As the Houston innovation ecosystem prepares for 2020, InnovationMap's editor looks back on her favorite interviews of this year. Courtesy photos

Editor's picks: 5 best Houston innovation interviews of 2019

2019 in review

Ever since the launch of InnovationMap, the site has featured an innovator weekly. That's over 50 interviews and more than a dozen episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast, which launched this fall.

As editor of InnovationMap and the host of the Houston Innovators Podcast, I've conducted nearly all of these interviews. And, while parents aren't allowed to pick favorites between their children, I definitely have my favorite interviews. Looking back on this year, I've had the fortune of talking to innovators from all corners of Houston and across industries.

Looking back on 2019, I've plucked out my five favorites, and I thought I'd share why they stood out to me. I'm excited to continue these conversations in 2020 as Houston's innovation ecosystem grows — and as InnovationMap grows with it.

Samantha Lewis, director of The GOOSE Society of Texas

Samantha Lewis

Courtesy of Samantha Lewis

When I think of my favorite conversations I've had this year, Samantha Lewis immediately comes to my mind. If you've ever had the fortune of meeting Sam, you know her as high energy, kind, and full of opinions — all of these qualities make for a great interview, and, in this case, podcast episode.

Samantha's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast was only the second to be released, but, just due to scheduling, was actually the first episode I ever recorded. And, despite it's early release, is still the most listened to of the 13 that now are available. I credit Sam's candor, poise, and insight for that.

In the episode, Samantha and I discuss GOOSE's recent investments, her advice for startups looking for funding, the state of venture capital in Houston — and how it compares to the two coasts, and more. To read more or stream the episode, click here.

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

This past summer, the Space City celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — 50 years since "Houston" was uttered from the surface of the moon. July brought many space celebrations as the city, state, and even country looked back on the legacy of the aerospace industry.

I took this anniversary as a chance to dive into the innovation of the industry on InnovationMap with a series of interviews with various space professionals. I spoke with the general manager of Houston's Spaceport, the founder of a Houston-based space startup, and Rice University's Space Institute director, but my favorite discussion I had about space was with Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA.

Steven was so interesting to talk to because his job really represents the future of space exploration. As space travel shifts into the commercial space rather than just within the government-backed NASA operations, the need for the sharing of technology, research, and ideas is crucial. Through NASA's technology transfer, Steven is helping that effort. To read our full conversation, click here.

Ody De La Paz, founder of Sensytec

Courtesy of Sensytec

Throughout my now near 15 months at InnovationMap, I've had a growing appreciation of the guts and gumption it takes to take the leap and start a company. I love interviewing entrepreneurs — they all have such different perspectives on similar startup challenges. One of my favorite entrepreneur interviews I had this year was with Ody De La Paz, who founded Sensytec.

Ody started his company when he was an undergrad student at the University of Houston. Most college students just trying to get an entry-level job somewhere — anywhere, but Ody would go on to travel the world pitching — and winning — in competitions for Sensytec's technology, which is smart cement that can communicate risks for potential life-threatening damage.

Ody was my first startup founder guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast, and, if we're keeping track, still is the second most listened to episode behind Sam's episode. To read more or stream the episode, click here.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Courtesy of HX

This year, Houston Exponential — the city's nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting innovation in Houston — hired a new president. Harvin Moore joined the team to take HX into its next stage of attracting tech companies into the ecosystem.

Several months into his position, we sat down to discuss how he was doing and what some of his goals were for the organization. I admire Harvin's passion for the city. A serial entrepreneur and investor, he has a great frame of reference for startups, and his first point of action was to listen — to the ecosystem and its members — for what the city really wants and needs from its innovation leadership.

Our conversation was over an hour and bounced from HX and Houston startups to New York's real estate and the profitability of local journalism. Of course, not all that ended up in the article, but I look forward to seeing what all Harvin has up his sleeves for 2020. To read our full conversation, click here.

Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist Hospital

Courtesy of Houston Methodist

It's rare that I interview someone for the Featured Innovator section twice. In fact, I've only doubled up three times. Though, I'm sure it will continue to happen as InnovationMap and the Houston Innovators Podcast grows. Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist Hospital, was one of my interviews I've doubled up on this year — once for a Q&A and once for the Houston Innovators Podcast.

