From a new hard tech grant opportunity to apply for to health tech innovation expansion, here's your latest roundup of Houston startup and innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

As Houston ramps up for fall, the city's innovation news has followed suit, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, Houston angel investors dole out prize money, the DOE grants Houston innovators some cash, a digital health company expands, and more.

2 Houston teams win DOE geothermal manufacturing prize

Both of the teams that won this competition hailed from Houston. Image via energy.gov

This week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that two Houston-based companies have won the American-Made Geothermal Manufacturing Prize — a $4.65 million competition to incentivize innovators to use 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, to address the challenges associated with operating sensitive equipment in harsh geothermal environments, per a press release. The competition challenged participants with quickly developing, testing, and revising prototypes using additive manufacturing to support the advancement of geothermal tools and technologies.

“This DOE competition harnesses breakthroughs in additive manufacturing to help overcome barriers to widespread deployment of geothermal energy,” says Alejandro Moreno, deputy assistant secretary for renewable power, in the release. “The rapid prototype development supported by this prize is spurring advancements in the geothermal industry to help power the nation from the heat beneath our feet.”

The competition launched in January 2020, and the finalists presented their innovations at the annual Geothermal Rising conference in Reno, Nevada. The winning teams each were awarded $500,000 in cash and up to $200,000 to test their innovations in the field. The two Houston-based winning teams were:

  • Team Downhole Emerging Technologies: "This team developed an alternative to traditional packer systems," the release states. "The all-metal, retrievable packer system is designed specifically for high temperatures, extreme pressures, and corrosion experienced in geothermal wells. The Downhole Emerging Technologies’ partnership resulted in the production of the largest Inconel additively manufactured component by Proto Labs, Inc. and the development of DET’s tool, the Diamond ETIP (Extreme Temperature Isolation Packer).”
  • Team Ultra-High Temperature Logging Tool: "This team developed a technology that uses a labyrinthian heat sink to reduce thermal emissivity and increase the exposure time of temperature sensitive electronic components," according to the release. "Oak Ridge National Laboratory used a powder bed laser fusion technique to manufacture the heat sink design, with the aim that the technology would solve limitations around maximum temperature rating and lifetime of electronics in logging and measurement tools. The team also worked closely with Sandia National Laboratories to test the logging prototype in a high-temperature setting."

Koda Health expands across the country

Koda Health has gone nationwide. Image via kodahealthcare.com

Houston-based Koda Health has announced via LinkedIn that it has expanded into a handful of new states recently: Florida, Oregon, North Carolina, Virginia, California, and Maryland. These six expansions have all been announced over the past month following the announcement in July that the company is going nationwide.

"Every state has different regulations and requirements for their advancecare planning documents. So, the folks at Nixon Gwilt Law and Koda Health have been hard at work making our platform compliant in every single state," the company announced in a post. "It's hard work, but we're committed to helping patients stay in control of their health care journey, regardless of where they call home."

Koda Health was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship and launched by Tatiana Fofanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry in March of 2020. The platform uses AI to help patients create advanced medical care directives and documents, such as a living will, through its proprietary machine learning approach.

In February, Koda closed over $3 million in seed funding in order to grow its staff and support expansion. Now, including Texas, Koda is in seven states across the country.

Houston angels dole out cash to RBPC winner

Hoth Intelligence — a digital health startup — is cashing in on its RBPC prizes. Photo via Getty Images

The Houston Angel Network announced its investment of over $160,000 in Hoth Intelligence, the winner of HAN’s prize at the 2022 Rice Business Plan Competition.

“Following the HAN award announcement at the RBPC banquet, we learned that the Houston Chapter of The Indus investor Entrepreneurs (TiE) was also interested in Hoth as an investment for its members," says HAN Chairman Richard Hunter in a news release.

The organizations collaborated on due diligence and negotiation of the investment terms. Hunter led HAN's due diligence and Jeff Tomlinson led the effort on behalf of TiE.

The company, which was established at University of Pittsburgh, has developed an artificial intelligence platform for health care providers. The company's RBPC prize initially totaled $386,700 in investment awards from a handful of entities.

Per HAN's news release, Houston investment firms Prosalus Capital Partners joined in with a $300,000 investment and PiFei VC contributed an additional $100,000.”

“Several companies at the 2022 RPBC, including Hoth Intelligence, ranked very high in the TiE judging," says TiE Houston Chapter President Ram Shenoy. "We therefore decided to pursue due diligence and were very pleased to have worked with HAN to expeditiously complete the deal. To date, it has attracted TiE investors from chapters in Atlanta, Silicon Valley, and Southern California who have committed over $154,000 in investment.”

