Native Houstonian Sola Lawal is looking into how AI and robotics can help increase access to fresh foods in local food deserts. Photo courtesy of Nuro

When Silicon Valley-based artificial intelligence and robotics company Nuro was looking for a city to roll out its autonomous vehicle delivery technology, Houston checked off all the boxes.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Since rolling out its first pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, launched three more across six of Houston's ZIP codes from Bellaire to the Heights, including pizza delivery from Domino's that was announced in June 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched this summer.

Lately, Nuro's presence in Houston has expanded from these business development partnerships, and the tech company has started focusing on providing a service to the community.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, we started looking for ways we could contribute and help with the things we have — which includes a fleet of vehicles and product tools that allow that fleet to move around and do delivery."

This got Nuro in touch with the Houston Food Bank, and a partnership formed between the tech company and the nonprofit that has resulted in food deliveries across the city — including Third Ward and Acres Homes.

"That for us was eye opening as we went into those locations we started to understand and see that there really isn't any other grocery store that's in those areas," Lawal says. "It was a moment of reflection for us where we said, 'Hey, the AV works here. These are streets that are acceptable. What can we do?'"

In the future, Nuro, as Lawal explains, is moving forward these initiatives to use its AV technology to help increase access to fresh foods in Houston, as well as continuing developing the city as a leader in self-driving innovation.

"I think that autonomous vehicles are going to become an industry in the same way your standard vehicles are," Lawal says."One really strong way the Houston ecosystem and Nuro can partner is essentially building out the ancillary."

Lawal shares more about the future of AVs in Houston and the impact Nuro will continue to have on the city. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Texas cities dominate list of best places to work in tech, a startup contest is accepting applications, Amazon invests in Houston community, and more local innovation news. Getty Images

Houston named a best place to work in tech, Capital Factory opens $100,000 contest, and more innovation news

Short stories

Just like Houston's temperatures, the Bayou City's innovation news is heating up for the summer. From a new startup competition and a big donation from Amazon to Texas cities dominating a list of best places to work in technology, here's a roundup of innovation news happening in town.

Study finds greater Houston area ranks as best place to work in tech

Four Texas metros appear on the ranking. Chart via SmartAsset

A new study from SmartAsset identified the best places to work in technology, and Houston ranked at No. 15. The researchers looked into the country's top 50 populated areas across five metrics: percentage of workers employed in tech, average salary for tech workers, ratio of average tech salary to average salary across all fields, percentage of currently listed bachelor's jobs that are in tech and cost of living.

Texas was well represented on the list, and three Lone Star State metroplexes landed on the list ahead of Houston. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington tied for the No. 3 position with Raleigh, North Carolina. Meanwhile, central Texas' Austin-Round Rock and San Antonio-New Braunfels tied for No. 7.

The study found that most of these top cities reside in the south, and the northeastern part of the country ranked poorly on these metrics.

Capital Factory launches $100,000 startup competition

Calling all cognitive tech startups. Photo via austinstartups.com

Austin-based Capital Factory, which has a presence across the state, has opened applications for a $100,000 contest for tech startups. The Human Performance Investment Challenge is looking for hardware and/or software solutions that enhance physical or cognitive capabilities, according to an article the organization posted.

The challenge will conclude at Fed Supernova, a virtual event on July 15. The event is in collaboration with the Army Futures Command's Innovation Combine and xTechSearch programs. Applications are open now and close June 28.

Amazon teams up with Houston Food Bank to feed at-risk seniors

The Houston Food Bank is working with Amazon to feed senior citizens. Photo courtesy of Houston Food Bank

Last month, Amazon made a strategic donation focused on providing food to senior citizens disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The tech giant's Amazon Flex sent drivers around town to make contactless deliveries to residents' doors, and, in just two days after launching, Amazon has delivered over 3,000 pounds of food — representing more than 2,000 meals.

"For so many of our senior citizens, the pandemic is especially troubling as they have health concerns, limited mobility and need assistance for such regular tasks as grocery shopping," says Brian Greene, president and CEO of Houston Food Bank, in a news release. "Because this population needs help, we wanted to add direct food deliveries for them, and we are so thankful to Amazon for stepping up to make this happen for our beloved senior citizens."

Amazon's efforts within the Bayou City are just one part of its commitment to deliver millions of meals across the country. In addition to the donated delivery service, Amazon has gifted a $50,000 COVID-19 response grant to the local organization to go to operational needs and food supplies.

