At a recent virtual event, experts discussed the hard tech wave that's coming for Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The past couple decades of innovation has been largely defined by software — and its been a bit of a boom. However, lately it's become evident that it's time for hardware innovation to shine.

At the HX Venture Fund's recent conference, Venture Houston, a few hard tech innovators joined a virtual discussion on the future of hardware — and what Houston's role will be in it.

When it comes to advancing technology for humankind, Adam Sharkawy, founder and managing partner of Boston-based Material Impact, a HXVF portfolio fund, says it's time to expand the walls of what is possible.

"Unlike other types of technologies that may facilitate the possible, deep and hard technologies expand what is in the realm of the possible," he says on the panel. "Software has caught up, and we need a new deep tech wave."

And the future looks promising, as Sharkawy says he's seen hard tech grow over the past 5 to 7 years by about 22 percent. Nic Radford, president and CEO of Houston Mechatronics agrees it's time to shift the focus to hard tech.

"The Information Age was the ubiquitous manipulation of the virtual world, but now we need to uncover the ubiquitous manipulation of the physical world is," he says. "And we need to make those investments toward that."

But investments seem, at least in the recent past, harder to come by for hard tech startups compared to software companies with quick exit strategies.

"Deep tech is traditionally thought of as requiring deep pockets," Sharkawy says.

Radford says there was over $167 billion in capital deployments last year, and only 8 percent of that went to industrial or hard tech. Hardware, he says, is tougher to evaluate, they take longer to exit and are tougher to scale.

"To me that's what makes them a gold mine," Radford adds. "It's an underserved market for sure, and that's because we're tougher to evaluate."

Something to note though, he continues, is that hard tech is going to have a bigger societal impact, but maybe it's not the one with the biggest return.

"I think corporates have an special role to play in the inevitability of hard tech," Radford says. "They aren't completely motivated by financial returns."

Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, says he's had a different experience with raising funds. The Houston entrepreneur has raised over $100 million and is planning to go public soon. He's achieved this by attracting investment from the top VC funds in the country. If you zero in on these powerful funds, you can see they are dedicating more and more funds to this arena. And, he predicts, other VC funds will follow.

"This is a unique time for hardware companies to go and and raise from the top venture capitals of the world," Chakrabarti says.

The city of Houston, with its firm footing in the energy and space industries has an important role to play in this new era.

"The Houston area has all the key ingredients to be an innovation hub — no question," Sharkawy says.

The panelists identified Houston's fine education institutions, major corporations present, access to talent, and more as indicators for success. But the innovation here needs to continue to develop intentionally.

"I'd love to see Houston not try to copycat into a general tech hub," Sharkawy says. "Instead it would be great for Houston leverage its unique position as a leader in energy and space and help its constituents of more traditional energy — big corporates, for example — transform into the new frontier."

Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says she's seen the space industry take off as the field becomes more and more commercialized. And locally there's a lot of potential for Houston and all the resources and infrastructure that already exists.

"It's about taking what you're good at, and making it better," she says.

Each of the panelists expressed confidence in this evolving wave of hard tech — and are keeping a close watch on the major players as well as the city of Houston.

"We're going to have to get into the world and do something," Radford says. "That next wave of innovation is specifically interacting with our environment, in my opinion."

Venture Houston brought together key innovators and investors focused on Houston — here's what they said. Photo via Getty Images

Overheard: Here's what experts say on the future of startup investment in Houston

eavesdropping in houston

Last week, over 2,500 people registered to Venture Houston to talk about startups and venture capital in Houston for two full days.

The two-day conference, which was put on by HXVF, the Houston Angel Network, the Rice Alliance, and Houston Exponential, took place February 4th and 5th and brought together startups, investors, corporations, and anyone who cares to advance the Houston tech ecosystem.

Click here to see what companies won big in the event's startup pitch competition.

Throughout the various panels and keynote addresses, Houston innovation leaders sounded off on what the future of Houston looks like in terms of venture activity. Missed the discussion or just want a refresher on on the highlights? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual conference.

“The way I look at it, Houston has an opportunity to really emerge as one of the leading startup cities in the country.”

Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution Ventures and co-founder of AOL.

