways to provide services needed in the energy industry for a number of years," says Shafei.

Babak Shafei founded Houston-based AquaNRG. Photo courtesy of AquaNRG

AquaNRG has been awarded three prestigious Small Business Innovation Research grants totaling $1.4 million from the US Department of Energy and National Science Foundation.

Shafei says that his team of in the research lab continues to develop and improve the set of techniques that can optimize the oil and gas industry. The technology offers a number of solutions in the geology area, including geochemistry or petrophysical calculations, or even in the environmental area for biogeochemistry and remediation calculations.

"Our technology is oriented to big data and big computing," says Shafei. "The platform is armed machine learning and artificial intelligence that uses the chemistry-physics methodology while using a cloud-based application that is very popular and essential for the energy sector."

Shafei says that during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the digitization of the energy industry has only increased, and helped AquaNRG grow their brand. They plan to use this upward push to their advantage, by expanding their business and thinking well into the future.

"Our team of researchers is focused on our product and our offerings," says Shafei. "There's a lot of exciting things on our mind, including different verticals in terms of new hiring and new facilities, we're looking forward to rolling forward with that."

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Early-stage accelerator announces 5 startups to its fall 2021 Houston cohort

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An early-stage accelerator has picked its latest cohort of five Houston companies.

The Fall 2020 cohort of gBETA Houston includes:

  • AllIDoIsCook is founded by Tobi Smith and focused on exposing the world to Africa's cuisine by manufacturing gourmet food products delivered directly to customer doors and available at grocers. Since launching, AllIDoIsCook has built out a manufacturing facility, shipped over 8,000 boxes and generated $1.1 million in revenue all without outside funding.
  • Chasing Watts makes it easy for cyclists to coordinate or find rides with fellow riders in their area with its web-based and native application. The company has over 3,000 users and grew 135 percent from Q2 to Q3 in new ride views.
  • DanceKard, founded by Erica Sinner, is a new dating platform that connects individuals and groups with one another by bringing the date to the forefront of the conversation and making scheduling faster and easier with special promotions featuring local establishments. Since launching in August of 2021, DanceKard has over 170 users on the platform.
  • Dollarito is a digital lending platform that helps the low-income Hispanic population with no credit history or low FICO score access fair credit. Founded by Carmen Roman, Dollarito applies AI into banking, transactional and behavioral data to evaluate the repayment capability more accurately than using FICO scores. The company has1,000 users on their waitlist and plans to beta test with 100 or more customers in early 2022.
  • SeekerPitch, founded by Samantha Hepler, operates with the idea that jobseekers' past job titles and resumes are not always indicative of their true capabilities. Launched last month, SeekerPitch empowers companies to see who jobseekers are as people, and get to know them through comprehensive profiles and virtual speed interviews, and the company already has 215 jobseekers and 20 companies on the platform, with one pilot at University of Houston and three more in the pipeline.

The companies kicked off their cohort in person on October 18, and the program concludes on December 14 with the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Pitch Night. At this event, each company will present their five-minute pitch to an audience of mentors, investors, and community members.

"The five founding teams selected for our gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are tackling unique problems they have each experienced personally, from finding access to cultural foods, fitness communities and authentic dating experiences to challenges with non-inclusive financing and hiring practices," says Kate Evinger, director of gBETA Houston, in the release. "The grit and passion these individuals bring to their roles as founders will undoubtedly have a tremendous impact in the Houston community and beyond."

The accelerator has supported 15 Houston startups since it launched in Houston in early 2020. The program, which is free and hosted out of the Downtown Launchpad, is under the umbrella of Madison, Wisconsin-based international accelerator, gener8tor.

"Downtown Launchpad is an innovation hub like no other, and I am so proud of what it is already and what it will become," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc., in the release. "The five startups selected for the gBETA Houston Fall 2021 cohort are exploring new challenges that can become high-impact Houston businesses."

gBETA announced its plan to launch in Houston in September 2019. The program's inaugural cohort premiered in May and conducted the first program this summer completely virtually. The second cohort took place last fall, and the third ran earlier this year.

