Corporations can do more than just throw money at innovation efforts. Photo via Getty Images

I vividly remember, it was a typical Tuesday at Houston Exponential, and I’m sipping maybe my third coffee of the morning when the phone rings.

On the line is yet another hopeful voice from a newly minted innovation group at a "big company." They lay out their vision: “We’ve got this new innovation group! It’s me — a tech enthusiast who’s been yelling into the corporate void about needing to shake things up for the last two decades — plus a data scientist who loves numbers more than people, and a procurement guy who… well, procures stuff. And here’s the kicker: they’ve handed us $60 million to put to work. But here’s the catch — this treasure needs to be turned into a groundbreaking innovation that will dazzle the C-Suite, in about six months.”

I chuckle then sigh, because I’ve heard this story not once or twice, but about a dozen times over. And unfortunately, each of those grand plans crashed faster than a shooting star burning out over the Texas night sky — brilliant, swift, and leaving us wondering what might have been. Why? Well, let’s dig into some observations from my time working with institutional innovators from around the world and uncover just why throwing money at innovation like confetti at a wedding isn’t the quick fix big companies hope it will be.

The big miss here is a deep understanding of and ability to articulate the challenges. Innovation isn’t a highway where you can just press the gas and speed straight to Mt. Scale. It’s more like a winding country road with breathtaking views, unexpected potholes, and the occasional bewildered chicken crossing your path. For institutional innovators — the brave souls charting the course through this ever-changing landscape — the journey is filled with excitement, challenges, and the promise of discovery.

In my first hand experience mentoring over 500 startups and corporations, I’ve seen that the magic of innovation doesn’t come from a deep-pocketed budget but from a deep understanding of the problems we aim to solve. If you can view challenges through a kaleidoscope of perspectives, not just through the monochrome lens of one industry, you find the alternate routes that, while not exactly shortcuts, do keep you from turning down dark alleys and dead ends. A key observation here is that solutions to hard problems often lie in adjacent industries.

For example, consider how biomimicry has led to inventions like Velcro, inspired by burrs' ability to stick to animal fur, or how bullet trains in Japan were designed to mimic the kingfisher's beak for better aerodynamics. These are just a few examples of how solutions to complex problems often reside right in front of us or in the industry next door. Right here in Houston, Pumps & Pipes is a glowing example of how experts from Energy, Life Science and Space converge on similar problem sets with wildly different perspectives and applications.

Imagine if the engineers at NASA sat down for tacos with teachers from the local high school, or if doctors brainstormed with video game designers over a game of pickleball. Sounds fun, right? But it’s also where the magic happens. When we step out of our industry bubbles, we find that the solutions to our biggest problems often come from the most unexpected places.

So how do we begin to find these solutions? It all starts with a clear and clearly articulated challenge statement.

A crucial factor in encouraging organizations to look beyond traditional industry boundaries is to foster a deep understanding of problem-solution fit (you can read more about Problem - Solution fit in my last article here) and that means a deep understanding of the Problem. By guiding problem holders to dig deep into the nuances of the problems they aim to address, we expand their perspective. Once a comprehensive grasp of the problems are established, new pathways for solutions organically emerge. To do this you must broaden the collective thinking to the point where solutions from other industries become not just viable but often the most effective approach. My favorite quote on this subject is that “people don’t need a ¼ inch drill bit, they need a ¼ inch hole, and really they don’t need a ¼ hole, they need to hang a picture and when framed in that context, a command strip is more effective at solving the problem.”

So how do we do this? It’s easy, just continuously ask "why" or “why does this matter to your customer” to peel back the layers of the initial problem statements to reveal underlying causes or first principles. Ok this is actually much harder than it sounds but when organizations are guided through exercises to distill their challenges into first principles and more universal problem statements, a transformation occurs, resulting in several benefits:

  1. Expanding Solution Horizons: By elevating the problem discussion beyond industry-specific issues, the range of potential solutions widens remarkably.
  2. Universal Problem Statements: Restating the issues into more universal terms unlocks innovative approaches and solutions previously unseen.
  3. Enhanced Solution Fit and Success Probability: This reframing leads to solutions that are not only more fitting but also stand a higher chance of successfully being adopted and integrated and thus resolving the underlying issues.
  4. Increased Buy-In: These solutions are and are perceived as more novel and thus receive increased buy-in across the organization when moving towards adoption.

