Zenus Biometrics uses its facial recognition software to provide seamless check in at events around the world. Courtesy of Zenus Biometrics

Long, inefficient check-in lines at events or conferences could be a thing of the past with the technology from a Houston company.

Zenus Biometrics, is changing the game of event registration and security through facial recognition.

"Over the last 12 months, we've done more than 50 events all over the world," says co-founder Panos Moutafis. "And for the most part, what we're hearing from these planners is that this is a very new technology and they want to be at the forefront of it."

The software system overlays on already-existing ticketing and registration platforms for event hosting companies. During the registration process, attendees are prompted to either take a selfie or upload an existing headshot. Those who are leery of the process or simply don't want to participate can easily opt out.

Zenus' programming can take a group photo, select all the faces in it and prompt the attendee to select himself. It will also advise whether an image is too blurry for use and suggest uploading another image instead. Once participants arrive at the conference, they approach a camera at check-in. The software recognizes their faces and pops up a menu that asks them to confirm their identity. The process takes seconds.

"This really allows for controlled access," said Moutafis. "Some people might look to game the system – they might register for themselves and then hand off their conference badge to someone who didn't pay to attend. Zenus allows companies to have more security over attendees."

He said the system can also work to limit access. If a company wants to set up a VIP or secure space, they can upload images of those they wish to allow beyond a certain point into Zenus' platform and anyone who doesn't match the facial recognition will be turned away.

The pioneering company operates from a headquarters in Houston's EaDo, and has clients around the globe. Back in November, it took home the prestigious Tech Award at IBTM World in Barcelona, one of the world's leading conferences for the meetings and event industries.

Moutafis said that in addition to being a leading-edge service provider, Zenus balances privacy with innovation. The company doesn't record the emails, contact information or credit cards for conference attendees using the facial recognition platform — only the uploaded images. And those are deleted days after the conference ends. The opt-in feature means that anyone who might feel skittish about the technology doesn't need to use it, and traditional check-in methods will be available onsite for them.

Over the next year, Zenus is perfecting and rolling out a new high-resolution camera that can be mounted in event rooms that will count the faces of those in the meeting or seminar. It's designed to provide a layer of analytics for event planners, capturing how many people attended the session. It can also record their expressions and provide data that can be used to determined how well the session was liked by the audience.

"We just added two more people to our team, so we have a staff of about seven now," he said. "We also work with a team of consultants. Here in Houston, our headquarters has a vibrant, cool feel to it. We're growing and it's exciting."

Born in Greece, Moutafis came to Houston in 2011 to work on his Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Houston. Armed with a B.A. in statistics, he was seeking a way to combine his analytical background with developing algorithms in artificial intelligence. It turned out that the lab he was attached to at UH was focused on facial recognition software.

"That was a different kind of problem to me, and I like a challenge," he says. "And I was attracted to the idea of using facial recognition as a security measure. No matter where you go, whether it's the bank or using a credit card for a purchase in some places, you have to verify your ID. Facial recognition is one of the most frictionless ways to do this."

In 2015, his last year of doctoral studies, he received an National Science Foundation grant that gave him funding to build a team and research what would become Zenus. He also received mentorship and advising about whether he had a viable idea and how to bring it to the marketplace. The following year, he massaged his concept, changed its logo and name, and Zenus was born.

Check out these conferences, shopping events, networking, and more. Getty Images

5 can't-miss Houston events for entrepreneurs to close out 2018

Where to be

Before most of Houston completely checks out for the holidays, the city is playing host to a few major innovation-focused events. Learn from thought leaders, network, and even shop at these five events taking place this week and next.

Applied AI Summit Houston

Technology events organizer Re-Work is bringing a conference focused on all things artificial intelligence — and how it can affect your business. The conference takes place Thursday, November 29, to Friday, November 30, at the JW Marriott Houston Downtown and expects 60 speakers and over 450 attendees.

The event is co-located with Re-Work's other two-day conference focused on machine learning.

Learn more here.

Machine Learning for DevOps Summit Houston

Next door from the AI summit at the JW Marriott Houston Downtown will be another future-forward summit focused on machine learning for development operations. The two events share locations, and both have full-day schedules from Thursday, November 29, to Friday, November 30.

