3 Houston innovators to know this week

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This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Barbara Burger of Chevron, Ashley DeWalt of DivInc, and Kelli Newman of Newman & Newman Inc. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — energy venture, sports tech, and communications — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Chevron Technology Ventures made two recent investments from its brand new fund. Courtesy of CTV

In February, Chevron Technology Ventures LLC launched its newest $300 million Future Energy Fund II to build on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Now, a few months later, Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, has announced that the fund has made its first two investments — one in a company with offshore wind turbines and one that's working on an alternative energy source from ammonia. Read more.

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss diversity and inclusion, sports tech, and all things Houston. Photo courtesy of DivInc

Houston has a huge opportunity for sports innovation, says Ashley DeWalt, and he should know. He's spent over 15 years in the industry at both the professional and collegiate levels.

"We have a very high concentration of current and former professional athletes that live in Houston," DeWalt says, "and I truly believe — and the data shows this — these professional athletes are going to invest in sports tech."

DeWalt — who is the Houston-based managing director at DivInc, which just expanded to Houston — joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss sports tech and diversity in the Houston innovation ecosystem. Stream the episode and read more.

Kelli Newman, president of Newman & Newman Inc.

In her guest column, Kelli Newman explains missed communications and branding opportunities for Houston innovators. Photo courtesy of Newman & Newman

Chances are, you aren't making the most out of branding and storytelling opportunities. At least that's what Kelli Newman, president of the Houston-based communication strategies firm, Newman & Newman Inc., found in her recent research into the Houston innovation ecosystem.

"For two months we interviewed investors, accelerators, industry customers and entrepreneurs themselves, asking for missed opportunities they may be seeing in what and how companies are communicating," she writes in a guest column for InnovationMap in which she explains her findings.

From setting yourself apart from the competition and tapping into empathy, Newman shares her tips from her findings. Read more.

Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss diversity and inclusion, sports tech, and all things Houston. Photo courtesy of DivInc

Diversity-focused nonprofit leader announces new VC partner, calls for Houston to be sports tech hub

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 79

For 15 years, Ashley DeWalt has been working within the sports and entertainment industry — particularly within branding and consulting. Now, as managing director for DivInc, he's taking his business acumen and relationship-focused style to fostering startup growth for diverse founders in Houston.

DivInc, which was founded and is based in Austin, is a nonprofit focused on identifying hurdles for diverse founders as well as providing support for these founders. The organization recently announced its expansion into the Houston market, and DeWalt joined as managing director to focus on building the nonprofit's relationships with startups, corporations, universities, and more.

"I'm laser focused on identifying corporate partners aligned with our mission and vision of what we are striving to do within this ecosystem," DeWalt says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Also on his list of groups to partner with is investors — whether that's individual angel investors or venture capital funds. The very first official partner DeWalt himself has brought on is Houston-based Mercury Fund.

"I've always been about building long-term relationships with people that are meaningful relationships," DeWalt says. "With Mercury, they understood that and were willing to commit and step up to the plate."

The new partnership, which was officially announced today, includes bringing on Mercury Fund's team to provide mentorship and support from a programming perspective, but also financial support. Mercury committed to partnering on a $1 million capital campaign that will support the organization.

DivInc's first Houston cohort, which was recently announced, will be able to benefit from this partnership as well as a partnership with Verizon that is providing each company in this current cohort a $10,000 undiluted grant.

While his involvement with DivInc is fairly recent, DeWalt has been working with sports startups from all over the world for a few years through Stadia Ventures, a sports innovation hub. DeWalt shares on the show how he has been a huge advocate for Houston and the sports activity in the area. From his perspective, the city has so many coaches and athletes on both the professional and collegiate levels — and these coaches and athletes are the future sports innovators and investors.

"We have a very high concentration of current and former professional athletes that live in Houston," DeWalt says, "and I truly believe — and the data shows this — these professional athletes are going to invest in sports tech."

Fostering diverse innovators and sports tech are two separate but overlapping goals that DeWalt has and is passionate about — and he's determined to help Houston's innovation ecosystem develop in an inclusive and equitable way.

"At the end of the day, if we can't figure out that rubix cube here in Houston, no one can," he says.

DeWalt shares more about what he's focused on and where DivInc is headed on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The city's top power players within Houston's energy innovation ecosystem joined virtual SXSW to discuss Houston's life science innovation scene and developing an inclusive ecosystem. Photos courtesy

Overheard: Houston's innovation leaders weigh in on the city's developing ecosystem at SXSW

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Another day of SXSW 2021 has concluded, and just like the first day, Houston innovators logged on to discuss technology and innovation that's taking off in town.

The second of the two days of programming focused on the development of the Houston innovation ecosystem — including how the city is factoring in diversity and inclusion into development — with interviews hosted by me, Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap. Missed out on the fun? Catch up with a few overheard moments from Houston House or stream the full interviews below.

