4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Essama of Teach for America Houston, Scott Schneider of HTX Labs, and Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local innovators across industries — from health tech to software — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sarah Essama, director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston

Sarah Essama of Teach For America Houston shares how she innovated a new way for students themselves to learn how to innovate. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essama

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase. Click here to read more.

Scott Schneider, CEO and founder of HTX Labs

Scott Schneider of HTX Labs has something to celebrate. Photo via htxlabs.com

A Houston-based virtual reality training provider has closed its first round of funding. HTX Labs announced last month that it has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption. Click here to read more.

​Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez 

Two Houston health care innovators got the green light to distribute their low-cost COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of TMC

After months of development and testing, the Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release. Click here to read more.

VR training startup, HTX Labs, has raised funding from an outside investor for the first time. Courtesy of HTX Labs

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

Here's your latest roundup of Houston startup and innovation news you may have missed. Photo via Getty Images

Mobile ordering rolls out at resort, Houston VC's latest investment, and more local innovation news

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We're on the other side of the hill that is Houston's summer, but the Bayou City's still hot — especially in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, a Houston venture capital fund has made its latest investment, Houston startups share big updates, and more.

Rivalry Technology rolls out mobile ordering at hot summer spot

You can now order poolside at this Houston-area resort. Image courtesy of Rivalry Tech

Lounging at Margaritaville Lake Resort at Lake Conroe was just made easier by Rivalry Tech, a Houston-based mobile ordering platform company. Rivalry Tech upgraded poolside ordering with its myEATz. According to a news release, customers can now order food and drinks from the 5 o’Clock Somewhere Bar and Lone Palm Bar via a custom QR code system for each lounge chair and table to increase operational efficiency for the Margaritaville Lake Resort staff.

“We wanted to be sure the rollout of the myEATz mobile ordering platform was helpful to the Margaritaville staff, not a hindrance to their existing process. We created custom QR codes and a color coded map to easily identify where the mobile orders are going,” says Charles Willis, COO of Rivalry Tech, in the release.

Rivalry, which provides mobile ordering at numerous sports stadiums and venues with sEATz, expanded into hospitality this year.

“The Rivalry Tech team helped us to seamlessly implement mobile ordering at Margaritaville Lake Resort. They created the marketing materials, established custom QR codes, uploaded mentors and trained our staff onsite. The whole process has been easy and collaborative,” says Amit Sen, director food and beverage for Margaritaville Lake Resort, in the release.

Mercury Fund invests in ReturnLogic's latest round

Mercury has led the latest fundraising round from a SaaS company. Image via Getty Images

Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury led Phillidelphia-based SaaS company ReturnLogic's $8.5 million series A funding round, which also had participation from Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, White Rose Ventures, and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. The fresh funding will help the company double its workforce, accelerate product development, and expand Application Programming Interface capabilities, according to a news release.

Founded by CEO Peter Sobotta, Return Logic's SaaS platform, which can be plugged into existing e-commerce platforms, helps to enhance management of returns and prevent the challenging financial impacts of returns.

“While retailers have largely mastered forward logistics to get products into customers hands, the returns process remains an under-addressed, resource-draining problem that eats away at brands’ profits,” says Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury, in a news release. “ReturnLogic is something entirely new to this market and uniquely built on Peter Sobotta’s deep operational experience in reverse logistics and supply chain management.

"While serving in the U.S. Navy, Peter specialized in reverse logistics and gained extensive expertise in ecommerce operations," Garrou continues. "With Peter at the helm, ReturnLogic’s innovative API-first returns solution is well-positioned to tackle the ever-growing operational returns problem facing retailers. We are excited to partner with Peter and his team as they continue to solve this massive problem for online retailers.”

Fluence Analytics named a top advanced manufacturing startup

Fluence Analytics was selected as one of 50 startups recognized. Graphic courtesy

Fluence Analytics, an analytics and process control solutions platform for the polymer and biopharmaceutical industries, was named as a Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startup by CB Insights. The Inaugural list breaks down 16 different cohorts, narrowed down from more than 6,000 companies who either submitted an application or were nominated. Fluence Analytics was one of three companies featured in the R&D Optimization category.