"Communities around the world are facing the COVID-19 pandemic together, and in Houston we're proud to be doing our part to support our local community," says Bri Tye, general manager at Amazon's Fulfillment Centre in Katy, in the release. "The donation of $50,000 to the Houston Food Bank, and Amazon's Flex deliveries will go directly to helping feed seniors and families who need it most."

Houston fintech startup launches new product

HighRadius has premiered a new software product. Photo via highradius.com

Houston-based fintech startup, HighRadius, which provides software solutions and automation technology, announced its new RadiusOne A/R Suite for mid-sized businesses.

"We launched the RadiusOne B2B Network to facilitate suppliers and A/R teams to digitally connect with their buyers and A/P teams for faster processing of receivables and payments. Currently, the network has millions of active businesses," says Sashi Narahari, founder and CEO of HighRadius, in a news release. "The RadiusOne A/R Suite will provide the essential apps for A/R teams at mid-sized businesses to instantly plug their ERPs and A/R processes into this network and digitally connect with their buyers across the globe."

The new product is especially key in today's work-from-home environment in order to prevent slowdowns in accounts receivable departments.

"COVID-19 is putting a lot of working capital strain on businesses globally," Narahari says. "We are hoping to help by automating clerical A/R processes for mid-sized businesses and by reducing the friction for supplier A/R teams to digitally collaborate with their buyers and A/P teams."

The Cannon partners with minority-focused angel investment group

The Business Angel Minority Association launched at a breakfast event in March. Photo by Nijalon Dunn

The Cannon — an entrepreneurial hub — has joined forces with The Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, to prioritize diversity within angel investing in Houston.

"Diversity plays an important role in early-stage investment decisions. The existing Business Angel associations are not diverse enough and this translates to a lack of pre-seed and seed angel investment in Minority-led startups", says Maria Maso, founder and CEO of baMa, in a news release.

The organization launched earlier this year to connect angel investors to minority-led startups. This partnership is in line with The Cannon's commitment to diversity, says the Cannon's CEO, Jon Lambert.

"baMa's mission to fill the glaring need for an early-stage investment focus on minority-led startups and/or startups targeting minority-driven markets is fundamental to The Cannon's vision to deliver every entrepreneur access to the startup resources needed to thrive," Lamber says in the release.

"For us, community is diversity – our partnership with baMa will extend and enhance the support system we are passionately growing and will provide baMa with access to our expanding community of startups and partners. We're excited to see where this partnership takes us – there is so much alignment in our desire to help the entire entrepreneurial community, we are expecting to accomplish big things together."

UH program addresses need for technology teachers

UH's teachHOUSTON program is preparing the next generation of technology educators. Photo courtesy of Chris Watts/uh.edu

With the number of jobs within technology expected to grow, the University of Houston has geared up to train the future's tech educators. UH's teachHOUSTON program, which trains STEM teachers who work in economically disadvantaged high schools within Houston, recently received $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation to continue its mission.

The funding will go toward a new program called UH-ACCESS — short for Advancing Cultural and Computational Engagement in STEM Scholars. The program, which begins this fall, will train 30 UH students from varying disciplines to teach computer science, physics and technology at the high school level.

"Our goal is to prepare a diverse group of teachers who will inspire students to become the country's next technologically advanced, highly-skilled workforce," says Paige Evans, associate director of teachHOUSTON and principal investigator on the project, in a news release.

The selected UH-ACCESS scholars will receive a $12,000 scholarship per year for two years, and they will work in the field across Houston, Alvin, Pasadena, Spring Branch, and Cy-Fair Independent School Districts.

"We are trying to find potential teachers who already exhibit a sociocultural awareness," continues Evans. "Research has shown that students do better in science, technology, engineering and math if the content is connected to their community and culture."

HCC launches tech tool for job hunters

HCC is helping job hunters across the city. VioletaStoimenova/Getty Images

Houston Community College has launched a new tool for job hunters that identifies occupations and the accelerated certificate programs within the higher educational system. JobsNowHouston.org will help Houston's unemployed gain key skills and certifications to make them a more marketable employee.

"COVID-19 has challenged us all, forcing us to rethink every facet of education and community responsiveness," says Dr. Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of Houston Community College, in a news release. "JobsNowHouston.org will connect people with the resources they need to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to compete in our new workforce and is a great example of how everyone at Houston Community College is working even harder to provide training and education to fill in- demand jobs."

According to the release, COVID-19 pushed over 1.5 million Texas residents into unemployment but — at the same time — nearly 481,000 job openings have been posted recently. HCC hopes its JobsNowHouston.org initiative can connect the dots to more easily facilitate retainings and upskilling for these unemployed.