Learn how automation is going to affect the industry or your company and mingle with leaders of the industry.

Learn more here.

HX Capital Summit

Houston Exponential is hosting a full-day summit on Tuesday, December 4, at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute in an attempt to bring more funding for startups in Houston.

"The HX Capital Summit is a forum to convene investors, entrepreneurs and other ecosystem stakeholders on a critical topic — attracting capital to fund high growth, high impact companies in Houston," says Gina Luna, board chair of Houston Exponential, on the event website. "This event is an opportunity to celebrate positive momentum and to continue to work on addressing our gaps in funding startups, so that Houston can benefit from the tremendous economic impact of their growth and eventual exits."

Learn more here.

The Greater Houston Partnership's Annual Houston Region Economic Outlook

On Wednesday, December 5, the Greater Houston Partnership is hosting a slew of industry experts at the Royal Sonesta Houston to discuss what to expect in 2019. The GHP's senior vice president of research, Patrick Jankowski, will be delivering the 2019 employment forecast for the Houston area for 2019.

The event consists of a panel, luncheon, and business expo. Registration and networking begins at 9:30 am, and the event concludes with a business expo from 1:30 to 2 pm.

Learn more here.

NextSeed's Night Market

In honor of the holidays, NextSeed is hosting its annual Night Market on Thursday, December 6, at 3 Greenway Plaza on the sixth floor. The event begins at 6:30 pm with a cocktail hour, followed by food, drinks, shopping, and mingling.

NextSeed is all about connecting startups and small businesses to their communities, so, in the same vein, the Night Market will be populated by small businesses — some are even NextSeed clients. Read more about NextSeed here.

Learn more here.

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These Houston entrepreneurs and startups are searching for flooding solutions

Flood tech

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston.

Self-deploying flood protection for buildings

FloodFrame's technology can protect a home or commercial building from flood water damage. Photo via floodframe.com

A self-deploying flood damage prevention device caught Tasha Nielsen's eye on a trip to Denmark, and then launched the U.S. iteration of FloodFrame to bring the technology here.

FloodFrame works by using buoyancy. A lightweight cloth is wrapped around a tube is installed underground outside the perimeter of your home or business. One end of that cloth is attached to a box that is also installed underground. As flooding begins, an automatic system will release the lids to deploy the inflation of the tube that will protect the structure. When the flood comes in, the system will float on top of the flood — kind of like a pool noodle — and protect the structure from the water.

FloodFrame adds a level of security during flooding events and can be considered more cost-effective when compared to the high cost of renovating or rebuilding after flooding.

"Right now we are focused on residential but I think there's a huge potential for it to go commercial. A lot of commercial buildings are self insured, and commercial developers, industrial developers, this would be a drop in the bucket for the overall cost of the entire project," Nielsen tells InnovationMap. "For homeowners, it's kind of a bigger expense, but I think there is the potential for homebuilders to include it as an option in the entire package of a new house because when you put it in to a mortgage, it's only another like $0.50 a month."

A waterproof container for your car.

After the floods from Hurricane Harvey totaled her car, Rahel Abraham wanted to find a solution. ClimaGuard/Facebook

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey seriously damaged about 600,000 vehicles in the Houston area, which included Rahel Abraham's 2008 Infiniti G35. Now, Abraham's brainchild forms the backbone of her Houston-based startup, ClimaGuard LLC. The company's waterproof, temperature-resistant, portable Temporary Protective Enclosure (TPE) can entirely cover a compact car, sedan, or midsize SUV. It comes in three sizes; the cost ranges from $349 to $499.

To protect a vehicle, someone sets a TPE on the ground, a driveway, or another flat surface, then drives the vehicle onto the bottom part of the product, and connects the bottom and top parts with the zipper. Abraham likens it to a clamshell preserving a pearl.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham tells InnovationMap.

A network to find shelter.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks tells InnovationMap. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create 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. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Now Hicks is growing GotSpot in hopes that short-term rental space and emergency housing can be smooth sailing no matter the circumstances. Recently, the company was named a finalist for MassChallenge Texas in Austin.