"Our team is very excited that our real-time process analytics, optimization and control products for the polymer and biopharma industries are included among such elite startups," says Jay Manouchehri, CEO of Fluence Analytics, in a statement to InnovationMap. "We wish to thank CB Insights for including Fluence Analytics in its inaugural list of the Top 50 global advanced manufacturing startups, as well as our customers and investors for supporting the development and roll-out of our transformative technology solutions."

Fluence Analytics moved to the Houston area from New Orleans last year. The company's tech platform allows for optimization and control products to polymer and biopharmaceutical customers worldwide.

HTX Labs secures $1.7M contract to expand within United States Air Force

HTX Labs' EMPACT product will be further developed to support the Air Force. Image courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, that it has been awarded a $1.7 million Small Business Innovation Research Phase II Tactical Funding Increase with the US Air Force to enhance and operationalize to its product, EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform, in support of training modernization.

“We are very thankful to AFWERX and AFDT for this great opportunity to play an increasingly important role in helping the USAF accelerate training modernization," says Chris Verret, president HTX Labs, in a news release. "This TACFI award shows continued confidence in HTX Labs, with a strong commitment to accelerate usage and adoption of EMPACT.”

HTX Labs will leverage this contract to expand EMPACT's ability to rapidly create and distribute interactive, immersive training, collaborating closely with Advanced Force Development Technologies, per the release.

OpenStax to publish free edition of updated science textbook

OpenStax is growing its access to free online textbooks. Image via openstax.org

OpenStax, a tech initiative from Rice University that uploads free learning resources, has announced it will publish the 10th edition of an organic chemistry textbook by Cornell University professor emeritus John McMurry.

“This is a watershed moment for OpenStax and the open educational resources (OER) movement,” says Richard Baraniuk, founder and director of OpenStax, in a news release. “This publication will quickly provide a free, openly licensed, high-quality resource to hundreds of thousands of students in the U.S. taking organic chemistry, removing what can be a considerable cost and access barrier.”

Usually a big expense for organic chemistry students, McMurry, with the support of publisher Cengage, made the decision to offer the latest edition online as a tribute to his son, Peter McMurry, who died in 2019 after a long struggle with cystic fibrosis.

“If Peter were still alive, I have no doubt that he would want me to work on this 10th edition with a publisher that made the book free to students,” McMurry says in the release. “To make this possible, I am not receiving any payment for this book, and generous supporters have covered not only the production costs but have also made a donation of $500,000 to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation to help find a cure for this terrible disease.”

Chevron Technology Ventures completed the build out of its new office in the Ion — plus more local Houston innovation news. Photo courtesy of Gensler

Chevron unveils new space at the Ion, Houston startup granted $1.25M, and more local innovation news

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Houston is buzzing with local startup and innovation news lately, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, Chevron Technology Ventures reveals their Gensler-designed office in the Ion, a Houston startup received a grant from the Air Force, and more.

Chevron reveals completed Ion office

CTV now has an office at The Ion. Photos courtesy of Gensler

Chevron Technology Ventures tapped Gensler to design its office in The Ion. According to Gensler, the office was designed to be "an innovative think tank and collaboration space within The Ion for its employees, and for interfacing with external consultants, partners, and vendors."

Per Gensler, some of the design elements of the office space includes:

  • Chevron-branded biophilia wall, accented with various artifacts showcasing Chevron’s rich history in the energy industry
  • Multiple meeting rooms for internal teams to collaborate on projects, for vendors to conduct demos and test emerging technologies, or to host case competitions, recruiting events, and more
  • A dedicated recording studio with state-of-the-art acoustics and lighting serves as a hub for bringing videos and podcasts to life
  • A coffee bar and social area

HTX Labs receives $1.25M Air Force grant

HTX Labs' EMPACT product will be further developed to support the Air Force. Image courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced earlier this month that it has been awarded a new $1.25 million Small Business Innovation Research Phase II contract with US Air Force Global Strike Command to enhance its product, EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform, to facilitate collaborative, multi-role immersive learning capabilities in support of maintenance training for the B-52 aircraft.