The critical lesson here is the power of abstracting the problem. By pulling back from the immediate and specific issues and reinterpreting them into broader, more universally applicable challenges, we can tap into a richer vein of solutions. This approach not only broadens the scope of potential innovations but also increases the alignment and effectiveness of the solutions we pursue.

The art of crafting challenge statements that are both broad enough to inspire innovative thinking and specific enough to be actionable is crucial. These statements serve as beacons, guiding both internal and external innovation efforts towards solutions that are not bound by conventional industry norms. By framing challenges in a way that invites diverse perspectives, organizations unlock innovative solutions that transcend traditional boundaries, fostering a more expansive and inclusive approach to problem-solving.

Turning lofty ambitions into tangible results begins with understanding that innovation isn’t just about flashy gadgets or the latest buzzwords. It’s about solving real problems for real people. This means rolling up our sleeves, listening intently, and sometimes realizing that the solution isn’t a high-tech wonder but perhaps something as simple and elegant as a command strip instead of a hole in the wall.

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Jon Nordby is managing partner at Anthropy Partners, a Houston-based investment firm, and professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Houston.

Spaces plans to open a new location in Houston this month, Chevron Technology Ventures invests in autonomous vehicle tech, and more Houston innovation news. Courtesy of Spaces

New coworking space to open, Houston to host Accenture's health tech awards, and more innovation news

Short stories

A lot is happening in the Houston innovation ecosystem — so much that you may have missed a few key news items. Let's hit the highlights, shall we?

Applications are open for major health tech awards program that is coming to town, a Houston corporate venture fund doles out cash to self-driving cars, new coworking space to deliver, a diversity-focused partnership launches, and more Houston innovation news.

Chevron Technology Ventures invests in self-driving cars

Voyage is growing its fleet of self-driving vehicles with the help of a Houston corporate VC fund. Photo via voyage.auto

Silicon Valley's Voyage, a self-driving car technology company, closed its series B round at $31 million. Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures contributed to the round.

The round's funds will go toward expanding the company's fleet of G2 autonomous vehicles in California and Florida, as well as introduce Voyage's G3 self-driving car, Oliver Cameron, co-founder and CEO at Voyage, writes in a release.

"Chevron has been supporting the public's transportation needs for over 100 years. As our customers' mobility needs and preferences change, we want to continue to be part of their journeys. Our investment in Voyage affirms this commitment," says Barbara Burger, CTV president, in a release. "We established the Future Energy Fund in 2018 with an initial commitment of $100 million to invest in breakthrough technologies that enable the ongoing energy transition. The fund looks for technologies that lower emissions and support low carbon value chains. Our investment in Voyage fits well within the objectives of the Future Energy Fund while also informing our perspective on the changing energy landscape."

Accenture to close out health tech challenge in Houston

accenture

The national challenge will conclude in Houston. Courtesy of Accenture

Applications are open for the fourth annual Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge and close on September 22. Finalists will present to judges from global health companies at one of two regional events — in Boston on Nov. 7 or in San Francisco on Dec. 5. The final judging event will take place in Houston on February 6, 2020.

"We look forward to this year's submissions as we continue to identify bold ideas from startups that deliver new solutions for health organizations to improve the lives of consumers, clinicians and employees," says Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health and innovation at Accenture, in a release. "Since its inception, the Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge has brought healthcare organizations and startups together to tackle the world's biggest health issues where we have received more than 2,200 applications, invited more than 90 startups to compete and who have benefitted from the guidance of nearly 1,000 executive judges from the healthcare industry."

The submission form, including additional details about the challenge's criteria, eligibility, and requirements, is available at: Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge-Health.

GotSpot wins pitch competition

Reda Hicks claimed the win at a military spouse pitch event. Trish Alegre-Smith/Military.com

Reda Hicks, who founded Houston-based GotSpot Inc., won a $15,000 check from the StreetShares Foundation and Samuel Adams' Brewing the American Dream at the Great American Military Entrepreneur at the Military Influencer Conference in Washington, D.C.

GotSpot is a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it.

