The Digital Fight Club made its Houston debut on November 20 at White Oak Music Hall. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

What do you get when you cross the information of an innovation panel with the ferocity of a boxing match? A verbal sprawling among innovation leaders that can only be known as the Digital Fight Club.

Houston's DFC came about with the help of Accenture, which had been a partner at the Dallas events, and InnovationMap, who teamed up as presenting sponsors for the event. DFC's founder, Michael Pratt, came up with the idea for Digital Fight Club as a way to liven up technology-focused events and networking opportunities.

The setup of the event is five fights, 10 fighters, and five judges. Each fighter has just a couple minutes to take their stand before the event moves on.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

The hour of fighting is coupled with a VIP event ahead of the showdown and an after party where further networking can continue on. At Houston's VIP event, InnovationMap got to check in with partners, fighters, and referees about how they thought the event was going to pan out. Check out the VIP event video here.

The panel of referees included Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston; Denise Hamilton, CEO of Watch Her Work; Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital; Lance Black, Director at TMCx; and Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

The refs asked two questions per fight, and were able to vote on the winners of each round — as was the audience through an interactive web-based application. The break down of the fights, topics, and winners are as follows:

Fight #1: Future Workforce of Robotics/AI. Matt Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems, vs Pablo Marin, senior AI Leader, Microsoft. Hager took the win with 77 percent of the vote.
Fight #2: Whose responsibility is cybersecurity. Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate vs Tara Khanna, managing director and Security Lead at Accenture. Khanna won this round, snagging 66 percent of the votes.
Fight #3: Oil & Gas Industry and the Environment. Michael Szafron - commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, vs Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone. Szafron received 76 percent of the voites, securing the win.
Fight #4: Digital in our personal lives. Grace Rodriguez, CEO of ImpactHub, vs Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs. Rodriguez won with the largest margin of the night — 85 percent.
Fight #5: Future of Primary Care Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, vs Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist. Goyal received 72 percent of the votes to take home the win.

The fights were heated, and some of the fighters had knockout quotes, from Hager's "AI is mostly bullshit" to Khanna's "Compliance doesn't mean you're secure." For more of the knockout quotes, click here.

The fight is on

Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Mike Pratt, who hosted the event, founded the Digital Fight Club in 2016.

From personal and consumer technology to B2B companies ready to scale, here's who to watch in Houston tech. Getty Images

5 emerging tech startups in Houston to keep an eye on

up and comers

When it comes to Houston's tech startups, it's as diverse as Houston's population. There are software-as-a-service companies, new mobile technology, and even virtual reality startups that all call Houston home.

Here's a roundup of these Houston companies that you need to keep an eye on.

Hamper

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Despite working most summers in his family's dry cleaning shop, Safir Ali wasn't thinking about taking over his family business. He was living his young professional life with a freshly minted degree from Texas A&M University and a corporate job. However, when he started thinking of all the modern conveniences available now — RedBox, ridesharing, delivery apps — he couldn't help but think of how antiquated dry cleaning was compared.

Ali and his brother hope to upgrade dry cleaning with their startup, Hamper. Ali describes it as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered straight to their suite. Originally, Safir thought the kiosks could be stand-alones, but it proved to be easier to partner with high-traffic office spaces, like those in the busy Galleria or over in Williams Tower.

The company has gained some traction — and even some prize money. Hamper won first place in the 2019 LaunchPad Contest, which was sponsored by the Houston Rockets and BBVA Compass. The win brought in a $10,000 prize, along with a consultation with Rockets and BBVA Compass executives and a host of other prizes.

Read more about Hamper here.

Pandata Tech

Houston-based Pandata Tech uses its machine learning technology to advance oil and gas operations. Photo courtesy of Pandata Tech

Drilling data can be muddled and hard to use, but Houston-based Pandata Tech has developed the technology to clean and automate data collection for its oil and gas clients. But Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder and CEO of the company, is looking to take his technology into other industries.

The Pandata team is now expanding to fields like defense and healthcare, which also generate hundreds of thousands of data points that need it be checked. The unique challenges of working with large drilling rigs have translated well to working with aircrafts. And the healthcare field is similar — with the Texas Medical Center, Houston's medical research centers can benefit from hastening the process of data validation.

"There's so much data, and it's so noisy, that it's hard to know whether the data can be trusted or not," Sanchez says.

Read more about Pandata Tech here.

Camppedia

Camppedia, a Houston-based startup, can help match kids to summer camps all around town. Photos courtesy of Camppedia

Probably the least fun thing about summer camp is finding and booking the summer camp. Of course, this responsibility falls on the busy adults' to-do lists. Two Houston parents, Tudor Palaghita and his sister Ana, wanted to create a solution for the overwhelming process.

