3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

These three entrepreneurs saw a need in their industries and created their own solutions. Photos courtesy

A true innovator is someone who's able to look past how something has been done for years — decades even — and be creative enough to find a better way to do it.

From redesigning conventional lab space to seeing a niche opportunity for luxury home rentals, these three innovators to know this week have made strides in changing the game.

Caleb Bashor, professor at Rice University

Photo courtesy of Caleb Bashor

Not all labs are created equal — or affordably. Caleb Bashor, a professor at Rice University, along with seven colleagues, created a DIY lab to further research efforts based at the university.

The DIY lab, eVOLVER, comprises three modules: a customizable "smart sleeve" housing and interface for each culture vessel, a fluidic module that controls movement of liquid in and out of each culture vessel, and a modular hardware infrastructure that simplifies high-volume bi-directional data flow by decoupling each parameter into individual microcontrollers.

"The prototype 16-chamber version of eVOLVER described in the new paper cost less than $2,000, cheaper than what a lab might pay for a single continuous culture bioreactor," Bashor says. Read more about the eVOLVER here.

Sébastien Long, founder and CEO of Lodgeur

Photo courtesy of Lodgeur

Sébastien Long ended up in Houston by chance, and the city ended up being a great place to take his luxe apartment rental business plan and turn it into a reality. Houston-based Lodgeur is a rental company that takes the convenience of Airbnb and adds in the luxury experience of a hotel.

Long identified stylish apartment complexes and built his business which now has a couple properties downtown that are attractive to a niche market of clientele.

"We're roughly split between leisure guests and business travelers," Long says. "They want to feel like they're staying in a home away from home." Read more about Lodgeur here.

Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of Pandata Tech

Photo courtesy of Pandata Tech

In oil and gas, proper data management can be the difference of millions of dollars in savings. Pandata Tech can run a data quality check for its oil and gas clients — and even engages automation and machine learning for quicker, more thorough results.

Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of the company, is looking to bring his data systems into new industries, like health care, where data management can be hectic, overwhelming, and crucial to life-saving opportunities.

"There's so much data, and it's so noisy, that it's hard to know whether the data can be trusted or not," Sanchez says. Read more about Pandata Tech here.

The DIY lab, called the eVOLVER, costs $2,000 less than a comparable setup. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Houston scientist creates a DIY lab concept for flexible and efficient work

Work space

Every scientist needs his or her own space, and each discipline calls for different types of tools and space requirements. Caleb Bashor, a professor at Rice University, along with seven colleagues, created a DIY lab to further research efforts based at the university.

Stemming from the need of a more customized study, Bashor and his team created a setup that combines the control of automated cell-culturing systems that can run continuously for months with the scale of high-throughput systems that grow dozens of cultures at once, according to a news release issued by Rice University.

The DIY lab, eVOLVER, comprises three modules: a customizable "smart sleeve" housing and interface for each culture vessel, a fluidic module that controls movement of liquid in and out of each culture vessel, and a modular hardware infrastructure that simplifies high-volume bi-directional data flow by decoupling each parameter into individual microcontrollers.

"The prototype 16-chamber version of eVOLVER described in the new paper cost less than $2,000, cheaper than what a lab might pay for a single continuous culture bioreactor," Bashor says in the release.

Bashor, who has been at the university since 2017, has worked in science for 15 years and received his post doctorate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he met many of his colleagues that collaborated on eVOLVER.

"If you don't have something to do the job in the lab, you go and you build it," says Bashor. "It might take a few rounds of building and rebuilding, but eventually you get around to having it be something that gives you what you want. In this case, it's something a lot of different academic labs want now, we have actually given this out to dozens of labs."

The DIY initiative has made waves throughout the Rice student body, Bashor shares with InnovationMap. One graduate student, Brandon Wong, tasked to help with the project has shared a how-to for the DIY lab online.

"It's a basic research tool, it's exciting," says Bashor. It's something that can be leveraged for a lot of great research projects inside of the university."

Bashor and his team in the bioengineering department support lead cellular and biomolecular engineering research, which led them to create the lab.

"We turned to DIY electronics and we decided to build it ourselves," Bashor tells InnovationMap. "The process took about three years. We had to learn all of the tools that were out there for doing DIY work and a lot of these tools have showed up in the last ten years."

Rice University's department of bioengineering is a member of the Texas Medical Center and hosts interdisciplinary training programs at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine, according to the school's website.

"This is one of the biggest centers in the world for immunotherapy, particularly clinical immunotherapy, and so we're working with people who do immunotherapy using my special engineering techniques, which mostly involve engineering the way that cells behave to try to more effectively kill cancer," says Bashor.

Caleb Bashor and his associates created the lab. Photo courtesy of Rice University

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Houston ranks among fastest growing tech hubs amid the pandemic, report finds

When Americans think of tech hubs, Silicon Valley or even Austin may initially come to mind. However, Houston appears to be making a play for tech-hub status.

