Tellinga creates artistic and personal cards for every occasion. Courtesy of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski can't count how many times he's gone looking for a greeting card — before some holiday, birthday, or special occasion — and found nothing that suited his recipient. He doesn't remember when he started editing them, either. For a few years now, he's been taking markers and pens to the greeting cards, blacking out words and scribbling new ones to say what he wanted to.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

But he can remember a few moments that changed that for him — and for Houston. When he started sending his family cards he'd sketched that depicted scenes from their lives, his classmates in the Rice University MBA program told him that, despite his pharmaceuticals background, this might actually be the right business for him.

Tellinga is hardly just a maker of greeting cards; it's in the business of storytelling, and customers can have personalized artworks delivered right to their mailboxes — a site for reclaiming, Kurkowski says, from the dread of bills and marketing materials.

"I'm trying to tap back into the tangible, physical and real side of life," Kurkowski says.

A year ago, Kurkowski sent his first Tellingas — short for "Telling a Story" — as an official business. He made the initial cards himself, but soon couldn't meet the demand on his own. Today, Tellingas are crafted from a cohort of more than 20 artists who are mostly Houston-based and, as Kurkowski says, make his work look like garbage.

Customers can select a few purchase options for customers, ranging from a one-panel story to 12 scenes. They upload a photo of the people they want drawn and submit their idea for the artwork on the website — they can create renderings of real-life events they want to remember or they might tell a wacky, fantasy story. For Kurkowski, the most important part is receiving the art over time — for example, the 12-panel pieces are sent over a one-month period.

Currently, Tellinga's only full-time staff is Kurkowski, but he's looking to hire a CTO to manage the growing demands of the website, where orders are placed. He also wants Tellinga to grow into the Airbnb model, with artists posting their works on his site and setting the price of their commissions themselves. Kurkoswki will be raising funds in the next investment round.

Until then, he's hoping to grow Tellinga's ability to turn stories into keepsakes — by offering ways to frame and preserve them, and by introducing a subscription model, so that customers can select days from of an entire calendar year to send their personalized artworks—constantly tapping back into that physical side of life like Kurkowsi wants.

"It's just cool because it's different," Kurkowski says. "It's getting away from the digital media world."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

The movers and shakers of the Houston innovation world did a lot of extra moving and shaking last week. This week's Houston innovators to know include two new hires within the ecosystem.

Thomas Rubenak, senior principal at Accenture Ventures

Thomas Rubenak is senior principal of Accenture Ventures. Courtesy of Accenture

Thomas Rubenak has watched Houston's startup scene blossom over his career. Now, as senior principal at Accenture Ventures, he gets to help startups connect with Accenture and its clients.

"It's a win-win-win," Rubenak tells InnovationMap. "The client gets the benefit of having the best of the best and the startups get amazing exposure to companies they might not have been able to get in front of. And, Accenture is happy because it gets to serve the client." Read more about Rubenak and his new gig at Accenture.

Payal Patel, director of corporate relations at Plug and Play

Payal Patel, former director of business development at Station Houston, has joined Plug and Play as director of corporate partnerships. Courtesy of Payal Patel

Plug and Play Tech Center has made its first Houston hire. Payal Patel, who was preciously the director of business development at Station Houston, is now the director of corporate partnerships at Plug and Play.

"As I've gotten to know Plug and Play, what I've been most impressed with is the resources and capabilities they have," Patel says. "They've got great Fortune 500 corporate partners, they work and know the best tech startups all over the world, and they have a strong investment capability. I'm excited that those resources and capabilities are coming to Houston." Read more about the new hire and Plug and Play's plans for Houston.

Ed Wooten, director of ITAD at Smith

Wooten oversees IT asset disposition for Smith. Courtesy of Smith

Ed Wooten is in the business of safe, efficient, and responsible electronics disposal. In a world with cybersecurity threats around every corner, making sure your devices are responsibly disposed of is so important. Wooten wrote a guest article for InnovationMap about some of the lesser-known aspects regarding IT asset disposition.

"I've worked in the technology industry for over 20 years, helping customers across all industries ensure the proper and secure disposal of their equipment," writes Wooten. "I specifically want Houston businesses to be aware of some of the less-obvious facts when it comes to electronics recycling and disposal — and for them to know that trusted, locally based IT asset disposition (ITAD) services are available." Read more of Wooten's piece here.

The high-speed train planning a Houston-Dallas route now has a builder on board the project

Right on track

The Texas high-speed train that plans to zip between Houston and Dallas still has some obstacles to plow through, but the project now has a builder at least.

Texas Central, the developer of the Texas Bullet Train, has signed a contract with Salini Impregilo, an Italian construction company and one of the largest civil engineering contractors in the world, and its American subsidiary, Lane Construction.

