Together, the city and HCC will train Houstonians in resiliency preparedness. Image via Getty Images

Last week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner looked back on the past five years since Hurricane Harvey and made a lofty goal to provide the community with resiliency training.

The city of Houston and Houston Community College signed a memorandum of understanding that will address the city's goal to train 500,000 citizens, employees, small businesses, volunteers, and first responders in new resiliency training programs starting this fall.

The agreement was signed last week at the "Embracing Resiliency Symposium" hosted by the Resilience Innovation Hub, Amegy Bank, and HCC in front of 175 business, civic, community, education, and government leaders attending.

“I am pleased to announce the City of Houston’s partnership with Houston Community College’s new Resilience Center of Excellence and the Operations Training Facility and all the many ways we will collectively pave the path for a stronger and more prepared citizens, workforce, and community and a more resilient future,” Mayor Turner says at the event.

“Five years back, as we faced the wrath and impacts of Hurricane Harvey, it was a moment of reckoning for us as a city. It spurred us to think more cohesively about response and recovery; and most importantly, it urged us to think about building forward from recovery, from response towards resilience," he continues.

Starting this fall, the Houston community will have access to the following seven resiliency courses:

  • Resiliency 101 + Community Emergency Response Training (CERT)
  • Disaster Case Management
  • Facilities and Infrastructure
  • Disaster Recovery
  • Drones, Data Science, and Internet of Things
  • Public Safety and Rescue
  • Medical Triage

An additional 30 courses and programs will follow in 2023.

“As Mayor Turner recently stated, the lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey and subsequent disasters have identified one common take-away: When we work together as a team, Greater Houston is always resilient,” HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado says at the event. “In light of this observation, we must remain vigilant so these disasters will not continue to harm our families, our neighborhoods, our companies, our facilities and the community-at-large."

Earlier this summer, HCC announced that it is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

"The HCC Resiliency Center of Excellence and Operations Training Facility will contribute to addressing preparedness and long-term mitigation from future floods, storms, snow and ice, pandemics and other challenges that have cost the region in the loss of lives, community, operations, and economic competitiveness," Maldonado continues.

The roof of Carnegie Vanguard High School features an example of the Green Stormwater Infrastructure. Photo courtesy of the City of Houston

City of Houston launches pilot program to promote stormwater infrastructure growth

seeing green

The City of Houston has launched a pilot project that will speed up the permitting process for environmentally friendly stormwater projects.

The Green Stormwater Infrastructure Expedited Permitting Pilot Program, announced August 4, will approve at least 10 projects in the Houston area by August 2022. In conjunction with the Resilient Houston initiative, the city is targeting 100 green stormwater infrastructure projects by 2025.

The city is working on rules and regulations that will govern development of green stormwater infrastructure. Mayor Sylvester Turner rolled out a tax abatement program for green stormwater infrastructure projects last December.

According to a city news release, green stormwater infrastructure improves the performance of drainage systems and can make real estate projects more attractive to buyers, while delivering benefits such as heat reduction, improvement of air and water quality, and conservation of native habitats.

Green stormwater infrastructure helps reduce the downstream impact of development and mimics how rain behaves when it falls onto an undeveloped green landscape. Techniques that fit into this category include green roofs, rain gardens, rainwater harvesting, permeable pavement, and urban forests.

"In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, we have taken critical steps to address our flooding and drainage challenges. As Houston has rapidly developed, we have relied on traditional gray infrastructure systems to keep us safe. However, as we build forward, we must consider new and innovative approaches for achieving greater flood resilience in Houston," the city says in a 2019 report about green stormwater infrastructure.

Traditional "gray" infrastructure, designed to move urban stormwater away from the built environment, includes curbs, gutters, drains, piping, and collection systems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Generally, gray infrastructure collects and moves stormwater from impervious surfaces, such as roadways, parking lots, and rooftops, and into a series of pipes that ultimately send untreated stormwater into local waterways.

