Hobby Airport was one of five airports selected nationally to use a new facial recognition software. Image via fly2houston.com

International travelers coming in and out of Hobby Airport are being processed now completely with facial recognition as of last week. The technology is expected to shorten wait times and streamline safety.

"Hobby Airport has taken a big leap into the future of travel," Houston Aviation Director Mario Diaz says in a news release.

Houston was one of the five airports picked by Homeland Security — and the only in Texas — to have Simplified Arrivals, a full biometric entry and exit for international passengers going through United States Customs and Border Protection inspection checkpoints.

"Simplified Arrivals will enhance the travel experience for more than a million international passengers traveling through Hobby Airport every year," Diaz continues in the release. "This is an important step to realize our goal of becoming a 5-star airport."

Houston Airport Systems first introduced biometric technology with Southwest Airlines in November 2018, and before that, George Bush Intercontinental Airport first started using facial recognition technology in 2017. Since 2018, this biometric facial technology has recognized 250 imposters nationally who attempted to enter the U.S. with legal travel documents that belonged to a different person, according to the release.

The new technology is expected to speed up the checkpoint process. Image via fly2houston.com

Travelers will encounter the technology at their primary inspection point. They will taker a photo, which will then compare that image to previously provided photos of that traveler — like passport and visa photos. Travelers under the age of 14 or over the age of 79 can opt out and be process manually. United States and Canadian citizens may also opt out.

"CBP is committed to working with our partners to ensure that the travel system is secure and efficient," Houston Director of Field Operations Judson W. Murdock II says in the release. "The speed, accuracy and reliability of facial comparison technology enable CBP officers to confirm a traveler's identity within seconds while further enhancing the customer experience."

These new photos of U.S. citizens taken at the checkpoint will be deleted within 12 hours, while photos of foreign nationals will be stored in a secure system.

"It takes a village to make something like this happen," says Saba Abashawl, director of external affairs at HAS, in a promotional video. "At the end of the day, we end up providing unparalleled customer service."

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

Growing Houston tech company using facial recognition for event security

Face first

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.

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10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for December

where to be

This month, Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events, and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — like pitch nights, workshops, conventions, and more.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


December 1 — Fall 2021 D2K Showcase

The Rice D2K Lab is a hub for data science education. In the interactive D2K Showcase, you will explore D2K students' end-of-semester projects sponsored by D2K Affiliate members, researchers and community partners. Interact with student teams in the poster session and learn more about their projects. Vote on your favorite project and team as students compete for cash prizes.

The event is on Wednesday, December 1, at 5 pm. It's free and happening at Rice University (Duncan Hall - McMurtry Auditorium). Click here to register.

December 2 — TeeMates Launch Party

Join TeeMates for happy hour in town at The Cannon's new sportstech and media location. DJ, drinks, prizes, local businesses, and golf.

The event is on Thursday, December 2, at 4 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Sports + Media (5353 W Alabama St. Ste 450). Click here to register.

December 3 — Thought Leader Series: A Conversation with Houston's Medical Community

The Greater Houston Partnership invites you to the Thought Leader Series: A Conversation with Houston's Medical Community. This virtual event will feature a dynamic panel discussion with some of the region's top minds working to advance health care and medicine for the future. These leaders will discuss topics ranging from the region's health care system including funding, workforce, technology/innovation, equity and living in a post-pandemic world.

The event is on Friday, December 3, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

December 5-9 — 23rd Annual World Petroleum Congress

Returning to the United States for the first time in over 30 years, the 23rd World Petroleum Congress will transform Houston into the epicenter of the global energy debate. Recognized as the energy capital of the world, the host city is home to 4,600 energy firms and a hub of technological innovation and entrepreneurship both within the energy sector and across aligned sectors. The Congress will gather together industry and government leaders from across the world to address all aspects of the industry from technological advances in upstream, midstream, and downstream operations to the role of natural gas and renewables, management of the industry and its social, economic, and environmental impact.

The event is from Sunday, December 5, through Thursday, December 9, at George R. Brown Convention center. Click here to register.

December 7 — Latest Trends & Opportunities in Sports Tech

Join DivInc on December 7th for an in depth discussion focused on trends, challenges and opportunities in this city and beyond at the intersection of sports and technology! The panel consists of subject matter experts from HTX Sports Tech, Intel, 2K, and The Cannon. We will also be sharing details and answering questions regarding upcoming Sports Tech accelerator.

