What's the future of real estate — and how have technology and the pandemic affected its trajectory? A panel of experts discuss. Photo via Getty Images

The residential and commercial real estate industries have both evolved drastically as new technologies have emerged and in light of the pandemic. But where does that leave renters, homeowners, Realtors, brokers, and everyone else?

A panel of experts looked into their crystal balls and tried to answer this question at a panel for Houston Tech Rodeo last week. They discussed diversity and inclusion, home buying and rental trends, post-pandemic office design, and more on the virtual panel moderated by Allen Thornton, CEO of Money For Your Mission.

To hit the highlights from the virtual panel, check out some overheard moments below. To stream the full broadcast, click here.

“We’re dealing with a different consumer. When you look at the largest pool of buyers of residential real estate — it’s millennials.”

— Bobby Bryant, CEO of Ask Doss. Bryant says these buyers want information than just pictures, square footage, and the school it's zoned to. They want to know about the neighborhood they will be a part of.

“Folks are realizing how much waste comes from buildings — the buildings we spend 90 percent of our time in.”

Natalie Goodman, CEO of Incentifind. She adds that renters and homebuyers, as well as commercial tenants, are increasingly demanding more sustainable options. And the government will pay you to implement these things, Goodman says.

“Before the pandemic, there were already over 60 million freelancers across the country. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that a whole lot more people than just that 60 million are capable of doing a really fantastic job of powering the economy from home."

Reda Hicks, CEO of GotSpot. People are going to be using space differently, so it's about finding those needs and providing the right access to them.

“As human beings, we’ll be drawn to operating and cooperating with other people in environments that are conducive to collaborating and creativity. We’ll probably see innovation ecosystems transition their operational pieces to an online platform. … But we’ll just naturally want to engage with other humans again."

Alexander Gras, managing director of The Cannon. Gras adds that the opportunity for in-person collisions is too important to us as humans.

“People are getting educated and educating themselves, and there’s more inclusion. That means more opportunities for individuals of color to invest in or own residential or commercial real estate.”

— Mark Erogbogbo, influencer at 40 Acre Plan. These emerging opportunities, he adds, need to continue.

“When you don’t need to go to a specific office every day and you can work anywhere, well then you can live anywhere.”

— Sebastien Long, CEO of Lodgeur. The pandemic changed how people regarded their housing. Many opted for more spacious rentals with backyards in less crowded areas. Americans don't have a much time off as Europeans, he adds, so they are rethinking how they work remotely.

“Residential real estate has to be the only industry that sells a product that it doesn’t service.”

— Bryant says, explaining how homebuying is one of the most expensive purchases in people's lives that they use for 8 years on average, yet it's a one-time transaction that also spans across many platforms. "The future of real estate brings everything together in one place."

“What CRE needs to think about if they are going to attract and retain tenants … then they need to think about resilience and build for more extreme weather. And that’s where incentives are going to spike.”

— Goodman adds, referencing the winter storm and the hurricanes Houston gets every season.

“For a very long time, (commercial real estate) has been an industry based on a 10-year lease. There are few people who are willing to take on that kind of relationship because that’s a decade, and nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

— Hicks says about the challenge CRE owners face with finding new tenants.

Looking into venture capital deal growth, new coworking coming to town, and more Houston innovation news. Getty Images

Houston's spike in VC deals, accelerator acquired, new coworking, and more innovation news

Short stories

Houston has seen some big headlines this month when it comes to innovation news — and you could have missed something.

From a report on venture capital funding last year and new coworking coming to town to a Houston investor selling her accelerator company, here's the latest batch of short stories in Houston innovation.

Houston sees spike in venture capital deals in 2019

Houston saw more venture capital funding in 2019 compared to 2018. Chart via crunchbase.com

Overall, 2019 was a good one for Texas venture capital deals. Austin had a record turnout of money invested in startups. Austin companies raised over $1.8 billion, which put the state capitol in the top 10 cities based on money raised, according to a report by Crunchbase.

And this Texas VC roundup on Crunchbase focused a lot of the Austin funding and didn't harp too much on the other Texas cities. But Houston's numbers are also record breaking. The Bayou City raised nearly $400 million last year — with the bulk of that being recorded in Q2 of 2019.

Houston's recorded $399.6 million in VC deals surpasses 2018's recorded funding by almost $20 million, but if you look at PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association's data, the amount is higher. According to Pitchbook, the total funding raised in 2019 in Houston deals surprasses $600 million across 98 deals.

Houston investor-founded accelerator acquired

Houston investor ​Diana Murakhovskaya has sold her New York-based accelerator program. ​Photo courtesy of The Artemis Fund

New York-based Monarq Incubator, a venture capital-focused accelerator program for women, has been acquired by Female Founders Alliance. Monarq was co-founded by Diana Murakhovskaya, one of the three co-founders of Houston-based, female-focused The Artemis Fund.