In tandem with Houston's new permitting program, the city has created the Green Stormwater Infrastructure Awards and Recognition Program. The program salutes green development and redevelopment projects. It "is intended to recognize some of the most effective and exemplary of 'green' building in Houston and encourage more development projects to adopt resilient measures," according to the news release.

Projects considered for the awards program will be judged on factors such as:

  • Proximity to nearby communities.
  • Impact on nearby communities.
  • Efforts to conserve native plants.

Turner says the permitting and awards programs are part of an initiative aimed at "futureproofing our city" to ease harm caused by hurricanes and flooding.

"In Houston and in towns across the U.S., climate change is no longer knocking on our front door; it's broken into the house," Turner wrote in an opinion piece published in July by The Hill.

The innovations and Houston startups that came out of Hurricane Harvey are no coincidence. Richard Seline of ResilientH2O Partners explains how he's helping foster new hurricane and flood prevention technologies in the Bayou City. Photo courtesy of ResilientH20

New Houston hub calls for collaboration for flood and hurricane prevention innovation

Houston innovators podcast episode 43

When it comes to insurance, most people's interaction is pretty limited buying a plan, filing claims when need be, and paying the monthly bill. However, unbeknownst to most of their insured clients, insurance companies are investing in insuratech and new innovations within the natural disaster space.

Richard Seline, managing director of ResilientH20, along with the Insurance Information Institute and The Cannon, to launch the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub to foster this type of technology and bring insuratech startups and the big insurance players to the table — something that's not often done.

"It's two different languages," Seline says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's a whole language and a whole mindset within the insurance industry that is not real well known."

The hub, which is based in downtown Houston's Cannon Tower, has been hard at work hosting virtual pitch events and networking opportunities since it launched in June just as the 2020 hurricane season commenced. Seline explains the mission is threefold: allow for reverse pitching where insurance companies tell innovators what their challenges are in hopes of inspiring new technology, introducing insuratech companies to potential investors or clients, and fostering innovation for new natural disaster prevention innovations.

On the podcast, Seline discusses new endeavors he's working on within his organization and explains the role his feels the new hub has in Houston's innovation ecosystem. To him, the city must work collaboratively to move the needle on growth of its innovation ecosystem.

"The good news is there is a lot of great activity underway in Houston right now — no questions asked," Seline says. "What we are doing can be seen as complimentary and not competitive with anyone else."

From game-changing startups to watch out for to upcoming events and partnerships for the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub, check out the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



From a water-absorbing tower to sensor-enabled rubber ducks, here are some flooding solution ideas coming out of Houston. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

These Houston entrepreneurs and startups are searching for flooding solutions

Flood tech

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston.

Self-deploying flood protection for buildings

FloodFrame's technology can protect a home or commercial building from flood water damage. Photo via floodframe.com

A self-deploying flood damage prevention device caught Tasha Nielsen's eye on a trip to Denmark, and then launched the U.S. iteration of FloodFrame to bring the technology here.

FloodFrame works by using buoyancy. A lightweight cloth is wrapped around a tube is installed underground outside the perimeter of your home or business. One end of that cloth is attached to a box that is also installed underground. As flooding begins, an automatic system will release the lids to deploy the inflation of the tube that will protect the structure. When the flood comes in, the system will float on top of the flood — kind of like a pool noodle — and protect the structure from the water.

FloodFrame adds a level of security during flooding events and can be considered more cost-effective when compared to the high cost of renovating or rebuilding after flooding.

"Right now we are focused on residential but I think there's a huge potential for it to go commercial. A lot of commercial buildings are self insured, and commercial developers, industrial developers, this would be a drop in the bucket for the overall cost of the entire project," Nielsen tells InnovationMap. "For homeowners, it's kind of a bigger expense, but I think there is the potential for homebuilders to include it as an option in the entire package of a new house because when you put it in to a mortgage, it's only another like $0.50 a month."

A waterproof container for your car.