"We're working parents, we're strapped on time, but we want to make sure we give our kids enriching experiences," explains Ana. "One spring, we were going through the [camp search] process, and we talked about how difficult it was. And the next spring, we said, there's something here. We feel this pain, our friends feel this pain, and no one is helping us. Why don't we solve our problem ourselves?"

And that's exactly what they did. The duo used their business and technology backgrounds — Ana has an MBA from Northwestern University and built a successful career in a major financial institution, and Tudor has his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech — to launch Camppedia.com. The site is intended to be a one-stop shop for parents looking for camps for their children.

The tool launched in March of 2019, coinciding with spring break. Currently, it offers options throughout central Houston. Parents can select camps for their children based on interests, their ZIP codes, cost or even those that offer extended hours for moms and dads with full-time jobs.

Read more about Camppedia here.

HTX Labs

VR training startup, HTX Labs, recently brought on Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America as a client. Trainees can work on a digitized version of the plant that looks as real as could be. Courtesy of HTX Labs

Virtual and augmented reality training in industrial settings is on the rise as the process and technology allows for quicker training and minimized risk. Houston-based startup HTX Labs LLC is one of the tech companies at the forefront of the VR-infused modernization of workplace training. Among its customers are the United States Air Force, Mastercard, Rackspace, and Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America, a maker of hydrogen peroxide.

At its core, the company's VR training zeroes in on the trainee, providing engaging, interactive experiences that stress "learning by doing," Scott Schneider, founder and CEO of HTX Labs, says. Training programs that have been around for decades are "designed for trainers, not necessarily for trainees," he says.

Read more about HTX Labs here.

Lodgeur

Lodgeur provides its guests with hotel luxury with room to breathe. Courtesy of Lodgeur

Travelers are usually faced with a decision to make: Privacy and homeliness of an apartment rental or style and class of a hotel room. Houston-based Lodgeur hopes to exist to have the best of both worlds. With Houston's busy business travel industry, founcer Sébastien Long knew he was starting in a good market.

"We're roughly split between leisure guests and business travelers," Long says. "They want to feel like they're staying in a home away from home."

The first guests arrived in mid-April. Long wanted to open by managing just a few properties, to make sure the company could ensure great guest experiences.

Read more about Lodgeur here.

VR training startup, HTX Labs, recently brought on Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America as a client. Trainees can work on a digitized version of the plant that looks as real as could be. Courtesy of HTX Labs

This growing Houston startup is making training programs safer and cheaper with VR applications

VR verified

Many employers are doing reality checks when it comes to workplace training. They're wondering how they can better train their workers. But they're realizing that traditional training can be dull and even unproductive, so they're enlivening and enriching their training through virtual reality.

Houston-based startup HTX Labs LLC is one of the tech companies at the forefront of the VR-infused modernization of workplace training. Among its customers are the United States Air Force, Mastercard, Rackspace, and Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America, a maker of hydrogen peroxide.

For the Air Force, HTX Labs creates software that provides immersive training for pilots on how to deal with emergency procedures in the air and on the ground. This is something that traditionally has been carried out only with expensive simulators. Mastercard and Rackspace rely on HTX Labs' technology to teach employees — through VR-generated replicas of actual workspaces — how to handle active-shooter situations, workplace violence, and fires.

Solvay turned to the company for VR-propelled help with training workers about loading and unloading hazardous materials and other aspects of maintaining safety around potentially dangerous chemicals. HTX Labs and Solvay will jointly resell their VR-based courses to other companies, says Scott Schneider, founder and CEO of HTX Labs.

At its core, the company's VR training zeroes in on the trainee, providing engaging, interactive experiences that stress "learning by doing," Schneider says.

Training programs that have been around for decades are "designed for trainers, not necessarily for trainees," he says.

"A PowerPoint presentation, a YouTube video — it's all about the message the trainer wants to convey as opposed to 'Let's think about how people actually learn.' Studies show people learn by actively doing — active learning versus passive learning," Schneider continues. "We married that idea of active learning with virtual reality and immersive technology to deliver a learning experience that increases retention and the development of muscle memory."

In a VR-based training session, participants are equipped with VR headsets and are plunged into realistic environments where they're presented with scenarios in which they, for instance, pick up a fire extinguisher and put out a blaze, or they land or eject from a military jet that's experiencing a problem such as an engine fire.

Schneider says this type of interactive training helps participants boost the amount of information they remember. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, VR learners retain 75 percent of what they've been taught, compared with a 10 percent retention rate from reading or listening to a presentation.

"It's a much better way, a much more realistic way to learn," Schneider says.