Since its founding in 2017, Monarq accelerated 32 companies that have then gone on to raise more than $10 million in venture capital. The combined company, according to a news release, now represents the largest network of women and non-binary venture-scalable founders.

"FFA and Monarq share more than just a mission – we share founder DNA," says Leslie Feinzaig, CEO of Female Founders Alliance, in the release. "Our two communities and accelerator programs were built by women founders, for women founders. We are uniquely able to build programming that accelerates the success of women in our space, and now along with founder cred, we have scale and a national footprint. I am so excited for what we can achieve in this next stage of FFA."

The acquisition means a heightened focus on The Artemis Fund for Murakhovskaya.

"Now that I am full time focused on raising and investing with Artemis, it's great to know that our community and founders will have a home and provide us with a great source of deal flow," she says in an email to InnovationMap.

A new coworking company to enter Houston with Galleria-area office

New Galleria-area coworking is coming later this year. Photo via serendipitylabs.com

Serendipity Labs Coworking, which has over 100 coworking spaces across the United States and United Kingdom, announced its plans to enter six new markets this year. Houston is among the new locations for the coworking company.

Expected top open in the fall, the Houston coworking space will be a 28,331-square-foot space on the 20th floor of the Marathon Oil Tower at 5555 San Felipe St. in the Galleria area. According to the release, Cameron Coworking, a division of Cameron Management, will be the development partner for the Houston market.

"By partnering with asset owners of office, retail and residential buildings and then managing the Labs, we bring our operational expertise and marketing power, and we assure the upscale service standards of one of the top national flexible workplace networks will be met at every location," says John Arenas, chairman and CEO of Serendipity Labs, in a news release.

MassChallenge Texas opens applications for second cohort

Applications are open for MassChallenge Texas' second Houston cohort. Courtesy of MassChallenge

At an event on January 29 in both Houston and Austin, MassChallenge Texas opened applications for its 2020 cohorts

The 4-month accelerator program is set to begin in June and online applications close March 9. Prizes include six months of free office space and up to $250,000 in equity free investment. Click here for more information.

Houston entrepreneur named to 2020 class of Presidential Leadership Scholars

Houston startup founder, Reda Hicks, has been named a Presidential Leadership Scholar. Photo via presidentialleadershipscholars.org

For this sixth year, the Presidential Leadership Scholars announced its class of veterans, educators, physicians, public servants, and corporate professionals to participate in the program. Reda Hicks, founder of GotSpot was named as one of the 60 scholars. The program began this week in Washington D.C..

"I cannot wait to work with, and learn from, these exceptional leaders," Hicks shares on LinkedIn. "And through the program, I will be working on RescueSpot, a community resiliency application of GotSpot Inc."

Another Houstonian was selected too — Ganesh Betanabhatla, who is the managing partner and chief investment officer at Ramas Capital Management.

Ion Smart Cities Accelerator opens applications for second cohort

Aatonomy, a member of the first cohort, walked away with a cash prize at Demo Day. F. Carter Smith/Station Houston

The second cohort for the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator Program has opened applications online. The first cohort, focused on resilience and mobility, is currently in pilot mode. Cohort II will be focused on water purification/quality, air quality, and clean technology.

The applications will close on Monday, February 17, and startups that are selected will be notified the week of March 2.

The program, which was announced in June, is backed by Microsoft and Intel and named its first cohort last fall. The demo day for the first cohort took place last month. The accelerator has its own space and prototyping lab in downtown Houston, which opened in September.

From a water-absorbing tower to sensor-enabled rubber ducks, here are some flooding solution ideas coming out of Houston. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

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 master plan redevelopment project, which is being supported by the Kinder Foundation, 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, Kinder Foundation, 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."

A handful of Houston startups will be bouncing back and forth to Austin for the second annual MassChallenge Texas accelerator. Getty Images

These are the Houston companies headed to MassChallenge Texas in Austin

Texas road trip

It's the second cohort for Boston-based MassChallenge Texas in Austin, and this year's 74 selected finalists are well represented by Houston.

"Coming from an extremely competitive application pool, the startups in our second Austin-based cohort represent an incredibly high bar of creativity and talent, all of who are poised to make an impact," says Mike Millard, managing director of MassChallenge Texas, in a release. "This year's program will offer the finalists innovation at scale with direct access to resources through our programs in Houston and Austin, and our community around the state. Through these channels, startups will have more opportunities to test and validate their ideas with partners while creating meaningful engagements to help them get to pilot or pivot as fast as possible."

While there is the upcoming MassChallenge Texas inaugural Houston cohort, these seven companies opted for a spot in the Austin-based cohort where the stakes are higher and cash prizes are on the line — $500,000, the largest equity-free cash prize in Texas, to be precise. (Houston's inaugural set of prizes reportedly don't included money.)