He makes a reference to the iconic line "Houston, we have a problem" — which now is defined by a time of opportunity. Case adds that his VC fund, Revolution, which has invested in Houston-based GoodFair, is looking for new investments in Houston.

“We were behind. We were slow to start, but in typical Houston fashion, now we are escalating with real momentum."

Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner of Deloitte and 2021 Greater Houston Partnership board chair.

Chronis notes on the fact that VC activity in Houston is up 250 percent since 2016, and in that time the city has focused on diversifying its business. Now, the city touts its active corporate community, global diversity, and more.

"In Houston, companies and talent are looking at ways to change the world," she adds.

“I see there being a significant amount of seed capital taking off.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and The Artemis Fund.

Campbell calls out new funds to Houston, like Golden Section Ventures and her own fund, Artemis. She adds that with over $700 million invested in Houston deals last year, the city is in a good place, and she is anticipating more angel activity.

"While this is really exciting progress, there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of seed and early-stage funding," she continues.

“I see there being billion-dollar venture funds here in Houston on the life science front over the next decade.”

John "JR" Reale, managing director of Integr8d Capital.

Reale, who's also the executive in residence at TMC Innovation, says he's seen the growth and potential of the life science industry in Houston.

"You can see the intentionality of the infrastructure that's being built that's going to attract diverse founders and all talent," he says.

“What I really see is the trajectory for Houston has been changing over the last couple years.”

Brad Burke, managing director for the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

Burke points to three things that have really moved the needle on Houston's progress as an innovative city. The first was the Texas Medical Center establishing its Innovation Institute a few years back, and the next is how Houston's top energy companies are making big moves to support the energy transition. Finally, he says, The Ion, which is set to open this year, is the third reflection point for progress.

“The Houston startup scene is a very special place. It’s a community I actively choose to be a part of, and it activates me every day.”

Rakesh Agrawal, CEO and founder of SnapStream.

“We’ve got a really incredible story to tell.”

Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development for the GHP.

Davenport adds that this is exactly what the GHP is doing — making Houston's story known. And she says they have talked to global business leaders and they describe the city as a modern, cosmopolitan, truly global city.

Register for some of these informative online events happening throughout the month of February. Photo via Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events online in February ​

where to be online

February may be the shortest month, but it's jam-packed with online innovation and startup events that Houston innovators need to know about.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — from workshops and webinars to summits and pitch parties. Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

February 2 — Perfecting Your Pitch Deck

Join The Ion for our series with DeckLaunch and Fresh Tech Solutionz as they discuss the importance and value of your pitch deck when reaching your target audience.

The event is on Tuesday, February 2, at 1 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 4 — Building Together for the Future

A celebration of building—building Greentown Houston, building community, and building connections across Houston's cleantech ecosystem.

The event is on Thursday, February 4, at 4 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 4-5 — Venture Houston

The HX Venture Fund and its partners are putting on a jam-packed two-day online conference focused on venture capital in Houston. There will also be. a pitch competition with over $1.6 million in prizes. (InnovationMap is the media partner for Venture Houston.)

The event is on Thursday, February 4, and Friday, February 5. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 5 — Funding Your Startup Ask Me Anything

Join Hello Alice for an AMA event to learn all about Funding Your Business Startup with our expert Henri Pierre-Jacques, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Harlem Capital, a venture capital firm changing the face of entrepreneurship. He has led 13 investments and currently sits on 4 boards.

The event is on Friday, February 5, at 1:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 9 — Ladies who LaUNCH #11: Etiquette in Entrepreneurship with Merci Grace

Etiquette in entrepreneurship is a well-kept secret, and an understanding of startup culture and decision-making can set successful entrepreneurs and companies apart from the rest. Join Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for its 11th Ladies who LaUNCH event, featuring Merci Grace, partner at Lightspeed Ventures.

The event is on Tuesday, February 9, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 10 – Lilie Lecture with John Paul DeJoria

Join Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for its first fireside chat with the inspirational, rags-to-riches serial entrepreneur, John Paul Dejoria — co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair products and The Patrón Spirits Company — as he shares his entrepreneurial journey.

The event is on Wednesday, February 10, at 4 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 16 — Black in Tech Summit presented by Deloitte

Capital Factory is dedicated to increasing diversity in the tech community and making its coworking space an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds and identities. The organization says the 3rd annual event is ideal for Black leaders, entrepreneurs, and allies in tech who support and invest in diversity and inclusion.

