Houston's density is possibly its biggest challenge when it comes to developing its innovation ecosystem, says a Houston expert. Getty Images

From the front porch of Houston, Texas, we solve some of humanity's hardest challenges. We're the ones who put humans on the Moon and rovers on Mars, go subsea in search of hydrocarbons, and are discovering a cure for cancer. We solve complex challenges, because of a characteristic seemingly embedded deep within our DNA — we are all explorers of the unknown.

Today, a new challenge is rallying our attention, inspiring us to push the boundaries yet again. And, that's the hard challenge of population density. Houston is fourth in population in the country, and yet 89th in the number of people per unit of area.

Why is this an issue, one might ask? Houston, like many other cities around the world, is racing to become a hub for innovation, a critical catalyst fueling the next generation of growth and economic prosperity. And, density is a key component of innovation — it brings divergent mindsets together to look at challenges from multiple perspectives and creates an environment that brings big bold ideas to life.

However, the nature of our geography has created silos that are not easily broken down and separates us by industries, communities, interests, mindsets, and access to transportation, among other things.

But, let's not underestimate our true spirit — and our ability to explore the unexpected, push the boundaries and tackle the challenges the world throws at us.

If I learned anything from living here my entire life, Houston has grit, imagination, and motivation and knows what it means to be a trailblazer. Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. Our culinary landscape is constantly pushing the boundaries of creativity and imagination. Local graffiti and modern art installations are reshaping the visual identity of our community. Our sports and performing arts "rockstars" consistently deliver real-time experiential immersion.

We need to recognize and embrace how these colors of Houston connect us all regardless of our geographic silos and push innovation forward. Said another way, we have all the colors; we just need to converge and paint the canvas together.

True to our nature, some of our Houstonian friends have begun chipping away at this challenge already. Central Houston is attracting world-renowned incubators and accelerators like MassChallenge and Gener8tor — and this scene alone is ever-expanding. The Cannon, The Ion, Impact Hub, Launchpad, Headquarters, and other players are creating environments that bring people together and meet the needs of an ever-evolving workforce through experiential community. We even have a dedicated publication for all things innovation — Innovation Map — sharing resources across our vast city and ensuring no great story is left untold.

Our rich diversity means we have access to human beings from a multitude of backgrounds, which in itself is a force to be reckoned with. By interacting with a variety of human beings, we become more empathetic, understanding, and celebratory of new ideas. This is fundamental to continuous innovation — how we interact and approach challenges, engage in new experiences, and become an inspirational leader in life and work. So, break down the silos and access the diversity of thinking that's already outside the door.

At the same time, the challenge of density must be tackled not only physically but also digitally. By converging the physical and digital ecosystem through a neural network, we can intelligently connect the activity with centralized access to start-ups, corporations, nonprofits, free-lancers, incubators, accelerators, maker-spaces, academia, local influencers, and public partners. Digitally bridging all of us can make one of the largest and most spread-out cities in the U.S. feel like a small Texas town with big ideas and an ever-stronger dimension of inclusivity.

So, join the movement, strike up a conversation, grab your metaphorical spray paint and converge with all the vibrant colors of Houston as we energize the future of humanity, navigate to Mars and back safely, and annihilate the existence of cancer.

As Steve Jobs said: "The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do." Are we ready?

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Brad Rossacci is creative director at Accenture's Innovation Hub in Houston.

This week's Houston innovators come from industries across the spectrum. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week in Houston is chock full of events from The Houston Innovation Summit, but before you get too swept away, check out these three innovators to know this week.

We have a life-long innovator whose passion has taken him from industry to industry, a construction specialist joining a growing Houston startup, and a man who let his personal struggles motivate him to find solutions.

Brad Rossacci, creative director at Accenture's Houston innovation hub

Brad Rossacci

Brad Rossacci, creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, talks neuroscience, design, technology, and the upcoming Digital Fight Club on November 20 on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator's Podcast. Photo courtesy of Accenture

The guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week is Brad Rossacci, who's passion exudes from him in person — and podcast too. One of his recent passions? The Digital Fight Club, which is coming to Houston on November 20. The event puts two "fighters" on a stage with a referee to discuss various technology topics — cybersecurity, medicine, etc.

"I really fell in love with the approach [the event] takes," Rossacci says. "It takes this format that allows you to share ideas in a very short-form content kind of way." Read (and listen!) more.