“HTX Labs is excited to expand our presence into Global Strike Command and take on the challenge to aid Global Strike with its mission to produce highly qualified, engaged, and prepared Airmen. Our main objective with this SBIR award is to build on the success of the immersive training programs we have helped drive within AETC, and bring those successful results along with lessons learned over to Global Strike," says Chris Verret, president and co-founder, HTX Labs, in a news release.

"When coupled with EMPACT’s no-code immersive content authoring tools, this capability will support just-in-time mission training, enabling delivery of the right training at the right time – across geographically disparate locations to the Airmen who need it,“ he continues.

The goals of the project is to "increase throughput of the training pipeline, lower overall training costs, and produce more fully mission-ready Airmen," according to the release.

Scott Schneider, co-founder of the company, recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he and his team have tapped into the military sector. Click here to listen.

Pitch competition reveals

Here's who will be pitching at The Cannon later this month. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Dell for Startups is bringing a pitch competition to The Cannon on Wednesday, June 29, and the eight companies who will be pitching for cash prizes were announced.

Here's what Houston companies will take the stage:

The judges for the competition are Andrea Course of Shell Ventures, Sunny Zhang of Born Global, Joey Sanchez of The Ion Houston, Sharita Humphrey of Black Girl Ventures, and Megan Wright and Lucas Chaya Del Pino of Dell Technologies.
The event begins on Wednesday, June 29, at 4 pm with a panel discussion, and the pitch competition will begin at 5:30. Click here to register.

Houston artist completes Greentown Labs mural

Hannah Bull painted a mural depicting the future of climatetech on Greentown Houston's building. Photo courtesy of Greentown

Houston artist Hannah Bull was selected and commissioned by Greentown Labs to paint a mural on the outside of Greentown Houston. The project wrapped up and the mural, entitled “Powering the Future Through Climatetech,” can be found on east exterior wall. Watch a timelapse of the painting by clicking here.

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Scott Schneider of HTX Labs, Adrienne Mangual of The Artemis Fund, and Derrick Morse of Rugged Robotics. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Scott Schneider, CEO and founder of HTX Labs

Scott Schneider of HTX Labs joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how his VR software is helping to train Department of Defense pilots. Photo via htxlabs.com

Over the past few years, HTX Labs — a software development startup focusing on enterprise virtual reality training software — has tripled its team and is looking to hire another 20 people to support its growth — specifically looking for sales, business development, and operational positions. All this growth is to support its work with the military, which makes up about 95 percent of the startup's focus now, says Scott Schneider, CEO and founder, on last week's Houston Innovators Podcast episode.

"In 2021, we were all about building capability and building our platform," Schneider says, "and 2022 is all about adoption. It's a land grab out there for doing what we're doing. We're trying to drive adoption within the government and outside in the commercial and private sector."

Schneider shares more on what he's focused on this year and how HTX Labs has grown alongside the Houston innovation ecosystem on the podcast episode. Click here to listen to the episode and read more.

Adrienne Mangual, vice president of finance and operations at The Artemis Fund

Adrienne Mangual has a background in finance and consulting. Photo courtesy of Artemis

The Artemis Fund is celebrating a new member of its small, but mighty team focused on funding female founders within fintech, e-commerce tech, and care-tech.

Adrienne Mangual is the new vice president of finance and operations at the firm. She has her MBA from Rice University and has worked for 15 years in finance roles at J.P. Morgan and Key Energy Services. Over the past few years, she's worked in consulting positions with startups and technology.

"This is an exciting time to join The Artemis Fund as the fund is growing and our reach is expanding and continuing to make an impact on female founders," Mangual tells InnovationMap. "I am looking forward to supporting existing and future female founders and working with Diana, Stephanie, and Leslie as part of the team making investment decisions for the fund." Click here to read more recent new hires in Houston tech.