The event is on Tuesday, February 16, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 16 — E-Commerce Panel Discussion: Overcoming E-Commerce Challenges

As the world continues to navigate this new normal in the midst of COVID-19, The Ion will continue to bring panel discussions that will cover tools and strategies that are making it possible for businesses and consumers to stay connected.This month's guests are the co-founders of Melanoid Exchange.

The event is on Tuesday, February 16, at 5:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 17 — MassChallenge: From Idea to IPO

The journey from idea to IPO is full of twists and turns. Hear how two expert CEOs stayed laser-focused on impact amidst uncertainty, successfully taking their startups public during the COVID pandemic. This exclusive MassChallenge event will feature Thomas Healy, CEO of Hyliion (MC Boston 2015), and Armon Sharei, CEO of SQZ BioTech (MC Boston 2014).

The event is on Wednesday, February 17, at 10:30 am. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 17 — Top Legal Considerations for Startups

Join Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for a session with corporate and securities lawyer Aaron Barker, who specializes in advising companies from formation to exit, will give you the inside knowledge to help you launch your venture, and possibly save you from making a rookie mistake.

The event is on Wednesday, February 17, at 4 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 17 — EnventureSA "Inspire" Seminar Series - With Dr. Rafael Veraza

Enventure's "Inspire" Seminar Series teaches about the reality of working in the biotech and biomedical fields. This month's event will star Dr. Rafael J. Veraza as guest speaker. Dr. Veraza received an MPH at Emory University and a PhD in Translational Science at UT Health San Antonio. After graduating, he also completed a Postdoc at UT Health while working as a Senior Scientist at Vascular Perfusion Solutions, Inc. where he currently serves as the Director of Translational Science.

The event is on Wednesday, February 17, at 6 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 18 — Tech and Space

Five Space City representatives join General Assembly to discuss all about space challenges and innovations.

  • Deanea LeFlore - Senior Director, Partnerships, The Ion
  • Nicholas Skytland - Deputy Chief, Exploration Technology Office, NASA
  • Guy de Carufel - CEO, Cognitive Space
  • Samantha Snabes - Co-founder: Catalyst, re:3D Inc
  • Tara Karimi - Founder and Chief Scientist, Cemvita Factory Inc.

The event is on Thursday, February 18, at noon. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 18 — Building Black Wealth in the 21st Century

Join Urban Capital Network (UCN) and special guests to engage in an open discussion on building black wealth in the 21st century.

The event is on Thursday, February 18, at 5:30 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

February 24 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a flagship event from The Ion, formerly known as Demo Day. This event will allow for developing companies to receive feedback from subject matter experts and showcase their successes thus far. The event is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions, and results in a final winner to close the series in November. Companies are encouraged to apply online to pitch.

The event is on Wednesday, February 24, at 6 pm. It's free and can be accessed online. Click here to register.

Guillermo Borda and Sandy Guitar, managing directors at the HX Venture Fund, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Venture Houston. Photos courtesy

Local fund of funds to put a national spotlight on venture capital in Houston

Houston Innovators Podcast Episode 66

The role of the HX Venture Fund is to pull out-of-Houston venture capital funds into the Houston innovation ecosystem — and the fund of funds is hoping to exactly that with an inaugural event next month.

Venture Houston, which is taking place online on February 4th and 5th, will bring together entrepreneurs, corporations, venture capital investors, and startup development organizations for a summit full of thought leadership — as well as a startup pitch competition with over $1.7 million on the line. (InnovationMap is the media partner for the event.)

HXVF Managing Directors Guillermo Borda and Sandy Guitar joined the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss what they are most excited from the events.

"In this conference, we have representation from all stakeholders," Borda says, recognizing that HXVF has connected VCs with more than $4 billion of ready-to-deploy capital to Houston startups. "This conference is a way of engaging that further — we call that activation."

With the rollercoaster that 2020 was, Borda and Guitar recognize how timely a conference like this is. Guitar says on the show that with all the challenges that came with remote working, investors are all the more prepared for the future. Besides, she adds, a crisis is a perfect time for technology to rise to the top.

