3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's batch of innovators have had to be pretty creative in their industries. Courtesy photos

The ability to innovate lives in one's ability to think outside of the box — no matter the industry. This week's Houston innovators to know have had to get creative and think of new ways of doing things, from retailing to creating greeting cards.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Harvin Moore, who has a 20-year career in tech and innovation, has been named as president of Houston Exponential. Courtesy of HX

Harvin Moore has been a banker, an educator, an elected official, and more — but his newest title is president of Houston Exponential, which suits him just fine.

Now, under his new role, he's leading the nonprofit that's focused on connecting, promoting, and attracting within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"There's no question that five years from now, or 10 years from now, Houston will be a very large and continually rapidly growing tech economy," Moore tells InnovationMap. "The question is just how fast it is going to get here." Read more.

Alex Kurkowski, founder of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski wanted to tell a better story. Courtesy of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski has a problem with traditional greeting cards.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

The Rice University MBA grad decided he would do something about it. He created his business, Tellinga — short for "telling a story" — to create a new avenue for people to communicate a message to their loved ones. Kurkowski has big plans for his company and the platform he's creating. Read more.

Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development for DiCentral

Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

Something's brewing in retail — and it's scaring the industry. Steve Scala writes in a guest column for InnovationMap that dropshipping — the process of shipping products direct from vendors to customers, cutting out warehouses and storage facilities — is only going to gain traction in the industry.

"The study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success," Scala writes. "According to 87 percent of those retailers surveyed also experienced an increase in revenue as a result of dropshipping. Customer service also benefitted from dropship, with 84 percent of retailers noting improvements to customer service after adopting the dropshipping fulfillment model." Read more.

A study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success. Pexels

Streamlining supply chain efforts can help retailers survive the changing landscape, says this Houston expert

Guest Column

It's undeniable that retail habits of consumers is changing. DiCentral, a B2Bi managed services provider, recently partnered with the Center for Supply Chain Research at Lehigh University to survey over 180 global retail and manufacturing decision-makers and identify how evolving consumer buying behaviors are driving this dramatic shift in the retail landscape. The transformational supply chain challenges retailers and manufacturers are facing today indicate a new reality for retail.

The first of its kind study titled, "Supply Chain Collaboration in Transformative Vertical Industries: Implications of Omnichannel and Dropshipping," examines the motivations, challenges, benefits, and supply chain implications of the dropshipping model through which retailers ship orders directly from vendor warehouses, thereby reducing excess inventory and warehousing costs.

The study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success. According to 87 percent of those retailers surveyed also experienced an increase in revenue as a result of dropshipping. Customer service also benefitted from dropship, with 84 percent of retailers noting improvements to customer service after adopting the dropshipping fulfillment model.

From the manufacturers' perspective, dropshipping can significantly improve relationships with retailers as reported by 71 percent of manufacturing respondents. As many as 66 percent of manufacturers also experienced an increase in revenue after implementation of a dropship order fulfillment capability.

Challenges for both retail and manufacturing respondents point to systems limitations as being a primary obstacle to deploying an enterprise dropship program. According to the study, 40 percent of manufacturers acknowledged system limitations as being a challenge. Retailers responded similarly, with 32 percent identifying systems (ERP, EDI, WMS, etc.) as a hindrance.

While retailers and manufacturers face similar obstacles in streamlining supply chains, the benefits to both remain clear. As businesses look to maximize revenue and enhance customer service, dropshipping is a proven advantage to achieving both goals. Decision-makers in retail and manufacturing would be prudent to explore dropshipping as a means of achieving the ROI and improved quality of customer service.

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Steve Scala is executive vice president of corporate development at Houston-based DiCentral, a growing SaaS company.

With its new German office, Houston-based DiCentral looks to grow into other European markets, such as France, Italy, and Spain. Pexels

Houston SaaS company expands in Europe following acquisition

You're up, Europe

After slowly expanding worldwide for years, a Houston-based software-as-a-service company finally has a firm footing in Europe following its acquisition of a German company.

In December, DiCentral closed its deal with a Munich-based supply chain company named Compello Germany. With that acquisition, DiCentral Europe was born. Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development, says the deal was made possible after the company raised $15 million from Kanye Anderson Capital Advisors LP in 2016.

"We have a large supply chain network over Asia and North America, which gave us great coverage for our clients. In Europe, however, we're dealing with different supply chains," Scala says. "We had few people on the ground in Europe even though we have clients based there as well as clients elsewhere who conduct business there. We saw the need to fill that gap."

The new German office opens doors for the company to enter other European markets, and Scala says the company is looking into France, Italy, and Spain.

