Digital Fight Club is making its triumphant Houston return next week. Have you gotten your virtual tickets? Photo by Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

In 2019, Houston innovators went head to head for the first Houston Digital Fight Club. While COVID-19 postponed a repeat match-up, the organizers have teamed up to put on a virtual event like none other.

Dallas-based Digital Fight Club, which first premiered in 2016, was founded by Michael Pratt who wanted the event structure to be intentionally different from your run-of-the-mill tech networking events. In Digital Fight Club, two innovation specialists "fight" against one another, with a referee steering the conversation, and the audience is involved and votes in real time for the winner.

The event came to Houston two years ago, presented by Accenture, and the two organizations wanted to be able to replicate the high-energy event online for 2021. (Note: InnovationMap is on the steering committee for the event.)

"We as Accenture are stoked to bring back Digital Fight club to our amazing city where provocative Houston topics will be debated by some of H-Town's most brilliant minds," says Accenture Houston Innovation Hub's Jessica Guerrero, who serves as the associate hub director.

The previous Houston event covered innovative topics, such as artificial intelligence, the future of primary care, and technology's hold on humans. Check out overheard moments and photos from the last event.

"Houston's well deserved reputation as an innovation city is the perfect ingredient for Digital Fight Club," Pratt tells InnovationMap. "What better forum to see the best minds debate the most pressing issues in business and technology."

Through the work of the two teams, Digital Fight Club will return to Houston on Tuesday, October 26, at 7 pm, virtually. Tickets are $20 per person and can be purchased online. This year's topics and fighters includes:

  • Energy Transition: What technology is king to get us there? Fighters: Moji Karimi, CEO of Cemvita Factory, vs Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy Plasmonics
  • Space Race: Who will lead space commercialization? Fighters: Trent Martin, vice president of aerospace at Intuitive Machines, vs Steve Gonzalez, partner at Seldor Capital (retired NASA)
  • Digital Divide: The greatest barrier to bridging the divide? Fighters: Ashley DeWalt, managing director of DivInc, vs Jesse Martinez, co-founder of LatinX Startup Alliance
  • Sweet Teams are Made of This: The post-pandemic employee experience. Fighters: Brad Deutser, CEO of Deutser, vs Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard
  • Innovation in a Virtual World: Impossible? Fighters: Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon, vs Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston Inc.

Each fighter will open with 45 seconds each, followed by two 30 seconds rebuttals each. Referees will have a chance to ask a follow up, then each fighter will respond for 15 seconds. Referees include:

  • Mary Beth Gracy, managing director of Accenture's Houston office
  • Scott Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs
  • Sam Gunderson, director of partnership development at NASA
  • Elizabeth Haines McGee, director of innovation and engagement at Intel
  • Steve Rader, deputy director of collaborative innovation at NASA

Clearly, you shouldn't expect your average business event call. The platform that's hosting the event allows for attendees to join "rooms" with friends, coworkers, and more. Within the rooms, you can chat about the fighter's argument and even respond with emojis. You can even throw a tomato at a fighter you disagree with.

"As an attendee get ready to move beyond the traditional Zoom call and be immersed in an interactive environment where you can cheer on your favorite fights or even show your disagreement with digital tomatoes, all from your own virtual pink couch," Guerrero says. "So grab your favorite humans, come attend this entertaining experience and witness the throw down."

The virtual edition of Digital Fight Club first took place in Dallas. Now the interactive event is coming to Houston. Photo courtesy of Accenture

The Digital Fight Club made its Houston debut on November 20 at White Oak Music Hall. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Photos: Houston innovation leaders weigh in on cybersecurity, tech, and more at inaugural event

total knock out

What do you get when you cross the information of an innovation panel with the ferocity of a boxing match? A verbal sprawling among innovation leaders that can only be known as the Digital Fight Club.

Houston's DFC came about with the help of Accenture, which had been a partner at the Dallas events, and InnovationMap, who teamed up as presenting sponsors for the event. DFC's founder, Michael Pratt, came up with the idea for Digital Fight Club as a way to liven up technology-focused events and networking opportunities.

The setup of the event is five fights, 10 fighters, and five judges. Each fighter has just a couple minutes to take their stand before the event moves on.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

The hour of fighting is coupled with a VIP event ahead of the showdown and an after party where further networking can continue on. At Houston's VIP event, InnovationMap got to check in with partners, fighters, and referees about how they thought the event was going to pan out. Check out the VIP event video here.

The panel of referees included Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston; Denise Hamilton, CEO of Watch Her Work; Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital; Lance Black, Director at TMCx; and Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

The refs asked two questions per fight, and were able to vote on the winners of each round — as was the audience through an interactive web-based application. The break down of the fights, topics, and winners are as follows:

Fight #1: Future Workforce of Robotics/AI. Matt Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems, vs Pablo Marin, senior AI Leader, Microsoft. Hager took the win with 77 percent of the vote.
Fight #2: Whose responsibility is cybersecurity. Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate vs Tara Khanna, managing director and Security Lead at Accenture. Khanna won this round, snagging 66 percent of the votes.
Fight #3: Oil & Gas Industry and the Environment. Michael Szafron - commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, vs Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone. Szafron received 76 percent of the voites, securing the win.
Fight #4: Digital in our personal lives. Grace Rodriguez, CEO of ImpactHub, vs Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs. Rodriguez won with the largest margin of the night — 85 percent.
Fight #5: Future of Primary Care Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, vs Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist. Goyal received 72 percent of the votes to take home the win.

