3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Tudor Palaghita of Camppedia, Robert Kester of Honeywell, and Ed Wooten of Smith. Photos courtesy

This week's Houston innovators to know are all using technology — but in completely different ways and across various sectors.

From creating a circular and sustainable economy for your company's technology to an online platform for your child's various activities — and even a socially distant way of checking temperatures — here is this week's who's who of Houston innovation.

Tudor Palaghita, CEO and founder of Camppedia

Tudor Palaghita has advanced his startup, Camppedia, so that parents can have virtual and in-person activities for their kids this summer. Photo courtesy of Camppedia

Like most of the world, Tudor Palaghita's year isn't going as planned. The founder of Camppedia — an online marketplace and tool for parents finding and managing their kids' activities — was hoping this summer was going to be his company's break-out moment and proof of concept. Instead, he's had to act quickly and pivot to focus on community and virtual opportunities.

"If anything, the pandemic forced us to move a lot of things forward," Palaghita says on the recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The focus on the community was also something coming earlier than planned, but it was the most wonderful thing to come out of this. It really feels like everybody came together to give and to help each other."

Camppedia's business model is to give local camp and program providers — mostly small businesses, Palaghita says — a place to seamlessly reach parents. Now, these providers need Camppedia's platform more than ever as parents seek options a as they return to work or continue to look for at-home entertainment for their kids. Click here to read more.

Robert Kester, founder of Rebellion Photonics and president and general manager at Honeywell

Robert Kester found a new use for his temperature monitoring tech he created for the oil and gas industry. Photo courtesy of Honeywell

As the pandemic began to spread across the country, Robert Kester saw an opportunity for his technology he built for the oil and gas industry. Kester founded Rebellion Photonics, which Honeywell acquired in December of last year, and the company's ThermoRebellion temperature software uses infrared imaging technology and artificial intelligence to quickly conduct non-invasive screenings of people before they enter offices, banks, airports, as businesses begin to reopen.

"The key component is our software powered by artificial intelligence," Kester tells InnovationMap. "Our imaging systems leverage a decade of experience in the most advanced imaging technologies for gas leak detection, fire detection, and intrusion monitoring applications. The system features uncooled high-resolution FPA infrared sensors allowing for each pixel to be assessed for temperature."

By Kester's and his team's estimates, the ThermoRebllion system will be ready to deploy as early as June. Click here to read more.

Ed Wooten, director of IT asset disposition at Smith

Building a circular economy for electronics requires attention to detail in the areas of design, buyback, or return systems, advanced recycling and recapturing, durability and repair, and urban mining, writes Ed Wooten. Photo courtesy of Smith

For 20 years, Ed Wooten has worked to help clients figure out how to navigate the processes of buyback, recycling, and repair in order to create sustainable and profitable solutions to reduce e-waste.

"The world produces 40 million tons of e-waste annually, and only 20 percent of that is being disposed of properly," Wooten writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. "A circular economy is a system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value and where e-waste is essentially designed out of the system."

Wooten gives his advice for creating a circular economy. Click here to read more.

Tudor Palaghita has advanced his startup, Camppedia, so that parents can have virtual and in-person activities for their kids this summer. Photo courtesy of Camppedia

Online camp and programming marketplace pivots amid pandemic to help Houston parents

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 33

This summer was supposed to be Houston-based Camppedia's breakout moment — a chance for CEO and Founder Tudor Palaghita to prove the company's value to its users. Palaghita is still getting to provide a much needed service to parents looking to enroll their children into enriching summer programs, but in a much different capacity thanks to COVID-19.

Camppedia — which Palaghita founded with his sister, Ana, in late 2018 — is an online marketplace that acts as a one-stop shop for parents looking for and managing local programming and activities for their kids. As the pandemic began to derail after school activities and summer plans, Palaghita quickly pivoted to provide essential needs like virtual offerings and connecting community members with new resources.

"If anything, the pandemic forced us to move a lot of things forward," Palaghita says about some of the key implementations he's made to the site. "The focus on the community was also something coming earlier than planned, but it was the most wonderful thing to come out of this. It really feels like everybody came together to give and to help each other."