"“We have to be true to ourselves of what works for Houston. Making sure the DEI is interwoven and in our DNA of our ecosystem so that we don’t make the same mistakes as other cities." — Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc Houston

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Houston has an advantage in developing its innovation ecosystem because it can do so by learning from established ecosystems on the coasts. Locally, that means making diversity and inclusion a top priority. At a virtual SXSW Houston House panel, Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc Houston, and Jan Odegard, interim executive director of The Ion, discuss the importance of prioritizing inclusion in developing Houston's innovation ecosystem. Click here to watch the full interview.

“This pandemic has really highlighted a lot of the health care disparities that are present within our systems. … Houston is in a unique position to address that.” — Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @ TMC

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

The Texas Medical Center is the largest medical center in the world with over 10 million patients coming in annually — and JLABS @ TMC is right in the middle of that. With this access to patients and clinical trials, Houston has a lot of potential to attract new innovative companies solving the world's biggest health care problems. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @TMC, discusses the momentum behind health tech innovation in Houston. Click here to watch the full interview.

“Whatever the training is, you have to actually create bias disruptors and points of friction and processes that change behavior. If we don’t have a way to implement what we learn, it doesn’t really change culture.” — LaTanya Flix, senior vice president at the GHP

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, corporations of all shapes and sizes were inspired to look inward to address inequity within their workforce — from training to shifts in workplace culture. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, LaTanya Flix, senior vice president of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) at the Greater Houston Partnership, shares how she's on a mission to spread mindful DEI initiatives across all of the GHP's member organizations. Click here to watch the full interview.

“I see a world where I’m sitting in a boardroom, and I’m not the only woman anymore.” — Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Women in venture capital are used to being the only women in the room and are fighting for that not to be the case for future generations. At a virtual SXSW Houston House panel, Sandy Guitar, managing director of the HX Venture Fund moderates a discussion with fellow women in VC, Paige Pitcher, director of innovation at Hines, and Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund. Click here to watch the full interview.

“There’s an incredible number of innovations that have popped up in Houston, but a lot of them have been centered around solving engineering-type problems at industrial scale — and that still exists, but doesn’t get as much coverage as consumer-facing technologies.” — Josh Pherigo, director of research and data analytics at GHP

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

When tracking any sort of progress or growth, business look to their numbers and data. Houston's innovation system is no different. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Josh Pherigo, director of research and data analytics at the Greater Houston Partnership, dives in deep with the facts and figures of Houston's burgeoning innovation ecosystem by following the venture dollars coming into local startups. Click here to watch the full interview.

“If you look at the density in Houston, being the energy capital of the United States, there are probably few places in the world where you can walk 15 minutes in either direction and talk to about 100 companies that would potentially be customers.” — Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

A good startup idea comes from necessity and a way to apply technology to solve problems and shorten business delivery times, and the maritime shipping industry has a lot of opportunities for these types of innovations. At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal, sets sail on a conversation about the maritime shipping industry — and how it was ripe with disruption. Click here to watch the full interview.

“You have institutions of exception in Houston where innovation flows from. The question isn’t that it’s not there, it’s how have we been tapping it.” — David Schubert, president of Magnolia Tejas Corp.

Video courtesy of the Greater Houston Partnership

Houston has a burgeoning life science innovation scene — but what's that next step for its development? At a virtual SXSW Houston House HOU Talk, David Schubert, president of Magnolia Tejas Corp. discusses the potential of Houston's world-class oncologists and biotech innovators have to make the city a hub for cancer innovation. Click here to watch the full interview.

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Houston unicorn fintech company launches new B2B education platform

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Houston-based HighRadius — which recently hit $1 billion valuation, reaching unicorn status — has launched a new learning platform.

Highako Academy by HighRadius, launched the platform to help credit and collections teams build certain skills faster. Highako features over 650 expert-led videos, community forums, and resources. The new on-the-job training platform, which announced its launch this week, is used by more than 2,800 companies, according to a press release.

"Our customers have asked us for an online self-service learning platform, and that led us to launch highako.com as a beta platform last year," says HighRadius COO Urvish Vashi in the release. "With 10,000+ users on the platform and a vibrant partner ecosystem consisting of credit groups, collection agencies, attorneys and industry associations, we see this echoing a larger trend of millennials and Gen Z gravitating towards microlearning platforms."

In honor of the launch of Highako Academy, the organization has announced plans for Credit SkillCon '21, a lunch-and-learn event from June 16 to July 20. The 53 live workshops, panel discussions, and on-demand sessions will focus on topics including negotiations, credit risk assessment, bankruptcy litigation, collections strategy and more. .

"We continually hear from members about wanting more and different educational options," says Jon Flora, president and CEO of NACM Business Credit Service. "The last year has changed much about how we answer this call, and now we have a solution. We are the first NACM affiliate to partner with Highako Academy."