Michael Matthews, industry principal at Data Gumbo

Michael Matthews

Data Gumbo has named the newest member of its executive team — and the newest industry it's looking to do business in. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Michael Matthews was tapped to lead a brand new market that Houston blockchain startup, Data Gumbo, has announced an expansion into: Construction. The company uses blockchain to make it easier and faster to process industry contracts, payment, and more.

"The construction industry lags far behind other industries in both productivity improvement and technology adoption, resulting in billions of lost value," Matthews says in a news release. "The way companies come together to execute projects remains essentially the same despite technology's improvement and we have to make fundamental, disruptive changes to deliver more value." Read more.

Brigham Buhler, founder of Ways2Well

brigham buhler

Through his own patient journey, Brigham Buhler saw a need for Ways2Well to exist. Photo via ways2well.com

Sometimes, it's just too hard to find the answers you seek in health care. The waiting rooms, the parking, the forms — it's all a bit much only to leave empty handed. This was Brigham Buhler's experience, and finally, after months, he learned he had a hormone deficiency. Now, Buhler's company, Ways2Well, allows patients to quickly do a blood test at a lab and receive their results digitally.

"While most virtual health care providers focus on sick care — treating patients experiencing symptoms that indicate sickness — Ways2Well is focused on preventative health care," says Buhler. Read more.

Brad Rossacci, creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, talks neuroscience, design, technology, and the upcoming Digital Fight Club on November 20 on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator's Podcast. Photo courtesy of Accenture

In a world full of tech, this Houston innovator prepares to fight for getting humanity back in the picture

Houston Innovators Podcast Episode 7

Brad Rossacci would like you to put your phone down. Humans are addicted, he says, and the very technology we're obsessed with is advancing to a point that we can allow it to do what it does best — but in the background.

"Technology is really catching up to our imaginations," Rossacci says on the podcast, "and we have this amazing opportunity to get our human back."

Rossacci, who is the creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, has taken a winding career path that's been driven by his passions within science, technology, and design. From molding young minds in the classroom to using neuroscience to drive design within an agency, his career has set him up with an interesting perspective.

This perspective might be why Rossacci was asked to be a fighter in the inaugural Digital Fight Club that took place in Dallas a few years ago. The event, which is coming to Houston on November 20, puts two "fighters" on a stage with a referee to discuss various technology topics — cybersecurity, medicine, etc.

"I really fell in love with the approach [the event] takes," Rossacci says. "It takes this format that allows you to share ideas in a very short-form content kind of way."

On the podcast, Rossacci discusses his career and everything you need to know about the upcoming Houston Digital Fight Club, which is presented by Accenture and InnovationMap. Listen to the episode below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

The panel at the inaugural conference featured Brad Rossacci of Accenture Innovation. Courtesy of INNO

Panel featuring Houston innovator discusses rapidly changing innovation ecosystem

Guest Column

Recently, Brad Rossacci, Accenture's Houston Innovation Hub's disruptive innovationeer and creative director, participated in the inaugural INNO, a conference dedicated to supporting the community of innovators, collaborators, and industry disruptors by providing them with a forum to share knowledge, connect with colleagues from around the world, and identify opportunities to work together.

Brad made the trip to New Orleans not just to speak, but also to see first-hand how Houston's neighboring cities are approaching the ideas, themes, and business best practices he's developing within Accenture and more broadly, within the Houston business community.

Speaking as part of the kickoff keynote, titled "What Corporate Innovators Seek," Brad was joined on stage by Aimee Quirk of InnovationOchsner, Lauren Kenney, vice president of Grid Modernization and Strategy at Entergy, and panel facilitator Chase Langdon, Partnership Strategy Manager for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans. Seated on the INNO stage, Brad had the ideal spot to both share his own expertise, and to hear first hand about how big businesses are working with startups and entrepreneurs outside of Houston.

During the course of the discussion it became clear that all the panelists and the organizations they represent are on the same page in several important ways: all of these companies have big footprints within their local communities and beyond. All have concluded that the challenges facing their different industries and economic sectors — as well as their organizations specifically— require a broader set of skills, backgrounds, and expertise to work through than can be found within the walls of any single company. And all have come to appreciate that to remain a business leader in an increasingly agile and rapidly transforming world, the work of innovation and problem solving must be approached with intentionality and given enough freedom to move fast enough to keep up and get ahead.