Camppedia's business model is to give local camp and program providers — mostly small businesses, Palaghita says — a place to seamlessly reach parents. Now, these providers need Camppedia's platform more than ever as parents seek options a as they return to work or continue to look for at-home entertainment for their kids.

In order to better inform providers with what parents are looking for, Palaghita created a survey for parents to express what their concerns are, including when they are ready for in-person camps, what kind of safety measures they want to see, what are their thoughts on virtual programs are, and more.

"We're helping the community understand what parents think so that we can provide the best avenues and information and so providers can tune their programs to meet those needs," Palaghita says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Palaghita shares how he's managed throughout the pandemic and his plans for growing Camppedia throughout these challenges. Listen to the full interview with Palaghita below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


From personal and consumer technology to B2B companies ready to scale, here's who to watch in Houston tech. Getty Images

5 emerging tech startups in Houston to keep an eye on

up and comers

When it comes to Houston's tech startups, it's as diverse as Houston's population. There are software-as-a-service companies, new mobile technology, and even virtual reality startups that all call Houston home.

Here's a roundup of these Houston companies that you need to keep an eye on.

Hamper

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Despite working most summers in his family's dry cleaning shop, Safir Ali wasn't thinking about taking over his family business. He was living his young professional life with a freshly minted degree from Texas A&M University and a corporate job. However, when he started thinking of all the modern conveniences available now — RedBox, ridesharing, delivery apps — he couldn't help but think of how antiquated dry cleaning was compared.

Ali and his brother hope to upgrade dry cleaning with their startup, Hamper. Ali describes it as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered straight to their suite. Originally, Safir thought the kiosks could be stand-alones, but it proved to be easier to partner with high-traffic office spaces, like those in the busy Galleria or over in Williams Tower.

The company has gained some traction — and even some prize money. Hamper won first place in the 2019 LaunchPad Contest, which was sponsored by the Houston Rockets and BBVA Compass. The win brought in a $10,000 prize, along with a consultation with Rockets and BBVA Compass executives and a host of other prizes.

Read more about Hamper here.

Pandata Tech

Houston-based Pandata Tech uses its machine learning technology to advance oil and gas operations. Photo courtesy of Pandata Tech

Drilling data can be muddled and hard to use, but Houston-based Pandata Tech has developed the technology to clean and automate data collection for its oil and gas clients. But Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of the company, is looking to take his technology into other industries.

The Pandata team is now expanding to fields like defense and healthcare, which also generate hundreds of thousands of data points that need it be checked. The unique challenges of working with large drilling rigs have translated well to working with aircrafts. And the healthcare field is similar — with the Texas Medical Center, Houston's medical research centers can benefit from hastening the process of data validation.

"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.

Camppedia

Camppedia, a Houston-based startup, can help match kids to summer camps all around town. Photos courtesy of Camppedia

Probably the least fun thing about summer camp is finding and booking the summer camp. Of course, this responsibility falls on the busy adults' to-do lists. Two Houston parents, Tudor Palaghita and his sister Ana, wanted to create a solution for the overwhelming process.

"We're working parents, we're strapped on time, but we want to make sure we give our kids enriching experiences," explains Ana. "One spring, we were going through the [camp search] process, and we talked about how difficult it was. And the next spring, we said, there's something here. We feel this pain, our friends feel this pain, and no one is helping us. Why don't we solve our problem ourselves?"

And that's exactly what they did. The duo used their business and technology backgrounds — Ana has an MBA from Northwestern University and built a successful career in a major financial institution, and Tudor has his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech — to launch Camppedia.com. The site is intended to be a one-stop shop for parents looking for camps for their children.

The tool launched in March of 2019, coinciding with spring break. Currently, it offers options throughout central Houston. Parents can select camps for their children based on interests, their ZIP codes, cost or even those that offer extended hours for moms and dads with full-time jobs.

Read more about Camppedia here.

HTX Labs

VR training startup, HTX Labs, recently brought on Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America as a client. Trainees can work on a digitized version of the plant that looks as real as could be. Courtesy of HTX Labs

Virtual and augmented reality training in industrial settings is on the rise as the process and technology allows for quicker training and minimized risk. Houston-based startup HTX Labs LLC is one of the tech companies at the forefront of the VR-infused modernization of workplace training. Among its customers are the United States Air Force, Mastercard, Rackspace, and Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America, a maker of hydrogen peroxide.