"This award is a game-changer for me," Hicks says to Military.com. "This will allow me to hire more incredible military spouses and help GotSpot on its path to go global."

Rice University launches new sports business course

Rice University

Rice University has a new sports business program. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University, along with the Houston Texans, is introducing a new program for the university's sport management students. Pro Sports: Management is a course designed to teach the business side of the sports world.

"We are thrilled to partner with Rice University on a curriculum that will provide their best and brightest students with insight into the real-world opportunities and challenges facing today's sports teams," says Houston Texans President Jamey Rootes in a release from Rice. "This program is rather unique because our leading executives will work alongside Rice professors to teach current best practices in franchise management across every discipline. We believe that this type of practical industry exposure is the best way to prepare the next generation of leaders in the field of sports management and a valuable contribution to the level of professionalism within our industry."

The classes will be held weekly in the executive offices of the Texans. The course will cover ticketing, public relations, event management, human resources and more.

Spaces plans to open second coworking location in Houston

Spaces, an Amsterdam-based coworking space company that entered the Houston market with a lease in Kirby Grove announced in 2017, plans to open its newest location this month. Courtesy of Spaces

The new Spaces CityCentre One location is planned to open on Monday, September 30. It's the Amsterdam-based company's second coworking space in Houston, with a third already in the works. The first location was in Kirby Grove in 2017, and Spaces Galleria at Post Oak will be opening in the second quarter of 2020.

The CityCentre One location will have over 60,000 square-feet of workspace with perks, including a business club, dedicated desk space, private offices, and seven fully-equipped meeting rooms. Plus, the building is just steps away from CityCentre, a mixed-use development with restaurants, entertainment, housing, and more. Membership pricing starts at $111 a month at the new location.

Cemvita Factory receives more backing from oil and gas industry

Cemvita FactoryCemvita Factory

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, a biotech company that can mimick photosynthesis and convert CO2 into glucose and other substances, has received equity investment from BHP. The amount of the investment was not disclosed.

The investment will help Cemvita Factory continue to develop its biomimicry technology for oil and gas applications to reduce the volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

"This strategic investment fits well with BHP's vision of the future: reducing operational greenhouse gas emissions, reducing environmental impact and the development of low-emissions technology, including increased application of carbon capture, utilization and storage technology," says BHP's chief geoscientist, Laura Tyler, in a release.

Last month, Occidental Petroleum's low carbon subsidiary, Oxy Low Carbon Ventures LLC, announced it invested an undisclosed amount of funds into Cemvita Factory.

Two organizations join forces to promote diversity in the Houston Startup Scene

Impact Hub Houston and The Cannon have teamed up to grow programming and events surrounding diversity. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

In an effort to promote diversity and inclusion within the Houston innovation ecosystem, The Cannon and Impact Hub Houston have teamed up. The collaboration will drive programming and events geared at growing the conversation and resources for startups and entrepreneurs.

"One of Houston's best differentiating qualities is that we are truly a melting pot," says Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. "We want our community to reflect the amazing diversity across our city, so we have to move beyond simply discussing diversity and work to create an environment where innovation can thrive and real change can happen. We are confident Impact Hub will be the perfect partner to bring those aspects to our community."

Gow, who is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO, opened the doors to its new 120,000-square-foot facility in July. Impact Hub Houston will have a presence in the space.

"Over the past few years, Lawson and I have brainstormed how we could work together to connect and grow our region's innovation ecosystem and demonstrate how organizations can evolve from competition to true collaboration," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and Executive Director of Impact Hub Houston, in the release. "I'm so excited that those talks have developed into this partnership: Through The Cannon and Impact Hub Houston, we'll be able to effectively 'meet people where they are' geographically, socially, and culturally, helping diverse entrepreneurs and startups at the myriad intersections of place, purpose, demographics, psychographics, and business growth stages."

Houston innovator nominated for prestigious Silicon Valley award

Alley Lyles is up for an award for her work in digital transformation.

Alley Lyles, digital transformation manager at Direct Energy and Houston startup mentor, was nominated for a Women in IT - Silicon Valley award as Transformation Leader of the Year. The awards event is on October 9.

She is up against Emily Dunn at Anaplan, Windy Garrett at Atos, Manju Abraham at Delphix, Aashima Gupta at Google, Patricia Grant at ServiceNow, and Nataliya Anon at Svitla Systems.

