Houston's density is possibly its biggest challenge when it comes to developing its innovation ecosystem, says a Houston expert. Getty Images

From the front porch of Houston, Texas, we solve some of humanity's hardest challenges. We're the ones who put humans on the Moon and rovers on Mars, go subsea in search of hydrocarbons, and are discovering a cure for cancer. We solve complex challenges, because of a characteristic seemingly embedded deep within our DNA — we are all explorers of the unknown.

Today, a new challenge is rallying our attention, inspiring us to push the boundaries yet again. And, that's the hard challenge of population density. Houston is fourth in population in the country, and yet 89th in the number of people per unit of area.

Why is this an issue, one might ask? Houston, like many other cities around the world, is racing to become a hub for innovation, a critical catalyst fueling the next generation of growth and economic prosperity. And, density is a key component of innovation — it brings divergent mindsets together to look at challenges from multiple perspectives and creates an environment that brings big bold ideas to life.

However, the nature of our geography has created silos that are not easily broken down and separates us by industries, communities, interests, mindsets, and access to transportation, among other things.

But, let's not underestimate our true spirit — and our ability to explore the unexpected, push the boundaries and tackle the challenges the world throws at us.

If I learned anything from living here my entire life, Houston has grit, imagination, and motivation and knows what it means to be a trailblazer. Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. Our culinary landscape is constantly pushing the boundaries of creativity and imagination. Local graffiti and modern art installations are reshaping the visual identity of our community. Our sports and performing arts "rockstars" consistently deliver real-time experiential immersion.

We need to recognize and embrace how these colors of Houston connect us all regardless of our geographic silos and push innovation forward. Said another way, we have all the colors; we just need to converge and paint the canvas together.

True to our nature, some of our Houstonian friends have begun chipping away at this challenge already. Central Houston is attracting world-renowned incubators and accelerators like MassChallenge and Gener8tor — and this scene alone is ever-expanding. The Cannon, The Ion, Impact Hub, Launchpad, Headquarters, and other players are creating environments that bring people together and meet the needs of an ever-evolving workforce through experiential community. We even have a dedicated publication for all things innovation — Innovation Map — sharing resources across our vast city and ensuring no great story is left untold.

Our rich diversity means we have access to human beings from a multitude of backgrounds, which in itself is a force to be reckoned with. By interacting with a variety of human beings, we become more empathetic, understanding, and celebratory of new ideas. This is fundamental to continuous innovation — how we interact and approach challenges, engage in new experiences, and become an inspirational leader in life and work. So, break down the silos and access the diversity of thinking that's already outside the door.

At the same time, the challenge of density must be tackled not only physically but also digitally. By converging the physical and digital ecosystem through a neural network, we can intelligently connect the activity with centralized access to start-ups, corporations, nonprofits, free-lancers, incubators, accelerators, maker-spaces, academia, local influencers, and public partners. Digitally bridging all of us can make one of the largest and most spread-out cities in the U.S. feel like a small Texas town with big ideas and an ever-stronger dimension of inclusivity.

So, join the movement, strike up a conversation, grab your metaphorical spray paint and converge with all the vibrant colors of Houston as we energize the future of humanity, navigate to Mars and back safely, and annihilate the existence of cancer.

As Steve Jobs said: "The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do." Are we ready?

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Brad Rossacci is creative director at Accenture's Innovation Hub in Houston.

Thomas Rubenak is senior principal of Accenture Ventures. Courtesy of Accenture

New Accenture exec aims to put Houston's innovation ecosystem on the map

Featured Innovator

In most industries, there's a disconnect between startups and major corporations. The startups may have solutions for the big companies, but the two entities might not know how to connect with each other. That's something Accenture hopes to help with.

The company created Accenture Ventures to help connect the dots between emerging technology and big business. As the program has expanded, Thomas Rubenak was selected to serve the Southwest region as senior principal.

With a long career of working in tech, research and design, and startups, Rubenak hopes to use his experience to help grow Houston's blossoming innovation ecosystem.

"It takes a village. It's not just the amazing accelerators we have throughout the region," Rubenak says. "If you look at the Cannon, Houston Exponential, MassChallenge, and all of the ecosystem — it takes all of us together to prop up a thriving economy. That's what we're doing. We're changing not just the face of Houston but really impacting the startups as well as the clients we serve."

Rubenak spoke with InnovationMap to discuss the role Accenture Ventures plays in the ecosystem and how he sees innovation in Houston growing.