After the floods from Hurricane Harvey totaled her car, Rahel Abraham wanted to find a solution. ClimaGuard/Facebook

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey seriously damaged about 600,000 vehicles in the Houston area, which included Rahel Abraham's 2008 Infiniti G35. Now, Abraham's brainchild forms the backbone of her Houston-based startup, ClimaGuard LLC. The company's waterproof, temperature-resistant, portable Temporary Protective Enclosure (TPE) can entirely cover a compact car, sedan, or midsize SUV. It comes in three sizes; the cost ranges from $349 to $499.

To protect a vehicle, someone sets a TPE on the ground, a driveway, or another flat surface, then drives the vehicle onto the bottom part of the product, and connects the bottom and top parts with the zipper. Abraham likens it to a clamshell preserving a pearl.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham tells InnovationMap.

A network to find shelter.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks tells InnovationMap. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Now Hicks is growing GotSpot in hopes that short-term rental space and emergency housing can be smooth sailing no matter the circumstances. Recently, the company was named a finalist for MassChallenge Texas in Austin.

A water-absorbing tower. 

Fil Trat would be able to absorb water, filter it, and release it into the body of water when the time comes. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many Houstonians began to think of solutions for the next time Mother Nature struck with her full-force of flooding. Gensler designers Chelsea Bryant, Jordan Gomez, Luisa Melendez, Barbara Novoa, Benjamin Nanson, Maria Qi, and Melinda Ubera created a solution as a part of Gensler's By Design program called Fil Trat. The tower can absorb, filter, and store flood waters until the bayou is ready for the water to be released — cleaner than it was before.

During Harvey, thousands of people were displaced, but Fil Trat has a solution for that too. The tower's floors would alternate between filtration floors and shelters, which could house up to 24 families per floor.

While the suggested Houston locale would be by Buffalo Bayou, the group suggests putting the tower in other coastal cities at risk of devastating flooding.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks that can track weather developments.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl, tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

Restored native wetland coastal prairies.

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water. Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership, has been taking every opportunity to raise awareness on the importance of prairie restoration.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Memorial Park Conservancy's master plan redevelopment project, which is being supported by the Kinder Foundation, includes a lot of prairie restoration plans is expected to deliver by 2028.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks, Kinder Foundation, and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. An ongoing part of the transformation will be stormwater management upgrades. MPC has budgeted $3 million to this asset of the renovation. While a part of the plan is tributaries for run-off water, bringing back prairie and wetlands will do a great deal to help abate stormwater.

"We're taking ball fields, parking lots, and roads and converting them back to what was here — native wetland coastal prairie," MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold tells InnovationMap. "This serves important stormwater purposes."

After the floods from Hurricane Harvey totaled her car, Rahel Abraham wanted to find a solution. ClimaGuard/Facebook

Houston entrepreneur has created a way to protect vehicles from devastating floods

Car safety

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey seriously damaged about 600,000 vehicles in the Houston area, driving millions upon millions of dollars in auto insurance claims. Rahel Abraham's 2008 Infiniti G35 was among them.

Rather than merely moving on from the hurricane, though, Abraham — drawing upon her experience as an engineer in Houston's petrochemical industry — invented something that she foresaw shielding cars from the economic wrath of flooding.

Now, Abraham's brainchild forms the backbone of her Houston-based startup, ClimaGuard LLC. The next several weeks promise to be momentous for the business — Abraham will enter the 12-week DivInc business accelerator program in Austin in late August, and the company's first product is set to hit the market in early September.

ClimaGuard's waterproof, temperature-resistant, portable Temporary Protective Enclosure (TPE) can entirely cover a compact car, sedan, or midsize SUV. It comes in three sizes; the cost ranges from $349 to $499.

To protect a vehicle, someone sets a TPE on the ground, a driveway, or another flat surface, then drives the vehicle onto the bottom part of the product, and connects the bottom and top parts with the zipper. Abraham likens it to a clamshell preserving a pearl.