"I am proud to represent Houston in Silicon Valley. The Houston hustle is real. I see it amongst my colleagues who got me here. The hustle isn't always glamorous, so I appreciate the moment when a kid from the East End can shine."

Chevron Technology Venture will have an office in the new, 120,000-square-foot coworking space The Cannon is expecting to open this spring. Courtesy of The Cannon

Chevron venture arm enters partnership with West Houston coworking space

2 for 1

As corporate venture grows as a presence in oil and gas, more and more startups have access to funding from large corporations. Aware of the corporate venturing trend, The Cannon, a West Houston coworking space, has formed a partnership with Chevron Technology Ventures, Chevron's venture arm that's currently based in Downtown Houston.

CTV will have an office and regular office hours in The Cannon's new, 30-acre campus that is expected to open this spring. (A previous version of this story included other details of the CTV office at The Cannon.)

"We are always trying to surround our members with as much support and as many resources as possible to help them succeed. Chevron's engagement with our community will help further these efforts in a really exciting way," says Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, in a release. Gow is the son of David Gow, owner of InnovationMap's parent company Gow Media.

Established in 1999, CTV aims to champion "the innovation, commercialization and integration of emerging technologies into Chevron," reads the Chevron website. The team seeks to identify and invest in technologies or processes that could enhance and optimize core aspects of Chevron's operations. The technologies of interest to CTV are, according to the website: Water management, production enhancement, emerging materials, power systems, information technology, and subsurface and base business.

The Cannon's commitment to helping startups find access to venture has been an ongoing goal since May of last year when The Cannon launched Cannon Ventures — a venture studio and investor network. Cannon Ventures then teamed up with a few other venture funds in December to create the Houston Investment Network Alliance.

Peek inside what the new Cannon space will look like

Courtesy of The Cannon

Houston-based Abel Design Group and Burton Construction are responsible for the designs and execution of the building.

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10 sports tech startups named to Houston-based hybrid accelerator

game on

DivInc has named its latest sports tech-focused cohort of its hybrid accelerator that is housed out of the Ion.

The Sports Tech Accelerator has selected the 10 companies — with technology across human performance, fan experience, and more — for its 13th cohort to participate in the 12-week hybrid program this month and through July.

The program receives support from underdog venture team, Women In Sports Tech, The Collectiv, and HTX Sports Tech, with partners Bank of America, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Gunderson Dettmer, Brown Advisory, Ion, and Mercury.

The spring 2024 cohort includes:

  • Detroit-based Athlytic, which uses real-time data to develop a recommended minimum price per social platform for creator-athletes.
  • Ballin AI, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, is a unique scouting automation software, transforming the labor-intensive scouting process into a streamlined, data-driven operation that boasts improved efficiency over manual work.
  • Cache AI, founded in Bronx, New York, is a platform that uses AI to generate a score for athletes that brands can use to value them without bias.
  • Prosper, Texas-based DRAFTED is a platform to support the of Latina community in sports through digital storytelling, weekly newsletters, in-person and virtual programming, and collaborative brand partnerships.
  • From Chicago, Drip Tech Co. created an artificial intelligence concierge software that provides real-time hydration monitoring, digestible data, and actionable insights to both athletes and coaches.
  • Canadian company, Drive Hockey, founded in Coquitlam, British Columbia, developed an advanced skill-tracking system for aspiring young hockey athletes using sensors and AI technology to make NHL-level analytics simple & affordable for 120,000 amateur hockey teams.
  • Cincinnati, Ohio-based LunchTable is working on a fan activation and engagement platform that can mobilize fans into digital brand ambassadors.
  • Parscape, co-located in Chicago and Los Angeles, is a rewards and cash-back powered marketplace designed for the golf industry. Houston-based TRAINR is a platform for sports and performance coaches that offers booking, payments, taxes, CRM, content creation, financial services, nationwide access to training locations, and more.
  • From Rochester, New York, WEVOLV is working to improve decision making and a more equitable industry for athletes by using human and artificial intelligence and democratizing access.

