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.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

SeeHerWork launched its line of female-gear in September. Courtesy of SeeHerWork

Houston company aims to equally equip female workers

If the glove doesn't fit

When Jane Henry was working on her home right after Hurricane Harvey — her house got three feet of mud in it — she went to throw a board into the dumpster, and her glove went with it.

Henry says the industry standard is to recommend small and extra-small sizes for women's workwear, but as a ladies large in athletic gloves, Henry still had a good inch or so of glove at her fingertips in her workwear gloves.

"I went upstairs to my sewing room, and I ripped that glove apart and I resewed it to fit my hand," Henry says.

Other women stopped her in hardware stores to ask her about her shoddily sewn glove, and she realized this was the idea for next company. She incorporated SeeHerWork a few months later in January of 2018, and she launched her line of clothing in September, just a year after she had the idea. Based in Houston, SeeHerWork rents warehouse space in Kingwood and has its corporate office in Midtown.

Doing the legwork
Henry is no stranger to the startup game. She created her own consulting company, Xcution Inc., over 16 years ago, but she downsized the company in 2016 when oil prices took a turn. Instead, she went into Rice University's MBA program, where, ultimately, she created a network of associates that would eventually help SeeHerWork grow.

"I've been a serial entrepreneur — been trying to avoid calling myself that," says Henry. "I have two entrepreneurial parents, and I told myself I'd never be an entrepreneur, yet that's what I keep doing."

Through her business expertise and education, she knew she had to start with a one-page business plan for the company. She then took her idea to over 50 focus groups made up of 10 to 20 female workers, safety managers, and procurement managers across industries — transportation, military oil and gas, engineering, and more.

"The response was eerily similar despite the industry," Henry says.

The focus group participants were tired of the "pink it and shrink it" approach to women's workwear and equipment. They felt like if their supplies don't fit, they don't fit. Mentorship opportunities and performance are then subsequently hindered, creating a spiral effect of deterring women from entering the skilled labor workforce. This is a huge problem, considering there's the recent labor shortage with these types of jobs.

She took this information and her first prototypes to a national pitch competition to great success — and a standing ovation. Henry also connected with the Rice Angel Network, Station Houston, The Cannon, and other local innovation-focused entities.

Roadwork ahead
Henry has big plans for SeeHerWork, and is in talks with a few large entities — like the Houston Airport System, Fluor Corp., and Toyota — that have expressed interest in using her gear for their workforce. Henry also wants to expand her products and reach female workers through retail — online and in store.

"Ultimately, SeeHerWork is the Lululemon of workwear," Henry says.

SeeHerWork is focused on keeping women safe, firstly, but also encouraging more women to enter the skilled labor workforce and then work their way up the ladder.

"I don't want people to think of us as a workwear company," Henry says. "I want them to think of us as an inclusion company. Mostly because just like professional sports team, the first step is the right clothing and equipment and the second step is working to be a team and working together."

At your fingertips

Courtesy of SeeHerWork

SeeHerWork has a full line of products, from gloves and bags to safety vests and long-sleeves shirts. She's launching more products — like coveralls, pants, and footwear — soon.

Suitcase company, Tiko, raised $100,000 in its first crowdfunding campaign. Courtesy photo

Texas-based travel brand unpacks stylish and affordable luggage

Wheels up

If Marcus Segui's successful 2016 Kickstarter is any indication, people are looking for innovative ways to make traveling a little easier. With that intention in mind, Segui launched Tiko, a Texas-based travel brand shaking up the industry by providing affordable, beautifully designed, quality luggage to passengers across the world.

On November 1, Tiko rolled into the world with its signature carry-on, priced at $195, and designed to fit in overhead bins (a must for those of us who find baggage fees insulting). Available only online, the company's first bag comes with 360-degree spinning wheels, and is offered in charcoal and gray.

For the Texas-born Segui, the idea for his company was born out of one thing: he travels — a lot. After a career in finance in New York, Segui traveled to Colombia, a trip that ended up lasting three years. "I got a Spanish tutor, found an apartment, and started looking for a way to do business," Segui says. "Before long I linked up with a local investment fund who asked me to launch a real estate company for them."

"Running a business in Spanish was really hard," he jokes, and by the time Segui decided to leave Colombia, he had logged countless flights across South and Central America. The University of Texas grad eventually made his way back to Austin with a busted carry-on in tow.

"After my time in New York and South America, I decided to return to Austin for two reasons: friends and family. Every entrepreneur needs to lean on their network to get a new company off the ground," he says.

And oh how that network helped. Unable to find a carry-on replacement that was both durable and affordable, Segui got the idea for a direct-to-consumer luggage company designed to bypass retailers and thus cut the price point for the luggage in half.

Segui began development on a series of prototypes, eventually landed on Tiko's current carry-on model, and decided to launch a Kickstarter to gauge interest (and funds, of course). The campaign raised over $100,000, allowing Segui to take off with the new company.

In order to move the company into its next phase, Segui assembled a who's who team of tech talent, including former execs from YETI and Airbnb. Earlier this month, the company officially launched its first product from its coworking space headquarters in South Austin.

A few weeks into the new endeavor, it remains to be seen if the public will embrace Tiko, but its launch points to a growing trend: consumers are demanding a different travel experience. Suddenly, people are beginning to question the inconvenient, expensive, and yes, unstylish things that must be endured in order to get from one point to another.

Perhaps one day we'll return to that glamorous apex of airline travel, the time where no one wore pajamas and passengers didn't have to line up like cattle to board the aircraft. Until then, at least we can have nice luggage.

------

This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

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.

---
This article originally ran on CultureMap.