Currently, DiCentral's largest offices are in Houston and Ho Chi Minh City where they employ 150 and 300 people respectively. The company, which was founded in 2000 by Chairman and CEO Thuy Mai, has about 600 employees in total, and focuses on bonding buyers and suppliers, so both sides can optimize both the physical and digital supply chain.

DiCentral offers cloud-based electronic data interchange and supply chain solutions to its clients. By using DiCentral's propriety software, its clients, which include retailers, original equipment manufacturers, suppliers and more across many industry verticals, can find solutions tailored to their business.

"Global supply chains quickly can become very complex, especially when you add web purchases or individual orders from retailers that are sent from the manufacturers but made to look like they were sent from the retailer," Scala explains.

DiCentral allows businesses to improve their visibility of the supply chain by automating fulfillments, shipping and receiving processes.

"The end result for clients, whether they are a manufacturer, retailer or a third-party involved in distribution, using our software is improving the efficiency of supply chain," Scala continues. "With our solutions, clients can ramp up their operations even when navigating incredibly complex supply chains."

As DiCentral plans its continued European expansion, the company is facing various challenges from training its new 35 employees in Munich to potential logistical and regulatory issues.

"Our primary focus in 2019 is integrating the German operations with DiCentral. There are a lot of privacy challenges in Europe with GDPR, which means we need to be smart and cautious with how to deploy data centers because of stricter data privacy rules," Scala says.

Despite the challenges, Scala expects the new acquisition to lead to large growth for the company.

"I'm excited for the future. We closed on some great business contracts last year, however, the way our business works, we don't make money until there are transactions taking place across our network," Scala says.

It can take months to fully integrate clients into the DiCentral network, but Scala looks forward to the new revenue source. New contracts with large companies will allow DiCentral to continue fueling its global growth. The company continues to grow and hire, both abroad and locally, for various positions in sales, customer support, product management and marketing.

While the business continues to grow with an eye on new market sectors and areas for expansion, the DiCentral global headquarters are still located right by NASA. As a company founded in Texas, many of its original client base is based within the state.

"Texas has been a great location for us. We have data centers here in Texas, our headquarters are in Houston, so the original infrastructure of the company is all in Texas," says Scala.


Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

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Chevron's Houston-based venture arm launches $300M fund focusing on low-carbon tech

show me the money

Chevron Corp.'s investment arm has launched a $300 million fund that will focus on low-carbon technology.

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. In 2019, the investment arm started a $90 million fund to invest in startups that can help accelerate the oil and gas business of San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

Chevron Technology Ventures' portfolio for low-carbon technology comprises a dozen companies: Blue Planet, Carbon Clean, Carbon Engineering, ChargePoint, Eavor, Infinitum Electric, Natron Energy, Spear Power Systems, Svante, Voyage, Vutility, and Zap Energy.

Only one of the companies in the low-carbon portfolio is based in Texas — Infinitum Electric, located in Round Rock. However, Chevron Technology Ventures is active in the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem as a participant in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and The Ion. Chevron's investment arm was the first tenant at The Ion.

In an August 2020 interview with InnovationMap, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, said the investment arm places a priority on helping advance entrepreneurship in Houston. "It is our home court," she said.

Burger said that for Houston to succeed in energy innovation, companies, government agencies, investment firms, and universities must rally around the city.

"We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. … I think constancy of purpose is important," she said. "Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that."

Burger noted that innovation "is not a straight path."

"We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden," she said.

Now's the time to find innovation opportunities in a trustless world, says this Houston expert

guest column

Hidden beneath all the recent events in the technology work, stock market, political landscape, and most of the social problems we see today lies one underlying trend. A trend so powerful that it's causing disruption in nearly every institution out there, and changing the business landscape faster than anyone can keep up.

Trust is gone. I mean completely gone.

At this point, the examples of this are too numerous to list but let's look at the past several months in the United States. In that short period, we saw an incredibly contentious election process, big tech disable the primary communication of a world leader, a mass exodus do decentralized messaging, an explosion in the defi industry and crypto, and a once promising vaccine process somehow not be effective despite being the primary conversation topic for everyone.

And this was all before a bunch of social media users treated the world's greatest stock market like a game, and far after we saw a country divided into two by racial movements, and we have yet to even get to things such as the Russian hacks.

We're left with an absolute mess of a situation where every social contract seems to be broken and the default response to any sort of central authority is being reevaluated. Without doubt we'll eventually figure out some great long-term answers, but at the speed at which the business world works today, it's going to be messy.

Luckily, mess creates opportunity and within all this disruption lies many golden nuggets of opportunity. The last twelve months was likely a watershed moment in key areas and as innovators, and business people — and it's our job to find them. It's what we signed up for and, for many of us, why we do what we do.

