3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stephanie Tsuru of SheSpace, Fareed Zein of Unytag, and Libby Covington of The Craig Group. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from smart city tech to startup marketing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Stephanie Tsuru, founder of SheSpace

Stephanie Tsuru joins this week's Houston Innovators Podcast to share her growth plans for 2023. Photo via LinkedIn

SheSpace opened with a splash, Founder Stephanie Tsure tells InnovationMap on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. After surviving through the pandemic, the female-focused coworking hub expanded — with a new type of membership as well as physically.

"We had so many people who wanted to be a part of the community — so we started a social networking group," she says.

Now, the entrepreneur is looking to expand this year to open satellite locations. She shares more on the show. Read more.

Fareed Zein, founder of Unytag

Unytag celebrated a big win at the Ion recently — and has taking its prizes into the new year. Photo via LinkedIn

As the father of four competitive-tennis-playing daughters, Fareed Zein spent years driving “from California to Florida,” he says. Throughout those years, he and his wife racked up toll violation after toll violation. “I thought, there’s got to be an easier way,” he recalls.

Fortunately, Zein wasn’t just any sports dad with thousands of miles on his car. The University of Texas grad put in 26 years developing IT systems at Shell. He retired from that role in 2015, which allowed him to spend more time on the road with his youngest daughter, now playing for UT Austin. In 2019, he used his technology expertise to start Unytag, a company focused on making it easier to drive around the country as the Zein family had so many times.

Unytag is a system that allows users to trash their multiple toll tags in favor of just one RFID (radio-frequency identification) sticker and an app. The app, which Zein says is currently in its testing phase, will be available on both IOS and Android phones in the second half of the year.

“A phone is a device everyone has nowadays, right?” says Zein. “Just like you use your phone to pay for a latte at Starbucks, we are going to simplify how you pay tolls.” Read more.

Libby Covington, partner at The Craig Group

It's undeniable that businesses are facing economic uncertainty in 2023. Here's what marketing tools to tap into to navigate the challenges ahead. Photo via LinkedIn

Make 2023 the year of optimized marketing for your startup — that's Libby Covington's advice. Partner at The Craig Group, she outlined her tips in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Continued growth starts with goal setting and coming up with a marketing and business development strategy that fits the unique needs of a business," she writes. "This works most effectively when a company’s management team ensures that marketing and sales are working in lockstep. They are two sides of the same coin and need to see themselves that way to maximize results and therefore profit." Read more.

Unytag celebrated a big win at the Ion recently — and has taking its prizes into the new year. Photo via Ion/Facebook

Houston startup with innovative transportation app gets boost from pitch competition

tag, you're it

How many times have you accidentally taken a toll road without a tag? Or traveled to a part of the country where the toll system is different than the one for which you already paid up?

As the father of four competitive-tennis-playing daughters, Fareed Zein spent years driving “from California to Florida,” he says. Throughout those years, he and his wife racked up toll violation after toll violation. “I thought, there’s got to be an easier way,” he recalls.

Fortunately, Zein wasn’t just any sports dad with thousands of miles on his car. The University of Texas grad put in 26 years developing IT systems at Shell. He retired from that role in 2015, which allowed him to spend more time on the road with his youngest daughter, now playing for UT Austin. In 2019, he used his technology expertise to start Unytag, a company focused on making it easier to drive around the country as the Zein family had so many times.

Unytag is a system that allows users to trash their multiple toll tags in favor of just one RFID (radio-frequency identification) sticker and an app. The app, which Zein says is currently in its testing phase, will be available on both IOS and Android phones in the second half of the year.

“A phone is a device everyone has nowadays, right?” says Zein. “Just like you use your phone to pay for a latte at Starbucks, we are going to simplify how you pay tolls.”

Another beauty of the Unytag system is that — rather than depositing a set amount as users do for most toll systems — it’s pay-as-you-go. Funds are withdrawn by Unytag just as they are needed. And it works for every toll tag in the country, with plans to expand globally.

Though Zein brought technical chops to Unytag, he still had to learn to be a founder. He credits his time participating in the Founder Institute’s pre-seed accelerator with helping him to launch from the ground up.

“From there, I decided I needed to start building the infrastructure that I needed,” Zein recalls.

Next, he worked with the Texas Venture Labs accelerator and was named a finalist at the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards Gala. Most recently, Unytag won last November’s Houston Startup Showcase, with a prize of $10,000 from The Ion and $20,000 in legal services from Ion partner Baker Botts.

“That was a pretty big confidence builder that we are going in the right direction as well as a great way to start the year for us,” Zein says.

Opportunities like those are a just some of what Zein says makes him proud to be a “Houston born and raised” company. With his extended network built over 32 years living in the Houston area, Zein says, he’s had many opportunities for growth that he might not have found elsewhere. Two of his current team members were colleagues at Shell.

“Having an ecosystem that supports innovation is exactly what we needed,” he adds. “We are very proud of the future of tech startups in Houston with The Ion and the Innovation District, where we continue to grow. We’re ready to create the next success story.”

Fareed Zein has racked up his fair share of toll bills — and he designed a better way. Photo courtesy of Unytag

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Houston researcher tapped for prestigious fellowship for offshore safety innovation

big win

A University of Houston professor has been selected by a national organization to “contribute to the understanding, management and reduction of systemic risk in offshore energy activities.”

The Gulf Research Program of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine announced that Harish Krishnamoorthy, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is one of four selected early-career research fellows in the Offshore Energy Safety track. Krishnamoorthy is the first researcher from UH selected for the recognition.

“I am happy and honored to be the first one, but hopefully there will be a lot more in the coming years,” Krishnamoorthy says in a UH news release.