Derrick Morse, CEO and co-founder of Rugged Robotics

Rugged Robotics has created a solution that provides construction customers with an automated layout-as-a-service tool. Image via LinkedIn

Rugged Robotics, a Houston-based robotics startup working in the commercial construction field, has closed its latest round of funding. The $9.4 million series A round was led by BOLD Capital Partners and Brick & Mortar Ventures.

“We’re building better,” says Morse, who serves as CEO, in the release. “We set out to modernize the construction industry, and to build practical solutions that solve the pain points contractors struggle with every day. We believe that layout is the ideal starting point. Layout is the beachhead for construction automation. It sits at the intersection of the digital and physical world, solves a huge problem, and unlocks the ability to deploy robotics onto job sites in a very meaningful way.” Click here to read more.

Scott Schneider of HTX Labs joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how his VR software is helping to train Department of Defense pilots. Photo via htxlabs.com

Houston software startup is tapping into the military sector with VR training tools

Houston innovators podcast episode 127

For years, the idea of virtual and augmented reality has been growing in use and popularity from a consumer perspective. VR art experiences are popping up in every major city, and Snapchat and Instagram filters are flooding our phone screens daily. But one Houston company had the foresight to tap this tech in the business world.

"Our real mission around HTX Labs was to take what we felt was amazing technology — virtual reality, augmented reality, extended reality, and immersive technology in general — and take it from a primary consumer focus into enterprise," Scott Schneider says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

A VR headset is different from your usual office appliance — it's not a printer or a desktop computer. So, addressing this technology and how companies deal with network security and identity management — plus the software designing itself — has been HTX Labs' bread and butter since it was founded in 2017.

"It's always been around how do we elevate training — and that's really been our mission for the past five years," Schneider says.

Over the years, the startup has had the opportunity to enter a new sector, and it's represented a pretty big pivot for the company. Now, 95 percent of HTX Labs's focus is on the Department of Defense.

"Around 2018, we were approached by the U.S. Air Force," Schneider says. "Three and a half years later, we are fully engaged with the DoD – Air Force, Navy, Army. Our big focus is around training aircraft pilots and maintainers — if you fly them or you fix them, they are using our technology."

HTX Labs has tripled its team over the past few years, and is looking to hire another 20 people to support its growth — specifically looking for sales, business development, and operational positions.

"In 2021, we were all about building capability and building our platform," Schneider says, "and 2022 is all about adoption. It's a land grab out there for doing what we're doing. We're trying to drive adoption within the government and outside in the commercial and private sector."

Schneider shares more on what he's focused on this year and how HTX Labs has grown alongside the Houston innovation ecosystem on the podcast episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startups raise funding, secure partnerships across space, health, and sports tech

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It's been a new month and a few Houston startup wrapped up November with news you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, three Houston startups across health care, space, and sports tech have some news they announced recently.

Houston digital health company launches new collaboration

Koda Health has a new partner. Image via kodahealthcare.com

Houston-based Koda Health announced a new partnership with data analytics company, CareJourney.

"This collaboration will aim to develop benchmarking data for advance care planning and end-of-life metrics," the company wrote on LinkedIn. "Koda will provide clinical and practice-based expertise to guide the construction of toolkits, dashboards, and benchmarks that improve ACP programs and end-of-life outcomes."

Koda Health announced the partnership in November..

“Beyond the checkbox of a billing code or completed advance directive, it’s important to build and measure a process that promotes thoughtful planning among patients, their care team, and their loved ones,” says Desh Mohan, MD, Koda's chief medical officer, in the post.

CareJourney was founded in 2014 in Arlington, Virginia.

"I'm hopeful next-generation quality measures will honor the patient’s voice in defining what it means to deliver high quality care, and our commitment is to measure progress on that important endeavor," noted Aneesh Chopra, CareJourney's co-founder and president.