Once the vehicle is inside the TPE, it can be anchored with straps to a sturdy fixture. It's designed to withstand up to three feet of water and keep the vehicle from floating away.

One person can set up a TPE in less than five minutes, Abraham says.

She hopes to team up with auto insurers to offer discounts for policyholders that have a TPE. This, Abraham says, would spur more people to buy the product.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham says.

Among potential customers for the TPE are car owners, homeowners, small businesses, first-responder organizations, and nonprofit agencies, Abraham says. Other than vehicles, the product could protect valuables like antique pianos and restaurant gear, according to Abraham.

The sense of "helplessness and vulnerability" Abraham felt after her car was lost in Hurricane Harvey propelled her to devise ClimaGuard's TPE, she says, so that others might avoid enduring the sort of "stressful and traumatic" ordeal that she did.

Another catalyst: After hatching the idea for the TPE, Abraham learned that more than 41 million Americans live in federally designated flood zones, and that flooding is the costliest type of natural disaster in the U.S. and is forecast to occur more frequently. That research "validated my gut feeling," she says.

Abraham, a first-time entrepreneur, founded the bootstrapped startup in 2018, just a year after Harvey. Today, she's the only full-time employee of ClimaGuard. She holds a bachelor's in chemical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's degree in environmental engineering from the University of Houston.

Abraham says she hopes participating in the 12-week DivInc accelerator program in Austin will broaden her business network and hone her marketing skills. ClimaGuard was among 13 companies selected for this fall's DivInc group, which is sponsored by JPMorgan Chase.

DivInc aims to diversify the startup environment by offering workshops, mentoring, and business-strategy assistance to underrepresented entrepreneurs — people of color and women. The Austin-based nonprofit organization chooses participants through an application process that its program director, Brooke Turner, describes as being "extremely competitive" this year.

"It's tough being a developer or entrepreneur when no one looks like you when you walk into a room of other developers or entrepreneurs," DivInc co-founder Ashley Jennings told Crunchbase in 2017. "How can they feel that they fit in? So what we have now is an opportunity to create role models with this generation."
Reda Hicks (left) of GotSpot Inc, Ghazal Qureshi (center) of Idea Lab Kids, and Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother are this week's innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston female entrepreneurs to know this week

Who's who

Another Monday means another set of innovators to know. This one focuses on a few female startup leaders changing the game in the commercial real estate and education industries.

Reda Hicks, founder and CEO of GotSpot Inc.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

Turns out, Hurricane Harvey was the big push Reda Hicks needed to create her startup, GotSpot Inc., the Airbnb of commercial real estate.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Hicks, a lawyer by trade, now juggles startup life, being a wife and mom, and her full-time legal career. Read the rest of the story here.

Ghazal Qureshi, founder of Idea Lab Kids

Ghazal Qureshi wanted to engage her own kids in educational activities. Now, her programing has expanded worldwide. Courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

At first, Ghazal Qureshi just wanted to find her kids a quality after school educational program. When she couldn't, she decided to make something herself. Now, it's a franchised company with locations worldwide.

"From the beginning, we were never restricted by trying to make money. It was a passion project only," Qureshi says.

IDEA Lab Kids, an education program focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, has 18 locations in Houston, and, two years ago, she expanded the brand into a franchise business — the Idea Lab International Franchise Company. Read the rest of the story here.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell's startup, Work & Mother, provides a new way for new moms to pump breast milk during the workday. Courtesy of Work & Mother

When Abbey Donnell heard horror stories from some friends who recently returned to work after giving birth, she had an idea. What if new moms had a stylish, spa-like lactation experience during the workday that was less inconvenient and, well, awkward.

"There were constant stories about [women] being told the use the IT closet, or the conference room, or the bathroom or their cars," Donnell says. "Some of them were pretty big oil and gas firms companies that should've had the resources and space to do better than that."

Donnell founded Work & Mother, a boutique pumping and wellness center, and opened the first location in downtown Houston in 2017 and is planning its second downtown location. Read the rest of the story here.

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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.