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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University of Houston rolls out food delivery robots

on the move

For a small delivery fee of $1.99, students, faculty, and staff across the University of Houston campus can now get their lunch delivered by self-driving robots.

Thirty of San Francisco-based Starship Technologies' autonomous delivery robots now roam the campus thanks to a partnership with New York-based Chartwells Higher Education. The Houston campus is the first to roll out robotic food deliveries.

"This revolutionary delivery method will make it more convenient for the campus community to take advantage of our diverse dining program from anywhere on campus while expanding the hours of operation," says Emily Messa, associate vice president for administration, in a news release. "By opening our campus to this innovative service, which is paid for by the customers, the university didn't have to spend any money purchasing the technology, yet we're enhancing our food delivery capabilities."

Through the Starship Deliveries app, which is available on iOS and Android, users can select from 11 dining institutions and then identify where they are on campus. The platform allows the user to track the progress, and the device can hold up to 20 lbs of food and has the space for about three shopping bags of groceries.

"This increases our capacity to reach more customers, and I expect the robots will quickly become part of campus life," says David Riddle, Chartwells resident district manager, in a news release. (Chartwells manages UH Dining). "Robot delivery will also grow opportunities for UH Dining employees by increasing service hours and growing sales. It has also created additional jobs for students dedicated specifically to servicing the autonomous robots. It's an important advancement for foodservice at UH."

Using machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors, the company's robots have driven over 350,000 miles and completed over 150,000 deliveries. The Starship robots "can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in both rain and snow," per the release.

"Robotic delivery is affordable, convenient and environmentally friendly," says Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development for Starship, in the release. "We're excited to start offering students, staff and faculty at Houston delivery within minutes when they need it most."

Lawyers specializing in startups are hard to comeby in Houston — but here's what you need to know

Guest column

One of the worst, and most expensive, mistakes that we see startup founders make in the very early days of their company is not realizing that hiring lawyers is a lot like hiring doctors: when the stakes are high, you need a highly experienced specialist.

Law has numerous specialties and sub-specialties, and hiring legal counsel with the wrong specialty can mean paying to reinvent the wheel, or simply getting advice that is out of sync with the norms of your industry and the expectations of your seasoned investors.

This challenge can be particularly acute for founders of startups located in Houston. The legal market in any particular city tends to mirror the dominant industries of that city. Houston has some of the world's most prominent energy and healthcare lawyers in the country, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about Houston's economy.

Startup lawyers, or more formally —corporate/securities lawyers who are sub-specialized in "emerging companies" — are a different story entirely. Given the nascent status of Houston's startup ecosystem, finding local lawyers who work with emerging technology companies and early-stage funding day in and day out, and know all the norms and nuances, is a challenge.

Very often we see founders get referred to a local lawyer who is a broad generalist that dabbles lightly in many practice areas. Their lack of depth in startup or venture capital work usually leads to clients paying for things that a more specialized lawyer, with a deeper set of precedent forms and institutional knowledge, could simply pull off the shelf. In other cases, founders get referred to very expensive senior corporate lawyers from firms designed for billion-dollar public company representation; totally overkill (and overpriced) for an early-stage startup.

What the smartest Houston founders discover, if they do their homework, is that leveraging the broader "Texas ecosystem" can help not just with sourcing talent for their employee roster or finding venture capital, but with sourcing specialized legal talent as well. In the case of Startup Lawyers, Austin's venture capital and startup ecosystem has produced numerous highly specialized lawyers whose depth of startup/vc experience easily compares with lawyers found in Silicon Valley, but who also regularly interact with investors in the Houston market; and therefore know their expectations. In the case of our firm, Egan Nelson (E/N), a significant number of our clients are located in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and other markets in the general regional area.

Historically, businesspeople have assumed that if they really want top-tier, highly specialized counsel, they had to find that counsel at large, multi-national law firms. That is no longer the case. The broader Texas ecosystem has produced a thriving group of specialized, high-end "boutique" law firms that are recruiting top-tier lawyers away from the traditional mega-firms, and leveraging technology to deliver "leaner" legal counsel; saving hundreds of dollars per hour for entrepreneurs.

It is not uncommon for us to see Houston startups utilizing an emerging companies corporate lawyer in Austin, a regulatory specialist lawyer in Houston, and a tax lawyer in Dallas; all from different firms. This is the future for how emerging companies will source their legal talent, without the constraints of geography or old-fashioned "all in one" law firm structures.

This trend really isn't that new. VCs from Austin and other Texas cities (and the coasts) have regularly been visiting Houston to fund companies, and Houston companies have regularly leveraged contacts in other markets to source specialized resources for their companies. The same dynamics have extended to finding legal counsel. "Localism," and an over-preoccupation with hiring everyone in the same city, isn't really just last year, it's more like last century. There is nothing about legal services for startups that requires any of your lawyers to be within your same city. Videoconferencing works great.

The growth of the Texas ecosystem, and the emergence of specialized boutique law firms, mean that Houston entrepreneurs have far more options to choose from for sourcing specialized legal counsel. Leverage those options to avoid engaging lawyers who are insufficiently experienced, or overkill, for the needs of your company. For more resources on finding and assessing the right lawyers for your Houston startup, see Startup Lawyers, Explained.

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Jose Ancer is an Emerging Companies Partner at Egan Nelson LLP. He also writes for Silicon Hills Lawyer, an internationally recognized startup/vc law blog focused on entrepreneurs located outside of Silicon Valley, including Texas.

Houston blockchain company taps into a new industry, hires new exec

diversifying

A Houston blockchain company that makes it easier and faster to process industry contracts, payment, and more has diversified its business again.

After expanding into the water services industry in August, Houston-based Data Gumbo Corp. has announced its next market: Construction. The startup, which works out of The Cannon Houston, has hired industry veteran Michael Matthews hired as industry principal to work directly on the company's efforts in the $9 trillion sector.

"Construction is one of the world's largest industries, but it has clearly fallen behind others in adopting technology and driving efficiency," says Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "Michael is a recognized leader in the industry and his vision and experience make him an excellent fit to scale Data Gumbo into the construction sector."

Matthews has over 30 years of experience in construction. He says in the release that some of the issues of current practices result in 30 to 40 percent of project costs to be hidden, and he wants to use the GumboNet platform to provide solutions.

"The construction industry lags far behind other industries in both productivity improvement and technology adoption, resulting in billions of lost value," Matthews says in a news release. "The way companies come together to execute projects remains essentially the same despite technology's improvement and we have to make fundamental, disruptive changes to deliver more value."

The growing blockchain-as-a-service company closed $6 million series A round earlier this year. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Originally built for upstream drilling and completions within the oil and gas industry, Data Gumbo has grown its clientbase over the past few years. The company provides its blockchain-as-a-service services as a subscription for its clients.

Recently, the company was announced to be one of the two Houston-based companies in Plug and Play Tech Center's inaugural Houston cohort, and, earlier this year, the company was named among Crunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companiesCrunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companies. The growing company also hired another executive this summer —the company's new chief commercial officer is Sergio A. Tuberquia — following the closing of a $6 million series A round.