"This agreement brings us one step closer to beginning construction of the civil infrastructure segments of the project," said Texas Central CEO Carlos F. Aguilar, in a release.

The train still can't move forward because it doesn't own all of the land necessary for the route.

But if/when it does get the land, Salini Impregilo will do the following:

  • supply the civil and infrastructure scope, including the design and construction of the viaduct and embankment sections along the entire route
  • install the track system
  • oversee alignment and construction of all buildings and services that will house maintenance and other rail system equipment

Salini-Lane had previously provided front-end engineering and design for the train's civil infrastructure, as well as an analysis of construction costs and schedule estimates.

"Salini-Lane's unmatched track record with rail infrastructure and, very specifically, its world-class high-speed rail expertise across the globe will be central to the completion of America's first end-to-end high-speed rail system," Aguilar says.

Salini's CEO Pietro Salini says in a statement that the company is both thrilled and honored to bring its large-scale railway expertise to the project.

Salini Impregilo is active in more than 50 countries on five continents, with experience building more than 4,000 miles of railway infrastructure around the world. It has built high-speed train projects in Europe and some iconic projects in the world, including the expansion of the Panama Canal.

Although the company has worked in the U.S. since the 1980s, it expanded its presence in 2016 when it merged with The Lane Construction Corporation, a U.S.-based company with almost 130 years of experience in infrastructure work.

The Texas train will be based on Central Japan Railway's Tokaido Shinkansen train system, which is considered the safest mass transportation system in the world.

The system has transported more than 10 billion passengers in 54-plus years, with no fatalities or injuries from operations, and has an impeccable on-time performance record.

It will debut a new train, the Shinkansen N700S, the sixth generation of this train, before the 2020 Olympics.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston nonprofit optimizes technology for special needs treatment and diagnoses

Using tech for good

When the first iPad was released in April of 2010, tech accessibility changed in more ways than mobile checkouts or on-the-go streaming.

The interface of the device is built around the multi-touch screen, which became a game changing component in special needs therapy and sparked the founding of BridgingApps, a program part of Easter Seals Greater Houston.

The program provides access to educational and therapeutic tools to parents, teachers, and therapists to use these mobile devices and apps to target and improve cognitive and physical development in children and adults with disabilities.

"I am the parent of a child with multiple disabilities; my son was born with Down syndrome," says Cristen Reat, co-founder and program director at BridgingApps.

Reat tells InnovationMap that she helped start a support group in a therapy clinic where many parents were interested about why mobile devices and apps were so engaging to their children.

"We were just amazed about how our children with different types of disabilities were engaged with the devices, were able to communicate with the devices, and were making big strides in their therapy," says Reat.

BridgingApps was founded by Reat and Sami Rahman in 2010, both seeking to help their children grow. The program became a part of Easter Seals of Greater Houston in 2011. The website currently boasts over 3,000 apps which users can sort through by category, age, price, skill, grade level, mobile device, and more. The apps are also able to benefit and treat veterans and their families.

"I was amazed at how quickly my son was able to do things independently with these touch screens that he was not able to do with traditional computers," Reat tells InnovationMap.

The Easter Seals Greater Houston organization was recently awarded a $15,000 grant from the Comcast Foundation as part of the Comcast NBCUniversal Assistive Technology Grant Fund, expand the available equipment used in the community technology labs with new equipment such as the TobiiDynavox EyeMobile Mini Classic Eye Gaze system that includes new software called Look To Learn and SnapCore First, and the AbleNet Latitude Mounting Arm that holds an iPad, Kindle, or other tablet and mounts to beds, wheelchairs, and tabletops.

The nonprofit offers three assistive technology services labs across the Houston area, in Bellaire, the Woodlands, and Stafford. According to the website, each lab has open lab days that the public can access without an appointment to explore a variety of assistive technology, including adapted toys and switches, specialized software and computer equipment, communication devices, and mobile devices and apps. Workshops and trainings are also available.

"The whole idea of BridgingApps is a shortcut, so that you don't have to Google search every day," says Reat. "It's basically the Yelp of special needs apps where you can type in a diagnosis, a skill, something you're looking for, and you'll come up with a video, instructions, and summary that helps people figure out what can help them today."

The organization was also awarded a $75,000 grant by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, which, according to a news release, will help the nonprofit serve 50 individuals that are veterans and or current military as well as their family members through services such as digital trainings through app reviews and videos, face-to-face counseling and counseling via tele-health, especially for those without transportation or living in rural areas.

BridgingApps currently has a team of two full-time and seven part-time employees. The nonprofit hosts an annual fundraiser each Spring called Walk With Me. The next walk is scheduled for April 25 at the Houston Zoo.