It's pretty easy to find new things to discuss with Roberta. Houston Methodist seems to constantly be launching new technology pilots within the system — from virtual reality in cancer treatment to telemedicine. Plus, just personally, Roberta is extremely interesting. At 27, she was diagnosed with a vicious strand of breast cancer — despite having no family history of the disease.

After getting through some of her early treatments, she co-founded an organization that helps to connect young women who were similarly diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. I'm 28, and cannot fathom the cancer battle Roberta survived and the foresight she had to create an organization like she did. To read more on our most recent conversation or stream the episode, click here.

This week's Houston innovators come from industries across the spectrum. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week in Houston is chock full of events from The Houston Innovation Summit, but before you get too swept away, check out these three innovators to know this week.

We have a life-long innovator whose passion has taken him from industry to industry, a construction specialist joining a growing Houston startup, and a man who let his personal struggles motivate him to find solutions.

Brad Rossacci, creative director at Accenture's Houston innovation hub

Brad Rossacci

Brad Rossacci, creative director for Accenture's Houston innovation hub, talks neuroscience, design, technology, and the upcoming Digital Fight Club on November 20 on this week's episode of the Houston Innovator's Podcast. Photo courtesy of Accenture

The guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week is Brad Rossacci, who's passion exudes from him in person — and podcast too. One of his recent passions? The Digital Fight Club, which is coming to Houston on November 20. The event puts two "fighters" on a stage with a referee to discuss various technology topics — cybersecurity, medicine, etc.

"I really fell in love with the approach [the event] takes," Rossacci says. "It takes this format that allows you to share ideas in a very short-form content kind of way." Read (and listen!) more.

Michael Matthews, industry principal at Data Gumbo

Michael Matthews

Data Gumbo has named the newest member of its executive team — and the newest industry it's looking to do business in. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Michael Matthews was tapped to lead a brand new market that Houston blockchain startup, Data Gumbo, has announced an expansion into: Construction. The company uses blockchain to make it easier and faster to process industry contracts, payment, and more.

"The construction industry lags far behind other industries in both productivity improvement and technology adoption, resulting in billions of lost value," Matthews says in a news release. "The way companies come together to execute projects remains essentially the same despite technology's improvement and we have to make fundamental, disruptive changes to deliver more value." Read more.

Brigham Buhler, founder of Ways2Well

brigham buhler

Through his own patient journey, Brigham Buhler saw a need for Ways2Well to exist. Photo via ways2well.com

Sometimes, it's just too hard to find the answers you seek in health care. The waiting rooms, the parking, the forms — it's all a bit much only to leave empty handed. This was Brigham Buhler's experience, and finally, after months, he learned he had a hormone deficiency. Now, Buhler's company, Ways2Well, allows patients to quickly do a blood test at a lab and receive their results digitally.

"While most virtual health care providers focus on sick care — treating patients experiencing symptoms that indicate sickness — Ways2Well is focused on preventative health care," says Buhler. Read more.

Elizabeth Gerbel, CEO and founder of Houston-based E.A.G. Services Inc., shares how to navigate M&A activity for both startups and large companies. Pexels

All is not lost in a merger or acquisition, says this Houston energy exec

Guest column

Nervous about an upcoming merger or acquisition? You're not alone. Last year, there were nearly 15,000 mergers and acquisitions in the U.S., according to the Institute for Mergers, Acquisitions and Alliances. These transactions, although executed with optimistic intentions, don't always work out. What is it that separates those that deliver from those whose results simply fall flat?

While you won the legal battle, the real culprit to a failed merger or acquisition transaction lies in post-deal activities such as integrating the divesting company's assets into the acquiring company's existing systems, processes, and organizational structure. If executed poorly, companies could face several hurdles, including:

  • Increased acquisition costs
  • Loss in previously efficient business processes
  • Reduced data quality in current and acquired assets
  • Extended TSA timeline

With the stakes being high, it is critical for each step of a merger or acquisition to be rock solid before moving on to the next stage. In fact, when executed successfully, an M&A transaction can significantly benefit both companies — from startups to well-established corporations.

A strategy for M&A data integration

In order to facilitate efficient and effective merger or acquisition, the critical success factors focus on these driving goals: Minimizing organizational disruption and Maximizing ROI. To achieve these goals, we execute three main stages for every merger and acquisition.