Citing data from career platform LinkedIn, the Axios news website reports that Houston has seen a healthy influx of tech workers since the start of the pandemic. In fact, Houston ranks second among 14 major U.S. labor markets for the number of relocating software and IT workers between March 2020 and February 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Miami grabs the No. 1 spot for the gain in software and IT workers (up 15.4 percent) between the two periods, with Houston in second place (10.4 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth in third place (8.6 percent), according to the LinkedIn data.

"Young engineers and recent college graduates see Miami, Houston, and Philadelphia — not San Francisco, New York, or Seattle — as the hot new places to jumpstart a technology or creative economy career," Axios notes.

At the bottom of the barrel sits the San Francisco Bay Area, which suffered a loss of 34.8 percent when comparing the arrival and departure of software and IT workers. Interestingly, Austin experienced a loss of 8 percent in this category.

The shift from traditional tech hub to emerging tech hub is likely to continue as employers and employees alike further embrace remote work. A survey commissioned in April by the nonprofit One America Works found 47% of tech workers had moved during the pandemic. In addition, 3 in 10 tech workers anticipate living somewhere different than they did during the pandemic.

The CompTIA tech trade group says the Houston metro area is home to 243,908 tech workers. The Houston area's tech workforce grew 12.3 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to the group.

"Houston has been a center for world-changing innovations in energy, life sciences and aerospace for over a century. With science and engineering breakthroughs ingrained in the fabric of Houston's economy, the region has become a thriving hub of digital technology talent and companies thanks to our access to customers and expertise," says a report released in March by the Greater Houston Partnership.

One employer taking advantage of that talent is Bill.com. In 2019, the digital payments company opened a Houston outpost — the company's first office outside Silicon Valley.

"Though the city's technology industry is still developing, it offers a breath of fresh air compared to overcrowded late-stage tech markets like Austin and Denver. Ultimately, the breadth and depth of Houston's talent pool and the neighboring educational pipelines made it an ideal location for a second home," Vinay Pai, senior vice president of engineering at Palo Alto, California-based Bill.com and a Rice University graduate, wrote in April 2020 on LinkedIn.

Energy giant makes Houston sole headquarters in massive move

HQ move

Power player NRG Energy is laser focused on Houston. The Bayou City will be the energy giant's new sole headquarters; the company will no longer split between Houston and Princeton, New Jersey.

The move to a single headquarters simplifies business operations, as a large number of the company's employees and customers reside in Texas, the company noted in a press release and report.

The company, having recently acquired Direct Energy, will maintain regional offices in the markets that it serves and "evaluate real estate needs and consolidate as appropriate," the report adds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner welcomed the news in a statement, relaying that he and his team have had "substantive conversations" with NRG president and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez. "I believe the decision is confirmation that Houston is a smart city for business," said Turner.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also chimed in, adding in part:

With this move, NRG joins 50 other Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas, including 22 in the Houston area alone. America's leading businesses continue to invest in Texas — and grow jobs in Texas — because of our welcoming business climate, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and our young, growing, and skilled workforce.
I thank NRG Energy for designating Texas — the energy capital of the world — as their corporate headquarters, and I look forward to our continued partnership as we ensure a more prosperous future for all who call the Lone Star State home.

Turner noted that more than a year ago, the City of Houston committed to purchasing 100 percent renewable energy through a renewed partnership with NRG Energy as the City's retail electric provider. "The plan is helping us build a more sustainable future, save over $9 million on our electric bill, and reduce emissions," he said.

NRG Energy boasts some 3,000 employees in Houston alone. In its report, the company reported a net loss of $83 million due the impact of Winter Storm Uri.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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


Emily Cisek, founder of The Postage

The Postage — a Houston-based company that's streamlining afterlife planning — has rolled out a new app. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Emily Cisek had a mission when she founded The Postage. She wanted to make afterlife planning simpler — and she's taken one giant step toward that goal with the company's new app.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple."

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app. Click here to read more.

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, say his company transform from uncertainty to almost uncontrollable growth in just 12 months. He shares what happened on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Proxima

After a huge dip in business due to the pandemic, a Houston company focused on supporting innovative life science companies saw 12 months of unprecedented growth. Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, says that's not only a good sign for the future of his business — but also of the future of Houston's life science sector.

"We're a good barometer for what's happening not only locally but across the country," Coker says. "As Proxima has grown, it's really show how the Houston life science market is growing."

Coker shares more about Proxima's growth and Houston's potential of being a major life science hub on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sylvia Kampshoff, founder of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has launched Kanthaka's first crowdfunding campaign. Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has lofty goals for her company Kanthaka, a platform for connecting users to personal trainers across over a dozen cities. With the launch of a new $1 million crowdfunding raise, Kampshoff is one step closer to growing her business according to these goals.

"Our vision is to become Amazon for health & fitness and the go-to provider to live a longer, happier and healthier life," Kampshoff says. "We couldn't be more excited about this journey." Click here to read more.