These are seven of the Houston-related companies that will be trekking back and forth to Austin from June until October.

crewcollar

Getty Images

It's crewcollar's mission to optimize hiring for industrial and blue-collar jobs, simplifying the entire process from curated job posts to paperwork filing. The company is based just outside of Houston in Missouri City.

"We are super excited to be joining MassChallenge Texas, and know that this experience will help us take it to the next level," says M. Siler, CEO and founder, in a release.

GotSpot Inc.

Courtesy of GotSpot

Houston-based GotSpot is Reda Hicks solution to finding temporary space quickly and easily — in a way that benefits all sides of the transaction. The model is like AirBnb, but for retail, meeting, and even emergency space. The corporate lawyer has grown the platform over the past few years and the MassChallenge opportunity is another move in the right direction. Click here to read more about Hicks and GotSpot.

Grant Source

Photo via grantsourceapp.com

Grant Source is like the magic genie to help organizations find funding through grants and opportunities. The Houston startup has a database of opportunities and can help match businesses with appropriate grants to apply to — all within the Grant Source mobile app.

Guzo

Getty Images

Guzo is the tool every traveler has dreamed up. The Houston-based app connects travelers — not just in the planning phase — but throughout the travel process. The company was created by two brothers — Joshua and Gordon Taylor — and is the recreation of Croozen, formerly a long-distance carpool app.

"One of the things that got Gordan and I excited in the beginning of Croozen was just the idea of someone else in the car with you and that shared experience," Joshua Taylor tells InnovationMap in a previous interview about revamping Croozen as Guzo. "Looking past that, just being focused on the car was hindering us. Let's divorce the car and focus on travel as a whole."

Lazarus 3D

Photo via laz3d.com

Practice makes perfect, and surgeons should be as close to perfect as possible, right? Lazarus 3D uses 3D printing to make realistic body parts and organs so that surgeons can rehearse their surgeries before ever slicing into a patient. The company is conveniently located in the Texas Medical Center.

Pilot Plus

Photo via pilotplus.com

The trucking industry needs a rebrand. It's a tireless job that's go-go-go, and the unappealing nature of the career isn't ideal. Pilot Plus puts the humanity back in the process that benefits the driver and makes for bragging rights for the company employing the trucker. The logistics company allows for a system of drivers that work together for the long haul so that drivers can actually spend time resting in their own homes.

Topl

Courtesy of Topl

Topl's MassChallenge bio lists their HQ in the Netherlands, but the blockchain startup founded by three Rice University alumni has some of its operations right here in town. Topl has a goal of using blockchain technology to connect the dots and enhance transparency in various applications from retail to even being able to track the success of investments or scholarships.

"We are a generation that wants a story," Kim Raath, president at Topl, tells InnovationMap in a previous interview. "We want an origin, and don't want to be fooled. And, because you might be able to reduce the cost by having this transparency, you might be able to bring down the cost on both sides."


Reda Hicks (left) of GotSpot Inc, Ghazal Qureshi (center) of Idea Lab Kids, and Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother are this week's innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston female entrepreneurs to know this week

Who's who

Another Monday means another set of innovators to know. This one focuses on a few female startup leaders changing the game in the commercial real estate and education industries.

Reda Hicks, founder and CEO of GotSpot Inc.

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

Turns out, Hurricane Harvey was the big push Reda Hicks needed to create her startup, GotSpot Inc., the Airbnb of commercial real estate.

"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."

Hicks, a lawyer by trade, now juggles startup life, being a wife and mom, and her full-time legal career. Read the rest of the story here.

Ghazal Qureshi, founder of Idea Lab Kids

Ghazal Qureshi wanted to engage her own kids in educational activities. Now, her programing has expanded worldwide. Courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

At first, Ghazal Qureshi just wanted to find her kids a quality after school educational program. When she couldn't, she decided to make something herself. Now, it's a franchised company with locations worldwide.

"From the beginning, we were never restricted by trying to make money. It was a passion project only," Qureshi says.

IDEA Lab Kids, an education program focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, has 18 locations in Houston, and, two years ago, she expanded the brand into a franchise business — the Idea Lab International Franchise Company. Read the rest of the story here.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell's startup, Work & Mother, provides a new way for new moms to pump breast milk during the workday. Courtesy of Work & Mother

When Abbey Donnell heard horror stories from some friends who recently returned to work after giving birth, she had an idea. What if new moms had a stylish, spa-like lactation experience during the workday that was less inconvenient and, well, awkward.

"There were constant stories about [women] being told the use the IT closet, or the conference room, or the bathroom or their cars," Donnell says. "Some of them were pretty big oil and gas firms companies that should've had the resources and space to do better than that."