  1. Planning
  2. Analysis
  3. Execution

We start with thorough planning, think of planning as the foundation for a successful merger or acquisition. Without a good plan, the company will be vulnerable to all sorts of structural weaknesses. To prevent key elements from falling through the cracks, companies must define objectives and data requirements, maintain strong communications, and develop both short-term and long-term expectations.

The next step – analysis – since data is absolutely essential in mergers and acquisitions. There is a lot to watch out for: What's the best way to extract and convert the acquired data? Will IT or business support need to be permanently added? What system configuration changes are required? What are the impacts to current business processes and internal audit controls? Will additional training be required? The answers to these questions are highly individualized to each merger and acquisition, and they'll impact how seamless the transition will be. Many people gloss over this stage but then realize the criticality not only in the case of a merger or acquisition but also in the case of a future divestiture.

Finally, the last stage: Execution. This stage is one of the main reasons why some mergers and acquisitions may fall short of expectations. To avoid common issues stemming from poor execution – including disruption of previously effective business processes, impaired customer service, and increase in the cost of the merger or acquisition – we coordinate roles and responsibilities, ensuring that all key tasks are executed. From day one to full integration, we continually monitor to ensure the company is on track to meet its initially defined objectives.

The risks and benefits of a merger or acquisition

I'll be candid: Without a solid foundation through adequate preparation, a merger or acquisition is set up to fail. This risk can be higher for startups and small companies, which don't have the resource buffer that some larger firms can fall back on. Large companies may face a different risk, business processes and data may not be aligned with their current state. And yet, according to Economy Watch, an extensively strategized merger or acquisition transaction, beyond increasing the company's size, can yield significant benefits that include:

  • Improving its strategic position
  • Entering a new market
  • Developing new assets
  • Lowering operational costs
  • Expanding market influence

For smooth mergers and acquisitions, we recommend a multi-step process so that you can identify and reduce risks, condense your integration timeline, and quickly capture value. Because despite the challenges, not all is lost during a merger or acquisition – and there is much to be gained.

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Elizabeth Gerbel is the CEO and founder of Houston-based E.A.G. Services Inc.

Houston-based SnapStream's CEO, Rakesh Agrawal, is the third guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Courtesy of SnapStream

Software entrepreneur, investor announces new service and shares why he's bullish on Houston innovation

Houston innovators podcast episode 3

With a couple decades in the Houston innovation ecosystem under his belt, Rakesh Agrawal considers himself an optimist about his city.

Agrawal founded his company SnapStream — a software company that allows its clients to easily record, search, and share video and broadcast content — in 2000 and has gone on to not only grow and expand the company, but also create a portfolio of software startups as an investor.

In the third episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Agrawal shares how he's seen the city's innovation ecosystem evolve to what it is today — admittedly, he has a very positive outlook on the city. However, if he had to identify something Houston needs to work on, its communication.

"A lot of people go to this question of, 'What's wrong with the Houston ecosystem?' If there's anything that's a fundamental characteristic of Houston that we need to change that would really help the startup and innovation ecosystem is that often in Houston, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," Agrawal says on the podcast.

Agrawal says that one of the indicators of the city's success in cultivating startups is his own portfolio. About a quarter of the companies he's invested in are based in Houston.

Recently, Agrawal pulled back some of his investing activity to focus on SnapStream. The company was named the transition partner for Volicon Observer, a company Verizon brought under its umbrella and then changed its mind about, Agrawal explains in the episode.

Volicon's specialty is in monitoring and compliance, and with that move, SnapStream brought on around 150 new clients. To maintain those clients and grow its services, SnapStream has rolled out a whole new department. The launch of SnapStream Monitoring and Compliance is the next step for SnapStream's takeover of Volicon, according to a news release.

"The SnapStream Monitoring and Compliance launch builds on our depth of experience and extends SnapStream into an exciting new market," says Agrawal in the release. "The amazing SnapStream team is what differentiates us — from our engineers, who build user experiences that save our users time, to our support team, who deliver on a high standard for responding to customers and resolving issues, to our customer success team, who deliver the best onboarding experience."

Agrawal discusses the transition, his investment activity, and more in the episode. Listen to the podcast below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


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Houston startup raises $10M, A&M names TMC campus, and more innovation news

short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks. From a Texas university naming its burgeoning new campus to a Houston SaaS startup with fresh funds, here are some short stories in Houston innovation.

