This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Groen of Bell & Bly Travel, Alex Reed of Fluence Analytics, and Bettina Beech of UH. 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 — from travel to analytics— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sarah Groen, founder of Bell and Bly Travel

Sarah Groen, travel entrepreneur and longtime Houston tech ecosystem member, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Bell and Bly Travel

It's been a scary time for travel-related businesses, and Sarah Groen has had to get innovative to maintain her business as a travel adviser. Lucky for Groen, who has a long career in tech and innovation, she had all the right pivots, including offering digital travel packages, launching a new podcast, and more.

"During COVID, a lot of businesses either shutdown or took a pause, but we accelerated," Groen says.

Groen her career on the Houston Innovators Podcast. She also gives some strategic advice for founders — like trusting your gut and reading the signs when it comes to product-market fit — on the podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Alex Reed, co-founder and CEO of Fluence Analytics

Alex Reed joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on the company's move to Houston and its growth plans. Photo courtesy of Fluence Analytics

Alex Reed watched his father work in the labs on his research as he grew up, but he realized his future wasn't in the lab. Instead, he launched a career in taking that research and turning it into a company.

Founded in 2012 in New Orleans, Fluence Analytics has entered its next phase of growth by moving its headquarters to Houston following a $7.5 million venture capital raise.

We're working with the Houston of today, but also the Houston of tomorrow," Reed tells InnovationMap in a Q&A. Click here to read more.

Bettina Beech, chief population health officer at the University of Houston

Bettina Beech is a newly named AIM-AHEAD coordinating center team member. Photo via UH.edu

The University of Houston has joined in on a national initiative to increase the diversity of artificial intelligence researchers, according to a news release from the school. 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.

"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. Click here to read more.

Sarah Groen, travel entrepreneur and longtime Houston tech ecosystem member, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Bell and Bly Travel

Innovative travel adviser talks Houston tech and advice for female founders

houston innovators podcast episode 104

When the pandemic hit, it's safe to say that everyone in the travel industry panicked. Sarah Groen, who founded her company Bell and Bly Travel in 2017, caters her expertise to planning luxury travel experiences, and she didn't want her clients to forget about her expertise as the uncertainty of the pandemic continued. So, she got creative.

"Every single client who had a trip canceled, we sent them a digital package to help them feel like they were traveling," Groen says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. For example, if a client's trip to Italy canceled, Groen and her staff provided links to recipes of Italian dishes, virtual museum tours, and more.

"We didn't make money on that," Groen says. "We spent money to be able to have the bandwidth to be able to do that for our clients."

It's during this time thar Groen also launched her podcast, Luxury Travel Insider, where she gathers experts to discuss destinations.

It's these innovative endeavors that put Groen and Bell and Bly Travel on the map for Virtuoso's award — which Groen describes as the Oscars of the travel industry. She took home the title of "most innovative travel advisor" at the 2021 awards.

"During COVID, a lot of businesses either shutdown or took a pause, but we accelerated," Groen says.

The award is incredibly special to Groen she says especially to her background in tech. A native Houstonian, Groen went to the West Coast for her education. Despite loving her hometown, she says she returned kicking and screaming because she wanted to do something entrepreneurial, and Houston didn't yet have much to speak of in terms of a startup ecosystem.

So, like any good entrepreneur who sees a need in the market, she did it herself and co-founded Surge, an energy-focused accelerator. But it was a struggle to get momentum.

"But at that time, we couldn't even get the mayor to pay attention to us. We had people applying to our program and moving their companies from other cities and countries in some cases," Groen says. "But I think Surge starting was a big turning point."

Surge — which was co-founded by Kirk Coburn, who now is the investment director for Shell Ventures — officially shut down in 2016.

But things have changed within the Houston innovation ecosystem, and Groen discusses the transformation as she's observed it on the show. She also gives some strategic advice for founders — like trusting your gut and reading the signs when it comes to product-market fit — on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston college lands $5M NASA grant to launch new aerospace research center

to infinity and beyond

The University of Houston was one of seven minority-serving institutions to receive a nearly $5 million grant this month to support aerospace research focused on extending human presence on the moon and Mars.