Sustainable biz tapped for prestigious program

This Houston entrepreneur is getting ready to pitch. Image courtesy

Houston-based Trendy Seconds was chosen as part of the SOCAP Global Entrepreneur 2022 Cohort — a prestigious event in the social entrepreneurship world that grants scholarships to entrepreneurs from all over the globe.

Trendy Seconds is an online marketplace where women can find pre-owned clothing or shop for new clothing from sustainable brands. The company shares items from more than 50 brands that can be searched by category, style, size, price, condition, and positive impact. To ensure the clothing is high quality, shoppers will find only gently-used or new items featured on Trendy Seconds.

Through the program, Founder Maria Burgos will pitch live in San Francisco on October 20.

Deadline approaches for Activate Anywhere

Calling all scientists on a mission. Image via Getty Images

A global accelerator billed as "for scientists on a mission" has opened its latest round of registration. Activate Anywhere is a remote-based program for hard tech innovators that takes no equity, requires no fees, and provides significant financial support, including a living stipend of up to $110,000 a year, $100,000 in R&D funding, $100,000 additional flexible capital, health care coverage, travel allowance, and more.

Applications September 15, but registration to apply is free and open now. The deadline to apply is October 31 and finalists will be announced in February.

To be eligible for the program, you must:

  • have a bachelor’s degree and at least four years post-baccalaureate scientific research, engineering, or technology development experience.
  • be the leader of a technical project or company that is relevant to our target industries and is based in the physical or biological sciences, or related engineering disciplines.
  • be leading the commercial development of a hardware-based technology innovation for the first time i.e. not a repeat hard-tech founder. You may apply as a solo applicant or with one co-applicant.
  • not have raised more than $2 million in debt or equity funding from non-governmental sources for the proposed project at the time of the application deadline.
  • be able to work in the U.S. for the duration of the fellowship, and have access to a qualified host laboratory.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stephanie Campbell of HAN and The Artemis Fund, Larry Lawson of Proxima Clinical Research, and Vanessa Wyche of the Johnson Space Center. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and general partner at The Artemis Fund

Local investment leader talks trends in Houston venture capital activity

Stephanie Campbell joins the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to share some trends in early-stage investing. Photo courtesy of HAN

There were so many question marks at the beginning of the pandemic, especially for startup funding. Stephanie Campbell, who manages the most active angel network as well as a venture capital fund, says no one was sure how anything was going to pan out. Now, looking back on last year, VC did ok, she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast, and the Houston Angel Network saw membership growth.

"I think that given the markets with quite a bit of liquidity, people were looking for new and interesting ways to invest and make a return," Campbell says on the podcast. "In 2020, we actually grew by 30 percent and are up to 130 members of the Houston Angel Network and are continuing to grow through 2021."

Campbell shares more of her observations on the show and what she's focused on next. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Larry Lawson, co-founder of Proxima Clinical Research

Larry Lawson joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about his startup's recent exit, his role on the boards of five med device companies, his investment activity, and more. Photo courtesy of Larry Lawson

When Larry Lawson started his career in the medical device industry, it was hard to get funding. The health tech founder and investor says if it wasn't oil or real estate, banks couldn't understand well enough to make a loan. So, he bootstrapped, raised from friends and family, and found venture capital support for his business endeavors over the years. Now, he's celebrating a $1.4 billion exit of his last business, Preventice Solutions, a deal that closed earlier this year.

The ecosystem in Houston has changed, he says, and he's seen it evolve as the Texas Medical Center grew and the Rice Business Plan Competition brought impressive student innovators from all around the globe.

"The health science community here in Houston is now known all over the world," he tells InnovationMap. "It's gonna just continue to grow and develop, and I hope to be a part of continue to be a part of it." Click here to read more.

Vanessa Wyche, director of Johnson Space Center

Vanessa Wyche is the first Black woman to lead a NASA center. Photo courtesy of NASA

For the first time, NASA has a Black woman at the helm of a space center. Vanessa Wyche has been named director of Johnson Space Center in Houston after serving as acting director since May 3.

"Vanessa is a tenacious leader who has broken down barriers throughout her career," Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA, says in a news release. "Vanessa's more than three decades at NASA and program experience in almost all of the human spaceflight programs at Johnson is an incredible asset to the agency. In the years to come, I'm confident that Houston will continue to lead the way in human spaceflight."

As director of Johnson Space Center, Wyche now leads more than 10,000 NASA employees and contractors. Click here to read more.