The fights were heated, and some of the fighters had knockout quotes, from Hager's "AI is mostly bullshit" to Khanna's "Compliance doesn't mean you're secure." For more of the knockout quotes, click here.

The fight is on

Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Mike Pratt, who hosted the event, founded the Digital Fight Club in 2016.

Ten Houston innovators took the stage for five fights on the role technology plays in the future of industry. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Overheard: Local fighters land knockout statements at Houston's first Digital Fight Club

Eavesdropping in houston

On Wednesday, Houston's innovation ecosystem hosted the rowdiest crowd at a professional business event that the city has ever seen.

Digital Fight Club, a Dallas-based event company, had its first Houston event at White Oak Music Hall on November 20 thanks to presenting sponsors Accenture and InnovationMap. The event featured 10 fighters and five referees across five fights that discussed cybersecurity, the future of primary care, and more.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Michael Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

If you missed the showdown, here are some of the nights zingers made by the entrepreneurs and subject matter experts that were the fighters of the evening.

"I believe that computers can get a lot of information to create [something new]. That's my job, that's what I do, and I see it done."

Pablo Marin, senior AI leader at Microsoft, during the fight on robotics and AI in the workforce. Marin's argument was that artificial intelligence and robotics can and will replace all repetitive jobs. However, he also believes that computers have the ability to create, as well, based on their ability to see the whole world and have access to all the world's information.

"AI is mostly bullshit."

Matthew Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems. Hager, who won the first fight of the night, responded to Marin that, while businesses like to believe that AI is actually able to deliver results so that they can sell more, the technology hasn't actually arrived yet. Plus, Hager says AI will never be creative without the human element. "Creativity is about who created it. It's about the photographer, not the camera," he says.

"What if the seatbelt laws and the speed limits were defined by Dodge, Ford, or Chrysler?"

Ted Gutierrez, CEO and co-founder of Security Gate, who argued for government to take the reigns of cybersecurity. He adds that companies are never going to be able to agree to one set of rules. "We gotta get one group to set the standard, and it's up to everyone else to refine that and innovate for it," he says.

"Compliance doesn't mean you're secure."

Tara Khanna, managing director and security lead at Accenture, who won the fight on cybersecurity needing to be figured out by the business industry. She argues that the private sector wins the war on talent and recruiting, so it has the money and resources to dedicate to the issue in more ways than the government ever will.

"I was born, I'm going to die, and there is nothing like earth in the universe as we know it. It is worth preserving and protecting."

Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone, in the fight over the oil and gas industry's responsibility to the environment. He argued that it's going to be a mix of policy and corporate initiatives that changes the industry.

"I think the free market is going to get there if the consumer has the choice to pick what they want to do."

Michael Szafron, commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, who took home the win for the oil and gas and the environment fight. Szafron's argument was that corporations are going to do what their consumers want, so that's who would drive them to action. "Let's look at California —very regulated environmentalists, and a million of those people get moved to Texas," he says.

"Disconnecting our personal lives from technology would not only limit ourselves, but it would also limit our capacity to adopt those tools to the needs of our society." 

Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs, during the fight on digital in our personal lives. Fadul argues that not only does technology allow us to connect worldwide, but disconnecting would prevent that technology from developing further.

"I love tech, but now that it's on all the time everywhere, we need to make time to unplug."

Grace Rodriguez, CEO of Impact Hub Houston, who won the fight on personal technology. She says that yes, technology can help international connectivity, but it does more harm than good as people use personal tech as a default or distraction from humans right in front of them. "When your with people, be present," she says.

"Part of our innovation to redesign primary care is really to deploy technology out there to seamlessly provide care."

Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist, who argued that the future of primary care is new innovations within traditional medicine. He adds that virtual care, which is something Methodist is working on, can help improve accessibility.

"The future of primary care is here. It's called direct primary care." 

Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, who won the fight on the future of primary care with his argument for a new, free market approach to medicine. Direct primary care opens up treatment and access to physicians with a monthly fee for patients to work outside of health care plans.

Houston startup development organizations have banded together for the third annual Houston Innovation Summit. Getty Images

Here's what events to attend each day during The Houston Innovation Summit

Where to be

For the third year, The Houston Innovation Summit is taking over the town to promote entrepreneurship and innovation within the city.

THIS begins today and runs through the weekend. Each day represents a theme — all pertinent to Houston. Impact Hub Houston has worked with other local startup development organizations to curate the programming for the week. Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director for Impact Hub Houston, says Houston has the innovation infrastructure by now, and now it's about execution.

