IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want. Photo courtesy of Boxes

With the help of a new conversational artificial intelligence platform, a Houston startup is ready to let brands get up close and personal with consumers while minimizing waste.

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want.

The Boxes device, about the size of a 40-inch television screen, dispenses products to consumers in a modern and sustainable spin on the old-fashioned large vending machine.

CEO Fernando Machin Gojdycz learned that business from his entrepreneur father, Carlos Daniel Machin, while growing up in Uruguay.

“That’s where my passion comes from — him,” Gojdycz says of his father. In 2016, Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay with some engineer friends

Funded by a $2,000 grant from the University of Uruguay, the company's mission was “to democratize and economize affordable and sustainable shopping,” in part by eliminating wasteful single-use plastic packaging.

“I worked for one year from my bedroom,” he tells InnovationMap.

The device, attached to a wall, offers free samples, or purchased products, in areas of high foot traffic, with a touch-screen interface. Powered by watsonx Assistant, the device asks survey questions of the customer, who can answer or not, on their mobile devices, via a QR code.

In return for completing a survey, customers can get a digital coupon, potentially generating future sales. The software and AI tech tracks sales and consumer preferences, giving valuable real-time market insight.

“This is very powerful,” he says.

Fernando Machin Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay before relocating the company to Greentown Houston. Photo courtesy of Boxes

Boxes partnered in Uruguay with major consumer brands like Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Unilever, and during COVID, pivoted and offered PPE products. Then, with plans of an expansion into the United States, Boxes in 2021 landed its first U.S. backer, with $120,000 in funding from startup accelerator Techstars.

This led to a partnership with the Minnesota Twins, where Boxes devices at Target Field dispensed brand merchandise like keychains and bottles of field dirt.

Gojdycz says while a company in the Northeast is developing a product similar in size, Boxes is not “targeting traditional spaces.” Its software and integration with AI allows Boxes to seamlessly change the device screen and interface, remotely, as well.

Boxes aims to provide the devices in smaller spaces, like restrooms, where they have a device at the company's headquarters at climate tech incubator Greentown Labs. Boxes also recently added a device at Hewlett Packard Enterprise's headquarters in Spring, as part of HPE’s diversity startup program.

Boxes hopes to launch another sustainable innovation later this year, in universities and supermarkets. The company is also developing a device that would offer refillable detergent and personal cleaning products like shampoo and conditioner with a reusable container.

Since plastic packaging accounts for 40 percent of retail price, consumers would pay far less, making a huge difference, particularly for lower-income families, he says.

“We are working to make things happen, because we have tried to pitch this idea,” he says.

Some supermarket retailers worry they may lose money or market share, and that shoppers may forget to bring the refill bottles with them to the store, for example.

“It’s about..the U.S. customer,” he says, “….but we think that sooner or later, it will come.”

Boxes has gotten funding from the accelerator startup branch of Houston-based software company Softeq, as well as Mission Driven Finance, Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, and Right Side Capital, among others.

“Our primary challenges are scaling effectively with a small, yet compact team and maintaining control over our financial runway,” Gojdycz says.

The company has seven employees, including two on its management team.

Gojdycz says they are actively hiring, particularly in software and hardware engineering, but also in business development.

WellnessWits, founded by Kike Oduba to enhance patient-physician interaction, has integrated AI with the help of IBM. Photo via WellnessWits.com

Houston health tech startup taps into IBM tech for AI integration

teaming up

A Houston startup aimed at transforming healthcare with solutions for chronic disease and its prevention has teamed up with IBM technology.

WellnessWits has embedded IBM watsonx Assistant into its app for both iOS and Android. By making generative AI part of the app, WellnessWits now boasts an AI-based chat functionality.

That cutting-edge aspect of the platform allows patients to get information on chronic disease more quickly than ever, even before meeting with their physician. But it helps with that, too, aiding in scheduling appointments more easily with doctors who specialize in a host of chronic maladies.

“I founded WellnessWits as a platform for shared medical appointments where doctors with large patient loads can see them in groups and offer collective shared medical experiences to people suffering from chronic conditions. The goal is to bridge this divide, leveraging the strength of digital communities to enhance the overall well-being and healthcare experiences of individuals everywhere,” WellnessWits Founder and CEO Dr. Kike Oduba, a physician and informatician, writes in a blog post.

Oduba founded the company in 2018. In its early years, she participated in IBM’s First AI Cohort for Underrrepresented Founders Program. She believes that by using watsonx Assistant in her technology arsenal, WellnessWits will be a means to “digitize, standardize and automate care plans for patients dealing with chronic diseases.”

Diabetes management is a cornerstone of the company, but Oduba says that WellnessWits is similarly committed to impacting health issues including cancer, chronic pain, mental health, and obesity.

“By partnering with IBM, and academic leaders in institutions like The University of Texas, we aim to extend our reach and impact,” Oduba says.

In addition to the IBM program, Oduba and WellnessWits was selected for MassChallenge's recent cohort.

MassChallenge Startup Stories: WellnessWits Founder's Journey from Struggles to SuccessIn this inspiring 6-minute testimonial, we take you through the remarkable experience of Dr. Oduba, founder and CEO of ...

An Austin-based energy software company just scored funding from Houston investors. Photo via Getty Images

Houston investors back Austin software startup in $3.25M seed round

money moves

Houston-based investment firm Goose Capital led a $3.25 million round of seed funding revealed recently by Austin-based cleantech software company P6 Technologies.

Other participants in the round are Houston-based investment firms Artemis Energy Partners, Tupper Lake Partners, and Veritec Ventures. The seed round represents the first outside funding for P6, which maintains an office in Houston.