ThoughtTrace raises $10M series B

ThoughtTrace has received investment from Chevron Technology Ventures. Photo via thoughttrace.com

ThoughtTrace Inc., a Houston-based software-as-a-service startup closed a $10 million series B round led by Canadian venture capital fund McRock Capital with contribution from Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures.

"Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV) pursues externally-developed technologies and new business solutions that have the potential to enhance the way Chevron produces and delivers affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in a release. "ThoughtTrace fits that mandate with the potential to automate the complex, time-consuming, and document-intensive workflows required for our ongoing business operations."

ThoughtTrace's software quickly analyzes documents and contracts and produces results at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional methods. With the fundraising deal, Scott MacDonald, McRock's co-founder and managing partner, will join ThoughtTrace's Board of Directors.

"We are extraordinarily excited to have both McRock and Chevron join the team. McRock brings a great background in the industrial space, which we see as a great fit. In the case of Chevron, they went from being a new customer in 2019 to an investor in 2020," says Nick Vandivere, ThoughtTrace CEO, in a release.

"With the new capital raise, ThoughtTrace will accelerate its investment in creating AI with unparalleled speed and accuracy, grow strategic partnerships and platform integrations, and add to its existing team of talented professionals, all of which will bring further value to the growing ThoughtTrace customer-base," Vandivere continues.

Texas A&M names its Texas Medical Center campus

The new campus will be called Texas A&M Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

After announcing its plans for a $546 million medical complex in Houston's Texas Medical Center in February, Texas A&M University has released the name of the 5-acre campus rising at the intersection of Holcombe Boulevard and Main Street: Texas A&M Innovation Plaza.

The project will be completed in phases. The first phase, which will open later this year, is a renovation of an 18-floor building at 1020 Holcombe Blvd., which will to be the new home for EnMed, a dual degree program that produces both a master's in engineering and a medical degree.

"EnMed is just the first example of innovation that Texas A&M System intends to bring to the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza," says Chancellor John Sharp in a news release. "We are excited to have such a visible location in the Texas Medical Center."

Rice Business Plan Competition lays out virtual plans

The competition must go on. Photo via rbpc.rice.edu

This year's Rice Business Plan Competition, which was planned for March 26 to 28, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has decided to offer up an alternative: A virtual RBPC. Forty two student teams will compete over three virtual events.

  • Elevator Pitch Competition on June 17 (Open to the public): Each team will deliver 60-second pitches.
  • Round 1 on June 18 (Open to startups and judges only ): Each team will deliver 10-minutes to pitch to a panel of judges followed by Q&A.
  • Live finals on June 19 (open to the public): The seven finalists will pitch to the judges, and following a round of questions from judges, the winners and prizes will be announced.

Two health care educational institutions team up for new program

Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine have launched a collaborative medical track. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Louisiana's Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have joined forces to allow Xavier students a smooth transition into Baylor's graduate programs. Xavier students, including traditionally underrepresented minorities — according to a press release — will have the opportunity to apply for the program in November. Three students will be selected for the program, which facilitates acceptance into the medical school.

"Our commitment at Baylor College of Medicine to diversity and inclusion creates the best environment for success across our mission areas of healthcare, research, education and community outreach," says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. "This important collaboration with Xavier University will strengthen this commitment, and I look forward to welcoming students from this new partnership into the Baylor family."

Klotman continues to express how inclusiveness is a priority for BCM and for this partnership.

"We live in a world where healthcare is changing and evolving," says Dr. Anne McCall, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Xavier, in the release. "This partnership will further equip our students with the diverse tools and training that they'll need to foster equity in the medical field and compete on an international level."

University of Houston begins offering virtual tours for perspective students

Potential UH Cougars can get the 411 on campus via a virtual tour tool. Photo via uh.edu

Before COVID-19 sent everyone home and canceled gatherings, classes, and events across the world, the University of Houston was already working on a way for potential students to tour and learn more about the campus. Now, in light of the pandemic, UH has released this virtual tour offering complete with live interaction from UH student ambassadors.

"I'm really excited about the live component we just added because prospective students can ask questions just like during a face-to-face campus tour and that interaction is invaluable," says Mardell Maxwell, executive director of UH Admissions, in a release. "UH is so committed to access, and we see this as a great opportunity not only for students in Houston and Texas, but for those coming from out of state. We are opening up access to campus across the world."

