3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Groen of Bell & Bly Travel, Alex Reed of Fluence Analytics, and Bettina Beech of UH. Courtesy photos

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

Sarah Groen, founder of Bell and Bly Travel

Sarah Groen, travel entrepreneur and longtime Houston tech ecosystem member, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Bell and Bly Travel

It's been a scary time for travel-related businesses, and Sarah Groen has had to get innovative to maintain her business as a travel adviser. Lucky for Groen, who has a long career in tech and innovation, she had all the right pivots, including offering digital travel packages, launching a new podcast, and more.

"During COVID, a lot of businesses either shutdown or took a pause, but we accelerated," Groen says.

Groen her career on the Houston Innovators Podcast. She also gives some strategic advice for founders — like trusting your gut and reading the signs when it comes to product-market fit — on the podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Alex Reed, co-founder and CEO of Fluence Analytics

Alex Reed joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on the company's move to Houston and its growth plans. Photo courtesy of Fluence Analytics

Alex Reed watched his father work in the labs on his research as he grew up, but he realized his future wasn't in the lab. Instead, he launched a career in taking that research and turning it into a company.

Founded in 2012 in New Orleans, Fluence Analytics has entered its next phase of growth by moving its headquarters to Houston following a $7.5 million venture capital raise.

We're working with the Houston of today, but also the Houston of tomorrow," Reed tells InnovationMap in a Q&A. Click here to read more.

Bettina Beech, chief population health officer at the University of Houston

Bettina Beech is a newly named AIM-AHEAD coordinating center team member. Photo via UH.edu

The University of Houston has joined in on a national initiative to increase the diversity of artificial intelligence researchers, according to a news release from the school. Unfortunately, AI — designed by humans — mimics human decision making through its choice of algorithms. This means that the same biases humans deal with have made it into the AI decision making too. These gaps can lead to continued disparities and inequities for underrepresented communities especially in regards to health care, job hiring, and more.

"Beyond health care, AI has been used in areas from facial recognition to self-driving cars and beyond, but there is an extreme lack of diversity among the developers of AI/ML tools. Many studies have shown that flawed AI systems and algorithms perpetuate gender and racial biases and have resulted in untoward outcomes," says Bettina Beech, chief population health officer at the University of Houston and newly named AIM-AHEAD coordinating center team member.

The initiative will bring together collaborators and experts across AI and machine learning, health equity research, data science training, data infrastructure and more. The other universities involved include: University of Colorado-Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora; University of California, Los Angeles; Meharry Medical College in Nashville; Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta; Johns Hopkins University, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Click here to read more.

Alex Reed, co-founder and CEO of Fluence Analytics, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on the company's move to Houston and its growth plans. Photo courtesy of Fluence Analytics

Fresh off $7.5M funding, this new-to-Houston tech company plans to grow and expand in life science space

q&A

Founded in 2012 in New Orleans, a tech company that provides software and hardware solutions for the chemicals industry has entered its next phase of growth by moving its headquarters to Houston following a $7.5 million venture capital raise

Fluence Analytics, which announced its recent raise led by Yokogawa Electric Corp. last month, has officially moved to the Houston area. The company's new HQ is in Stafford. Alex Reed, co-founder and CEO of the company, joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about what led up to the move and the future of the company, which includes expanding into the life science field.

InnovationMap: Tell me about Fluence Analytics — what does the technology do and why did you decide to start the company?

Alex Reed: We have developed a patented technology that can optimize chemical production. We basically are able to measure what's happening in real time in a process. Imagine if you're baking a cake, and you follow this recipe and sometimes you get the cake you want, sometimes it's too dry, and sometimes it's not cooked enough. And so the polymers industry, for simplistic terms, has that type of an issue. You don't really know exactly where you're at your equipment behaves differently. Basically, what we're able to do is give them real-time information on what's happening as they're baking the cake so that every time they can get a perfect cake.

We have a software and hardware solution that we install in these plants to get these measurements so that our customers can optimize production — and they want to do that to improve their yield, reduce waste, increase safety, and improve quality. There are a lot of different reasons that companies are interested in our technology and we have managed to grow globally. We have customers in Asia, Europe, and the U.S.

