Jez Babarczy, along with his company, NUU Group, is changing the world — one pixel at a time. Courtesy of NUU Group

Six years ago, Jez Babarczy and Gabriel Gurrola launched a startup in Babarczy's living room in Katy. The goal was to launch a company that was based in Houston, but known around the world for doing top-notch creative work.

"I saw a gap in the market," Babarczy says. "Houston [was] not known for world-renowned creatives. Companies tend to gravitate toward other cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta. I think we have amazing talent in Houston, and I saw an opportunity and a need for an agency doing [work] in a creative field."

Fast-forward six years, and NUU Group has worked on tech and branding projects with Fortune 500 companies, such as Bechtel and Cemex, as well as the Houston Texans, FIFA, Civic Nation, and a slew of startups. Its mission is simple: to provide design and creative services to companies seeking to do good in their industries or communities. NUU Group works with companies in all industries, and is planning to grow its footprint by opening more offices in the U.S. and around the globe.

The company, which employs 40 people, has its main headquarters office in Houston and opened an office in Querataro, Mexico last year. NUU Group's Querataro office, which has 20 employees, works to capitalize on Mexico City's thriving business sector.

NUU Group is led by Babarczy, Gurrola, and Kevin Daughtry. Babarczy spoke with InnovationMap about what led him to start NUU Group, as well as what's on-tap for his company — and Houston's broader startup community as a whole.

InnovationMap: What differentiates NUU Group from the competition?

Jez Babarczy: I think NUU Group offers something unique and different. We have a global mission and mantra that we remind ourselves of daily, and it fuels the work we do. Our mission is to explore new things that inspire us, and the clients we work with, and how we approach the work.

If we're truly going to have an impact within culture, within our industry, and within the lives of our clients, I think we need to look at our potential for doing good. That's something we've really embraced. It's part of NUU's existence to give back to empower others. It's easy to say you're a good-person organization, but it's different to advocate for others in a consistent manner.

IM: What core services does NUU Group provide?

JB: More than anything, we're designers first. The agency started as being very design-centric, but it's expanded beyond that. We're not just design-first, but focus on human-centric design and creating experiences that really resonate with the end user.

IM: What brought NUU Group to Mexico?

JB: So, Mexico was an attempt to explore new things, along with some business opportunities that were there for us. The stars aligned when we were looking at a second office location, and there were several options on the table. Querataro is a city around two-and-a-half hours from Mexico City, which is definitely a hub for things going on around the world. It's a great place and, given the business opportunities there, it made a lot of sense.

IM: What's you client portfolio look like? What industries have the most need for NUU Group's services?

JB: We're pretty industry agnostic in terms of clientele. There's definitely an ability to gravitate toward Houston's primary industries — energy and health care — but, we purposefully to work with clients across industries. A lot of the time, we bring in someone who's a little on the outside or on the fringe to look at a problem from a unique perspective. That that's where we shine. We also work with global nonprofits, startups and companies that we believe are doing some awesome stuff.

IM: What are the pros and cons of being based in Houston?

JB: The pros are that Houston is a great city, and it's a great city for business. We have a lot of big companies here, and attitude of, 'Let's get stuff done, let's collaborate and let's work together.' I think that permeates Houston's culture, which is great for doing business. Some of the cons, I think, are battling the stereotype that Houston isn't creative, that Houston is just an oil and gas city, or that Houston is flat and hot and humid. There's a little bit of an uphill battle in terms of recruiting. We've seen that people see Houston as a place to go if you have to go, but not a place you'd necessarily want to go to. There's an opportunity to tell a better story for Houston.

IM: Over the past five years, how have you seen Houston's innovation community grow or change?