The event is on Tuesday, December 7, at 4 pm. It's free and happening at The Ion (4201 Main St). Click here to register.

December 8 — Houston Veterans In Residence Showcase

Bunker Labs’ Veterans in Residence Showcase is a nationwide event spanning across twenty-two cities and 2 virtual cohorts, celebrating the almost two-hundred veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs launching their startups and businesses from our recent cohort. It gives you a chance to network with local participants. Become part of your local business community and learn how you can get involved by patronizing, investing in, or partnering up with veterans and military spouse entrepreneurs.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at WeWork (The Jones Building - 708 Main St.) Click here to register.

December 8 — The Future of Energy Celebration

Join energy tech leaders right after World Petroleum Congress for drinks, live music and startups to celebrate the Future of Energy — powered by Halliburton Labs, Accenture, Greentown Labs and The Ion.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at 8th Wonder Brewery (2022 Dallas St). Click here to register.

December 8 — HTXelerator's Pitch Event

The Pitch for the inaugural cohort is now upon us and you're invited to be a part of the celebration! Hear from the HTXelerator's nine finalists as they deliver a mock campaign speech for city council. Enjoy drinks and light bites in the courtyard of The Cannon Downtown as the judges crown first, second, and third place to close out the inaugural year.

The event is on Wednesday, December 8, at 7 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Tower @ Amegy on Main (1801 Main St). Click here to register.

December 10 — Feedback Friday: Strategy Planning for 2022

Join this session with Impact Hub Houston Board Member and startup advisor Brandy Guidry to receive feedback on your business goals for 2022.

The event is on Friday, December 10, at 1 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon Tower @ Amegy on Main (1801 Main St). Click here to register.

December 14 — UpSkill Works Forum: New Mission, Transferable Talent: What Employers Need to Know About Hiring and Retaining Veterans

With more than 250,000 veterans in residence, Houston has the country's second highest veteran population. Veterans are a diverse, highly skilled talent population that can bring valuable experience to a workplace but can be difficult to effectively access and engage. Join the UpSkill Houston initiative, NextOp Veterans Executive Director Stephanie Drake, and area employers to learn how to attract, hire, support, and retain talented veterans in your workforce.

The event is on Tuesday, December 14, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

December 14 — gBETA Houston Fall 2021 Cohort Pitch Night

Pitch Night is a celebration of all of the current gBETA cohorts. It's an exclusive reception during which participating companies have the opportunity to pitch to an audience of entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and community members. Join either in-person or virtually for one or more Pitch Night events.

The event is on Tuesday, December 14, at 5:30 pm. It's free and happening online and at Cannon West Houston (1334 Brittmoore Rd #1327). Click here to register.

4 Houston firms land on Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies

BIG BIZ IN H-TOWN

Some Houston-area companies have some major bragging rights. Forbes has released its new list of the country’s largest privately owned companies based on annual revenue, and five local firms land on the list. They are:

  • Car dealership group Gulf States Toyota, No. 45, $8.3 billion in annual revenue.
  • Energy company Calpine, No. 48, $8 billion in annual revenue.
  • Petroleum and petrochemical products marketer Tauber Oil, No. 61, $6.7 billion in annual revenue.
  • Casino, restaurant, and sports conglomerate Fertitta Entertainment, No. 166, $2.8 billion in annual revenue.
  • BMC Software, No. 219, $2.1 billion in annual revenue.

Elsewhere in Texas, San Antonio-based H-E-B ranks fifth on Forbes’ new list of the country’s largest privately owned companies based on annual revenue. According to Forbes, the grocery chain’s annual revenue is $32.8 billion, making it the largest private company in Texas. On its website, H-E-B reports annual sales of $32 billion.

The only other San Antonio company on the Forbes list is construction engineering company Zachry Group. It ranks 225th, with annual revenue of $2 billion.