A water-absorbing tower. 

Fil Trat would be able to absorb water, filter it, and release it into the body of water when the time comes. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many Houstonians began to think of solutions for the next time Mother Nature struck with her full-force of flooding. Gensler designers Chelsea Bryant, Jordan Gomez, Luisa Melendez, Barbara Novoa, Benjamin Nanson, Maria Qi, and Melinda Ubera created a solution as a part of Gensler's By Design program called Fil Trat. The tower can absorb, filter, and store flood waters until the bayou is ready for the water to be released — cleaner than it was before.

During Harvey, thousands of people were displaced, but Fil Trat has a solution for that too. The tower's floors would alternate between filtration floors and shelters, which could house up to 24 families per floor.

While the suggested Houston locale would be by Buffalo Bayou, the group suggests putting the tower in other coastal cities at risk of devastating flooding.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks that can track weather developments.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl, tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

Restored native wetland coastal prairies.

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water. Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership, has been taking every opportunity to raise awareness on the importance of prairie restoration.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Memorial Park Conservancy's its master plan redevelopment project includes a lot of prairie restoration plans is expected to deliver by 2028.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. An ongoing part of the transformation will be stormwater management upgrades. MPC has budgeted $3 million to this asset of the renovation. While a part of the plan is tributaries for run-off water, bringing back prairie and wetlands will do a great deal to help abate stormwater.

"We're taking ball fields, parking lots, and roads and converting them back to what was here — native wetland coastal prairie," MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold tells InnovationMap. "This serves important stormwater purposes."

Houston startup creates device to keep loved ones in touch with each other

Caring is sharing

When Charley Donaldson's mother-in-law was battling cancer, he and his wife had great support from their friends and family. But they also knew there were a lot of people who cared about them who didn't know what to say or do during such a challenging time.

"It's like, you want to show people that you care about them, but you don't want to interrupt their day, or you don't want to be a burden to them if they aren't up to company," Donaldson says about the common reactions he heard from others – and often felt himself when he had friends going through similar struggles. "There had to be a way to share the idea of, 'Hey, I'm thinking about you.'"

It took three years of rattling around that idea before CaringBand came to life. The light-up bracelet is Bluetooth enabled, and connects to a mobile app. A person gives the bracelet to a loved one, who then pairs it with his or her smartphone. App users can send and receive pre-set messages of encouragement to and from other app users.

Those wearing a CaringBand bracelet get alerted by a blinking light or vibration that lets them know someone is thinking about them. The wearer then reads these encouraging messages on the CaringBand app when convenient and with no need to respond.

"When we pilot tested it, we were super excited to find out what we thought was validated," says Donaldson. "People really loved knowing that others were keeping them in their thoughts, and those who sent messages liked that they didn't have to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing."

Donaldson says he wanted The CaringBand to be as easy as possible for people to use, and also ensure that it was a solid support system. When someone is going through medical treatments, he knows that can be exhausting, and he also realizes that friends and family want to be able to do something, anything, to express their love and support.

"If you're a normal, compassionate person, you want to show you care about someone," he says. "This lets you do that in your own way."

And while it might sound like The CaringBand is designed to make the senders of messages feel better about offering a good thought for someone, Donaldson says those going through treatments have really loved seeing their bracelets light to up to tell them they're on someone's mind. That small show of support has made a big difference, they told Donaldson in surveys.

"She is sitting on the couch having so much fun reading her messages," says one user in a testimonial. "The smile on her face is priceless." "People tell you they think of you and pray for you all the time," read another. "The bracelet gives you a reminder that they really are."

"We made it super easy," he says. "It's a hardware to software solution and we wanted to erase as many friction points as possible in its creation. This is two touches of a smart phone."

Currently, the CaringBand app is live and functional. The bracelet is still in developmental stages, and Donaldson says the team is working with individuals and groups such as the Tyler Robinson Foundation to further test it. The bracelet should be a go for full distribution and sale by the first quarter of 2020.

"Obviously, this doesn't replace driving over to see someone or having a cup of coffee with a friend," says Donaldson. "But it is a great supplemental tool to show your love and care when you might not know what else to do."