We spun out of Tulane University. It's an interesting story because my dad is the inventor of the technology — he's a physics professor at Tulane. I grew up working in the lab with him literally since the age of 12, and I was super interested in technology and science and saw that he was working with all these chemical companies. They were always very interested in what he was working on. I got to the point where I realized that I didn't want to be a scientist — I was far more interested in the commercialization and how you go from lab to product. That transition is very difficult. So, I stepped into the role of the entrepreneur. We had the patents and technology for my dad, I had an excellent mentor, and then our other co-founder was a technical founder.

IM: When and why did you start considering an HQ move? 

AR: We raised our first institutional venture funding in April 2017. Up until that point, it was primarily working with customers and grant funding. We worked with actually a group that has an office here called Energy Innovation Capital. They came in and invested in us and supported us, and George Coyle joined our board.

So, we had that tie to Houston, and I was in Houston a lot because there was a concentration of partners and customers — and not just like chemical plant customers, but also technology and R&D centers. As we started to scale, we brought on some other investors — Mitsubishi Chemical, JSR Corp., and most recently Yokogawa Electric Corp., which has its North American headquarters in Sugar Land.

We started to just build momentum towards it. I'd say we first had the conversations pre-COVID and then COVID hit, and we'd kind of just stopped everything for a while, just to make sure we knew where the business was heading. We've made it through COVID fine and did well on coming out of it. Then we felt it was the right time to pick that thread back up. We knew it made sense. The labor pool is amazing here, and there's just so many reasons why we were looking at it. So then we just pulled the trigger.

IM: How did you decide on the Houston area? What drew you to Stafford?

AR: Initially, we had a little landing pad in the East End Maker Hub, so we got in there and they were awesome. We actually had started hiring remote people here in 2019 because we knew the move was going to happen at some point. We had a place for them to go work out of EEMH while we searched for a permanent facility. We connected with the Greater Houston Partnership, and they plugged us in to Houston Exponential, and they have been very good at introducing us to the right people. We just don't know the lay of the land to be honest, so they've been a great resource. We were looking originally on the northside of Houston, and then we saw the Stafford area. There's a huge concentration of similar type companies — automation, some software, some hardware. There were some tax advantages. We settled in the Stafford area and are very happy with the choice we made to end up here.

IM: I know you recently raised a $7.5M venture funding round. What does that funding mean for growth?

AR: Like any capital, the objective is to use it to grow. For us, "grow" has several different areas. One is the product. There's a very long roadmap of both hardware and software improvements that we want to make. So basically we're accelerating a lot of the things on our roadmap to do things like closed-loop control based on our data — imagine running a whole plant autonomously based on measurements that we're making. We're moving more and more toward that autonomous operation world and improving a lot of the actual underlying hardware, making the measurements, building out sales and marketing as we start to serve more and more customers. Product sales and marketing and customer success are the areas that we're scaling.

IM: As you grow your local team, what are you looking for?

AR: Field applications, software, some automation technicians, and more. We do have some life science applications. So, in addition to our core area on the chemical side, we have a product we've sold into biopharma, and so we want to grow some of that. We're actually hiring for a product manager for the life science side of the business. So, that one's a pretty unique opportunity and role.

IM: Considering your life science application, it seems like Houston is a good fit for that vertical as well, right?

AR: We're working with the Houston of today, but also the Houston of tomorrow, which is this life science play. The next phase is kind of following that innovation value chain. So, figuring out what's the R&D and manufacturing of these pharmaceuticals, and how you can attract more of those technology centers and factories to make the stuff here. If you look at the talent pool here, those resources are somewhat fungible with the resources that serve petrochemical and oil and gas.

This cross pollination I think actually could be quite an interesting differentiator for Houston if the city can build that critical mass. So yes, I think there is an opportunity for us to leverage this vision that Houston has for life science. Now, we'll still have to go to the coast to go to our customers, but I think talent pool, and eventually you might even have customers here. It's certainly feasible.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Houston university's MBA program claims coveted top spot of annual ranking

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Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business has raked in yet another top spot on an annual list of top MBA programs.