Nearly all of the other Texas companies in the Forbes ranking are based in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas. As well as the five Houston companies, 13 DFW companies companies show up on the list:

  • Grand Prairie-based alcohol and wine distributor Republic National Distributing, No. 25, $11.9 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based conglomerate Sammons Enterprises, No. 70, $5.8 billion in annual revenue.
  • McKinney-based roofing distributor SRS Distribution, No. 80, $5.4 billion in annual revenue.
  • Irving-based arts-and-crafts retailer Michaels, No. 81, $5.3 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based luxury retailer Neiman Marcus, No. 101, $4.7 billion in annual revenue.
  • Irving-based electrical systems and equipment maker Consolidated Electrical Distributors, No. 103, $4.6 billion in annual revenue.
  • Fort Worth-based food and beverage distributor Ben E. Keith, No. 107, $4.2 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based oil and gas explorer Hunt Consolidated, No. 113, $4 billion in annual revenue.
  • Frisco-based transportation and logistics software provider Transplace, No. 127, $3.6 billion in annual revenue.
  • Addison-based cosmetics retailer Mary Kay, No. 164, $2.8 billion in annual revenue.
  • Plano-based senior healthcare provider Golden Living, No. 178, $2.6 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based general contractor Austin Industries, No. 217, $2.1 billion in annual revenue.
  • Dallas-based transportation and logistics company Mode Transportation, No. 220, $2.1 billion in annual revenue.

One other company on the Forbes list, New Jersey-based IT company SHI International Corp., has a strong connection to Texas. Austin billionaire Thai Lee, with a net worth estimated at $4.1 billion, is co-founder, president, and CEO of SHI. The company ranks 28th on the Forbes list, with annual revenue of $11.1 billion.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Q&A: Houston entrepreneur discusses big exits, startup advice, and his new book

Featured Innovator

Jay Steinfeld is a household name — at least within Houston's growing innovation ecosystem. Steinfeld founded Blinds.com and, along with his team, grew it to a $100 million company before exiting to Home Depot in 2014. Over the past few years, Steinfeld has had time to reflect on that empire he created and recount his lessons learned in a new book.

Lead From The Core published this week, and Steinfeld took some time to answer some questions about the new book for InnovationMap. He also shares some insight into the acquisition process and advice for fellow entrepreneurs.

InnovationMap: You founded Blinds.com and exited the company to Home Depot — this is lauded as one of Houston’s big exits. What did this acquisition mean to you as a Houstonian?

Jay Steinfeld: Blinds.com ended up being far greater than what I ever believed was possible. I had no vision as to what it could become. I had no vision as to even what the internet was at the time I started. I knew nothing when I started — I didn't even know you could sell things online. So it's kind of a shock in one way, because we just started as an experiment and not to get rich or to build something massive. It was a marketing experiment and that was all, it was, we had no business plan. We didn't know what the total addressable market was. I didn't even know what a TAM was at the time. It was just an incremental step to improve my drapery shop. So now that we have developed that into by far the number one online retailer of blinds in the world and acquired by Home Depot, it's just so satisfying and so gratifying to know that all the little things that we did with all the people who were so, so much a part of it — like Daniel Cotlar, Tom Cabanski, Larry Hack, Steve Riddell, Marilyn Franks, all these people who, I mean, no one knew who we were. We were nobodies, but we were able to do something and become better than what even we believed was possible.

And that's actually the greatest thing for me — that so many people elevated themselves and either were a part of the success and felt like they were consequential in developing something that was consequential. They were a significant part of that, but they evolved along with it. And are either now still with the company prospering flourishing or they're now with other companies doing the same thing. Omair with Cart.com — starting as an accounts payable cost accountant and working his way up. And now, you know, the story there. It's amazing. So I think the fact that we were able to build these teams and do something of consequence and have people feel really good. It's not about how much money we made, but how much we really impacted ourselves and how we helped each other. And that was the key. We, we brought humanity into the workforce and show that having a culture of people first really does work. And it's not just a bunch of talk.

IM: I think when you look at some kind of growing and successful innovation ecosystems, they start with a couple companies that made it big, created a legacy and a group of successful entrepreneurs that then inspire others. Do you see Blinds.com kind of within the Houston innovation ecosystem?

JS: But I never, at the time, believed that was the case because we were within ourselves and didn't really see a responsibility or anything other than to what our own mission was. Looking back now and seeing how many people have succeeded and how other companies have used our success and even been able to get funded and to bring attention to Houston as a place where big exits can happen. That's a good feeling, but at the time I didn't really reflect on that.

IM: Your book came out this week — what did you want to accomplish with Lead From The Core?