Sports tech startup raises $500,000 pre-seed investment

BeONE Sports has created a technology to enhance athletic training. Photo via beonesports.com

Houston-founded BeONE Sports, an athlete training technology company, announced last month that it closed an oversubscribed round of pre-seed funding. The company announced the raise on its social media pages that the round included $500,000 invested.

Earlier in November, BeONE Sports completed its participation in CodeLaunch DFW 2022. The company was one of six finalists in the program, which concluded with a pitch event on November 16.

Space tech company snags government contracts

Graphic via cognitive space.com

The U.S. Air Force has extended Houston-based Cognitive Space’s contract under a new TACFI, Tactical Funding Increase, award. According to the release, the contract "builds on Cognitive Space’s work to develop a tailored version of CNTIENT for AFRL to achieve ultimate responsiveness and optimized dynamic satellite scheduling via a cloud-based API.

The $1.2 million award follows a $1.5 million U.S. Air Force Small Business Innovation Research award that the company won in 2020 to integrate CNTIENT with commercial ground station providers in support of AFRL’s Hybrid Architecture Demonstration program.

“The TACFI award allows Cognitive Space to continue supporting AFRL’s vitally important HAD program to help deliver commercial space data to the warfighter,” says Guy de Carufel, the company’s founder and CEO, in the releasee. “CNTIENT’s tailored analytics platform will enable HAD and the GLUE platform to integrate modern statistical approaches to optimize mission planning, data collection, and latency estimation.”

Houston airport powers up new gaming lounge for bored and weary travelers

game on and wheels down

Local gamers now have a new option to while away those flight delays and passenger pickup waits at Hobby Airport.

Houston's William P. Hobby Airport is now one the first airports in the country to offer what's dubbed as the "ultimate gaming experience for travelers." The airport has launched a premium video game lounge inside the international terminal called Gameway.

That means weary, bored, or early travelers can chill in the lounge and plug into15 top-of-the-line, luxury gaming stations: six Xbox stations, five Playstation stations, four PC stations, all with the newest games on each platform. Aficionados will surely appreciate the Razer's Iskur Gaming Chairs and Kraken Headsets, along with dedicated high speed internet at each PC station.

The Gameway lounge pays homage to gaming characters, with wall accents that hark to motherboard circuits Crucial for any real gamer: plenty of sweet and savory snacks are available for purchase to fuel up on those fantasy, battle, or sporting endeavors. As for the gaming console stations, players can expect high definition screens, comfortable seating, and plenty of space for belongings.

Make video games a part of your pre-flight ritual. Photo courtesy of Gameway

This gaming addition comes just in time for the holiday rush, when travelers can expect long lines, delays, and are already planning for extended time for trips. As CultureMap previously reported, Hobby will see a big boost in travelers this season — the largest since 2019. Now, those on a long journey can plug in, decompress, and venture on virtual journeys of their own.

Texan travelers may be familiar with Gameway; the company opened its first two locations at Dallas Fort-Worth Airport. The buzzy lounge an industry wave of acclaim: Gameway was awarded Best Traveler Amenity in 2019 at the ACI-NA Awards and in 2020, voted “Most Innovative Customer Experience” at the Airport Experience Traveler Awards, per press materials.

Two new locations followed in 2021: LAX Terminal 6 and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The first of Gameway's Ultra lounge brand opened in September at Delta's Terminal 3 in LAX.

Gaming culture is a way of life in the Bayou City , which hosts Comicpalooza, the largest pop culture festival in Texas, and is home to several e-sports teams, including the pro esports squad, the Houston Outlaws.

A delayed flight never seemed so ideal for gamers flying out of Hobby. Photo courtesy of Gameway

“Gameway is the real reason to get to the airport early,” said Co-Founder Jordan Walbridge in a statement. “Our mission is to upgrade the typical wait-at-the-gate experience with a new stimulating, entertaining option for travelers of all ages.”

Here's guessing Hobby might just see an increase in missed or late flight arrivals — as travelers simply must beat those big bosses, solve puzzles, or win sports matches in the lounge.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.