Stephanie Campbell joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to share some trends in early-stage investing. Photo courtesy of HAN

Local investment leader talks trends in Houston venture capital activity

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 91

Backed by fresh funding from limited partners, The Artemis Fund is growing its portfolio at a time when funding female founders is more important than ever.

Stephanie Campbell — general partner and co-founder of The Artemis Fund, a Houston-based venture fund focused on supporting female founders — joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Artemis's first $15 million fund, which closed earlier this year.

"We raised more than half of the fund during the pandemic, so we know what it was like to be a founder raising funds in a pandemic," Campbell says on the episode. "Running a fund, I don't think a lot of people realize, is a lot like starting a startup, except we're raising money and backing startups at the same time."

The Artemis Fund invested in 10 startups — two in Houston — since its launch in 2019 and it was raising its fund I. Now, for 2021, Campbell and her partners — Leslie Goldman and Diana Murakhovskaya — are on the hunt for five more early-stage female-led companies to back.

"We're laser focused on finding the final five awesome women to add to our portfolio and then we'll start thinking seriously about launching fund II, probably at the end of the year," she explains.

Campbell says Artemis looks for seed-stage companies with a product already developed and ready to scale.

"We're really good at finding companies that have essentially bootstrapped, have a product in market with revenue, and we're usually that first institutional check," she says.

Within the companies that already make up the portfolio, a trend has emerged. Campbell says they are targeting fintech and e-commerce companies, as well as startups within caretech.

"These founders — all 10 of them — are in our mind creating a technology that helps people build wealth and care for their families and communities more sustainably," she says.

Speaking on VC trends, Campbell, who's also the managing director of the Houston Angel Network, says that despite the problems the pandemic provided the innovation ecosystem, HAN actually saw sizeable growth in membership and interest.

"I think that given the markets with quite a bit of liquidity, people were looking for new and interesting ways to invest and make a return," Campbell says on the podcast. "In 2020, we actually grew by 30 percent and are up to 130 members of the Houston Angel Network and are continuing to grow through 2021."

The organization pivoted to virtual pitches right off the bat and didn't slow down at all at the emergence of COVID-19. In fact, pitching at HAN has only gotten more competitive, Campbell says, and the membership is looking for early-stage companies that are out of just idea stage.

"It's getting harder and harder to get pre-seed funding in that first check for an idea stage," Campbell says on trends in the industry. "There are just so many deals that have done so much with so little to prove that they have product-market fit — and those tend to be the deals that pitch at our monthly meetings."

Campbell shares more about the trends in VC in Houston on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Check out these workshops, networking events, pitch events, and other goings on in Houston and online this month. Photo via Getty Images

10 can't-miss Houston business and innovation events in July

where to be

This month, Houstonians have yet another good batch of online innovation events — from Zoom panels to virtual conferences — and you and your tech network need to know about them.

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

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

July 7 — gBETA Summer 2021 Pitch Night

Pitch Night is a celebration of gBETA Houston's latest cohort. Pitch Night is an exclusive reception during which participating companies have the opportunity to pitch to an audience of entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and community members.

The event is on Wednesday, July 7, at 5:30 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Rd) and online. Click here to register.

July 8 — Esperson Coworking Powered by The Cannon Soft Opening

The Cannon is operating new coworking space in Downtown Houston in the Esperson Building. Celebrate the soft opening with networking in the new space.

The event is on Thursday, July 8, at 3 pm. It's free and happening at the Esperson Building (808 Travis St.). Click here to register.

July 14 — People & Culture - Talent strategy is core to any business, so how do you make sure an external hire will succeed?

Did you know that more than half of external new hires fail within their first 18 months. The reason behind it: the expectations and competencies are misaligned with the recruitment process, which then are also not connected with onboarding and performance KPIs after the process is completed. The event will explore the process from end to end, diving into the main issues that lead to mistakes in executive searches. After you learn our DIY model, you can apply to external hires in levels.

The event is on Wednesday, July 14, at 11 am. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

July 14-15 — Innovation & Entrepreneurship Summit

The Society of Petroleum Engineers' 2021 program addresses how firms are navigating the current economics of the energy industry, alternative energy partnerships, carbon innovation, resiliency in innovation, and concludes with our interactive and competitive Shark-Tank event, highlighting delivery of the next entrepreneurial solutions.

The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Summit is your premier opportunity to build connections and to pursue new solutions within the Energy industry.

The event is on Wednesday, July 14, through Thursday, July 15. Tickets begin at $80. The conference will be held at Norris Conference Center, CityCentre (816 Town & Country Blvd., Suite 210). Click here to register.

