Joy Jones is opening her Oak Forest location of Code Wiz later this month. Screenshot via Code Wiz

A Houstonian has switched up her career to focus on inspiring and equipping children STEM-focused skills.

Joy Jones, who has worked for a decade in the corporate world, is starting the new year with a new career — this one focused on her passion of providing more STEM programming access to students. In 2021, she came across Code Wiz, a coding school franchise based in Massachusetts with 19 locations across the country, and met with Ruth Agbaji, CEO and "nerd-in-chief" of the company.

“Talking with Ruth and hearing the story of her mission to touch 1 million kids through Code Wiz, I found exactly what I’ve been looking for, a mission that aligned with mine,” says Jones, in a news release.

Code Wiz features a Montessori-style approach, according to the release, and classes are project-based so that students are able to explore at their own pace while building confidence and interest. Here are some of the things Code Wiz students engage with:

  • Build multi-level video games
  • Create animation
  • Introduction to Python
  • Website development in HTML, CSS, and Javascript
  • Enroll in classes for Roblox, Minecraft and Unity
  • Enter robotics competitions
  • Celebrate birthday parties and programs for local Girl Scout troops

The Houston area is already home to two Code Wiz locations — one in Cypress and the other in Katy — and Jones is bringing the third oneto Houston proper in Oak Forest on the northside of Houston later this month.

"We have a chance to teach young learners in Oak Forest and the surrounding central Houston area, the language of the future – coding – in a language they already understand in games and robotics,” she continues.

Classes at Code Wiz Oak Forest begin next week, and the location is celebrating its grand opening on Saturday, January 14, from 10 am to 1 pm. with classes starting the week before. Per the release, Founding Family memberships are currently available to the first 50 families who sign up to receive 31.4 percent off a lifetime membership.

A Houston startup is making it easier to connect and manage the relationship between tech freelancers and businesses with software projects. Image via Pexels

This Houston startup is changing the way companies access tech talent

freelancers unite

With the gig economy continuing to grow — especially in light of the COVID-19-caused crisis and growing unemployment — a Houston startup has created a portal for companies to access technology-focused freelancers.

FreelancingTeams, co-founded by Raj Kal, allows companies to easily search and find tech professionals for projects — as well as manage that team throughout the work. On the other side of the table, the startup is allowing the country's growing population of freelancers a platform to get picked up for jobs.

"We are changing the way we look at team building," Kal says, noting that a huge percentage of freelancers struggle to find jobs with existing resources.

Not only does FreelancingTeams act as a marketplace for tech talent, but Kal says the platform allows for project management and payment processes. While there are other talent portals — like Fiverr and Upwork — this added capability sets the startups apart from its competition.

"People come in with an idea, and they can do it from start to finish," Kal says, explaining that users don't have to find separate tools to find their team, manage the project, and price and pay for the work.

FreelancingTeams is free for clients to list and staff their projects, and a 10 to 15 percent cut comes out of the freelancer side. However, there is an option for clients to upgrade to a paid subscription option for larger, more complex projects that require additional hands-on management resources from FreelancingTeams.

With its free option, FreelancingTeams has seen a lot of interest from startups looking to build there minimum viable product, or MVP.

"We are working with a lot of startups as a Station Houston partner," Kal says. "We are helping them get their MVP done, so that when they come to our platform, we can work with them to understand the requirements and connect them to their teams."

Betsy Furler, founder of For All Abilities, a Houston-based software company aims to help businesses support employees with ADHD, Dyslexia, learning differences, and Autism, recently used FreelancingTeams to staff her MVP development project. She says using the platform made it easy to manage and test the work the freelancers were doing.

"FreelancingTeams helped me build my MVP quickly and inexpensively," Furler says. "Their quote was much less expensive than the others [I received] and the work was fantastic. Because of the platform, I also spent more time thinking through what features were needed and how to prioritize them, rather than just giving a developer or project manager a list to complete."

Outside of affordably building tech for startups, the coronavirus has greatly affected the workforce with unemployment at a historic high. This has led to an increased interest in freelancing.

"A lot of people are unemployed and are looking for alternative options," Kal says. "Freelancing is a place where we are seeing large growth."

He says he's also observing an increased interest in freelancers from large companies and even retailers who need to upgrade their online presence.

"The COVID situation has brought more challenges to bigger businesses, and they are looking for cost-effective solutions as well," Kal says.

Kal is looking to grow FreelancingTeams, which might include fundraising in the future, he says. For now, the company has a low overhead and uses freelancers on its own site to develop its technology.

"The next step for us is to grow bigger in Houston and then around Texas," Kal says.