The Food Bank needs help packing quarantine food kits. Photo courtesy of Houston Food Bank

Houston Food Bank seeks volunteers for coronavirus quarantine kits

STOCK THE BANK

As the long lines at any local Costco suggest, the coronavirus/COVID 19 phenomenon has caused some to interpret news reports advising sensible precautions such as "wash your hands thoroughly" to mean "buy a car-full of toilet paper."

Talk of a potential quarantine has only added to the fervor, as citizens are advised to stock up on food for up to two weeks. But what of those who can't don masks and charge through sprawling stores looking for tuna packets?

The Houston Food Bank is asking that local residents assist those who do not have reserves of food in the event of service disruptions and closures. The non-profit has put out a call for volunteers to help pack essential quarantine food kits. The boxes are not yet being requested, but will be necessary in the event there is a need due to COVID-19 occurrences in their service area, according to the Food Bank.

"Hundreds of thousands of people are counting on the organization and its partners now, and this need will only heighten if the COVID-19 situation worsens," says Brian Greene, president/CEO of Houston Food Bank.

Volunteers can sign up for shifts online to help pack these boxes at the Food Bank, 535 Portwall St. Volunteer shifts run from 8 am to noon Monday–Saturday, from 6 pm to 9 pm Monday–Friday, and from 9 am to noon Sunday.

To quell any obvious concerns about safety, the Food Bank has increased the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting, especially around high-traffic areas, such as volunteer areas, elevators, meeting rooms, bathrooms, food areas.

Greene also notes that volunteers can bring much-needed items to donate and pack. The Food Bank's most-needed items include:

  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Peanut butter
  • Canned protein
  • Soups
  • Jelly
  • Nutritious snacks
  • Canned Vegetable
  • Canned fruit
  • Hygiene items
  • Cleaning supplies: paper towels, disinfectant, bleach wipes
  • Bottled water

And, says Greene, "a little something sweet like cookies never hurt."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The Houston Food Bank app aims to help optimize access to resources for the thousands of food insecure Houstonians. Photo via houstonfoodbank.org

Houston Food Bank launches app to better connect the city's food insecure residents to resources

Food for thought

In many ways, it was a perfect storm. Pariveda Solutions, a Dallas-based management consulting firm that specialized in helping its client maximize performance, reached out to the Houston Food Bank about offering some of its interns for a project. The Food Bank, long a pioneer and foot soldier in the fight to end food insecurity and hunger for the region's residents, had been considering ways to harness technology to better serve the needs of its clients.

"It was a fantastic opportunity for us," says Casey Ferrell, the Houston Food Bank's director of information technology, about the opportunity. "And we thought an app would be the best thing for the intern team to work on."

Five Pariveda interns worked over the summer on the app, which taps into Amazon Web Services, which the Food Bank was already using.

"Since the Houston Food Bank was already using AWS, this fit into where they wanted to go," explains Kevin Moorman, principal consultant for Pariveda. "The app uses GPS location services to help connect people who need the Food Bank's services with the closest location that can help them."

Across the Houston region, more than one million people are food insecure, lacking reliable access to nutritious food. Through its network of more than 1,500 community partners, the Houston Food Bank leads the fight against hunger by providing food assistance across its 18-county coverage area in southeast Texas. The Food Bank partners with thousands of entities, from soup kitchen to meal sites to shelters. Every year, the Houston Food Bank helps feed 800,000 individuals. There is a lot of need, and there are a lot of sites around the region that can aid people lacking food.

The app, in addition to pinpointing locations that can provide food for those in need, also allows people to make appointment with Food Bank staff. Currently, those appointments are on a walk-in basis, and clients are seen on a first-come, first served basis. With the launch of the app earlier this month, Ferrell says the organization has launched a pilot program with its Portwall location to allow clients to make appointments via the app. In the future, they should be able to make appointments all more Houston Food Bank locations.

"We actually did a soft launch back in October, says Ferrell. "And now, we have more than 3,000 downloads and 2,500 monthly users. The app lets them see open times for appointments, as well as contact information for locations."

Ferrell says the feedback from users has been positive. In particular, they enjoy the ability to receive updates about their appointments. But the app also provides for a greater user experience, allowing clients the chance to set things up as it makes sense for them and their daily schedules.

"We've also heard from other food banks who are looking to do something similar," says Ferrell. "So, we're looking forward to sharing our experiences with them."