InnovationMap: You're new to your role, but you've worked with tech and startups for years. Tell me a little bit about your career to date. 

Thomas Rubenak: I come most recently from EY. I did a few assignments there, primarily working with the EY and Microsoft alliance. I was also a go-to-market lead for deep technical accounting for IPOs and other regulatory compliance issues. I worked a lot with the Entrepreneur of the Year program. Before that, I spent most of my career in tech research with Gartner and Forrester. This space is all about brilliant minds that really focus on helping the world understand what's next in emerging technology. I worked pretty extensively with venture capital, private equity and venture banks.

IM: While you’ve worked on projects across the country, you’ve been based in Houston, so you’ve been able to see the city transform, right?

TR: In my career, I've been really fortunate enough to align with amazing people in the market. Several years ago, we started a community just in Houston to bring entrepreneurs, angel investors, and some VC together. It was a nonprofit, grassroots effort called TeXchange; I just wanted to help entrepreneurs connect to sources of capital.

IM: How did Accenture Ventures get its start and what does it aim to do?

TR: Accenture realized four years ago that in order to stay competitive, it needed to tap the best of the best in the startup world. The only way to do that is to dedicate resources and people to that task, and that's how we started Ventures. As a recent joiner, my role is primarily the lead for the Southwest to bring the best of the startup ecosystem into our clients to help them solve their most pressing problems. And it's not just about problems, but also about opportunities.

It's a win-win-win. The client gets the benefit of having the best of the best and the startups get amazing exposure to companies they might not have been able to get in front of. And, Accenture is happy because it gets to serve the client.

Accenture works in multiple sectors, including resources (oil and gas), chemicals, mining — so for obvious reasons, the Southwest is a big sector for us — but, we also tap the health and public safety sectors.

As we look to design these arrangements with these startups and we find that there is a compelling need to invest in them, we'll become a minority investor. If that startup then has a M&A play that makes sense to everyone, we'll look into that as well.

IM: How do Accenture Ventures and the Innovation Hub work together?

TR: I am part of the hub, and I also serve the broader team.

What we bring to the table is amazing talent to data scientists to designers — many different resources — and we work with our clients to figure out what they want to solve or if there's a play in the market they are interested in. We can pull the best from Accenture and from the startup ecosystem to design solutions.

IM: What’s the most challenging thing about solving clients’ goals?

TR: It's not a challenge so to speak, but it's something I have to be mindful of, and that is always keeping the client's interest at hand, so recognizing and realizing that they have short- and long-term goals that they want to achieve.

IM: What's it like working with companies on the startup side?

TR: We seek specific types of startups. In order for us to be really effective, we keep a pulse on the market. Our focus is on companies that have gotten their source of funding, they've gone through their first round, companies that have great management who have been in industry or served big companies, and companies that are disruptors, innovators, or have something really compelling to bring to us. The challenge is that there are so many of them. There are so many great startup companies doing amazing things. But, as many startups as there are, there's just as many client issues.

IM: In your opinion, what challenges does the Houston innovation ecosystem still have to overcome?

TR: It's no secret that the economic engine of venture capital is in the east and west coasts. We have a lot of great VCs here, but it's about how do we keep our startups here. That's an issue that everyone talks about. But we also have seen a lot of startups move to Houston from other places. But, from the financial aspect of it, I think we could always use more of that. I personally don't think there will ever be another Silicon Valley, but we'll be something different. We'll be ourself. But, we do need those sources of capital in place. But something I want to mention is the diversity and the universities in Houston — we have a lot going for us.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

10+ can't-miss virtual business and innovation events in Houston for August

Where to be online

Another month, another roundup of events Houston innovators should attend — and yes, they are still all virtual. From Houston Exponential launching its new virtual database and networking platform to informative workshops and panels, here's what you need to attend this month.

August 5 — IP Agreements Every Startup Should Know About

Every startup should protect their Intellectual Property (IP) as means to protect their developing products and/or concepts, but often do not know where to start. Join The Ion and Baker Bots as we explore different IP agreements your startup should consider.

Details: This event takes place online on Wednesday, August 5, from 1 to 2 pm. Learn more.

August 5 — Texas Founder Hotseat: Pitch Texas Investors & Experts Online

Do you have a startup, or a strong idea for a startup? Could you use blunt, honest feedback on your startup ideas? On this live and interactive online event you can pitch your ideas to a panel of Houston startup investors and experts for ratings and feedback, all from the comfort of your home. Even if you don't want to pitch, you are invited to hear startup ideas and watch how the experts analyze businesses.