Daytum exists to train coding experts in oil and gas. Getty Images

Houston startup aims to arm the energy industry's workforce with coding skills

Coding camps

Nearly 2,000 miles separate the energy industry of Houston and Silicon Valley where startups have cropped up to help manage the thousands of data points collected on oil rigs each day. The different geographies have developed their own dialects: data scientists on the West Coast talk about how operations should be, according to their models, while the lingo of Third Coast engineers and technicians centers on oil-specific operations.

Last year, while working in natural resource investing from Houston, Kunal Rayakar realized he had heard from a number of students who could, uniquely, speak both. The reason: They knew coding languages, which meant they could analyze their own data and bridge that gap between the coasts. When Rayakar followed the trail of students to the University of Texas at Austin, he found two engineering professors, John Foster and Michael Pyrcz, who were teaching their students data skills as part of the curriculum. They started talking, and eventually Foster and Rayakar founded daytum — and soon after, Pyrcz joined, too.

"The intention is to give people more awareness of the data that comes through, so they can make faster decisions," Rayakar says.

An education program for workers in the energy industry, daytum hosts workshops and an online learning network for technicians and engineers to better understand the data they're working with. This, Rayakar says, helps them exercise more control over the work — especially for those whose preliminary training in the field was before data became indispensable to the job. The professors and Kunal host two– or five-day workshops, and just a few weeks ago, they held both introductory and intermediate courses at the University of Houston.

The professors teach Python, a common programming language. Although there's a learning curve to studying Python, it's not as confusing as some of the tools, like MATLAB, that engineers studied in their undergraduate educations. But students don't actually have to become Python experts at all — instead, they use Jupyter, an online digital notebook that can import Python packages, which are large and ready-made coding sequences.

Often, these are free and available to download on sites like Github. Daytum professors teach packages that are useful for analyzing and visualizing the data they work with in the field, and students leave having a usable workstation on their computers, ready to be installed and implemented in their work.

"People really enjoyed the courses," Rayakar says. "We were really happy."

But right now, daytum's main goal is to continue to grow its workshops — including introducing Austin bootcamps, to engage people in learning, and to empower oil industry technicians to navigate the industry's digital transition more smoothly.

"By building longer-term solutions and cultures, we can build better educations," Rayakar says.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. Getty Images

How tech boot camps can help solve the Houston innovation equation

Class project

It's been a little over a year since Houston lost out on the Amazon HQ2 bid and left the city pondering its approach to innovation. Houston is known for taking risks and bouncing back from adversity. We're known for growth and entrepreneurship. But are we still known for innovation? Are we positioned for growth as a creative class and digital skills city?

It's my belief that we need to invest in the professional skills of our local workforce and ensure we can attract companies that will help our city and Houstonians thrive. Amazon pointed us in the right direction. It highlighted our need of more professional upskilling programs and increased investment in the city's innovation infrastructure.

At Rice University, we listened, and launched fast-track, intensive tech training programs designed specifically for working adults to help solve these problems. We launched a pilot program in late 2018, a data analytics boot camp in partnership with a national workforce accelerator called Trilogy Education. It was met with such an enthusiastic response from students that we are expanding the initiative by adding programs in cybersecurity and other high demand fields later this year.

These tech boot camps are designed to augment Rice's other efforts to foster innovation in our community like a recent $100 million investment in a new innovation hub for all of Houston and an already ambitious innovation and technology ecosystem, highlighted by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. Combined, we hope these efforts will help Houston to secure its position as a magnet for technology employers and workers alike.

By many standards, Houston's tech industry is booming. Digital middle-skill jobs — the kinds that provide a stepping stone between lower-paid non-tech roles and high-earning careers in tech — represent 42 percent of overall job postings in Houston. And these jobs are on the rise. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Houston job postings requiring web development skills rose by 57 percent, earning the city 6th-place ranking among the top 10 U.S. cities for coding job growth.

With numbers like these, it's easy to grow complacent. But Houston is by no means immune to the widening digital skills gap that is holding back business growth nationwide. And unless we create programs to support upskilling and career mobility, even the people currently driving Houston's tech renaissance may struggle to keep their skills sets up to date.

These programs help us address Amazon's core area of critique: innovation. This is something Houston has historically been known for; in 1969 alone, we helped put the first astronaut on the moon and the first artificial heart in a patient. But like all important skills, innovation must be regularly nurtured, enhanced, and relearned.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. These employers are starting to look beyond traditional degrees for people who can simply prove they have the skills for the job. The relatively lower barrier to entry for a technology boot camp opens the door for candidates of all races, genders, and walks of life to bring their unique perspectives and insights to an industry sorely in need of more diversity.

As one of the country's most racially diverse metros, Houston reflects the nation's demographic future, and can make a unique contribution to the diversity of our workforce. We already rank among the top five best U.S. cities for women in tech (number four, to be exact). And if the demographics of Rice's earliest boot camp enrollees are any indication, a widespread rollout of these kinds of programs may be a part of Houston's ability to garner the number one spot in coming years. Among our boot camp students to date, 35 percent are white, 20 percent are Hispanic, 17 percent are African American, and 23 percent are Asian. Women made up 25 percent of our first class, a good start that we plan to improve.