JB: Innovation has definitely become more of a popular buzzword to the point where it's slightly nauseating. Along with the boom in technology and the rate at which it advances, our position in the national and global marketplace has led to accelerating these different innovation hubs within companies and coworking spaces. I think there's still an opportunity for Houston to define what innovation really looks like, and to ask ourselves, 'How are we accelerating it? How are we empowering it? How are we really doing it, when the rubber meets the road?' It's definitely something that's evolving, and it's evolving in the right direction. …

There's this anxiety over being left behind, and this frantic sense of [needing] to do what others are doing. Just because one thing is working in California, doesn't mean that's exactly what needs to happen here. I hope Houston can be willing to be open to really move innovation forward for Houston and Houston companies.

IM: What's next for NUU Group?

JB: We started off very branding-focused, and focused on visual identity design. Last year, we made some pretty significant shifts and positioned the agency stronger on the strategy and technology side. So, we have a team of not only graphic designers and visual storytellers, but of strategists, software engineers, frontier technology thought leaders and experts. We're really bringing together design strategy and technology to solve for business challenges.

IM: Where do you see NUU Group expanding to next? Any target cities in mind?

JB: There's no target city right now that I can share. We'll probably open another office in the U.S., and we have sights set on a couple of places internationally. Those offices will probably open in the next three or five years.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Exclusive: Hardtech-focused program announces Houston expansion, seeks local leader

changing the world

An organization that directs support to scientists developing impactful technology has decided on Houston for its fifth program.

Activate was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

"Our mission is to empower scientists to reinvent the world by bringing their research to market," Aimee Rose, executive managing director of Activate, tells InnovationMap. "There's so much technical talent that we educate in this country every year and so many amazing inventions that happen, that combining the two, which is the sort of inventor/entrepreneur, and giving them the support mechanisms they need to get on their feet and be successful, has the potential to unlock an incredible amount of value for the country, for the environment, and to address other social problems."

This year, Activate is planting seeds in Houston to grow a presence locally and have its first set of fellows in 2024. While Activate is industry agnostic, Rose says a big draw from Houston is the ability to impact the future of energy.

"We're super excited about Houston as an emerging ecosystem for the clean energy transition as being the energy capital of the world, as well as all the other emerging players there are across the landscape in Houston," Rose says. "I think we can move the needle in Houston because of our national footprint."

The first order of business, Rose says, is hiring a managing director for Activate Houston. The job, which is posted online, is suited for an individual who has already developed a hardtech business and has experience and connections within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"We want to customize the program so that it makes the most sense for the community," Rose says about the position. "So, somebody that has the relationships and the knowledge of the ecosystem to be able to do that and somebody that's kind of a mentor at heart."

The program is for early-stage founders — who have raised less than $2 million in funding — working on high-impact technology. Rose explains that Activate has seen a number of microelectronics and new materials companies go through the program, and, while medical innovation is impactful, Activate doesn't focus on pharmaceutical or therapeutic industries since there are existing pathways for those products.

Ultimately, Activate is seeking innovators whose technologies fall through the cracks of existing innovation infrastructure.

"Not every business fits into the venture capital model in terms of what investors would expect to be eventual outcomes, but these these types of businesses can still have significant impact and make the world a better place," Rose says, explaining how Activate is different from an incubator or accelerator. "As opposed as compared to a traditional incubator, this is a very high touch program. You get a living stipend so you can take a big business technical risk without a personal risk. We give you a lot of hands on support and mentoring."

Each of the programs selects 10 fellows that join the program for two years. The fellows receive a living stipend, connections from Activate's robust network of mentors, and access to a curriculum specific to the program.

Since its inception, Activate has supported 104 companies and around 146 entrepreneurs associated with those companies. With the addition of Houston, Activate will be able to back 50 individuals a year.

Four Houston scientists named rising stars in research

who to watch

Four Houston scientists were named among a total of five Texas rising stars in research by the Texas Academy of Medicine, Engineering, Science & Technology, or TAMEST, last month.

The group will be honored at the 2023 Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards by TAMEST in May. According to Edith and Peter O’Donnell Committee Chair Ann Beal Salamone, the researchers "epitomize the Texas can-do spirit."

