Brian Richards created Accenture's innovation hub before his clients even knew they needed it. Courtesy of Accenture

Brian Richards knew from his first college internship that, even as an engineer, he wasn't interested in a typical engineering position after college.

"The pace was slow and structures are rigorous — as they have to be," says Richards, managing director at Accenture's Houston office. "So, there's not much room for experimentation and innovation. I could tell that those were things that were going to excite me."

He found a position in Accenture's technology labs in Chicago that focused on spotting tech trends ahead of market demand. In 2011, he transitioned to energy innovation, noticing the potential for innovation in the energy industry, yet a lot of companies weren't focusing on new ways to do business more effectively.

Now, that's all changed, and Richards says he's seen an increased demand from energy companies seeking innovation projects.

Last year, Richards opened the doors to Accenture's innovation hub in Houston. The hub acts as a one-stop shop for Accenture clients looking for a new tool or better process to do something. Once Richards and his team find a solution for the client, Accenture is able to deploy its team of consultants to scale up that innovation to the entire company.

A steward for Houston innovation, Richards is on the board of Houston Exponential, the city-created innovation arm dedicated to making Houston optimized for innovation. With both of his HX and Accenture roles, he sees the same goals and ideas — from the need for resources to the need to execute plans.

"What we're trying to do in the city of Houston and within the innovation Hub are similar," Richards says. "Houston needs the right skillsets and mindsets, and we need the right skillsets and mindsets in our talent. You got to bring these people together, which we're doing in the city with the Innovation District, and what we did in our offices."

InnovationMap: You started developing ideas and processes for the innovation hub when you were still in Chicago, but when did you move to Houston?

Brian Richards: In 2015, I decided to move my family down to Houston to give it a real shot — we obviously wanted to build [the innovation hub] in Houston. I got approval in 2016, and we launched in February of 2017.

IM: Did your colleagues question your move to Houston?

BR: It was an odd path. Very few people in Chicago aspire to move into the energy industry. When I was looking at the potential in moving down for this, many of my friends told me to go to Austin or Silicon Valley and not to go to Houston — that's not where innovation is happening. On one hand, [at the time], they were right, but on the other hand, they definitely [ended up being] wrong. It's the fourth largest city, with energy and health industries booming. It makes all the sense in the world to try innovation in this city.

IM: What was the reception of the hub?

BR: I saw the innovation hub as something people didn't know they needed it until it was built — within both the market and within Accenture. Obviously, it was a big investment — it takes time, people, and space — and we were in the middle of an oil downturn, which isn't really a good time. But when it came to digital innovation, it was the right time and the right opportunity to make that investment. It took a lot of advocating, sponsorships, and ongoing support. When we look at repeat visits from clients who have been here a couple dozen times, that to me speaks to the demand and the experiences.

IM: Who are the innovation hub's clients?

BR: Most all fall within the resources — chemical, utilities, mining, oil and gas — range from all over the world. They come here because they are interested in what the market is doing. To develop your own innovation, you need different types of skills. These companies aren't able to have the teams of experts we have.

IM: What types of projects do you work on?

BR: All sorts of things, but I obviously can't talk about specific projects, but we organize our studio to have different domains. We have the data science team, which is focused on AI and things of that nature. We have an Industry X.0 cyber team, focused on automation and securing that. We have a design and engineering team. And then we focus on our platforms and partners as our last pillar.

Then, we use three core methodologies together: Design thinking, agile software delivery, and lean startup. Design thinking is putting the user at the center of what you're designing. Agile is running tests and workshops to ensure we're creating value. … They all fundamentally sit at the intersection of improving the business operations by bringing design capability and bringing developers to create the novel product. Then using the leverage and power of Accenture to scale that up.

IM: What does the scaling up process look like?

BR: Most of the time, if you're trying to do innovation, you're going to come up with ideas, use a whiteboard, concept, but it's usually going to have a mix of a different type of process or use of data. Any time you're doing something with new processes or something, there's risk inherent to that. Our innovation projects are designed around you not wanting to spend a bunch of money, because you don't know what you don't know until you start building it. So, we're very much focused on building it, and then when it works well at one plant, and they want to deploy it at 50 plants. Now, it's not about innovation, it's about the ability to deliver that across time zones and geography. That's where the rest of Accenture comes into play.

IM: What's next for innovation hub?

BR: The key for us is growth in general — we need to be able to support that demand we have. We are looking at our capabilities, the people and the skillsets we need, the facilities we need — we're looking at all of that.

IM: In the few years you've been here, how has Houston's innovation scene changed?