The $4,996,136 grant over five years is funded by the NASA Office of STEM Engagement Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) Institutional Research Opportunity (MIRO) program. It will go toward creating the NASA MIRO Inflatable Deployable Environments and Adaptive Space Systems (IDEAS2) Center at UH, according to a statement from the university.

“The vision of the IDEAS2 Center is to become a premier national innovation hub that propels NASA-centric, state-of-the-art research and promotes 21st-century aerospace education,” Karolos Grigoriadis, Moores Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of aerospace engineering at UH, said in a statement.

Another goal of the grant is to develop the next generation of aerospace professionals.

Graduate, undergraduate and even middle and high school students will conduct research out of IDEAS2 and work closely with the Johnson Space Center, located in the Houston area.

The center will collaborate with Texas A&M University, Houston Community College, San Jacinto College and Stanford University.

Grigoriadis will lead the center. Dimitris Lagoudas, from Texas A&M University, and Olga Bannova, UH's research professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Space Architecture graduate program, will serve as associate directors.

"Our mission is to establish a sustainable nexus of excellence in aerospace engineering research and education supported by targeted multi-institutional collaborations, strategic partnerships and diverse educational initiatives,” Grigoriadis said.

Industrial partners include Boeing, Axiom Space, Bastion Technologies and Lockheed Martin, according to UH.

UH is part of 21 higher-education institutions to receive about $45 million through NASA MUREP grants.

According to NASA, the six other universities to received about $5 million MIRO grants over five years and their projects includes:

  • Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage: Alaska Pacific University Microplastics Research and Education Center
  • California State University in Fullerton: SpaceIgnite Center for Advanced Research-Education in Combustion
  • City University of New York, Hunter College in New York: NASA-Hunter College Center for Advanced Energy Storage for Space
  • Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee: Integrative Space Additive Manufacturing: Opportunities for Workforce-Development in NASA Related Materials Research and Education
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark:AI Powered Solar Eruption Center of Excellence in Research and Education
  • University of Illinois in Chicago: Center for In-Space Manufacturing: Recycling and Regolith Processing

Fourteen other institutions will receive up to $750,000 each over the course of a three-year period. Those include:

  • University of Mississippi
  • University of Alabama in Huntsville
  • Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge
  • West Virginia University in Morgantown
  • University of Puerto Rico in San Juan
  • Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada
  • Oklahoma State University in Stillwater
  • Iowa State University in Ames
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks
  • University of the Virgin Islands in Charlotte Amalie
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu
  • University of Idaho in Moscow
  • University of Arkansas in Little Rock
  • South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City
  • Satellite Datastreams

NASA's MUREP hosted its annual "Space Tank" pitch event at Space Center Houston last month. Teams from across the country — including three Texas teams — pitched business plans based on NASA-originated technology. Click here to learn more about the seven finalists.

Booming Houston suburb, other Texas towns among the fastest-growing U.S. cities in 2023

by the numbers

One Houston suburb experienced one of the most rapid growth spurts in the country last year: Fulshear, whose population grew by 25.6 percent, more than 51 times that of the nation’s growth rate of 0.5 percent. The city's population was 42,616 as of July 1, 2023.

According to U.S. Census Bureau's Vintage 2023 Population Estimates, released Thursday, May 16, Fulshear — which lies west of Katy in northwest Fort Bend County - ranked No. 2 on the list of fastest-growing cities with a population of 20,000 or more. It's no wonder iconic Houston restaurants like Molina's Cantina see opportunities there.

The South still dominates the nation's growth, even as America’s Northeast and Midwest cities are rebounding slightly from years of population drops. The census estimates showed 13 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. were in the South — eight in Texas alone.

The Texas cities joining Fulshear on the fastest-growing-cities list are:

  • Celina (No. 1) with 26.6 percent growth (42,616 total population)
  • Princeton (No. 3) with 22.3 percent growth (28,027 total population)
  • Anna (No. 4) with 16.9 percent growth (27,501 total population)
  • Georgetown (No. 8) with 10.6 percent growth (96,312 total population)
  • Prosper (No. 9) with 10.5 percent growth (41,660 total population)
  • Forney (No. 10) with 10.4 percent growth (35,470 total population)
  • Kyle (No. 11) with 9 percent growth (62,548 total population)

Texas trends
San Antonio saw the biggest growth spurt in the United States last year, numbers-wise. The Alamo City added about 22,000 residents. San Antonio now has nearly 1.5 million people, making it the the seventh largest city in the U.S. and second largest in Texas.