The Houston winners include:

Medicine: Dr. Jennifer Wargo

A physician and professor of surgical oncology and genomic medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Wargo was named a 2023 honoree for her discoveries surrounding the "important connection between treatment outcomes and a patient’s gut microbiome," according to a statement from TAMEST.

Engineering: Jamie Padgett

The Stanley C. Moore Professor of Engineering at Rice University, Padgett was honored for her work that aims to "enhance reliability and improve the sustainability of critical community infrastructure" through developing new methods for multi-hazard resilience modeling.

Physical sciences: Erez Lieberman Aiden

As a world-leading biophysical scientist and an associate professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, is being honored for his work that has "dramatically impacting the understanding of genomic 3D structures." He is working with BCM to apply his findings to clinical settings, with the hope that it will eventually be used to treat disease by targeting dark matter in the body.

Technology innovation: Chengbo Li

As a geophysicist at ConocoPhillips, Li is being recognized for innovations in industry-leading Compressive Seismic Imaging (CSI) technology. "This CSI technology allows the oil and gas industry to produce these seismic surveys in less time, with less shots and receivers, and most importantly, with less of an environmental impact," his nominator Jie Zhang, founder and chief scientist of GeoTomo LLC, said in a statement.


James J. Collins III at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas was also named this year's rising star in the biological sciences category for his research on schistosomiasis, a disease that impacts some of the world’s poorest individuals.

The O'Donnell Awards have granted more than $1.5 million to more than 70 recipients since they were founded in 2006. Each award includes a $25,000 honorarium and an invitation to present at TAMEST’s Annual Conference each year, according to TAMEST's website.

The awards expanded in 2002 to include both a physical and biological sciences award each year, thanks to a $1.15 million gift from the O’Donnell Foundation in 2022.

Following a pivot, this Houston founder is ready make her mark on the creator economy

houston innovators podcast episode 171

When Madison Long started her company with her co-founder and friend, Simone May, she knew she wanted to do one thing: Provide a platform for young people to have reliable access to payment for their skills and side hustles. Through starting a business, making a name change, launching a beta, going through a pivot, completing an accelerator, and more — that mission hasn't changed. And now, young people across the country can opt into the platform.

Houston-based creator economy platform Clutch celebrated its nationwide launch earlier this month. The platform connects brands to its network of creators for reliable and authentic work — everything from social media management, video creation, video editing, content creation, graphic design projects, and more.

When the company first launched its beta in Houston, the platform (then called Campus Concierge) rolled out at three Houston-area universities: Texas Southern University, Rice University, and Prairie View A&M. The marketplace connected any students with a side hustle to anyone on campus who needed their services.

Long shares on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast that since that initial pilot, they learned they could be doing more for users.

"We recognized a bigger gap in the market," Long says. "Instead of just working with college-age students and finding them side hustles with one another, we pivoted last January to be able to help these young people get part-time, freelance, or remote work in the creator economy for businesses and emerging brands that are looking for these young minds to help with their digital marketing presence."

Once focusing on the gig economy, Clutch changed its focus to the creator economy. The founders launched a new beta after closing $1.2 million in seed funding last year.

"Even though we did have to pivot, we're excited to be at the place now where we do deeply understand how to service both sides of our marketplace — the next-gen creatives and the emerging brands — so that they can really empower each other to meet their goals," Long says on the show.

Clutch, which went through the DivInc Houston accelerator, credits a part of the company's ability to survive the challenges from making pivots on being founded in Houston.

"We attribute a lot of Clutch's success — especially early on — to being located in Houston," Long says, explaining that she moved to Houston from California in 2021 to focus on the company. "It was physically being in the tech ecosystem that was blossoming in the Houston network that allowed us to feel safe making the pivots we were making and get a lot of guidance from mentors we were meeting."

She shares more about what's next for Clutch on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.