Supporting and honoring our Hispanic-Latino clients is not just a month-long initiative, it is a long-term, generational investment in America and we are proud to be investing in a stronger economy for Houston now and for years to come. Photo via Getty Images

Every year at this time ― Hispanic Heritage Month ― we collectively celebrate the economic, cultural, and social contributions of the Hispanic-Latino community to our nation. We honor the work of past generations which have allowed children and future generations to benefit from more opportunities.

As diverse a community as is the world, we strive to build a future where there are no barriers for success, and at Bank of America, we do our part to make an impact by helping build Hispanic-Latino wealth in Houston.

The numbers are clear: The 2020 Census revealed that the Hispanic-Latino population in the United States rose to 62.1 million, making up 18.7 percent of the total U.S. population and accounting for slightly more than half (51.1 percent) of the population growth between 2010 and 2020. Hispanic-Latinos now open more small businesses than any other group in the country and are also the fastest-growing demographic of small business owners across the nation. It is not surprising that Hispanic-Latino economic power continues to rise year after year. According to Nielsen Scarborough, the number of Houston Hispanic businesses have increased 85 percent since 2013.

Investing in business

Investing in Hispanic-Latino wealth means supporting entrepreneurs so they are set up for success. Early-stage funding is critical for the growth of a new business, especially when Hispanic-Latino entrepreneurs are still faced with gaps in financial literacy and business education, funding, and networking opportunities.

According to data from Crunchbase, Latino-founded startups accounted for only 2.1 percent of venture investments in the U.S. last year. This is unjustifiable.

As part of our commitment to advancing racial equality and economic opportunity, we have dedicated $350 million in minority- and women-led companies through capital investment by mission-focused venture funds. Of the funds we have in our portfolio, one in every four are led by Hispanic-Latino managers, providing capital that will help entrepreneurs and small business owners grow their businesses, create jobs, and improve financial stability.

An important element to creating opportunities for Hispanic-Latinos to build wealth, whether as a business owner or an employee, is ensuring that young people recognize higher education as a pathway to achieve success. That means partnering with colleges and universities and investing in job creation, skills-building, and support services for students to do so. Locally, we do this with EMERGE Fellowship and with the University of Houston College of Medicine. When we invest in students, we are investing in future professionals and business leaders who will build Hispanic-Latino wealth and contribute to Houston’s economy and culture. This is something we can celebrate together for years to come.

Investing in sustainable homeownership

Sustainable homeownership provides a lasting investment for future generations and cycles capital into the community. The National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) recently released data showing an increase in Latino homeownership, from 47.5 percent in 2019 to 48.4 percent in 2021, the highest level since the mid-2000s. Through the Community Homeownership Commitment, which provides low down payment loans and closing cost grants, families can take their savings and turn them into lasting legacies. It is a pillar for families to build wealth.

Here in Houston, we also support organizations that assist with homeownership, like Tejano Center, Avenue CDC, and Houston Habitat for Humanity. Building Hispanic-Latino home equity increases the amount of capital families can use now or in the future helping build our Houston economy.

During the past decade, the rate of Hispanic-Latino economic development has far outpaced rates among non-Hispanics. Supporting and honoring our Hispanic-Latino clients is not just a month-long initiative, it is a long-term, generational investment in America and we are proud to be investing in a stronger economy for Houston now and for years to come.

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Rick Jaramillo is the market executive for Bank of America Houston.

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University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.