The award, which isn't granted based on a specific project, includes a $76,000 grant, mentor support, and access to a network of current and past cohorts.

Created in 2013, the program is an independent, science-based program founded as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Its goal is "to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice and capacity, generating long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation," the release reads.

“These exceptional individuals are working hard to pursue new research, technical capabilities, and approaches that address some of the greatest challenges facing the Gulf and Alaska regions today,” says Karena Mary Mothershed, senior program manager for the Gulf Research Program’s Board on Gulf Education and Engagement. “We are incredibly excited to announce these new Early-Career Research Fellows, and to continue supporting them as they make lasting impacts.”

Krishnamoorthy, who also serves as associate director of the Power Electronics, Microgrids and Subsea Electric Systems Center at UH, has expertise is in power electronics, power converters, and offshore technologies. His research interests include high-density power conversion for grid interface of energy systems, machine learning-based methods for improvement in quality and reliability of power electronics, advanced electronics and control for mission-critical applications.

According to Krishnamoorthy, there are around 1,500 offshore rigs — with a large amount located North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. There's a need to improve existing systems, according to Krishnamoorthy, and this process of evolving the grid comes with safety risks and challenges.

“When there are so many electronics involved, safety and reliability are going to be very critical,” Krishnamoorthy says in he release. “I have been looking at safety aspects a lot in my research as well as how to connect subsea oil and gas systems with offshore renewable systems.”

In 2022, Krishnamoorthy was recognized as an OTC Emerging Leader at the Offshore Technology Conference for his contributions to offshore safety and workforce development in offshore, as well as reducing the carbon emissions.

Pitch perfect: What investors are looking for, according to Houston research

houston voices

Pitching to a venture capitalist is not only the most challenging part of building a startup, it’s also the most important. You can have the next pet rock idea, but nobody will ever experience it and you’ll never make a dime if the genius of this product cannot be expressed in an investor pitch. Okay, so pet rock isn’t the best example.

Let’s say you have a product that gets rid of stretch marks overnight. Great idea, right? Of course. But if you’re in front of an investor and they ask you how your product works, and you can’t answer them, your idea will forever remain just that: an idea. It’ll never manifest itself materially, which is your goal.

Did you know that the average venture capitalist holds around 500 in-person meetings per year? Further, did you know that only one in every 10 startups will make it past the first meeting?

With so many meetings with startup founders, you better believe that investors are virtually looking for reasons to pass on you and your cordless extension cord. Or whatever fakakta contraption you’ve developed in your garage.

Well, with so much importance placed on first impressions, here are some of the most important things investors look for and notice when you pitch to them:

Value proposition

This is what separates you from the pack. This is what makes your startup a standout. A value proposition shows an investor your company’s competitive advantage. If you can explain to your potential investor why it would be their folly if they invested in a competitor over your startup, then you’ll be that much closer to rolling out your product to market. Investors want to see a product or service that is unique because that means less competition, and less risk involved.

Entrepreneurship

Sure, you might be a brilliant scientist. You may have developed nanotechnology that eviscerates dirt and bacteria so you don’t have to shower anymore. But have you put together a team that can make your company a successful business? Do you have team members with experience in whatever it is your startup does? Do you have people with credibility congruent with your startup? Your pitch is a way for investors to find these things out. If you can show them that your team has experience, passion, insightfulness, and expertise, investors will feel much better about taking a chance on you.

Confidence is key

Investors can tell if a founder is confident, but not overconfident about how far they’ve come and how far they know they can go. During a pitch, investors can tell if your team is a cohesive unit or parts of a fractured whole.

Anatomy of an investor pitch

Your potential investor will notice if your pitch is structured well. He or she will take not of whether or not your pitch is designed well. They’ll ask themselves if it’s authentic. Does it cover business metrics? Is it concise and to the point? Is the founder communicating something complex in a simple way? Doing so shows absolute understanding and a total grasp of your product and the science behind it, plus the business aspect of it.


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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu was the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Houston area robotics tech company announces European expansion

growing strong

A Webster-based tech company has officially launched operations in two European countries — and it's only the beginning.

Nauticus Robotics Inc. (NASDAQ: KITT), which went public a few months ago, opened operations in Norway and the United Kingdom, "beginning the company’s international expansion strategy for 2023 and beyond," according to a release from Nauticus. The company develops underwater robots, software, and services to the marine industries.

“The ocean touches nearly every aspect of our lives, yet paradoxically seems to receive less attention and innovation when compared to other sectors,” says Nicolaus Radford, founder and CEO of Nauticus, in the release. “As we expand our operations to these strategic locales and beyond, our core mission remains the same: to become the most impactful ocean robotics company and realize a future where autonomous robotic technologies are commonplace and enable the blue economy for the better."

The two new operating bases are in Stavanger, Norway, and Aberdeen, Scotland. The two outposts will serve the North Sea offshore market. According to the release, Nauticus will work with local partners to service the region’s offshore wind and oil and gas markets. The company will also expand Nauticus Fleet, a "robotic navy of surface and subsea robots," which was established in April of 2022.

These two new regional offices are just the first examples of international growth Nauticus has planned, according to the release. Established to serve as logistics operation centers, the company's expansion plan includes new remote operation centers and service teams around the world in growth markets. The company did not announce any specific expansion plans.

"We are eager to ramp up activities in these international markets as our growing team contributes to our mission," Radford adds.

In October, shortly after its IPO, Nauticus announced that it has been awarded a second multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit, part of the U.S. Defense Department, for development of a self-piloted amphibious robot system powered by the company’s ToolKITT command-and-control software.

The company was originally founded in 2014 as Houston Mechatronics Inc. before rebranding in 2021.