Donnell founded Work & Mother, a boutique pumping and wellness center, and opened the first location in downtown Houston in 2017 and is planning its second downtown location. Read the rest of the story here.

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

How a Houston corporate lawyer is making short-term commercial space easier to find

Featured Innovator

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 says. "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."

GotSpot Inc. soft launched last June with 17 listings. The company now has 37 and new listings are generated daily. Hicks has won two pitch competitions and is headed to Silicon Valley in March for Women's Startup Labs.

"In 2019, we're going to be working with local business partners, like the chambers. We'll be working on building out a team. I'll be hitting the road in March headed to Silicon Valley for Women's Startup Labs."

She spoke with InnovationMap on her career and what it takes to be a mom, a wife, a corporate lawyer, and a startup founder — all rolled into one.

InnovationMap: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

Reda Hicks: I feel like I kind of grew up the way a lot of small town, lower middle class kids do. The options you're aware of were either people you know or what you see on TV. Growing up there were no people in my life who were entrepreneurs. Even as a professional, it never even occurred to me. It's more about seeing a problem I wanted to be solved more than I just wanted to own my own business.

IM: How does GotSpot work?

RH: I have two types of users. One is the person who has the space — a shop on Main Street or conference rooms you're not using — and you're looking for a way to monetize that space. We call those our spot holders. It's so easy to go on the platform and create your profile and generate a listing. On the other side, I have spot seekers who can go on the site and search the available listings they are interested in booking for hours, days, or weeks at a time. It's not fully automated right now. The booking process and the calendar is all ran by me. In the next two to three months, we'll have it up and running like that, and it will feel a lot like Airbnb.

It's strictly website based right now, and I did that intentionally. Spot holders don't want to build their profile on their phones. But the site is mobile friendly.

IM: What are some early challenges you faced?

RH: My biggest challenge honestly was having a problem and wanting to solve it, but not knowing where to start — especially because I'm not a tech person. From a subject matter and contacts perspective, I felt like I had the resources. My first question was, "Who can I call?" It's a testament to Houston. No one I called said no. We talk often about how we are a new ecosystem, but we also are an extremely generous and connected city. What I see and what I hope continues is that we are an ecosystem that builds by leveraging all the awesome that's already here.

IM: Where did the name come from?

RH: I reached out to three military spouses I know and asked them to help. We spitballed a bunch of ideas. I wanted it to be simple and clear, because so many brands come up with a cute name but it takes forever to explain. We literally pulled out a thesaurus and thought of all the words that mean "space" and "finding," and that exercise is where GotSpot came from.

IM: What makes GotSpot different from anything else out there?

RH: There are a few different marketplaces out there for commercial space, but they tend to be more specialized. But another way GotSpot is different is I'm being very intentionally community driven. I look at GotSpot as your digital sidekick to grow your business — whether it's helping you pay your rent by creating a new way to make money or helping you say yes to more opportunities. But I'm also collecting information on how that same space can be used for the community. Harvey is a part of my origin story. Every time I onboard a new space, I ask if you are willing to be activated in case of an emergency, and if so, how can you be used — industrial space or washer and dryers. In other communities, there are other kind of emergencies. And, I also know half the nonprofits in Texas don't keep their own space any more, because donors don't want their money to go to overhead. I ask my space holders if they are willing to give a discount to nonprofits.

IM: What expertise from your career as a corporate lawyer do you bring to your startup career?

RH: A couple of things. I've spent my whole career working in large corporations. I really understand how the inside of a company works and how to think creatively and mitigate risks. It's so interesting because when I start talking to people about GotSpot, I have to be honest about how this is my first entrepreneurial experience. So when I say that, people tell me, "well, you're going to have to have really good counsel." And I tell them, "well, actually, I am really good counsel." The demeanor of who I'm talking to — whether it's an adviser or a potential investor — fundamentally shifts.

IM: What's been the most challenging aspect of still working full time and having a family?

RH: Probably the thing that has been the most challenging has been access to resources as a female founder. What I mean by that is there's all this great programing and things happening around town are always in the evening. It's hard to make happy hours. What I'm starting to see is more programing is a diversity of when that programing is available. I'm privileged in that I can do my job from anywhere during the day, but if all of the golden opportunities are on a weekday at 5 pm, my mommy duties win. Always.

IM: How has Houston been as a home for your startup?

RH: I think one aspect of the secret sauce is how open and can do of a city it is. It is not the traditional thing you think of when you think of startups. But we know better. In the startup space, what I love, is that I am kind of seeing it like we're building the plane as we're flying it. We have some people who have been around for a long time, but even some of our incubators are startups on their own. We have the ability, since we're still building it now, to have an ecosystem that reflects our city. We have a long ways to go, there are still some things that we are working through — capital is one of them.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.