From a supercomputer making its debut in West Houston to a behind-the-scenes look at Amazon's artificial intelligence-enabled fulfillment center, these were Houston's top stories in tech. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Editor's note: Houston had some big stories in technology this year, from a peek inside Amazon's artificial intelligence-enabled Houston facility and the opening of a new supercomputer to space-focused Houston startups and the future of virtual reality.

Massive data center officially opens just west of Houston

Matthew Lamont is managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions' which just opened its new, powerful data center west of Houston. Courtesy of DUG

DownUnder GeoSolutions has officially opened its new data centre in Skybox Houston in Katy, Texas. It's being billed as one of the most powerful supercomputers on earth.

The center, which houses DUG's geophysical cloud service, DUG McCloud, celebrated its grand opening on Thursday, May 16. The company's data hall has 15 megawatts of power and resides in a building designed to withstand hurricane-force winds up to 190 mph.

A second, identical hall is already planned to be built out later this year. Together, the two machines will have a capacity of 650 petaflop, which is a measurement of computing speed that's equal to one thousand million million floating-point operations per second. Continue reading.

5 startups keeping Houston known as the Space City

Houston celebrated 50 years since the Apollo moon landing on July 20. Here are some startups that are going to be a part of the next 50 years of space tech in Houston. Photo via NASA.gov

This month, for the most part, has been looking back on the history Houston has as the Space City in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. While it's great to recognize the men and women who made this city the major player in space exploration that it is, there are still entrepreneurs today with space applications and experience that represent the future of the Space City. Continue reading.

How Amazon's Houston fulfillment center uses AI technology and robotics to move millions of products

From robotics to artificial intelligence, here's how Amazon gets its products to Houstonians in record time. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Last summer, Amazon opened the doors to its North Houston distribution center — one of the company's 50 centers worldwide that uses automation and robotics to fulfill online orders.

The Pinto Business Park facility has millions of products in inventory across four floors. Products that are 25 pounds or less (nothing heavier is stocked at this location) pass through 20 miles of conveyor belts, 1,500 employees, and hundreds of robots.

The center also has daily tours open to the public. We recently visited to see for ourselves the process a product goes through at this Houston plant. From stowing to shipping, here's how packages go from your shopping cart to your front porch. Continue reading.

Developments in virtual reality technology are changing the workforce, say Houston experts

The solution to Houston's workforce problem might be right in front of our eyes. Getty Images

Everyone's job has training associated with it — from surgeons to construction crane operators — and there's a growing market need for faster, more thorough training of our workforce.

"The best way to learn how to do something, is to just get out and do it," says Eric Liga, co-founder of HoustonVR. "But there are a lot of reasons why you can't do that in certain types of training."

Augmented and virtual reality training programs are on the rise, and Liga cites safety, cost, and unpredictable work environments as some of these most obvious reasons reasons to pivot to training employees through extended reality. This type of training also provides portability and has proven higher retention, Liga says in his keynote speech at Station Houston's AR/VR discuss on April 25.

"You get a much higher retention rate when you actually go out and do something — physically going through the motions — than you do sitting in a classroom or reading a book," he says. Continue reading.

Recently renovated Downtown Houston office space snags leases from 2 tech companies

Main&Co's office space is now 100 percent leased. Courtesy of Main&Co

Two tech-focused companies moved into a newly developed office space in downtown Houston at the intersection of Main Street and Commerce Street. One company relocated its Houston office, and the other company has expanded to the city for the first time.

Oil and gas AI-enabled analytics platform, Ruths.ai relocated its downtown office to Main&Co, located at 114 Main St. The company has 8,457 square feet of office space in the recently renovated historic building.

Meanwhile, global robotics process automation company UiPath has expanded to build a Houston team. The computer software company is based in New York, but has a presence in 18 countries. The company's office has 5,187 square feet of Main&Co's office space. Continue reading.

Kroger's self-driving cars are coming to Houston. Courtesy of Kroger

Kroger's autonomous car fleet heads to Houston for a new grocery delivery service

Look ma, no hands

Hold on to your hats, Houston. Autonomous cars are hitting the streets this spring as Kroger rolls out its fleet of self-driving, grocery-delivery cars.

Two Houston Kroger locations will provide the service to four ZIP codes — 10306 South Post Oak Road, servicing 77401 and 77096, and 5150 Buffalo Speedway, servicing 77005 and 77025.

Kroger, along with California-based robotics company, Nuro, has been operating self-driving cars delivering groceries in Scottsdale. Arizona since August. According to the release, the service has delivered thousands of orders in the self-driving vehicles.

"We've seen first-hand in Arizona how enthusiastic customers are about getting their Kroger groceries delivered by a Nuro self-driving vehicle," says Nuro co-founder, Dave Ferguson, in a release. "Texas has been a leader in encouraging self-driving innovation, and we're excited to help deliver that future for Houston — a dynamic, diverse, and welcoming metropolitan city that we're excited to soon explore and serve with this autonomous delivery service."