Houston has the potential to become a nationwide leader in tech innovation. The problems we face in getting there are complicated, but like all equations, they can be solved with resilience and hard work.

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Robert Bruce is the dean of Rice University's Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

Houston's job market has seen a growing demand for coders, as companies seek to bring coding in house. DigitalCrafts is stepping in to provide an educated workforce. Courtesy of DigitalCrafts

Houston coding class grows tenfold in 2 years to meet the job market needs

Back to school

When DigitalCrafts hosted its first coding boot camp in Houston, it opened with eight people. Two years later, the organization's next class will graduate 125 people as coders, ready to take on the challenges of the Bayou City's 21st century work environment.

"We work with local companies as part of our advising board," says Jason Ephraim, the Houston campus director. "And our students go to work for those companies when they complete our program. That kind of localization helps us understand what the Houston ecosystem needs in terms of workforce skills, and allows us to adapt our curriculum to meet their needs, which helps us ensure our graduates get placed."

DigitalCrafts began in Atlanta, co-founded by Max McChesney and Jake Hadden. The Houston outpost is only the second expansion for the company, a move Ephraim says is a deliberate; DigitalCrafts looks to make small, impactful changes as a company, better ensuring it meets the needs of both its students and the workforce they'll enter.

The company offers a project-based curriculum, where outside companies come into the classroom and describe the challenges they're facing. Students are then offered the opportunity to work in teams on digital solutions, providing an experiential learning environment that mirrors what they might find in their careers.

"In Atlanta, we work with companies like the Home Depot and Chick-Fil-A, but here in Houston, where energy is still dominant, we have companies come in and explain the tools they need to maximize their business," Ephraim says. "That means students are working on actual projects with an end result for a business, and it gives them exposure to area businesses."

That combination of providing a deep dive into coding and partnering with Houston companies helps DigitalCrafts graduates get an edge on the competition. The program itself is super hands on, and most of the students who come into it have taken at least one computer programming course, most likely Python or JavaScript, whether in the course of their college education or via a MOOC (massive open online course).

"For most of our students, that exposure wasn't enough and they want a deeper dive," says Ephraim.

DigitalCrafts offers both full- and part-time class options. The full-time program is 16 weeks and fully immersive. Students take courses every day, building on skills and training as full-stack developers. The part-time sessions unfold across 26 weeks, and students learn front- and back-end web development.

"Our goal has always been to help our students be ready for careers in all aspects of software and web development," says Ephraim. "The average student is 30, and looking to either make a career change to coding and development, or wants to enhance what he or she has already learned."

The vetting process for students is exacting, explains Ephraim. Each applicant is evaluated based not only on what he or she knows and is looking to learn, but also in terms of what his or her individual career goals are. DigitalCrafts looks to ensure that its programs will meet the needs of its students.

Ephraim says that given Houston's current job landscape, the need for coders is strong — and growing.

"Over the last two years, we're seeing companies who used to outsource this kind of development bringing it back in-house," he says. "That's created a really high demand for people who understand coding and programming and know how to solve problems. And it's not just happening at energy companies. It's happening in finance, in health care."

In short, the industries that play a huge role in keeping the Houston economy ticking.

In addition to offering its in-depth boot camps, DigitalCrafts also contracts with companies to train employees. The company will either offer basic classes or work with an organization to custom-create a curriculum based on individual needs. Ephraim says that his organization has had success in the Bayou City because it's made it a point to understand the local landscape, as well as look at the larger picture of what digital careers here look like.

"Houston isn't like Austin, where you have that almost stereotypical idea of people walking around with their laptops and working in coffee shops," Ephraim says. "The digital landscape here is different, and there are jobs here for those who know how to fill this need. Companies here want to hire Houstonians. We're here to help make sure they can."

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Houston cardiac health startup raises $43 million series B to grow AI-backed platform

money moves

A Houston-based tech company that has a product line of software solutions for cardiac health has raised funding.

Octagos Health, the parent company of Atlas AI — a software platform for cardiac devices like pacemakers, defibrillators, ambulatory monitors and consumer wearables — has announced a $43 million series B raise that will bring their technology to many more hearts.

Morgan Stanley Investment Capital led the investment, which also included funds from Mucker Capital and other continuing strategic investors. The goal of the raise is to supply funds to accelerate Atlas AI’s growth across the United States and to expand into other areas of care, including ambulatory monitors, consumer wearables, and sleep.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate enhancements to our platform, in addition to scaling our commercial team and operations. We are currently the only company that helps cardiology practices migrate their historical data from legacy software providers and fully integrates with any EHR (exertion heart rate) system. We do this while enabling customized reporting supported by patient and practice decision-support analytics," says Eric Olsen, COO of Octagos Health, in a press release.