July 15 — Solving Startup Challenges at the Corvaverse

Do you have a specific startup challenge or problem you can't seem to solve? Join The Cannon and Corva for lunch and breakout sessions with industry leaders and advisors who will be sharing tips on solutions. Additionally, you will hear from Corva's CEO, Ryan Dawson, who will share his journey. It's going to be an eventful, collaborative and fun time that you don't want to miss.

The event is on Thursday, July 15, at noon. It's free and happening at The Cannon West Houston (1334 Brittmoore Rd.). Click here to register.

July 17-18 — Comicpalooza 

The greatest pop-culture festival returns with celebrities, shopping, and pop culture activities that will unite, inspire, and entertain.

The event is on Saturday, July 17, through Sunday, July 18. Passes start at $54 and the festival is happening at George R. Brown Convention Center (1001 Avenida De Las Americas). Click here to register.

July 21 —  How to Invest in Space

Join Houston Angel Network for a discussion with key thought leaders in the public and private space industry about how to invest in space.

The event is on Wednesday, July 21, at 11:30 am. It's $25 to attend and happening online. Click here to register.

July 23 — HAN Summer Social

Join the Houston Angel Network and Houston Exponential for investor and founder networking over drinks.

The event is on Friday, July 23, at 5 pm. It's free to HAN members and $25 for everyone else. It's happening at Buffalo Bayou Brewing Co. (2101 Summer St.). Click here to register.

July 28 — Understanding Financial Statements

Frost Bank's VP of Commercial Banking will help entrepreneurs learn how to analyze their cash flow to strengthen their business strategy.

The event is on Wednesday, July 28, at 11:30 am. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

July 28 — Houston Startup Showcase

Hear a select group of local tech startups pitch their company, share their current status, and tell us where they're headed next at this monthly event hosted by The Ion.

The event is on Wednesday, July 28, at 6 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.


What are health tech investors looking for these days? Thes VC experts weigh in. Photo via Getty Images

Here's what venture capital investors look for in Houston health tech

money talks

It's been a tumultuous year for health technology — and venture capital investment activity has definitely been affected. Looking toward the future, a group of panelists discussed how they are investing — and what they are looking for.

The panel, which was presented in partnership with the Houston Angel Network and Cooley for Houston Tech Rodeo, featured three investors:

  • Dennis McWilliams, partner at Santé
  • Terri Burke, venture partner at Epidarex Capital
  • Farzad Soleimani, health care partner at 1984 Ventures
Here's what these professionals consider when evaluating a potential deal.

A unique idea

The idea and solution of the med tech device or digital health company is of course of high importance for the investors.

"We really look for that unmet need. What is the innovative technology or med tech that's doing something different?" Burke says. "We try to find things that are breakthrough or disruptive that aren't one of six going after the same thing."

In light of COVID-19, the panelists discussed the advancement of remote care and telehealth. Another concern amid population growth is access to primary care doctors.

"Five years from now, we're going to be short like 60,000 to 70,000 primary care doctors," Soleimani says. "The only way we can close the gap is either to turn regular doctors into super doctors, and that's going to be driven by AI and data. ... Or, enabling other providers to act more like primary care doctors."

This type of innovation is top of mind for investors. What technology can help experts like pharmacists to provide care of this sort?

"We've seen a lot of investment going into enabling other providers to act as primary care doctors," Soleimani says. "They have the training."

A strong team

Much like startups, the people power the product growth. The panelists emphasized the importance of the potential team they'd be investing in, and it's something you learn over the diligence process.

​"You want to work with people you enjoy working with, so finding the right mix of people — whether we build it ourselves and help scale up a new company or a seasoned teams comes to us," Burke says.

For Soleimani, he is specific about making sure companies have someone in the CTO role — not just a part-time developer or contract worker.

"You need to have somebody who can build the technology — I cannot stress that enough," he says. "The process is arduous, and you're not going to get there overnight."

IP and regulatory process

Investors are looking to support protected technology, the panelists say, and most of the times they want an entrepreneur to start that process earlier than you might think.

"Investors actually care and care a lot and go pretty deep to make sure that something in the idea is protectable," Burke says.

The panelists also say they want a team that understands the regulatory process that will get the technology to scale. And investors aren't scared of investing in companies going down these paths.

"The regulatory process is often times misinterpreted — it can be your ally," Soleimani says. "Just because something needs to go through the regulatory process doesn't mean it is less attractive. It just has to be the right process for it."

McWilliams says a few years ago, maybe the process was more confusing, but nowadays companies are familiar with their options.

"For the most part, most devices know what the pathway is going to be," he explains. "If a team is telling you they don't really know what their regulatory strategy is, they probably don't know what they are doing or they don't want to tell you."