Employers big and small are catching on to this kind of advanced training. According to Schneider, software produced by companies like HTX Labs allows employers to conduct training that:

  • Avoids unsafe real-life settings in favor of safe virtual settings.
  • Does not disrupt workplaces.
  • Reduces costs.

A CNBC article says the cost-saving aspect appeals to a number of employers like Boeing, UPS, and Walmart.

"Training facilities cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to build. Sending out-of-town employees to them racks up travel expenses. And the lost time for training is considerable," the article reads.

By comparison, a one-time investment in VR hardware and software — technology that can be used by many workers — might cost a couple of thousand dollars per employee.

"Most companies in the private sector are dipping their toes into it a bit, maybe doing some stuff internally," Schneider says of VR-based training. "But on a larger scale, there's not a lot of players doing exactly what we're doing."

Schneider envisions HTX Labs, which was founded in 2017, expanding into training centered on augmented reality and mixed reality.

For the uninitiated, VR refers to computer-generated 3D environments that you interact with and are immersed in, according to Live Science. AR superimposes sounds, images and text onto what you see in the real world, along the lines of "Minority Report" or "Iron Man," Live Science explains.

"Mixed reality is the result of blending the physical world with the digital world," according to Microsoft. "Mixed reality is the next evolution in human, computer, and environment interaction, and unlocks possibilities that before now were restricted to our imaginations."

No matter the type of technology, HTX Labs strives to "humanize training" by putting the student at the center of the learning experience, Schneider says.

For now, HTX Labs produces VR training software under the EMPACT brand name and teams up with hardware vendors to sell turnkey offerings.

Today, the company employs 12 people, all of whom are in Houston. Schneider would like to increase HTX Labs' headcount by 50 percent before the end of 2019. Also this year, Schneider hopes to raise its first round of outside capital, but only after HTX Labs secures more private and government contracts. And he doesn't rule out enlarging the company through M&A activity.

Overall, Schneider sees tremendous potential for HTX Labs, as pretty much any employer can benefit from VR training for its workers. VR training — already part of a multibillion-dollar VR market — is expected to be so pervasive, in fact, that software review website Capterra predicts one-third of small and midsize businesses in the U.S. will be piloting VR training of employees by 2021.

"VR is … being used to enhance employee training to give workers immersive 'learning by doing' opportunities they can't find in a classroom or online course," Capterra notes. "It's a revolution in an area that's historically been static and unengaging for workers."


The U.S. Air Force also uses HTX Labs' technologies to train for emergency response procedures.Courtesy of HTX Labs

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Overheard: Local innovation leaders share what they see has changed in Houston for venture investing

Eavesdropping online

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

Houston's Brené Brown rises strong with new podcast and exclusive Spotify deal

now streaming

For two decades, renowned Houston thought leader and researcher Brené Brown has delved into the human condition, studying and exploring themes such as courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. Her work has made her a national figure as a five-time New York Times bestselling author and as a host of one of the most popular TED Talks of all time.

Now, Brown is leaping forward with her self-help work with an exclusive new multi-year deal with Spotify. The Houstonian will host a new podcast, "Dare to Lead," which will premiere exclusively on Spotify on October 19, according to a press release. Fans can also look for her beloved "Unlocking Us" podcast to move to Spotify in January 2021.

Brown said in a statement that it was "very important to me to build a podcast home where people could continue to listen for free."

In an added treat for those who love Yacht Rock (and who doesn't, frankly?), Brown is taking over Spotify's Yacht Rock Playlist and has added her favorite tunes (look for smart picks such as Christoper Cross, Doobie Brothers, TOTO, and more).

As for the podcast, "Dare to Lead" will feature conversations with "change-catalysts, culture-shifters and more than a few troublemakers who are innovating, creating, and daring to lead," according to a statement. It mirrors Brown's bestselling book of the same name.

"I've partnered with Spotify because I wanted a home for both podcasts," Brown added, "and I wanted it to be a place that felt collaborative, creative, adventurous, and full of music — like my actual house, where you'd find guitar stands in every room and framed pictures of everyone from Willie Nelson and Aretha Franklin to Freddy Fender, Mick Jagger, and Angus Young hanging on my walls."

When she's not overseeing her multimedia brand, podcasting, writing, hosting, and programming Spotify playlists, Brown serves as a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work. She is also a visiting professor in management at The University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

She is also the author of four other No. 1 New York Times bestselling books, including The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness. Her 2010 "The Power of Vulnerability" TED Talk has consistently been rated one of the top five most-watched of all time, with more than 50 million views. She is also the first researcher to have a filmed talk on Netflix; her "The Call to Courage" debuted on the streaming service in 2019.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.