If there was ever a time to invest heavily in innovative technologies, today is it. Most of the time businesses are very resistant to change. Their default answer is always "no," and this puts innovators in a constant search of early adopters. But today, we see a different landscape. Businesses of all sizes and industries have been tossed around like a toy ship in an ocean. They do not know which way is up and business as usual seems like an old campfire story. Everyone, everywhere is looking for creative ideas to improve their business, and creative ideas is at the heart of true entrepreneurship and innovation.

Within this disruption also lies a few other key support pillars that should benefit all innovative minded individuals.

  • Despite terrible economic conditions, those invested in tech over the past year have done incredibly well. These individuals should be primed to reinvest their profits into bigger wins.
  • The workforce is truly global, and people are scrambling. The ideas of location being an advantage to hiring is truly disappearing. This means talent acquisition costs are falling through the floor and availability through the ceiling.
  • Consumers and businesses alike have been introduced to new technology so the legwork of explaining things such as defi and blockchain is much easier. It's also easy to find numerous use cases for anything involving proximity, health, privacy, and security.
  • The new administration will be eager to find wins, and invest money in different technologies than the previous. No matter what you think politically about this strategy, the reality is that areas such as healthcare, education, and will offer innovation opportunities. Even regulation itself, which we are likely to see increased, can be a great playground for innovation.

Twenty years ago, the way that business was done is unrecognizable in some industries. Many of the successful business today did not even exist then. Technology has a tendency to change things exponentially so imagine what the next ten years will look like. What are we not seeing today that will be the new business as usual?

The future is ours to create

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Cody Caillet is the founder at Gulf Coast Solutions, a Houston-based technology firm with speed-to-value approach in delivering business technology to impact top-line and bottom-line numbers for a business.

These 3 Houston researchers are revolutionizing health science innovation

research roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, a couple local scientists are honored by awards while another duo of specialists tackle a new project.

University of Houston professor recognized with award

Mehmet Orman of UH has been selected to receive an award for his research on persister cells. Photo via UH.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. The award comes with a $500,000 grant to study persister cells — cells that go dormant and then become tolerant to extraordinary levels of antibiotics.

"Nearly all bacterial cultures contain a small population of persister cells," says Orman in a news release. "Persisters are thought to be responsible for recurring chronic infections such as those of the urinary tract and for creating drug-resistant mutants."

Previously, Orman developed the first methods to directly measure the metabolism of persister cells. He also developed cell sorting strategies to segregate persisters from highly heterogeneous bacterial cell populations, and, according to the release, he will be using his methods in the NSF research project.

Houston researchers collaborate on oral cancer innovation

Dr. Simon Young of UTHealth and Jeffrey Hartgerink of Rice University are working on a new use for an innovative gel they developed. Photo via Rice.edu

Two Houston researchers — chemist and bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink at Rice University and Dr. Simon Young at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — have again teamed up to advance their previous development of a sophisticated hydrogel called STINGel. This time, they are using it to destroy oral cancer tumors.

SynerGel combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors. Once there, the gel controls the release of its cargo to not only trigger cells' immune response but also to remove other suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment. The duo reported on the technology in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

SynerGel, combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors, where they not only control the release of the drugs but also remove suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment.

"We are really excited about this new material," Hartgerink says in a news release. "SynerGel is formulated from a specially synthesized peptide which itself acts as an enzyme inhibitor, but it also assembles into a nanofibrous gel that can entrap and release other drugs in a controlled fashion.

In 2018, the pair published research on the use of a multidomain peptide gel — the original STINGel — to deliver ADU-S100, an immunotherapy drug from a class of "stimulator of interferon gene (STING) agonists."

The research is supported by the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Welch Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.

Texas Heart Institute researcher honored by national organization

Dr. James Martin of Texas Heart Institute has been named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo courtesy of THI

The National Academy of Inventors have named Houston-based Texas Heart Institute's Dr. James Martin, director of the Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab, a senior member.

Martin is an internationally recognized developmental and regenerative biologist and his research is focused on understanding how signaling pathways are related to development and tissue regeneration.

"Dr. Martin has long been a steward of scientific advancement and has proven to be a tremendous asset to the Texas Heart Institute and to its Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab through his efforts to translate fundamental biological discoveries in cardiac development and disease into novel treatment strategies for cardiac regeneration," says Dr. Darren Woodside, vice president for research at THI, in a news release. "Everyone at the Texas Heart Institute is thrilled for Dr. Martin, whose induction into the NAI as a Senior Member is well-deserved."

Martin has authored over 170 peer-reviewed papers in top journals he holds nine U.S. patents and applications, including one provisional application, all of which have been licensed to Yap Therapeutics, a company he co-founded.

The full list of incoming NAI Senior Members, which includes three professionals from the University of Houston, is available on the NAI website.