"For 2019, the goal is now how do we go from inclusion to integration," Rodriguez says on a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I think we're at that step now of becoming more inclusive as a community."

THIS, just like last year, runs on the same week of Global Entrepreneurship Week, which is why today's programming starts with a global focus. Follow along on a global scale with #GEWecosystems.

For a complete list of THIS events (most of which are free and all over town), head to the website. Here are the events you should make sure not to miss.

Monday — Houston: We're Global

Starting strong, the first can't-miss event is the kickoff party. The free event is in the Amegy Building downtown (1801 Main Street), which is currently being transformed into The Cannon Houston's new Launch Pad. The event runs from 4 to 5:45 pm, and you can expect networking and interactive discussions on Houston's innovation ecosystem's growth and potential. Click here to register.

Tuesday: This Is Houston

While GotSpot's Female Founder Luncheon at MassChallenge is a good one to make if you can, the big event this day is Houston Exponential's 2020 Vision event. Basically an open house-style event, attendees at this free event can learn how to engage with HX and what the organization has planned for 2020. InnovationMap and Accenture are teaming up for a fireside chat about the diversity and potential in Houston. Click here to register.

Wednesday: Fresh Perspectives

The fight for technology and innovation is on. The first Houston Digital Fight Club is on Wednesday, November 20, and will feature five fights between industry experts on topics like cybersecurity, sustainable energy, primary care, and more. Audience members get to decide on a winner, and there will be tons of opportunities for networking. The event is $30 per person and will be at White Oak Music Hall. InnovationMap and Accenture are the lead sponsors. Click here to register.

If you can't make this evening event, WeWork Food Labs is cooking up a special event to discuss food innovation in Houston. Click here to register.

Thursday: The Next Generation

While the week so far has been centered around the future of Houston, Thursday focuses specifically on the next generation of people who will be powering the ecosystem. And, of course, money is essential to that equation. Join for a panel from top investor leaders at an event focused on next generation investing at HCC SouthEast Felix Fraga Academic Campus - East End. The panel itself is $5, but for $15 you can also catch two other discussions on campus that day. Click here to register.

For an early bird alternative, Mercury Fund is hosting a Female Founders breakfast at 7:30 am at their office (3737 Buffalo Speedway, Suite 1750). This one is free to attend. Click here to register.

Friday: Integrating Innovation

Friday's events all take place at The Cannon Houston (1334 Brittmoore Road), and there's a specific focus on military technology and military-affiliated entrepreneurs. The Southwest Muster Across America Tour in Houston is from 1 to 6 pm and will consist of an expo, pitch competition, expert talks, and more. The WeWork Veterans in Residence Program Powered by Bunker Labs will show off their companies, and Bunker Labs has teamed up with Ford Fund to host pitch competitions for veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs. Houston is one of seven stops for the competition, and the top two showcase pitches will win $5,000 and $3,500 from the Ford Fund to help support their businesses. Click here to register.

Following this event is Impact Hub's monthly Fuckup Night, where entrepreneurs share their stories of success, struggle, and failure. Click here to register.

Weekend: Innovation Education

The week wraps up with events focusing on education. One not to miss is on Saturday: The HCC IDEAS Pitch Competition. The competition begins at 1 pm and there is $2,500 on the line. Any HCC student is able to apply to pitch. Click here to register.

Brad Rossacci, creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, talks neuroscience, design, technology, and the upcoming Digital Fight Club on November 20 on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator's Podcast. Photo courtesy of Accenture

In a world full of tech, this Houston innovator prepares to fight for getting humanity back in the picture

Houston Innovators Podcast Episode 7

Brad Rossacci would like you to put your phone down. Humans are addicted, he says, and the very technology we're obsessed with is advancing to a point that we can allow it to do what it does best — but in the background.

"Technology is really catching up to our imaginations," Rossacci says on the podcast, "and we have this amazing opportunity to get our human back."

Rossacci, who is the creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, has taken a winding career path that's been driven by his passions within science, technology, and design. From molding young minds in the classroom to using neuroscience to drive design within an agency, his career has set him up with an interesting perspective.

This perspective might be why Rossacci was asked to be a fighter in the inaugural Digital Fight Club that took place in Dallas a few years ago. The event, which is coming to Houston on November 20, puts two "fighters" on a stage with a referee to discuss various technology topics — cybersecurity, medicine, etc.

"I really fell in love with the approach [the event] takes," Rossacci says. "It takes this format that allows you to share ideas in a very short-form content kind of way."

On the podcast, Rossacci discusses his career and everything you need to know about the upcoming Houston Digital Fight Club, which is presented by Accenture and InnovationMap. Listen to the episode below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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Houston sustainability-focused company raises $50 million to plant new indoor farming facility

seeing green

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

Houston VC-backed tech founder on reinventing a sales team and supporting financial independence

Houston innovators podcast episode 112

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.