Biden administration agrees to provide $6.4 billion to Samsung for making computer chips in Texas

tech development

The Biden administration has reached an agreement to provide up to $6.4 billion in direct funding for Samsung Electronics to develop a computer chip manufacturing and research cluster in Texas.

The funding announced Monday by the Commerce Department is part of a total investment in the cluster that, with private money, is expected to exceed $40 billion. The government support comes from the CHIPS and Science Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law in 2022 with the goal of reviving the production of advanced computer chips domestically.

“The proposed project will propel Texas into a state of the art semiconductor ecosystem,” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said on a call with reporters. “It puts us on track to hit our goal of producing 20% of the world’s leading edge chips in the United States by the end of the decade.”

Raimondo said she expects the project will create at least 17,000 construction jobs and more than 4,500 manufacturing jobs.

Samsung's cluster in Taylor, Texas, would include two factories that would make four- and two-nanometer chips. Also, there would be a factory dedicated to research and development, as well as a facility for the packaging that surrounds chip components.

The first factory is expected to be operational in 2026, with the second being operational in 2027, according to the government.

The funding also would expand an existing Samsung facility in Austin, Texas.

Lael Brainard, director of the White House National Economic Council, said Samsung will be able to manufacture chips in Austin directly for the Defense Department as a result. Access to advanced technology has become a major national security concern amid competition between the U.S. and China.

In addition to the $6.4 billion, Samsung has indicated it also will claim an investment tax credit from the U.S. Treasury Department.

The government has previously announced terms to support other chipmakers including Intel and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. in projects spread across the country.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to three Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a one-on-one chat with an energy leader, a founder's latest milestone, and a new high-tech cancer-fighting team.

Mike Francis, CEO and co-founder of NanoTech Materials

NanoTech Materials celebrated its move into a new facility — a 43,000-square-foot space in Katy, Texas, this week. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston startup has moved into a new space that's more than four times larger than its previous setup — a move that's setting the company up to scale its business.

NanoTech Materials celebrated its move into a new facility — a 43,000-square-foot space in Katy, Texas, this week. The materials science company currently distributes a roof coating that features its novel heat-control technology across the company. Originally founded in a garage, the company has now moved from its 10,000-square-foot space at Halliburton Labs into the larger location to support its growth.

“The new facility allows us to not just focus on the roofing, and that’s growing at a pretty rapid pace, but also stand up different production lines for our next iteration of technologies coming-out," Mike Francis, co-founder and CEO of NanoTech tells InnovationMap. Read more.

Barbara Burger, Houston energy transition leader

Houston energy leader Barbara Burger joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the energy transition's biggest challenges and her key takeaways from CERAWeek. Photo courtesy

When Barbara Burger moved to Houston a little over a decade ago to lead Chevron Technology Ventures, she wondered why the corporate venture group didn't have much representation from the so-called energy capital of the world.

“I had no companies in my portfolio in CTV from Houston, and I wondered why,” Burger says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Much has changed in the ecosystem since then, she says, including growth and development to what the community looks like now.

“There are a few things I’m proud of in the ecosystem here, and one of theme is that it’s a very inclusive ecosystem,” she explains, adding that she means the types of founders — from universities or corporate roles — and the incumbent energy companies. “The worst way to get people to not join a party is to not invite them.”

“No one company or organization is going to solve this. We have to get along,” she continues. “We have to stop thinking that the mode is to compete with each other because the pie is so big and the opportunity is so big to work together — and by and large I do see that happening.” Read more.

David A. Jaffray, director of IDSO and chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson

MD Anderson’s goal with the new Institute for Data Science in Oncology is to advance collaborative projects that will bring the power of data science to every decision made at the hospital. Photo via mdanderson.org

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is one step closer to ending cancer thanks to its new institute that's focused on data science.

MD Anderson’s goal with the new Institute for Data Science in Oncology (IDSO) is to advance collaborative projects that will bring the power of data science to every decision made at the hospital. And now, the IDSO has announced its inaugural cohort of 33 scientists, clinicians, and staff that will bring it to life, joining the already appointed leadership and focus area co-leads.

“By engaging diverse expertise across all of our mission areas, we will enhance the rich and productive data science ecosystem at MD Anderson to deliver transformational impact for patients,” David Jaffray, Ph.D., director of IDSO and chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, says. Read more.