At its core, the company's VR training zeroes in on the trainee, providing engaging, interactive experiences that stress "learning by doing," Scott Schneider, founder and CEO of HTX Labs, says. Training programs that have been around for decades are "designed for trainers, not necessarily for trainees," he says.

Read more about HTX Labs here.

Lodgeur

Lodgeur provides its guests with hotel luxury with room to breathe. Courtesy of Lodgeur

Travelers are usually faced with a decision to make: Privacy and homeliness of an apartment rental or style and class of a hotel room. Houston-based Lodgeur hopes to exist to have the best of both worlds. With Houston's busy business travel industry, founcer Sébastien Long knew he was starting in a good market.

"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."

The first guests arrived in mid-April. Long wanted to open by managing just a few properties, to make sure the company could ensure great guest experiences.

Read more about Lodgeur here.

Camppedia, a Houston-based startup, can help match kids to summer camps all around town. Educational First Steps/Facebook

Houston startup is using technology to connect parents to local summer programs for their children

Camp Finder

Tudor Palaghita and his sister Ana are both parents and both busy professionals. And both used the same word when it came to finding camps to help their kids pass the long, steamy summer: painful.

"We're working parents, we're strapped on time, but we want to make sure we give our kids enriching experiences," explains Ana. "One spring, we were going through the [camp search] process, and we talked about how difficult it was. And the next spring, we said, there's something here. We feel this pain, our friends feel this pain, and no one is helping us. Why don't we solve our problem ourselves?"

And that's exactly what they did. The duo used their business and technology backgrounds — Ana has an MBA from Northwestern University and built a successful career in a major financial institution, and Tudor has his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech — to launch Camppedia.com. The site is intended to be a one-stop shop for parents looking for camps for their children.

The tool launched in March of 2019, coinciding with spring break. Currently, it offers options throughout central Houston. Parents can select camps for their children based on interests, their ZIP codes, cost or even those that offer extended hours for moms and dads with full-time jobs.

"We believe the most important aspect to building anything is to understand your users," says Tudor, who left his research and development job at a major oil and gas services company to work full-time on Camppedia. "Before we launched, we did a lot of interviews and talked to a lot of parents, and then hand sketched prototypes to better convey our idea."

The pair went one step further after that, speaking with camp providers, seeking input about not only their products, but also the issue they faced in terms of marketing or registration. Following that fact-finding mission, they built Camppedia to show as many options as possible for families who want to book activities, as well as giving users the option to build their own calendars, save favorite options and see what camps actually have spots available. When parents select a camp, they are then driven to the individual camp's website to book.

Development on Camppedia, which is a member company at Station Houston, began last September, when the duo began looking at what to include on the site and finding partners who could assist them in building it.

"We looked at a bunch of different paths from a technology perspective," says Ana, who works on the site from her home in Virginia. "Because you can build the sort of the fancy, what I'd call destination-technology architecture, or you could build something scrappier, and I think we landed on something scrappy because we are still learning. Chances are [going forward] we'll change quite a bit."

Camppedia is built on WordPress, and currently features more than 275 camps from large to small. Tudor and Ana have been making improvements ever since, but the response has been enthusiastic. Parents, the pair say, have loved having so much information in one place. And camps have actually come to them, seeking information about how to be listed. That led to the creation of a camp partnership category, where camps can pay to use certain features on Camppedia's site, such as the ability to reach out to interested parents.

Going forward, the duo look forward to further building Camppedia as a resource. They're looking at adding reviews and experiences from parents, as well as finding ways to take the concept nationwide. But they're really happy with how the site has grown and the response they've had. The business, they insist, is designed to be a service that will support parents as they try to make the best decisions they can for their children.

"While the road ahead is daunting," says Tudor. "We are super excited about the possibility of building something truly useful for working parents who nowadays are struggling with so many competing priorities and whose needs seem to be somewhat overlooked by the digital reinvention coming out of Silicon Valley."


Photos courtesy of Camppedia

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.