Anyone can sign up for a tour online through the university's website.

Report recognizes Houston as a top city to launch a career

starting out

First-time job hunters are facing a competitive job market with historic unemployment and an unstable economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, Houston, according to a recent report, might give its residents an advantage.

The report, released May 20 by career website LinkedIn, places Houston at No. 10 on a list of the places in the U.S. that are best suited for new college graduates who are diving into the job market. The list comes out as recent grads confront a job market that's "shaping up to become one of the worst in recent memory," according to The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news outlet that covers education.

LinkedIn considered three factors for its ranking: affordable rent, good starting salaries, and job availability. Houston's median rent sits at $1,377 per month (all types and sizes of rental properties), LinkedIn says, while its median annual salary for entry-level "career starter" jobs stands at $69,800.

Two other Texas metros appear in the top 15:

  • No. 13 San Antonio, where the median rent is $1,219 and the entry-level salary is $59,900
  • No. 15 Dallas-Fort Worth, where the median rent is $1,423 and the entry-level salary is $65,300

Austin, consistently touted as a magnet for college grads, failed to make the LinkedIn cut.

"What you [also] won't find on this list are the traditional coastal job magnets — New York, the Washington, D.C. area, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles," LinkedIn points out. "Those cities may still offer some of the highest starting salaries, but their sky-high rents mean income doesn't stretch nearly as far."

Among the top occupations in the metro areas on LinkedIn's list are software engineer, registered nurse, teacher, project manager, project engineer, consultant, and analyst.

It might be difficult to find those jobs, though. The Conference Board, a research group that monitors business trends, says the number of new job postings in Texas declined from 255,000 in March to 175,000 in April.

To deal with the current economic realities, some new college grads are making sacrifices. In a survey by Monster.com and Wakefield Research, 55 percent of graduating seniors indicated they'd applied for a job they knew wasn't a good fit, and 52 percent said they would accept a lower salary.

"They're feeling desperate," Vicki Salemi, a career expert at Monster.com, told The Hill news website.

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This article original ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert shares tip for developing a circular economy within your company's tech

Guest column

Many organizations are interested in building a circular economy into their business model but aren't sure what steps to take to achieve this goal. I've worked in the technology industry for over 20 years, helping customers across all industries navigate the processes of buyback, recycling, and repair in order to create sustainable and profitable solutions to reduce e-waste.

The world produces 40 million tons of e-waste annually, and only 20 percent of that is being disposed of properly. A circular economy is a system in which all materials and components are kept at their highest value and where e-waste is essentially designed out of the system.

Building a circular economy for electronics requires attention to detail in the areas of design, buyback, or return systems, advanced recycling and recapturing, durability and repair, and urban mining.

Below, I'll discuss some key building blocks for implementing an effective and efficient circular economy.

Invest in technology that will last

Longevity is essential to maintaining sustainable products, and that is easily achievable through repair and refurbishment services. Upgrading or reworking existing equipment can save you time and money by enhancing its marketability or extending its useful life.

Rework service providers can replace components inside servers or PCs and rebuild them with new parts to meet your requirements. These services can boost your operations' speed or improve your servers' or PCs' performance through upgrading, while also saving your organization money by not having to purchase all-new equipment.

Recover value through the secondary market

When equipment must be replaced or retired, many electronic devices can be remarketed, either as whole products or individual parts. This system not only keeps electronics in use and out of landfills — it can also serve as an additional revenue stream for your organization.

Finding the right IT asset disposition partner is crucial for maximizing your return on investment. It can pay dividends to provide high-exposure opportunities to a vast network of customers through a mix of online sales, e-commerce tools, and inside sales when selling your retired equipment.

Utilize advanced recycling and recapturing programs

Retired electronics that are not remarketable can be collected and have their components reintegrated into new products, creating a closed-loop production system. ITAD partners who are certified to recognized green standards, such as R2 or e-Stewards, can ensure that IT equipment that no longer has value will be responsibly recycled.

No matter what industry you're in, a qualified ITAD partner can help optimize your organization and support your goals. From data centers to server rooms and beyond, sustainable solutions are available to manage the equipment you need to retire in compliance with all regulatory guidelines.

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Ed Wooten is Smith's director of ITAD, or IT asset disposition.