The panelists acknowledged that these regulatory processes can be costly, so factoring that into the equation is important. It's also a space where surrounding yourself with the right people is important.

"I think it's important to not only know your pathway, but also what it will take to prove that out," Burke says. "That's where physician advisers can be really valuable, as well as regulatory consultants."

The right valuation

Valuation is another factor investors consider — both valuations that are too high and too low.

"There's always this question of valuation and there's always this desire to maximize your pre-money valuation on a deal, and I would say that this can often times get you in really big trouble," McWilliams says.

Consider the market and where your company capitalization stands, McWilliams adds, and make sure there's always room on either side.

Ultimately, it depends on the investor

The panelists left the audience with advice for entrepreneurs to do their homework when reaching out to potential investors. Both what kind of companies investors fund as well as what stage they contribute to.

"It's important to know what type of investor you're speaking to," Burke says.

Starting those relationships with plenty of time is also important.

"It's hard to build a meaningful, lasting relationship with an investor if you're running of cash in two months and need a decision right away," McWilliams says.

Two Houston venture capitalists — Heath Butler and Stephanie Campbell — discussed how diversity and inclusion are force multipliers for investors and factoring that in is increasingly important. Photos courtesy

Houston experts: Diversity is key to venture capital success

force multiplying investments

Venture capital firms across the board have a goal of driving a return on their investments, but getting a good ROI and factoring in diversity and inclusion into the equation are not mutually exclusive.

In fact, on a panel at the HX Venture Fund's recent conference, Venture Houston, two investors focused on diversity and inclusion made the point that diversity is a key ingredient to successful investing. The panel, hosted by Michael Lipe, managing director at Insperity, consisted of Stephanie Campbell of The Artemis Fund and the Houston Angel Network and Heath Butler of Urban Capital Network and Mercury Fund.

"If you don't believe that diversity outperforms or that having diverse perspectives coming to the table helps your business outperform, then you probably have not been exposed to diverse thought," Campbell says on the panel.

And, as she continues, the proof is in the data "that diversity does outperform and can be a real force multiplier for your portfolio."

"In terms of returns, the Kauffman Fellows found that women-led teams generate 35 percent higher returns on investment than all-male-led teams," Campbell sites. "Pitchbook and All Raise found that women-led teams exit faster and at higher multiples than their all-male counterparts."

Butler recognizes that there's an emotional side of the discussion of diversity and inclusion — especially in this day and age — and that's nothing to disregard. But, he says, building onto that, VC is about discovering new opportunities — it's what VC funds' limited partners are expecting.

"From a more tangible perspective, we are in the business of finding untapped markets and opportunities to invest in and I believe our LPs expect us to leave no stone unturned," he says. "Ultimately you have to recognize that the hockey puck is moving in a direction where your LPs will require you to be looking under every stone to deliver a superior return."

Butler gives Mercury Fund as an example. At its founding, the team saw the middle of America as an untapped opportunity. The challenge is that investors tend to gravitate to ideas and people they know.

"So much of investing in early-stage innovation is intuitive, and investors will usually invest in what they know and resonates with them," Butler says. "But we have to recognize that there's a natural inefficiency in trying to relate intuitively to someone who's different from you."

The key is creating a team and mission with a clear intent and focus on measuring the impact. This goes down to hiring the right people with in your VC team as well as setting up a culture for diversity to succeed.

"If two hiring managers with similar needs," Butler says, "and one has a naturally inclusive mindset and the other feels pressure to meet a diversity quota — in the long run, which team will truly leverage and profit from a diverse perspective?"

Campbell says now is the time to invest in diversity — especially in Houston. During the pandemic, overall seed funding went up but funding for female founders reached a three-year low. Houston has a population doesn't have a racial majority — and that's what the entire country will look like in 2055, Campbell says.

"The opportunity we have in Houston to capitalize on diverse talent can really be a great opportunity to show the nation what can be done with that diverse talent pool," she says.

Houston also has an opportunity to support and invest in women or people of color who have been overlooked but have innovative solutions for society's most urgent problems.

"The more that we invest in diverse perspectives and diverse founders the more solutions, products, and services are going to come into the market for a broader populations and empower those economies to solve some of our deepest problems," Campbell says.

Both experts end on a call to action for their fellow investors: take inventory of the impact you have now and make intentional moves toward inclusion and equity — otherwise you're leaving money and talent on the table.

"If you don't have a diverse team, you don't have a diverse perspective, which means you have an incomplete perspective," Butler says. "You're missing out on opportunity to connect with people, purchasing power, and ultimately profits."

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University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.