A new ranking from Poets & Quants, which covers news about business schools, puts Rice at No. 3 among the world's best MBA programs for entrepreneurship. That's up from No. 15 on last year's list.

The Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis grabbed the top spot in this year's ranking. Elsewhere in Texas, the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business lands at No. 14, the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth at No. 35, and the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in University Park at No. 36.

Poets & Quants judged the schools on 16 metrics related to their entrepreneurship initiatives.

Poets & Quants says Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business "itself is less than three decades old. But entrepreneurship was baked into its DNA from the get-go. The late Ed Williams and current professor Al Napier are credited with starting the entrepreneurial focus. But it wasn't until 2013 when Jones plucked Yael Hochberg from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management that the program really started to surge."

Rice's entrepreneurship offering combines academic courses and associated programs led by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie) with programs offered by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"The ability to be a student while working on your startup in class, under the expert guidance of our world-class faculty, gives our Rice entrepreneurs a competitive advantage over any others out there," Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and academic director of the Rice Alliance, says in a news release.

The Rice Alliance's OwlSpark Accelerator supplements the MBA program. The accelerator serves as a capstone program and launchpad for students seeking to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, the Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest intercollegiate student startup competition in the world, lets students pitch their startups in front of more than 300 judges. And the Rice Alliance Technology Venture Forums allows students to showcase their startups to investors and corporations.

"The ability for students to launch their nascent startups, obtain mentoring from members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem, and then pitch to hundreds of angel investors, venture capitalists, and corporations provides a unique opportunity that cannot be found on many campuses or in many regions," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance.

Houston entrepreneur amps up support for diverse businesses with new NAACP partnership

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 107

Carolyn Rodz didn't feel the need to rush into Hello Alice's series B raise. The company, which was co-founded by Rodz and Elizabeth Gore in 2017, closed its series B at $21 million this summer, but Rodz says they did so with a specific goal.

Rodz, who joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, says she didn't want to get on the cycle that is round after round of venture capital. Instead, she's prioritizing profitability. And to have that, Hello Alice — platform for small business owners to find capital, networks and business services — needed to be able to reach more small business owners.

"When we made the decision to raise, it was really about making sure that we had good, strong core fundamentals and that we felt like we were putting good money to work where we can scale the business," Rodz says on the show. "It's our belief that the more smalls business owners we can support, it gives us a more unified and stronger voice to go implement systemic change."

The round was led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest. It followed what was not only a rollercoaster of a year for the small businesses Hello Alice exists to serve, but also the company itself.

"It changed us permanently as a company," Rodz says of the pandemic.

On the show, Rodz characterizes the time for Hello Alice, which included slimming down the company's overhead, while simultaneously offering thought leadership, support, and resources for companies. Within a few days of the shutdown, Hello Alice was helping to deploy grants to entrepreneurs affected by COVID-19.

As challenging as the pandemic was for Hello Alice, it was validating too. Rodz says the company had a 700 percent increase in revenue and an 1,100 percent acquisition growth.

"We'd never operated in a downcycle, but what we learned through that process was that we're a really valuable resource for business owners when times are great, but we're also a really valuable resource for them when times are tough," she explains.

This validation set the scene for the series B, but following that raise, and, due in part to the doors opened by new investor networks, a new partnership with the NAACP Empowerment Program. Rodz says that the NAACP was given a lot of resources to put to work to build racial equity through economic empowerment. The relationship began with an introduction from Hello Alice investor, Green Book.

"They are real co-builders of this platform with us, so we're making sure we're actually putting money back into those communities," Rodz says of the partnerships Hello Alice has had with the NAACP and other equitable organizations. "NAACP was a huge milestone for us, something we're really proud of as a business. And I think it's a partnership that will continue to grow and make sure that we're aligned with how we're working on how we can build better together.

Rodz shares more on Hello Alice's growth as well as her observations on how Houston has evolved as an innovation ecosystem. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Greentown Labs hires former Houston sustainability exec

new hire

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.