"These founders are building their companies and benefiting from the resources Downtown Launchpad provides," Pieroni continues, "and the proof is in the data – companies in these programs are creating jobs, growing their revenues and exponentially increasing their funding, which means these small starts up of today, working in Downtown Launchpad, are growing into the successful companies of tomorrow."

Houston university's MBA program claims coveted top spot of annual ranking

top of class

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business has raked in yet another top spot on an annual list of top MBA programs.

A new ranking from Poets & Quants, which covers news about business schools, puts Rice at No. 3 among the world's best MBA programs for entrepreneurship. That's up from No. 15 on last year's list.

The Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis grabbed the top spot in this year's ranking. Elsewhere in Texas, the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business lands at No. 14, the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth at No. 35, and the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in University Park at No. 36.

Poets & Quants judged the schools on 16 metrics related to their entrepreneurship initiatives.

Poets & Quants says Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business "itself is less than three decades old. But entrepreneurship was baked into its DNA from the get-go. The late Ed Williams and current professor Al Napier are credited with starting the entrepreneurial focus. But it wasn't until 2013 when Jones plucked Yael Hochberg from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management that the program really started to surge."

Rice's entrepreneurship offering combines academic courses and associated programs led by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie) with programs offered by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"The ability to be a student while working on your startup in class, under the expert guidance of our world-class faculty, gives our Rice entrepreneurs a competitive advantage over any others out there," Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and academic director of the Rice Alliance, says in a news release.

The Rice Alliance's OwlSpark Accelerator supplements the MBA program. The accelerator serves as a capstone program and launchpad for students seeking to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, the Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest intercollegiate student startup competition in the world, lets students pitch their startups in front of more than 300 judges. And the Rice Alliance Technology Venture Forums allows students to showcase their startups to investors and corporations.

"The ability for students to launch their nascent startups, obtain mentoring from members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem, and then pitch to hundreds of angel investors, venture capitalists, and corporations provides a unique opportunity that cannot be found on many campuses or in many regions," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance.

Houston entrepreneur amps up support for diverse businesses with new NAACP partnership

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 107

Carolyn Rodz didn't feel the need to rush into Hello Alice's series B raise. The company, which was co-founded by Rodz and Elizabeth Gore in 2017, closed its series B at $21 million this summer, but Rodz says they did so with a specific goal.

Rodz, who joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, says she didn't want to get on the cycle that is round after round of venture capital. Instead, she's prioritizing profitability. And to have that, Hello Alice — platform for small business owners to find capital, networks and business services — needed to be able to reach more small business owners.

"When we made the decision to raise, it was really about making sure that we had good, strong core fundamentals and that we felt like we were putting good money to work where we can scale the business," Rodz says on the show. "It's our belief that the more smalls business owners we can support, it gives us a more unified and stronger voice to go implement systemic change."

The round was led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest. It followed what was not only a rollercoaster of a year for the small businesses Hello Alice exists to serve, but also the company itself.

"It changed us permanently as a company," Rodz says of the pandemic.

On the show, Rodz characterizes the time for Hello Alice, which included slimming down the company's overhead, while simultaneously offering thought leadership, support, and resources for companies. Within a few days of the shutdown, Hello Alice was helping to deploy grants to entrepreneurs affected by COVID-19.

As challenging as the pandemic was for Hello Alice, it was validating too. Rodz says the company had a 700 percent increase in revenue and an 1,100 percent acquisition growth.

"We'd never operated in a downcycle, but what we learned through that process was that we're a really valuable resource for business owners when times are great, but we're also a really valuable resource for them when times are tough," she explains.

This validation set the scene for the series B, but following that raise, and, due in part to the doors opened by new investor networks, a new partnership with the NAACP Empowerment Program. Rodz says that the NAACP was given a lot of resources to put to work to build racial equity through economic empowerment. The relationship began with an introduction from Hello Alice investor, Green Book.

"They are real co-builders of this platform with us, so we're making sure we're actually putting money back into those communities," Rodz says of the partnerships Hello Alice has had with the NAACP and other equitable organizations. "NAACP was a huge milestone for us, something we're really proud of as a business. And I think it's a partnership that will continue to grow and make sure that we're aligned with how we're working on how we can build better together.

Rodz shares more on Hello Alice's growth as well as her observations on how Houston has evolved as an innovation ecosystem. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.