They also differ in key respects. The companies represented did not all arrive at these conclusions at the same time. Accordingly, their innovation initiatives are at different stages of development and implementation, both with regard to putting together internal innovation- focused teams and in finding outside companies to partner and collaborate with. Moreover, there are challenges specific to their industries that impact how they pursue their innovation goals. They also face different challenges in terms of getting support from the rest of their organizations. Nevertheless, there have been some challenges that all panelists experienced in some capacity, as well as some agreed-upon best practices.

All agreed that when hiring for internal innovation teams or initiatives, the primary qualification is not a specific set of skills or work history, but rather a specific mindset: they are looking for creative problem solvers who are willing to think and do things differently and who are not intimidated by challenges. Another point they all agreed on is that it's not always easy to find these innovation-oriented people, and that it can be difficult to entice them away from other markets. In particular, the New Orleans based businesses represented expressed feeling the pinch of a limited talent pool.

As the conversation facilitator, Chase Langdon was informed by some of the goals and challenges he's facing as Partnership Strategy Manager for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans. Reflecting on the structure of the discussion, shared that his team is increasingly cognizant of the potential they have to make an impact on the business community within the region by nurturing holistic economic growth. The Saints and the Pelicans are among the most visible and recognizable local business entities, and his team is actively exploring ways to leverage that visibility to drive growth through partnerships.

Accordingly, his questions reflected an interest in learning from the other organizations represented.

So what are some of the key take away points that Chase and other attendees interested in launching their own innovation initiatives, or in partnering with other organizations? Aimee noted that for those looking to do business with companies like Ocshner, it's important to think about what it takes to be a good partner, not just what it takes to get the deal done. There was general agreement that one of the advantages to working with startups is that they can move quickly as they are less burdened by legacy processes of an older institution.

Similarly, innovators and problem solvers, whether part of internal teams or outside partners, need to be empowered and supported when taking the risks inherent in exploration and experimentation. Brad, in particular, noted that he considers creating an environment that nurtures and protects the "beautiful minds" of his team and the larger Houston innovation ecosystem, to be one of the primary responsibilities of his job.

"Startups are the rockstars now," he says, and existing companies looking to remain competitive need to take a hands-on approach to cultivating a collaborative and sustainable business environment with the required diversity of experiences, perspectives, and skills that lead to breakthroughs.

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Lizy Freudmann is head of marketing for the INNO.

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2 Houston startups make strategic C-suite hires

short stories

A couple of Houston tech startups have recently announced new appointments to their C-suites. A med tech company with its national headquarters in Houston has a new leader, and a Houston software has a new exec focused on strategy.

Optellum names new CEO

Jason Pesterfield will lead United States operations for Optellum. Photo courtesy of Optellum

Optellum, a medical software startup based in the United Kingdom and has its United States HQ in Houston, has appointed Jason Pesterfield as CEO to lead growth in the U.S. clinical market. Optellum AI-based software enhances early lung cancer diagnosis and therapy with its medical device software platform, Virtual Nodule Clinic.

Pesterfield was previously the president and CEO of Veran Medical Technologies, a leader in image-guided lung cancer diagnosis. He brings 25 years of leadership experience in the medtech sector. Optellum was founded by Václav Potěšil, Lyndsey Pickup, Timor Kadir, Professor Sir Mike Brady, and Jérôme Declerck.

"It took us almost a year to find the right successor who shares our vision and has the right expertise to take Optellum on to the next stage of growth," says Potěšil in a news release. "I am really excited to work with Jason, to make Optellum's platform available to every clinician in the USA and around the world, and to help them diagnose their lung cancer patients as early as possible. With Jason on board, I can focus on advancing Optellum's vision to transform early lung cancer therapy through partnerships that harness the power of AI software combined with molecular diagnostics, robotics and interventional devices, and drugs."

Liongard announces chief strategy officer

Patrick Schneidau is the chief strategy officer for Liongard. Photo courtesy

​Houston software-as-a-service company, Liongard, has named Patrick Schneidau as chief strategy officer. The company, founded in 2015, was a 2021 InnovationMap Awards finalist and reported that the team was looking to expand by around 70 new hires over the next year.

"Liongard is an incredible Houston growth story," Schneidau tells InnovationMap. "Our founders, Joe Alapat and Vincent Tran, have built a first-class team that allow technology service providers to operate at 10x by providing unprecedented insight and data into the systems deployed in the modern IT stack. In a rapidly growing market, they are quickly becoming 'must have' technology. I'm excited to join to team to accelerate their growth into new markets and with new products."