Details: This event takes place online on Wednesday, August 5, at 4 pm. Learn more.

August 6 — Bayou City Showcase

Celebrate the launch of the newest startups from Rice University's OwlSpark and University of Houston's RED Labs. Sixteen startups from Class 8 of the program will be pitching and demonstrating during an expo.

Details: This event takes place online on Thursday, August 6, from 2 to 4:30 pm. Learn more.

August 11 — LGBTQ+ In Tech Summit

Capital Factory is hosting its first virtual LGBTQ+ In Tech Summit. The organization is dedicated to increasing diversity in the entrepreneurial and tech community while making our coworking space an inclusive environment for all. Attendees can look forward to a special keynote guest, insightful fireside chats, discussion sessions, a startup showcase, Epic Office Hours, and panels on relevant topics facing the tech ecosystem.

Details: This event takes place online on Tuesday, August 11, from noon to 5 pm. Learn more.

August 12 — Managing Your Digital Presence in a Post-COVID Era

Your startup's digital presence is more important now than ever. In a world where everything has gone virtual, your digital presence is the first thing your potential customers will see prior to contacting you. If you are struggling to create your digital marketing strategy, you're not alone. But fear no more, Allie Danziger of Integrate, is here to help.

Details: This event takes place online on Wednesday, August 12, at 11 am. Learn more.

August 13 — HTX TechList Launch

Join Houston Exponential for a live launch of Houston's innovation discovery platform, HTX TechList, featuring speakers from Start-Up Nation Central, Mayor Sylvester Turner, the Greater Houston Partnership, and a demo by Houston Exponential. Join live virtual breakout sessions moderated by members of the innovation ecosystem influencer. Editor's note: InnovationMap is a media partner for the event.

Details: This event takes place online on Thursday, August 13, at 11 am. Learn more.

August 14 — How Women in Tech Can Affect Change in the Workplace 

The Suffragist movement has long been known for its effectiveness in creating grassroots efforts that created laws to give women the right to vote. 100 years later women are still fighting for equal rights and inclusion. Women's votes will have a tremendous impact on the 2020 election. It's time to organize the collective power of our votes to fight for equality in the workplace.

Details: This event takes place online on Friday, August 14, at 11 am to 12:30 pm. Learn more.

August 18 — Intro to the Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything

Are you an entrepreneur starting a new company? Recently moved your company to Texas? Want to find out how to connect with other entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors in the startup ecosystem? Join Capital Factory VIRTUALLY to hear an overview from experienced entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and community partners at Intro to Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything.

Details: This event takes place online on Tuesday, August 18, at 2 to 3:30 pm. Learn more.

August 19 — Igniting Innovation: Business Roundtable

Join serial entrepreneur Dr. Juliet Breeze as she moderates a conversation with experienced healthcare executives to explore what the impact of the pandemic has meant to their businesses. They'll share insights regarding ways in which they're adapting and positioning for survival and continued success.

Details: This event takes place online on Wednesday, August 19, at 1 to 2 pm. Learn more.

August 25 — HAN + Carta Cap Table Workshop

The Houston Angel Network has teamed up with Carta, the experts in capitalization table management and valuation software. Carta helps companies and investors manage their cap tables, valuations, investments, and equity plans. During this workshop Carta will discuss cap table basics, common mistakes, and tips for responsible equity management. There will also be a real life cap table scenario where both founders and investors can ask their questions about the often little understood mechanics of cap tables and how they evolve with each fund raise.

Details: This event takes place online on Tuesday, August 25, at 11:30 am to 12:30 pm. Learn more.

August 26 — Equity in Tech: How We Can Do Better

The tech industry is incredibly powerful — not only through the products created, but with its economic force (forecasted to reach 1.7 trillion in the US in 2020). With great power comes great responsibility. Tech can – and must – do better to create and nurture diversity, equity and inclusion within the industry.

Details: This event takes place online on Wednesday, August 26, at 11:30 am to 1 pm. Learn more.

New locally owned food delivery app rolls into Houston area

orange you glad?

A new delivery app aims to give diners a locally owned alternative to the big national names. Meet OrangeCrate, an app that does things a little differently.