Its population boom was followed by those of other Southern cities, including Fort Worth; Charlotte, North Carolina; Jacksonville, Florida; and Port St. Lucie, Florida.

Fast-growing Fort Worth (978,000) surpassed San Jose, California (970,000) to become the 12th most populous city in the country.

Meanwhile, population slowed in the Austin area. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000), outpaced Austin (980,000), pushing the Texas capital to 11th largest city in the U.S. (barely ahead of Fort Worth).

Population growth in Georgetown, outside Austin, slowed by more than one-fourth its population growth in 2022, the report says, from 14.4 percent to 10.6 percent. It's the same story in the Central Texas city of Kyle, whose population growth decreased by nearly 2 percent to 9 percent in 2023.

Most populated cities
New York City with nearly 8.3 million people remained the nation's largest city in population as of July 1, 2023. Los Angeles was second at close to 4 million residents, while Chicago was third at 2.7 million and Houston was fourth at 2.3 million residents.

The 15 populous U.S. cities in 2023 were:

  1. New York, New York (8.3 million)
  2. Los Angeles, California (4 million)
  3. Chicago, Illinois (2.7 million)
  4. Houston, Texas (2.3 million)
  5. Phoenix, Arizona (1.7 million)
  6. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1.6 million)
  7. San Antonio (1.5 million)
  8. San Diego, California (1.4 million)
  9. Dallas (1.3 million)
  10. Jacksonville, Florida (986,000)
  11. Austin (980,000)
  12. Fort Worth (978,000)
  13. San Jose (970,000)
  14. Columbus, Ohio (913,000)
  15. Charlotte, North Carolina (911,000)

Modest reversals of population declines were seen last year in large cities in the nation's Northeast and Midwest. Detroit, for example, which grew for the first time in decades, had seen an exodus of people since the 1950s. Yet the estimates released Thursday show the population of Michigan’s largest city rose by just 1,852 people from 631,366 in 2022 to 633,218 last year.

It's a milestone for Detroit, which had 1.8 million residents in the 1950s only to see its population dwindle and then plummet through suburban white flight, a 1967 race riot, the migration to the suburbs by many of the Black middle class and the national economic downturn that foreshadowed the city's 2013 bankruptcy filing.

Three of the largest cities in the U.S. that had been bleeding residents this decade staunched those departures somewhat. New York City, which has lost almost 550,000 residents this decade so far, saw a drop of only 77,000 residents last year, about three-fifths the numbers from the previous year.

Los Angeles lost only 1,800 people last year, following a decline in the 2020s of almost 78,000 residents. Chicago, which has lost almost 82,000 people this decade, only had a population drop of 8,200 residents last year.

And San Francisco, which has lost a greater share of residents this decade than any other big city — almost 7.5 percent — actually grew by more than 1,200 residents last year.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How this Houston clean energy entrepreneur is navigating geothermal's hype to 100x business growth

houston innovators podcast Episode 237

Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

"Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that.

And the bet has more than paid off. Since officially launching in 2017, Fervo Energy has raised over $430 million — most recently collecting a $244 million series D round. Even more impressive to Latimer — his idea for drilling horizontal wells works. The company celebrated a successful pilot program last summer by achieving continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production with Project Red, a northern Nevada site made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

Next up for Fervo is growing and scaling at around a 100x pace. While Project Red included three wells, Project Cape, a Southwest Utah site, will include around 100 wells with significantly reduced drilling cost and an estimated 2026 delivery. Latimer says there are a dozen other projects like Project Cape that are in the works.

"It's a huge ramp up in our drilling, construction, and powerplant programs from our pilot project, but we've already had tremendous success there," Latimer says of Project Cape. "We think our technology has a really bright future."

While Latimer looks ahead to the rapid growth of Fervo Energy, he says it's all due to the foundation he put in place for the company, which has a culture built on the motto, "Build things that last."

“You’re not going to get somewhere that really changes the world by cutting corners and taking short steps. And, if you want to move the needle on something as complicated as the global energy system that has been built up over hundreds of years with trillions of dollars of capital invested in it – you’re not going to do it overnight," he says on the show. "We’re all in this for the long haul together."