The service costs a flat fee of $5.95, and users can order in the app or online for same-day or next-day delivery, seven days a week. The program will launch using Toyota Prius vehicles. Currently, the exact start date of the service hasn't been provided.

"Our Arizona pilot program confirmed the flexibility and benefits provided by autonomous vehicles and how much customers are open to more innovative solutions," says Yael Cosset, Kroger's chief digital officer, in a release. "It's always been our shared vision to scale this initiative to new markets, using world-changing technology to enable a new type of delivery service for our customers. We operate 102 stores in Houston—an energetic market that embraces digital and technology advancement. The launch is one more way we are committed to sustainably providing our customers with anything, anytime, and anywhere, the way they want it."

In January, the Texas Department of Transportation created the Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Task Force to focus on being a comprehensive resource for information on all Texas CAV projects, investments, and initiatives.

"With our world-class universities, top-notch workforce and startup culture, Texas is a national leader in the development of new technologies," says Gov. Greg Abbott in the release. "As transportation technology advances, the CAV Task Force will ensure that the Lone Star State remains at the forefront of innovation."

Courtesy of Kroger

Over half of Houston business leaders say their company has already enabled AI, blockchain, and extended reality technology. Getty Images

Business leaders in Houston have a surprisingly high tech adoption rate

Early bird gets the worm

When it comes to enabling new technologies to advance business practices, Houston business leaders are ahead of the curve. According to a new study, the majority of the companies surveyed are already using artificial intelligence, blockchain, and extended reality today.

The global study, Technology Vision 2019, was conducted by Accenture and included surveys from 6,600 business and IT executives around the world, including 100 in Houston. Dallas was the only other Texas market surveyed, along with nine other major United States metros — Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C.

Of the 100 respondents, 91 said that innovation efforts have accelerated within their organization over the past three years because of new technology, and 80 said that while they feel their employees are digitally savvy, they are "waiting" for the company's technology to catch up. However, when it comes to the need to reskill employees due to emerging tech in the workplace, 47 percent says that need will happen within the next two years.

The survey also focused on three distinct technologies — AI, blockchain, and extended reality, which includes augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed reality. XR responses indicate that 66 percent of business leaders have already used some sort of version of XR either in one or more of their business units (37 percent) or are piloting the technology (29 percent).

The numbers for adoption for AI is similar, with 65 percent of leaders saying they have introduced AI tech in the workplace already —nearly 2 in 5 have already adopted somewhere within the company, while over 1 in 4 say their company has an AI pilot program.

Blockchain, according to the study, falls further down the spectrum in Houston companies. Only 15 percent of the companies have a pilot program, but 42 percent have blockchain technology already in use in one or more business units — for a total of 57 percent adoption rate.

With 5G on the horizon, almost all respondents — 79 percent — say the technology is going to revolutionize their industry in terms of how they provide products or services to their clients. Almost half said that impact will happen and jobs will be altered within the next three years.

Brian Richards, managing director at Accenture, oversees the company's Houston Innovation Hub. The hub welcomes in business leaders who are utilizing Accenture's services to ideate and then implicate innovative technologies. At a recent panel in the Accenture office, Richards spoke to emerging tech in Houston and said there's been no shortage of leaders wanting to move the needle on new tech.

"I've never seen [corporations] more motivated than they are right now to be able to think differently on how they are able to engage Houston," he said.

Across the U.S., each person played an average of 21 hours each of mobile games last year. Getty Images

Report finds that Houstonians played over 97 million hours on mobile games last year

Game on

Whether its for the wanted distraction or the thrill of competition, Houstonians love their mobile games. In fact, the city as a whole racked up an estimated 97 million hours of mobile game play in 2018 — the second most for a city in the United States, according to a study.

California-based Unity Technologies tracked over 7 billion hours of gaming last year in the whole of the U.S — that's 21 hours and 6 minutes on average per U.S. resident.

The company is behind the platform that powers more than half of new mobile games. The data represents information collected from games that use Unity Analytics. So, the full amount of hours played is actually known to be even larger.

Houston was only outdone by Chicago, which spent more than 130 million hours on gaming apps. Los Angeles came in third with over 94 million hours. Dallas — the only other Texas city in the top five — came in at No. 4 with 78 million hours played. Brooklyn, New York, rounded out the top five with over 71 million hours.

Unity also reported on the top apps played across the city. All five are available on Android and iOS devices.

  1. Panda Pop
  2. Happy Color - Color By Number
  3. Pixel Art - Color By Number
  4. Helix Jump
  5. Cashman Casino

In addition to mobile game technology, Unity Technologies provides a real-time 3D development platform that's used in a wide range video games, films, auto industry applications, and more.

The video game industry is worth billions, and the predicted revenue for 2018 was estimated to be $135 billion, according to data by Newzoo reported by GamesIndustry.Biz, and mobile games make up almost half of that total figure, which is a 10 percent increase from 2017.

Consumer spending on video games is also up year over year, reports MCV Magazine. Consumers across U.S. spent $9.1 billion in the third quarter of 2018 alone.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.