Pariveda Solutions' 11-week internship program, offered each summer, is focused on making an impact to the community. The app last summer's intern cohort created is a first because it integrates with the database housed on AWS and reaches new communities.

"Working with Houston Food Bank gave us the opportunity to impact the Houston community at a large scale," says Allison Esenkova, Houston vice president for Pariveda Solutions in a press release announcing the app. "It provided a platform for our interns to learn the world of consulting while giving back in a way that impacts the Houston community to reduce hunger."

The internship was also an important opportunity for students to get hands-on experience not only in building an app, but also to get experience working with a client, listening to feedback and coming up with solutions to challenges.

"We want our interns to have as much real-world experience as possible," says Moormann. "This not only provided that, but has wonderful value for the end user. The app makes the process of finding services much smoother for those who need them."

Ferrell says that as the app is updated, the Houston Food Bank hopes to be able to use it to engage volunteers, as well as provide places where clients can rate their experiences at various food pantries.

"This has been a great value to us," says Ferrell. "And it allows us to provide better services to our clients."


The app connects the user to the Houston Food Bank and also provides more information about resources.

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Houston logistics software startup secures $8.4M series A from international investors

money moves

A Houston-based software company that's reducing cost and risk in the marine supply chain has closed its latest round of funding.

Voyager Portal, a software-as-a-service platform closed an $8.4 million series A investment round this week. The round was led by Phaze Ventures, a VC fund based in the Middle East, and included new investors — ScOp Venture Capital, Waybury Capital and Flexport. Additionally, all of Voyager's existing investors contributed to this round.

Voyager has reported significant growth over the past two years since its $1.5 million seed round. Between Q3 2020 to Q3 2021, the company's revenue has increased 13 times and was up 40 percent from Q2 2021. Voyager now manages over $1 billion in freight on the platform, according to a news release.

“Voyager Portal was created to significantly reduce cost, risk, and complexity when transporting bulk materials around the world,” says Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager, in the release. “The last two years have demonstrated just how critical shipping bulk commodities is to global markets – freight rates have increased and port congestion is at an all-time high – accelerating the demand for Voyager’s solution.”

Costello says the fresh funds will be used to support Voyager's continued growth.

“With our Series A funding, we’ll be able to expedite our product roadmap to support an international client base whilst expanding our engineering, development, marketing and sales teams internationally," he adds.

Matthew Costello Voyager Matthew Costello is the CEO and co-founder of Voyager.

Built from the ground up, Voyager's software was created to replace the antiquated and complex legacy systems the market has seen for decades. The platform allows companies to seamlessly collaborate in real time over a single shipment.

“Voyager's implementation has been hugely impressive,” says Adam Panni, operations manager at OMV, a multinational energy company based in Austria, in the release. “The low-code functionality allows almost real-time modifications to the developing workflows and reporting capabilities with no lengthy development and minimal testing prior to implementation. By digitizing data capture across all our physical movements, we are able to analyze our business much better, enabling faster and smarter decisions driven by data. This, in turn, will provide significant, quantifiable cost reductions for our business.”

Abdullah Al-Shaksy, co-founder and CEO of Phaze Ventures says the platform is evolving the industry as a whole at an important moment.

“Voyager is changing the way companies are thinking of their global shipping operations,” he says. “Global supply chains are becoming increasingly complex and strained, and there is an incredible treasure trove of data that organizations are underutilizing in their decision-making process. We believe what Voyager has created for their customers across the globe will revolutionize this space forever.”

H-E-B leader gifts $5 million to historic Houston-area university for future students

HEB and PVAMU

The leader of the Lone Star State’s beloved H-E-B has bestowed a monumental gift upon a historic Houston-area university.

On November 17, Prairie View A&M University announced that H-E-B chairman Charles Butt — one of America’s favorite CEOs and member of one of Texas’ richest families — has donated $5 million to create Founders Scholarships for incoming PVAMU students.

“The $5 million gift will provide a permanent endowment to support students today and in the coming years,” a release notes. “Initially generating approximately $200,000 a year for scholarships, the fund will grow significantly in coming years, making even more available to support students.”

The scholarships will be available to students from public high schools in Texas graduating in the top quartile of their class, the release says. They must be incoming first-year students, enrolled in a full-time course load, and as scholarship recipients, they will benefit from “enrichment opportunities unique to their [Founders Scholarships] cohort.”

Scholarship disbursements will begin in fall 2022, a spokesperson confirms; the number of initial scholarships available has not been revealed.