Octagos Health was founded by a team of healthcare pros including CEO Shanti Bansal, a cardiologist and founder of Houston Heart Rhythm, an atrial fibrillation center. The goal was to find a new way to deal with the massive amount of data that clinicians encounter each day in a way that combines software and the work of human doctors.

According to the Octagos Health website, “Our solution allows clinicians to focus on other ways of delivering meaningful healthcare and more efficiently manage their remotely monitored patients.”

It works thanks to customizable reporting features that allow patients’ healthcare teams to get help while monitoring them, but to do it precisely as they would if they were crunching numbers themselves.

"We are excited to partner with Octagos Health and support their vision of transforming cardiac care," says Melissa Daniels, managing director of Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. "Octagos Health has demonstrated exceptional growth and innovation in a critical area of healthcare. We believe their platform and vertically integrated software and services significantly improve patient care and streamline cardiac monitoring processes for healthcare providers."

Will Hsu, co-founder and partner of Mucker Capital, agrees. “Octagos Health is poised for scale – industry leading gross margins, a very sticky product that doctors and clinical staff love, and a market ready for disruption with artificial intelligence. This is the new wave for diagnostic care,” he says. And with this raise, it will be available to even more clinicians and patients across the country.

Houston biotech company expands leadership as it commercializes sustainable products

joining the team

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos.

Parachin will lead the Cemvita team that’s developing technology for production of bio-manufactured oil.

“It’s a fantastic moment, as we’re poised to take our prototyping to the next level, and all under the innovative direction of our co-founder Tara Karimi,” Parachin says in a news release. “We will be bringing something truly remarkable to market and ensuring it’s cost-effective.”

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita, says the hiring of Parachin represents “the natural next step” toward commercializing the startup’s carbon-to-oil process.

“Her background prepared her to bring the best out of the scientists at the inflection point of commercialization — really bringing things to life,” says Moji Karimi, Tara’s brother.

Parachin joins Garcia on Cemvita’s executive team.

Before being promoted to vice president of commercialization, Garcia was the startup’s commercial director and business development manager. He has a background in engineering and business development.

Founded in 2017, Cemvita recently announced a breakthrough that enables production of large quantities of oil derived from carbon waste.

In 2023, United Airlines agreed to buy up to one billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Cemvita’s first full-scale plant over the course of 20 years.

Cemvita’s investors include the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, an investment arm of Chicago-based United; Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based energy company Occidental Petroleum; and Japanese equipment and machinery manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a logistics startup founder, a marketing expert, and a solar energy innovator.

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Houston logistics SaaS innovator is making waves with its expanded maritime shipping platform. Photo courtesy of Voyager

For several years now, Matthew Costello has been navigating the maritime shipping industry looking for problems to solve for customers with his company, Voyager Portal.

Initially, that meant designing a software platform to enhance communications and organization of the many massive and intricate global shipments happening every day. Founded in 2018 by Costello and COO Bret Smart, Voyager Portal became a integral tool for the industry that helps users manage the full lifecycle of their voyages — from planning to delivery.

"The software landscape has changed tremendously in the maritime space. Back in 2018, we were one of a small handful of technology startups in this space," Costello, who serves as CEO of Voyager, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Now that's changed. ... There's really a huge wave of innovation happening in maritime right now." Read more.

Arielle Rogg, principal and founder of Rogg Enterprises

Arielle Rogg writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about AI in the workforce. Photo via LinkedIn

Arielle Rogg isn't worried about artificial intelligence coming for her job. In fact, she has three reasons why, and she outlines them in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The advent of AI pushes us humans to acquire new skills and hone our existing abilities so we can work alongside these evolving technologies in a collaborative fashion. AI augments human capabilities rather than replacing us. I believe it will help our society embrace lifelong learning, creating new industries and jobs that have never existed before," she writes in the piece. Read more.

Nathan Childress, founder of Solar Slice

Solar Slice Founder Nathan Childress says his new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet. Photo via LinkedIn

Nuclear engineer and entrepreneur Nathan Childress wants consumers to capture their own ray of sunlight to brighten the prospect of making clean energy a bigger part of the power grid. That's why he founded Solar Slice. The new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet.

Although trained in nuclear power plant design, solar power drew his interest as a cheaper and more accessible alternative, and Childress tells InnovationMap that he thinks that the transition to cleaner energy, in Texas especially, needs to step up.

Recent studies show that 80 to 90 percent of the money invested into fighting climate change “aren’t going to things that people actually consider helpful,” Childress says, adding that “they’re more just projects that sound good, that are not actually taking any action." Read more.