3 Houston innovators to know this week

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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 energy storage startup secures $10M in federal funding

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A Houston-based company that's got a solution to renewable energy storage has just secured funding from a federal entity.

The U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, is granting Quidnet Energy $10 million in funding, the Houston company announced this week. The funding is a part of the ARPA-E Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential, the SCALEUP program. This initiative is aimed at providing funding to previous ARPA-E teams "that have been determined to be feasible for widespread deployment and commercialization domestically," per a news release.

“We’re honored that ARPA-E has selected Quidnet Energy as an awardee of the SCALEUP program,” says Joe Zhou, CEO of Quidnet Energy, in the release. “This funding will support continued work on our Geomechanical Pumped Storage (GPS) project with CPS Energy, which will demonstrate the benefits of using proven pumped hydro technology to create a long-duration energy storage resource that doesn’t require mountainous terrain. We look forward to continuing our partnership with CPS Energy and thank ARPA-E for acknowledging the potential of GPS for long-duration storage.”

The company's technology can store renewable energy for long periods of time in large quantities. The process includes storing pressurized water underground and, when the stored energy is needed, the water propels hydroelectric turbines and produces the electricity to support the grid at a fraction of the cost, per the news release. The concept is similar to existing gravity-powered pumped storage, but with less land required.

The fresh funding will be used toward Quidnet Energy’s ongoing project with San Antonio-based utilitary provider CPS Energy. This collaboration is scaling the company's GPS to a 1 MW/10 MWh commercial system, per the release, that will provide CPS Energy with over 10 hour long-duration energy storage system.

In 2020, Quidnet closed its $10 million series B financing round and secured a major contract with the New York State Energy Development Authority. The series B round included participation from Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Canada-based Evok Innovations, which both previously invested in the company, as well as new investors Trafigura and The Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.

New Texas-based mental health subscription box plans national launch at SXSW 2023

speak now and hold your peace

Mental health apps are so alluring, but once you’ve recorded your two-week streak and things are feeling a little more organized, it can be hard to keep going. It’s hard enough to keep up with journaling and a great bedtime routine, and many lovely self-help tools also lose their effectiveness when the novelty wears off.

A smart company might harness that novelty as its hook — and an easily distracted self-helper won’t fall off the wagon. Like many other companies in the mental health space, Speak As One will work on a subscription model, but this one won’t languish, unused on a credit card statement. The service, which plans to launch during SXSW 2023, delivers boxes of tangible mental health tools, inspiration, games, and even sensory objects that act as a monthly nudge to try something new, and curiosity takes care of the rest.

A sample box included:

  • Stress balls with short inspirational phrases by MindPanda
  • An Emotional First Aid Kit containing advice for situations as they come up, like sleeplessness and feelings of inadequacy
  • Tiny colorful putties at different resistances by Flint Rehab
  • A notebook, and two books: Athlete Mental Health Playbook and 1000 Unique Questions About Me
  • Other small items

It’s more than packing and shipping out a few toys each month. The boxes are curated with help from a licensed therapist, who leaves a personal note along with tips on how to use the items inside and additional resources. There is one type of box right now that aims to “reduce anxiety, increase mindfulness, and promote peace and balance,” but for further customization (for $10 more), the team is working on boxes tailored to first responders, veterans, athletes, and people in “recovery.”

Speak As One emphasizes community stories in its branding outside the delivery box, and uses inspiration from “influencers” (less content creators and more so people who can embody a relatable story) to build the specialty boxes. The company’s YouTube channel shares dozens of interviews with founder Julie Korioth, a former board member for Austin’s SIMS Foundation, a well-respected mental health resource for members of the local music industry.

“With hundreds of millions of people struggling with mental health, and COVID making the issue much worse, society continues to ostracize those who openly discuss mental health issues,” said Korioth in a release. “I founded this company so we can change the way the world sees, discusses, and supports mental health. Our goal is to promote empathy, connectedness, acceptance, and thoughtfulness with an innovative toolkit that caters to specific needs."

In addition to offering a nudge, these boxes could make great care packages for a loved one who is feeling introspective or going through a significant life event. It is possible to buy gift boxes, if presentation is your thing, but it’d be just as easy to repackage a box that comes before the receiver ready to appreciate the items at home.