JS: The book was originally written so that the people at Blinds.com would know what got us to where we were and would use it as the foundation for continuing what that success was all about. As I began teaching and expanding my influence throughout the community nationally, I realized that there were many entrepreneurs who could learn from the same success, the techniques, the strategies, "The Four Es" that were really the, the secret sauce of the company, the reason we were able to beat Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowe's, and why we got so much money as a result of it. I then expanded even more because people were saying, you know, I don't necessarily want to start a business, but I want, I've got an entrepreneurial bug and I want it to apply to my career. And for those people who feel stagnant and wanting to grow, these principles apply not just to a business, but to life into career trajectories. And that's been particularly satisfying because it was always about helping people become better than what they believed possible, not about the mission of Blinds.com itself. That was the mission, helping people. And now that people are re it's resonating outside the business world to any type of career, that's pretty cool. And now I realize that the audience is much broader than what my original intention was.

IM: What’s the biggest thing you want readers to take away from the book?

JS: I think if he can do it, I can do it. I think that's really it. It's not as hard as people think. I mean, it is tedious and you have to stay immensely focused, but it's a simple process. If you don't get so static in your thinking, and you're more expansive and open to possibilities — possibilities of you changing of you improving, and you're improving everybody around you — and that if you have the time and a little bit of money, then you can incrementally improve enough and fast enough that you can build something of significance too.

IM: What did you wish you had known before starting the process? 

JS: I actually wish I hadn't known any of this beforehand, or I might not have started. It's it is intensely grueling. It's not just the writing process, which in itself is hard — and the editing process, the rewrites, and the different types of editors that we've been involved with publisher — it's just the business of a book. It's it's everything. It's getting a publisher, getting editors, determining artwork for the cover and for the interior artwork, the publicity for the book who narrates it the whole process of audiobooks and rights. It's like starting a company. If you knew how hard it was going to be, you've might not have started it from the first place. So, but that's one of the things that was great about and be starting a business. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew as much about writing a book, as I knew about starting a business. And that gave me an advantage because I didn't have bad habits. I didn't have a predetermined understanding as to what had to be in order for this to work. I would just meander through experimenting, being curious, asking for a lot of help, helping having people express themselves so I could get diverse opinions — like I did making business decisions. And that's what I want people to get from the book — that they can make these little decisions. And if it doesn't work, you stop. If it does work, you do a lot more of it. And that's what I did with the book. It's been fun. It's exactly what my "Four Es" are — experimenting, evolving, expressing, and enjoying myself.

IM: That's so meta that working on the book was like the process of what you're writing about in the book. Could you see yourself doing it again?

JS: Yeah, I've got two other book ideas — one will be a lot easier because it's not about me. It's harder to write about yourself, but writing about something else will be a lot easier. And now that I know the process, it will be so much easier. The first time is always harder. Going back to what you said about "it's kind of meta," if your core values are something, then that means that's what you do. So it shouldn't be surprising to anybody that I am experimenting and evolving and expressing and enjoying, because those are absolutely true, authentic core values for me. And therefore that means that's how I behave all the time. That's what I do every day. Not as a goal or an aspirational idea — if people can understand what is absolutely true to them and not just who they want to be, I think they'll be able to do almost anything they want.

IM: You’re involved with several companies and even have taught at Rice University. What drove you to get involved in this endeavors?

JS: Well, I'm either on board or advisory board members of five different companies, and it's a diversified group because some are in the pre-A stage and one's a public board. When I was about to step away from blinds.com, the idea was how do I keep having an active role in helping companies, but not be so active that I'm up to my eyeballs every day with the primary responsibility. I've got two in Austin, one in Chicago, one here, and then the other one's in Tampa.

The first thing I wanted to do knowing that I was going to be leaving Blinds.com was to start teaching in Houston, and this was while I was writing the book. So, it gave me an opportunity to bounce off ideas in the classes while writing and seeing what would be good to put into the book. It was like comedians going to small markets first and testing their material. That was fun, and I found that the things that I was teaching them was outside the normal courses that they were taking. I was providing that more personal introspective view while they were learning all the true skills, like evaluating markets, discounted cash flow and things like that. And that was very exciting for me to be involved there, especially with such a prestigious school like Rice. Al Donto was the one who I teach with, and he's been a great mentor and a great facilitator of that process.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.