"COVID is real and the disruption is significant, but in the eyes of a venture capitalist, this is opportunity," Guitar says. "This is a groundbreaking time for VCs. ... The best VCs and the best entrepreneurs are leaning in on these opportunities."

With HXVF's ultimate goal to drive investment into Houston startups, Venture Houston will also feature a startup pitch competition that will have investment opportunities from the likes of Mercury Fund, The Artemis Fund, Montrose Lane, Fitz Gate Ventures, and more. Startups can apply to the contest online until Friday, January 15.

"We are asking as many Houston entrepreneurs who are considering raising capital now or any time in the next year to apply to this pitch competition," Guitar says. "The prizes we have are phenomenal and can really help get a young company started."

Guitar and Borda discuss more about the event and the future of venture capital in Houston on the show. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Register for Venture Houston on February 4th and 5th, plus apply to pitch your startup and win thousands of dollars in investments. Photo via Getty Images

Now is the time to bring venture capital to Houston

Time to Connect

For so many, COVID has changed the game, and venture capitalists, startups, and corporations are in a flurry to learn the new rules. Investors and entrepreneurs now more than ever are seizing the opportunity to engage with tech ecosystems in cities like Houston to take advantage of large corporations as neighbors and possible customers to their startups.

Through the intersection of these groups comes great opportunity and massive unlocked potential. But the execution of this intersection must be curated in order to be effective. HX Venture Fund, Houston's strategic venture capital fund-of-funds, is working to not only bring these groups together, but to create a collision that paves the way for innovation and information to flow among all parties.

In a world in which we are "colliding" from our home offices and dining room tables, the stakes are high, and these intersection opportunities cannot be missed.

In February, HX Venture Fund — in collaboration with Rice Alliance, Houston Angel Network, and Houston Exponential — will bring this conversation to Houston through Venture Houston, a two-day virtual event connecting venture capitalists from across the country to Houston entrepreneurs and corporations.

Steve Case, Chairman & CEO at Revolution Ventures and co-founder of AOL, will kick off the conversation by discussing how this wave of innovation is coming to Houston and why our city is perfectly equipped to let it thrive. Venture capitalists from Houston, as well as the HX Venture Fund portfolio, will give their unique perspective on how to scale a startup in Houston and why they are looking to invest their capital in the city's growing innovation ecosystem.

Some of Houston's best success stories and founders — Shashi Narahari of High Radius, Joe Alapat of Liongard, Bryan Sansbury of AEGIS Hedging, Kim Raath of Topl, Ben Johnson of Spruce, and others — will discuss their successful navigation of Houston's startup ecosystem, from raising capital to finding talent.

And some of the city's most prominent corporations, including all of HX Venture Fund's Limited Partners — such as Insperity, Rice Management Company, and LyondellBasell — will discuss how their industry verticals are changing and how innovation is the key to their future successes.

The two conference days will end with a pitch competition specifically for Houston and Gulf Coast Region startups with over $1.7 million in investment and in-kind prizes from investors across the nation and the HX Venture Fund portfolio in an effort to showcase and power the very best entrepreneurs in our city.

While the landscape is changing and subsequent innovation more disruptive than ever, HX Venture Fund is determined to not let this opportunity go to waste and to fuel the innovation that comes with it. The experience of the venture capitalists, the rigor of the entrepreneur, and the network of the corporation are the key elements to setting the innovation ecosystem alight. Venture Houston 2021 will be one of the places that sparks the flame.

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Venture Houston is taking place online February 4-5. Click here to register. The startup pitch competition application deadline is January 15 — click here to apply.

From startup pitch competitions seeking applications to Houston startups with big news, here are the latest short stories of Houston innovation. Photo courtesy TMC Innovation

TMCx company recognized internationally, Cannon acquires Houston fintech startup, and more innovation news

short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news fresh out of the gate for 2021, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a TMCx startup gets called out by Time Magazine, pitch competitions seek entries for thousands of dollars of investment prizes, and more.

The Cannon closes its acquisition of LetsLaunch

The Cannon has announced that it has has acquired Houston-based crowdfunding startup LetsLaunch. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Last summer, The Cannon, a Houston startup development organization with a network of coworking hubs, announced its plans to acquire a Houston fintech startup, LetsLaunch. The online investment platform allows for smaller investments from non-accredited investors and has been connected with The Cannon in the past, and the two entities have even had a partnership arrangement.