Schneidau spent over a decade at Houston-based PROS before serving in C-level positions at two other Houston startups — Commtrex and Truss. He's also previously served as talent committee chair for Houston Exponential.

Houston startup raises $1.75M round with support from local female-focused investor

future of work

A Houston-based startup focused on upskilling young professionals has closed its latest round of funding with support from a local investor.

Ampersand Professionals Inc. raised $1.75 million in pre-seed funding led by Curate Capital, a Houston-based, female-focused venture capital fund. Carrie Colbert, Curate's founding and general partner, will join Ampersand's advisory board.

Ampersand — founded in 2020 by Allie Danziger with Co-Founders Kathrin Applebaum and Scott Greenberg — has developed a platform for businesses to easily implement internship programs. The program also upskills and educates young professionals, providing them career development and job skills training.

"Ampersand's mission to democratize access to career-building opportunities for young professionals, ties in nicely with Curate's mission to empower women, says Colbert in a news release. "The company's platform will have a direct positive impact on young women (and others) as they begin their professional careers."

Both the female founders are personally driven by motivating and inspiring women and driving future of work solutions. The fresh funding will go toward expanding the Ampersand platform and network.

"The shift to remote work during the pandemic not only completely changed the way we all work, but also made it even more difficult for so many recent, and soon-to-be graduates, to make the connections needed to land their first internship and then gain the meaningful training to excel in those roles," says Danziger in the release. "This infusion of capital allows Ampersand to expand our e-learning platform, matching algorithm capabilities, ensure our training matches the needs of our business partners, and expand our university partnerships around the country."

Since September 2020, the Ampersand team has developed its training and career development platform with over 100 hours of job skills training content, according to the release, and has placed over 200 driven professionals in remote internships. (InnovationMap has been a business partner in Ampersand's program.)

Curate Capital was founded in 2020 by Carrie Colbert and Mark Latham. The firm, and its initial $10 million fund, is focused on funding early-stage, female-founded companies.

Houston startup with AI-optimized surgical scheduling technology is ready to scale

houston innovators podcast episode 101

With so many moving parts in the health care industry, Pamela Singh says patients can go through all the pre-operation steps up to literally arriving to the hospital, only to find out their surgery has been canceled due to an admin error.

Singh's startup, which she founded with her husband and surgeon Dr. Ashvin Dewan, CaseCTRL is looking to prevent these surgical scheduling inefficiencies. On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Singh explains how the idea for the company came from an organic need Dr. Dewan saw in his practice.

"We decided there needs to be a better way to help surgeons, schedulers, and patients to have a better experience," Singh, who serves the company as CEO, says on the show. "Surgery is the highest revenue-generating event for any hospital, clinic, or private practice. And your patients are essentially your customers, so you need to give them the best patient experience."

CaseCTRL started with this patient-focused goal, but throughout development, Singh says she realized the overall effect of optimization. Especially, she says, when it came to COVID-19's effect on surgery scheduling. The company got its start amid the pandemic, and wasn't sure how the cancelation of elective surgeries was going to impact the startup's journey. But really, with the backlog of surgeries building up over different periods of stopping and restarting surgeries, a rising need for optimization emerged.

"COVID has had some sort of silver lining for us," Singh says, explaining that surgical facilities were looking for a way to catch up. "They realized the need for automating and streamlining their practice. And they realized that, instead of spending another four hours coordinating with patients and vendors, they could literally do it with the click of a button."

Now, in light of this growing need and awareness, Singh and her team is ready to scale. She says she is working with her team on integration opportunities and building out the tech to make it even more convenient to use.

Currently, the company is in the process of completing its Techstars accelerator and raising pre-seed funding. CaseCTRL was a member of gBETA Houston's second cohort and has pitched at several Houston innovation ecosystem events. Singh was even an inaugural finalist for the 2021 InnovationMap Awards. She says she's been surprised by how supportive Houston has been.

"The community here is diverse and, most importantly, supportive," Singh says, adding that at first they wondered if Houston had too much health care innovation and competition. "We realized the community in Houston ... really wants to see you succeed. The biggest pro is that entrepreneurial spirit here in Houston."

Singh shares more about her entrepreneurial journey and what's on the horizon for CaseCTRL, as well as her advice for fellow female founders in the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.