Unlike the national brands, each OrangeCrate affiliate is locally owned and has a specific geographic territory. Franchisee Cody Lee has brought the company to two areas of Houston, Fort Bend County and the greater Memorial area. Lee launched in Fort Bend on June 1 and will bring Memorial online August 24.

"We're just like UberEats or DoorDash, but we're locally owned and locally operated, so I have a lot of control and flexibility versus some of the bigger name brands," Lee tells CultureMap.

That flexibility starts with the cost restaurants pay to use OrangeCrate. While national operators might charge as much as 30 percent to deliver a meal, Lee says OrangeCrate's fees are typically half that, usually between 10 and 15 percent.

Customer fees start at $2.99 and go up depending on how far away from the restaurant they live. Most orders also have a $10 minimum.

In terms of control, Lee trains each driver personally and monitors them when they're working. Unlike other services, drivers may only make one delivery at once, and they're only allowed to make OrangeCrate deliveries while they're on the company's schedule.

"I can chat with them and understand if there's an issue and minimize the impact to the customer," Lee says. "There's a lot of control where I can maintain a lot of variables to ensure the customer experience."

From a user's perspective, the experience will feel familiar. Order and pay via OrangeCrate's website and app. A driver — wearing masks and gloves, of course — will arrive with a bright orange bag containing the food order.

Lee says that so far his biggest challenge has been building awareness of the brand and convincing restaurateurs that he's a viable alternative to the more familiar names. From his perspective, restaurants that promote his company can save money on delivery fees and expand their reach, which is particularly important at a time when some people don't feel comfortable eating in restaurants.

"Most people know the bigger guys," Lee says. "It's important to hear Orange Crate, and that we're a local option; we're also a cheaper option. They get the same or better service for their customers."

In Fort Bend County, Lee has started with a roster of mostly national and regional chains like Chili's, 5 Guys, and Chuy's, but he says he's trying to add as many local restaurants as possible. In the Memorial area, he hopes to launch with between 50 and 60 establishments.

"My focus is on local restaurants and earning their business," Lee says. "I will only be adding local restaurants as we go forward."

So far, Lee has seen enough growth that he's optimistic about the service's future. He's got his eyes on Galveston and The Woodlands as potential market for expansive, with Inner Loop neighborhoods in his long term plans.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: A key attribute of innovators and inventors is the ability to look forward — to see the need for their innovation and the difference it will make. Each of this week's innovators to know have that skill, whether it's predicting the rise of autonomous vehicles or seeing the future of health care.

Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro

Autonomous vehicle delivery service is driving access to food in Houston’s vulnerable communities

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

Sola Lawal has always found himself back in his hometown of Houston. Now working for artificial intelligence and robotics company, Nuro, he sees the potential Houston has to become a major market for autonomous vehicles.

"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 shared more on how Houston and Nuro can work together on this week's episode of the Houston innovators podcast. Read more and stream the episode.

Jose Diaz-Gomez, an anesthesiologist at CHI St. Luke's Health

CHI St. Luke's Health has invested in around 40 of the Butterfly iQ devices that can be used to provide accurate and portable ultrasonography on COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy of CHI St. Luke's

A new, portable ultrasound device has equipped Jose Diaz-Gomez and his team with a reliable, easy-to-use tool for diagnostics and tracking progress of COVID-19 patients. And this tool will continue to help Diaz-Gomez lead his team of physicians.

"Whatever we will face after the pandemic, many physicians will be able to predict more objectively when a patient is deteriorating from acute respiratory failure," he says. "Without this innovation, we wouldn't have been able to be at higher standards with ultrasonography." Read more.

Kimberly A. Baker, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health

UTHealth School of Public Health launched its Own Every Piece campaign to promote women's health access and education. Photo courtesy of Own Every Piece

It was unnerving to Kimberly Baker that proper sex education wasn't in the curriculum of Texas schools, and women were left without resources for contraceptives. So, along with UTHealth School of Public Health, she launched its Own Every Piece campaign as a way to empower women with information on birth control and ensure access to contraceptive care regardless of age, race, relationship status or socioeconomic status.

"You feel like the campaign is talking to you as a friend, not talking down to you as an authority or in any type of shaming way," says Kimberly A. Baker, assistant professor at UTHealth School of Public Health. One of her favorite areas of the website is the "Find a Clinic" page, connecting teens and adult women to nearby clinics, because "one of the biggest complaints from women is that they didn't know where to go," says Baker. Continue reading.