As of last week, The Cannon has officially acquired LetsLaunch. The deal allows Cannon member companies access to a new fundraising option.

"The Cannon and LetsLaunch have a shared vision for enabling and optimizing the innovation ecosystem," says Jon Lambert, CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. "LetsLaunch has passionately developed a technology platform that will deliver significant value to the entrepreneurial community by bringing together start-ups and investors of all kinds. By integrating the LetsLaunch platform into The Cannon's digital offerings, we will enhance the fundraising and strategic connection value we offer to our innovation community."

TMCx startup named to Time's top inventions

A U.K. company that recently participated in TMCx has been honored by Time Magazine. Photo courtesy of TMC

Health tech startup, Virti, which recently completed the Texas Medical Center's startup accelerator, was honored among Time Magazine's top inventions of 2020 in the augmented and virtual reality category.

Virti's artificial intelligence provides its users with instant feedback on training — and, in light of the pandemic, event indicates the right way to wear personal protective equipment, administer treatment, or ventilate a patient. According to a press release, this technology — as compared to traditional face-to-face training — has proven a 230 percent increase in knowledge gain and a 52 percent reduction in skill-fade post-training.

In the United Kingdom, where Virti was founded, the technology has been used to train 100,000 NHS staff, according to the release.

"This achievement rounds off what has been a very exciting year for Virti with significant growth in the United States and internationally building on successful partnerships such as the UK TMC BioBridge through the UK's Department for International Trade (DIT)," says Dr. Alex Young, Virti founder and CEO, in the press release.

Virti has US offices in Houston and the West Coast.

"The evidence is clear — immersive training that simulates real-world situations is more conducive to long-term memory and recall," says Lance Black, associate director of TMC Innovation, in the release. "Virti has unlocked how to provide high quality education to care teams to better prepare them for any situation as evidenced by their rapid adoption within the Texas Medical Center. The recognition by Time further demonstrates that Virti is ushering us into a new era of education and training, one that blurs the line between reality and fiction."

HX Venture Fund calls for Houston startups for pitch competition

The HX Venture Fund is looking for startups to pitch at a new event. Photo via Getty Images

The HX Venture Fund is preparing for two-day summit — called Venture Houston — next month and is looking for local startups to pitch in the conference's pitch competition.

According to the website, HXVF is looking for all pre-seed through series B companies interested in venture backing, and headquartered in Houston and the Gulf Coast Region. The competition has $1.65 million in investment prizes on the line from investors like Fitz Gate Ventures, The Artemis Fund, Montrose Lane (née Cottonwood Venture Partners), Mercury Fund, and more.

The application for the pitch competition is due January 15 and can be submitted online. If selected, startups will pitch during the February 4-5 event. To register for the virtual event, click here.

Validere announces partnership with California company to focus on ESG

Validere has a new partnership. Photo courtesy of Validere

Canadian energy supply chain software company, Validere, which has a growing presence in Houston, has announced a new strategic partnership with California-based Xpansiv. According to a news release, the partnership "enables the registration and transaction of digitized commodity products with embedded Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) attributes that support integration of ESG data into commodity markets."

Validere works with its oil and gas customers to provide tech solutions to connect, track, and audit data, allowing for transparency and optimization. This technology also allows corporations to prioritize ESG initiatives — something Nicole Rogers, senior vice president at Validere, recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss.

"Validere is proud to partner with Xpansiv to provide another pathway to value creation for our customers," Validere CEO Nouman Ahmad says in a news release. "The initiative supports our defining belief that accurate, accessible product-quality data can be used to create multiple forms of value."

Apply now: Capital Factory to host pitch competition for Black entrepreneurs

Capital Factory is hosting its annual Black in Tech event. Getty Images

For the third year, Capital Factory, a Texas-wide startup development organization, is seeking Black entrepreneurs to pitch for a $100,000 prize. The competition, which will be on February 16 during Capital Factory's Black in Tech Summit, will have five technology startup finalists that will be judged by a panel of successful entrepreneurs, industry leaders and mentors. One startup will take home a $100,000 prize.

The application deadline is January 22, and any startups with a Black founder can apply online. For more information on the summit and the competition, click here.

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.