BR: I think it's pretty impressive. In 2016, was when we first got the innovation round table at the Greater Houston Partnership together. There were very passionate people in Houston for some time, so I don't want to make it sound like they finally came to their senses; that's not the case, people have been working on this for a long period time. But, what changed in 2016, was that it really hit at the institutional level of Houston — the mayor's office, GHP, Rice University. That's what led to the innovation strategy and to the commitment from leaders. We can't be the Energy Capital of the World or have the world's largest medical center and not have a focus on startups, venture capital, and more. We need that to maintain our superiority. Companies in Houston are growing these capabilities and working with different types of startups — if they can't find that here to improve their companies, they are going to go somewhere else. That was the major shift in 2016.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

These are the 10 most promising energy tech startups, according to judges at Rice Alliance forum

best of the best

This week, energy startups pitched virtually for venture capitalists — as well as over 1,000 attendees — as a part of Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship's 18th annual Energy and Clean Tech Venture Forum.

At the close of the three-day event, Rice Alliance announced its 10 most-promising energy tech companies. Here's which companies stood out from the rest.

W7energy

Based in Delaware, W7energy has created a zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicle technology supported by PiperION polymers. The startup's founders aim to provide a more reliable green energy that is 33 percent cheaper to make.

"With ion exchange polymer, we can achieve high ionic conductivity while maintaining mechanical strength," the company's website reads. "Because of the platform nature of the chemistry, the chemical and physical properties of the polymer membranes can be tuned to the desired application."

Modumetal

Modumetal, which has its HQ in Washington and an office locally as well, is a nanotechnology company focused on improving industrial materials. The company was founded in 2006 by Christina Lomasney and John Whitaker and developed a patented electrochemical process to produce nanolaminated metal alloys, according to Modumetal's website.

Tri-D Dynamics

San Francisco-based Tri-D Dynamics has developed a suite of smart metal products. The company's Bytepipe product claims to be the world's first smart casing that can collect key information — such as leak detection, temperatures, and diagnostic indicators — from underground and deliver it to workers.

SeekOps

A drone company based in Austin, SeekOps can quickly retrieve and deliver emissions data for its clients with its advance sensor technology. The company, founded in 2017, uses its drone and sensor pairing can help reduce emissions at a low cost.

Akselos

Switzerland-based Akselos has been using digital twin technology since its founding in 2012 to help energy companies analyze their optimization within their infrastructure.

Osperity

Osperity, based in Houston's Galleria area, is a software company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze and monitor industrial operations to translate the observations into strategic intelligence. The technology allows for cost-effective remote monitoring for its clients.

DroneDeploy

DroneDeploy — based in San Francisco and founded in 2013 — has raised over $92 million (according to Crunchbase) for its cloud-based drone mapping and analytics platform. According to the website, DroneDeploy has over 5,000 clients worldwide across oil and gas, construction, and other industries.

HEBI Robotics

Pittsburgh-based HEBI Robotics gives its clients the tools to build custom robotics. Founded 2014, HEBI has clients — such as NASA, Siemens, Ericsson — across industries.

CarbonFree Chemicals

CarbonFree Chemicals, based in San Antonio and founded in 2016, has created a technology to turn carbon emissions to useable solid carbonates.

SensorUp

Canadian Internet of Things company, SensorUp Inc. is a location intelligence platform founded in 2011. The technology specializes in real-time analysis of industrial operations.

"Whether you are working with legacy systems or new sensors, we provide an innovative platform that brings your IoT together for automated operations and processes," the company's website reads.

Amazon unlocks 2 prime brick-and-mortar stores in the Houston area

THAT'S SOME PRIME SHOPPING

The juggernaut that is Amazon considers to rule the universe and expand. Now, local fans of Jeff Bezos' digital behemoth can look forward to two new brick-and-mortar stores in the Houston area.

Amazon announced the opening of two Houston stores on September 18: Amazon 4-star in The Woodlands Mall and Amazon Books in Baybrook Mall.

For the uninitiated, the Amazon 4-star is a new store that carries highly rated products from the top categories across all of Amazon.com — including devices, consumer electronics, kitchen, home, toys, books, games, and more.

As the name implies, all products are rated four stars and above by Amazon customers. Other determinants include the item being a top seller, or if it is new and trending on Amazon.com, according to a press release.

Shoppers can expect fun features such as "Bring Your Own Pumpkin Spice," "Stay Connected Home Tech for Work and Play," "Fresh Off the Screen," and "Trending Around Houston" to discover must-have products. The Woodlands Amazon 4-star (1201 Lake Woodlands Dr.) is the 23rd Amazon 4-star location nationwide.

Meanwhile, shoppers in Baybrook Mall's Amazon Books (1132 Baybrook Mall Dr.) can expect myriad titles rated as customer favorites, whether trending on the site, devices, or listed as customer favorites. Amazon Books in the Baybrook Mall is the 23rd Amazon Books location nationwide.

Books customers can shop cookbooks alongside a highly curated selection of cooking tools, as well as, popular toys, games, and other home items. Amazon Books is open to all: Prime members pay the Amazon.com price in store, and customers who aren't already Prime members can sign up for a free 30-day trial and instantly receive the Amazon.com price in store, according a release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.