HighRadius and its AI-powered SaaS technology, which streamlines accounts-receivable and cash-management processes, are growing fast. The company, which processes over $2.23 trillion in receivables transactions annually, per the release, raised $300 million in March. At the time of that raise, HighRadius, founded in 2006, employed more than 1,000 people around the world — and was hiring.

"Our goal has always been to build a long-lasting business that outlasts all of us," Sashi Narahari, founder and CEO of HighRadius, said in the news release. "I look forward to working with [our] high-quality, long-term investors, who share a common vision of transforming the office of the CFO using a combination of artificial intelligence built on top of connected-finance workspaces and embedded analytics."

Autonomous delivery company joins forces with FedEx for new pilot in Houston

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A tech company with self-driving robots deployed across Houston delivering pizza, groceries, and more has yet again launched a new pilot program — this time focused on parcel delivery.

Nuro and FedEx announced a new partnership to deploy Nuro's technology for last-mile delivery at a large scale with FedEx.

"FedEx was built on innovation, and it continues to be an integral part of our culture and business strategy," says Rebecca Yeung, vice president of advanced technology and innovation at FedEx, in a news release. "We are excited to collaborate with an industry leader like Nuro as we continue to explore the use of autonomous technologies within our operations."

The new pilot, which began in April, according to the release, is the latest in the FedEx portfolio of autonomous same-day and specialty delivery devices. The partnership allows for FedEx to be able to explore various use cases for autonomous vehicle logistics, like multi-stop and appointment-based deliveries. Meanwhile for Nuro, it's the company's first expansion into parcel logistics.

"Working with FedEx—the global leader in logistics—is an incredible opportunity to rethink every aspect of local delivery. This multi-year commitment will allow us to truly collaborate and bring Nuro's powerful technology to more people in new ways, and eventually reach large-scale deployment," says Cosimo Leipold, Nuro's head of partnerships, in the release. "Our collaboration will enable innovative, industry-first product offerings that will better everyday life and help make communities safer and greener."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer. The most recent pilot program — pizza delivery with Domino's — officially went live in Woodland Heights earlier this year.

Nuro's expansion in Houston has a lot to do with the legislation that's happening at the state level. Last year, Nuro was granted its exemption petition from the United States Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This move is a first for DOT, and it allowed Nuro to roll out its vehicles on public roads without the features of traditional, passenger-carrying vehicles — like side mirrors or windshields, for instance.

The city also just offers a lot of opportunities to try out various neighborhoods and environments.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Nuro Product Operations Manager Sola Lawal says an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Lessons in prototyping: Figuring out the best type of prototype

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As you continue your journey of developing and bringing a new product to the market, you have a series of decisions to make when it comes to prototyping — whether you're going to launch a hardware or a software product, or the combination of both — you need to have a prototype made.

Before you begin, there are a number of things to consider. In an article for InnovationMap last week, I looked at major choice points and their implications that will help you navigate the process in the most efficient way.

After you successfully laid the foundation for the development process and got you CAD models ready, you arrive at the next choice. Prior to making a prototype of your invention you need to decide what type of prototype you're going to build. Whether you're making it yourself or hiring a rapid prototyping company, you need to know the purpose your prototype will fulfil because it will help to select proper methods, techniques, and materials for building. With that in mind, let's go through the types of prototypes and purposes behind building them.

Types of Prototypes

Mockup

This type is usually used as a simple representation of your product idea, to gauge physical dimensions and see its rough look. It's especially useful for making physical models of complex and large products without investing a significant amount from the start. Mockup is perfect for initial market research and various types of early testing.

Proof of concept

This type of prototype is built when you need to validate your idea and prove that it can be realized. It comes in handy when approaching potential partners and investors.

Functional prototype

This kind of prototype is also called a "looks- and works-like" model because it has both technical and visual features of the product presented. It is used for testing product's functionality, conducting consumer surveys, and fundraising campaigns.

Pre-production prototype

This is the most complex type that is made at the latest stage of product development. It's used for ergonomics, manufacturability, and material testing, as well as to minimize risks of defects during manufacturing. This is a model that manufacturers use to produce the final product.

Choosing to Partner with Prototyping Company

It's important to note that prototyping is an iterative process. It is a fusion of art and science that helps you to uncover the full potential of your product, which in turn increases its chances for market success. Therefore, you will likely go through several types of prototypes, with each kind usually requiring a few versions to achieve the parameters you set for the model.

And this process also requires help of a company that builds prototypes or of a professional product development team. You can start looking for the one after you made your first mockup or proof of concept. It is recommended because creating more complex prototypes implies the use of sophisticated equipment, sourcing of materials and components that could be too expensive or complicated to do without an established network of suppliers. Plus, skills and experience play a huge role in creating quality prototypes. Taking all three factors – equipment, experience and skills - into account, it's smart to outsource your prototyping needs to a professional company.

This article is a follow up article to my post from last week. I have also previously contributed to guest columns on the following:

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.