The cost of one box is manageable at $49.99 (especially considering the retail value of products included, which the sample box far exceed), but for many subscribers this adds up fast. Luckily, there is no pressure to continue a lengthy commitment — subscriptions last between one and six months, so users have plenty of time to reconsider and sit with the items that have already been delivered.“

The goal is to meet our audience at any phase of their mental health journey,” said Korioth. “We’re creating change and a global life-long support system for children and adults dealing with mental health challenges. We simultaneously highlight businesses, the tech community, athletes, and artists doing wonderful work in this space.”

The company plans to partner with corporations to connect with employees and provide boxes to individuals the company chooses, and will turn some content into session albums with sales proceeds dedicated to mental health research.

More information and links to preorder are available at speakasone.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert shares tips for navigating cybersecurity challenges amid the holiday season

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It’s a grinch's cyber-playground, and this holiday season, you’re at risk — even if you think it won’t happen to you.

The good news is you can protect yourself from scams and fraud. Just remember that cybercriminals don’t discriminate, they can prey on anyone.

These statistics may surprise you:

  • Anxiety about having a mobile device hacked differs by demographic; low-income Black women rank mobile security as their number one concern, while the general population ranks mobile security as their third largest concern, according to a recent Recon Analytics survey of more than 3,297 U.S. consumers.
  • 44 percent of millennials have been victims of online crime in the last year and 31 percent admit they share their passwords with others.
  • Romance scams resulted in the most financial losses for adults aged 60 and over
  • Younger consumers took fewest actions after being notified of a data breach affecting their identity/online accounts in Q1 2022
  • Nearly 50 percent of American gamers have experienced a cyberattack on their gaming account or device
  • 47 percent of women who live in cities say their identities and/or data has been compromised in the past 6 months due to lack of home internet protections, compared with 53 percent of city men who say the same thing, according to a recent Recon Analytics survey.

People everywhere, regardless of gender, race, income level, education, or age, deserve to feel safe online. And yet, many aren’t aware how to protect themselves, don’t make it a priority, or wait to act until they are alerted to suspicious activity.

With words like malware, phishing, spoofing, and encryption, learning to protect yourself can feel like a college-level course. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Top 5 ways to guard against cyberthreats

By following five simple steps, you can start to protect your network, devices and data from many digital threats.

  1. Understand cyberattacks are real. One of the first hacks was documented in 1963 and today, nearly 60 years later, hackers are attacking phones and computers every 39 seconds. Cyberattacks continue to grow in number every year.
  2. Be proactive. Don’t wait for an attack to happen. Monitor your accounts daily so you are the first to know if suspicious activity is occurring. Check with your wireless carrier to see if they have tools to help. AT&T customers can download the free ActiveArmor mobile security app to help block spam calls and secure their personal data. And ask your internet provider about extra layers of security available to you at home. AT&T Fiber customers can access AT&T ActiveArmor internet security features at no additional cost to them.
  3. Step up your mobile security. Mobile devices now account for more than 60 percent of digital fraud. Mobile banking, online shopping, streaming videos and storing documents make our phones a central location for sensitive information. Your wireless carrier may be able to help. AT&T offers advanced security like Public Wi-Fi Protection, Identity Monitoring and Safe Browsing for no extra charge with some of our plans. Check with your carrier to make sure they’re doing what they can to keep you safe.
  4. Protect your passwords. We all know it’s necessary, but not all of us take steps to do it. 68 percent of people admit to using the same password across multiple logins. Using a strong password that differs from site-to-site will help decrease your chances of being hacked. If you struggle with passwords, consider getting a password manager.
  5. Report suspicious text messages. As mobile operators have more success blocking illegal robocalls, scammers have turned to text messages. But now it’s easier than ever to report spam texts to help block and control them. The latest iOS and Android operating systems have a simple reporting feature in their Apple and Google messaging apps.
Dedicate some time to safeguard your information this holiday season. For more cybersecurity resources (regardless of your carrier), visit att.com/CyberAware. If you or someone you know is new to computers or mobile devices, click here for more information on our free digital literacy courses.

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Luis Silva is vice president and general manager at AT&T.