“Charles Butt has been amazingly generous to our university. He has shown time and time again that he genuinely cares about the opportunities afforded to students at PV. We are indebted to him for his grace and his humanity,” says Ruth Simmons, president of PVAMU, in the release.

Prairie View A&M University is the second-oldest public institution of higher learning in the state and is one of Texas’ historically Black universities. It is located approximately 50 miles northwest of Houston and has a current enrollment of more than 8,000 undergraduate and graduate students.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Rice research: Revisiting the merits of nondigital data collecting

houston voices

Academics are learning quickly that investigations based on data from online research agencies have their drawbacks. Thousands of such studies are released every year – and if the data is compromised, so too are the studies themselves.

So it’s natural for researchers, and the managers who rely on their findings, to be concerned about potential problems with the samples they’re studying. Among them: participants who aren’t in the lab and researchers who can’t see who is taking their survey, what they are doing while answering questions or even if they are who they claim to be online. In the wake of a 2018 media piece about Amazon’s Mechanical Turks Service, “Bots on Amazon’s MTurk Are Ruining Psychology Studies,” one psychology professor even mused, “I wonder if this is the end of MTurk research?” (It wasn’t).

To tackle this problem, Rice Business professor Mikki Hebl joined colleagues Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer of Rice University along with several other colleagues to highlight the value of other research methods. Four alternatives – field experiments, archival data, observations and big data – represent smart alternatives to overreliance on online surveys. These methods also have the advantage of challenging academics to venture outside of their laboratories and examine real people and real data in the real world.

Field experiments have been around for decades. But their value is hard to overestimate. Unlike online studies, field experiments enhance the role of context, especially in settings that are largely uncontrolled. It’s hard to fake a field experiment in order to create positive results since each one costs a considerable time and money.

And field experiments can yield real-life results with remarkable implications for society at large. Consider one experiment among 56 middle schools in New Jersey, which found that spreading anti-conflict norms was hugely successful in reducing the need for disciplinary action. Such studies have an impact well beyond what could be achieved with a simple online survey.

The best way to get started with a good field experiment, Hebl and her colleagues wrote, is for researchers to think about natural field settings to which they have access, either personally or by leveraging their networks. Then, researchers should think about starting with the variables critical for any given setting and which they would most like to manipulate to observe the outcome. When choosing variables, it’s helpful to start by thinking about what variable might have conditions leading to the greatest degree of behavior change if introduced into the setting.

Archival data is another excellent way to work around the limitations of online surveys, the researchers argue. These data get around some of the critical drawbacks of field research, including problems around how findings apply in a more general way. Archival data, especially in the form of state or national level data sets, provide information and insight into a large, diverse set of samples that are more representative of the general population than online studies.

Archival data can also help answer questions that are either longitudinal or multilevel in nature, which can be particularly tricky or even impossible to capture with data collected by any single research team. As people spend increasing amounts of time on social media, the internet also serves as a source of newer forms of archival data that can lend unique insights into individuals’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors over time.

With every passing year, technology becomes increasingly robust and adept at collecting massive amounts of data on an endless variety of human behavior. For the scientists who research social and personality psychology, the term “big data” refers not only to very large sets of data but also to the tools and techniques that are used to analyze it. The three defining properties of Big Data in this context include the speed of data processing and collection, the vast amount of data being analyzed and the sheer variety of data available.

By using big data, social scientists can generate research based on various conditions, as well as collect data in natural settings. Big data also offers the opportunity to consolidate information from huge and highly diverse stores of data. This technology has many applications, including psychological assessments and improving security in airports and other transportation hubs. In future research, Hebl and her team noted, researchers will likely leverage big data and its applications to detect our unconscious emotions.

Big data, archival information and field studies can all be used in conjunction with each other to maximize the fidelity of research. But researchers shouldn’t forget even more old-fashioned techniques, including the oldest: keen observation. With observation, there are often very few, if any, manipulations and the goal is simply to systematically record the way people behave.

Researchers – and the managers who make decisions based on their findings – should consider the advantages of old-style, often underused methodologies, Hebl and her colleagues argue. Moving beyond the college laboratory and digital data survey-collection platforms and into the real world offers some unparalleled advantages to science. For the managers whose stock prices may hinge on this science, it’s worth knowing – and understanding – how your all-important data was gathered.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Mikki Hebl, the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Professor of psychology at Rice University, and Carlos Moreno and Christy Nittrouer, who are graduate students at Rice University. Additional researchers include Ho Kwan Cheung, Eden B. King, and Hannah Markellis of George Mason University.