In conjunction with the seed funding:

  • Artemis founder and CEO Bobby Tudor has joined P6’s board of directors. He is an investor in Goose Capital.
  • Paal Kibsgaard, managing partner of Veritec, also has joined the P6 board. Kibsgaard is former chairman and CEO of Houston-based oilfield services company Schlumberger, which now does business as SLB.

Joe Berti, CEO of P6, says Kibsgaard’s “unparalleled experience” will benefit his company.

“Veritec’s strategic vision and active support of energy transition solutions align perfectly with our goals, and I am confident their contribution will be instrumental in shaping our future success,” Berti says in a news release.

Berti is former chief product officer of IBM’s sustainability software unit.

P6, founded in 2022, sells enterprise software to businesses in the energy, transportation fuel, and petrochemical sectors. The startup’s software for product lifecycle assessment enables measurement of the product-level intensity of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as energy companies try to achieve sustainability goals.

Tudor applauds P6 for helping fossil fuel-anchored companies reduce GHG emissions.

“Energy is the sector that needs a solution like P6 the most,” says Tudor. “P6 has the right approach and is going to make a step-change improvement to how product-level carbon intensity and GHG emissions are tracked today.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

A new ranking looks at the Houston companies with the most patents granted in 2022. Photo via Getty Images

These are the Houston companies with the most patents granted last year

by the numbers

Two major players in Houston’s energy industry are also major players in the patent arena.

A new ranking from the analytics arm of patent law firm Harrity & Harrity puts Saudi Aramco, whose North American headquarters is in Houston, and Halliburton, whose global headquarters is in Houston, puts them in a tie for the number of U.S. patents with 963 patents received in 2022. Saudi Aramco and Halliburton now share the title of Houston’s patent king.

Saudi Aramco saw a 12 percent rise in patents granted in 2022 compared with 2021, according to Harrity & Harrity’s Patent 300 report, while Halliburton experienced a 5 percent jump. Each company tied for 44th place among the top 300 U.S. patient recipients in 2022.

According to the report, Samsung Electronics (8,513 patents) knocked IBM off its longtime pedestal as the No. 1 recipient of U.S. patents. IBM (4,743 patents) now holds the No. 2 position.

Many of Aramco’s U.S. patents come from its R&D centers in Houston, Boston, and Detroit. The Houston R&D hub opened in 2014 and underwent an expansion three years later.

Aramco, a Saudi Arabia-based supplier of oil and natural gas, also generates patents through academic partnerships, such as the one it established last year with Rice University’s Carbon Hub. Aramco has committed $10 million over five years to the carbon initiative.

“While patents are a leading indicator of innovation, the ultimate goal is to create value through the development of solutions that help to address a particular need,” Aramco says. “Such results are often only possible with significant upfront investments, and patents make it possible to recoup these costs and potentially generate additional revenue through commercialization.”

Last year, Aramco boasted that it ranked first in the oil and gas industry for U.S. patents (864) granted in 2021. Until 2011, Aramco had received only 100 U.S. patents over a 78-year span.

“Many of the patents are for innovations Aramco uses itself for competitive advantage, although they can also be licensed to others, creating extra value for the company,” Jamil Bagawi, then the company’s chief engineer, wrote in 2021.

Halliburton also has ramped up its patenting efforts in recent years.

According to Houston law firm Yetter Coleman, those efforts kicked into high gear after Halliburton lost a fracking patent lawsuit to Tomball-based BJ Services, which is now out of business. In 2003, a Houston jury awarded $98 million in damages to BJ in the case, and Halliburton had to stop selling the system that allegedly infringed on BJ’s patent.

In the five years before the verdict, Halliburton averaged 142 patent awards a year, according to Yetter Coleman. The law firm reported in 2013 that Halliburton subsequently averaged 234 patents a year.

Today, of course, Halliburton has far exceeded those numbers. And it vigorously defends its growing patent portfolio. In September 2022, for instance, three subsidiaries of the oilfield services giant filed two lawsuits against Houston-based rival U.S. Well Services alleging infringement of 14 Halliburton patents.

IAM, a website that reports about the intellectual property industry, noted that when Halliburton sued U.S. Well Services, “IP professionals in the oil and gas industry may well have reached for the popcorn. Battles of this magnitude rarely break out in their slice of the patent world.”

Halliburton and Aramco may be the goliaths in Houston’s patent world, but they’re not the only local organizations to appear on the Patent 300 list for 2022. Other Houston-area companies that made the cut are:

  • Spring-based Hewlett Packard Enterprise, No. 84. The tech company received 511 U.S. patents in 2022, down 4 percent from the previous year.
  • Houston-based SLB (Schlumberger), No. 117. The oilfield services company received 372 U.S. patents in 2022, down 14 percent from the previous year.
  • Houston-based Baker Hughes, No. 123. The oilfield services company received 350 U.S. patents in 2022, down 11 percent from the previous year.
  • ExxonMobil, No. 156. The oil and gas company received 281 U.S. patents in 2022, down 8 percent from the previous year. It is in the process of moving its headquarters from Irving to Spring.
  • United Imaging Healthcare, No. 253. The Chinese healthcare equipment company, whose North American headquarters is in Houston, received 175 U.S. patents in 2022, up 31 percent from the previous year.
Considering applying for something in this roundup of grants, accelerators, and more. Photo via Getty Images

4 Houston tech and startup opportunities to apply for

short stories

A flurry of deadlines for grants, accelerators, and more are upcoming — do you have these on your radar?

Scroll through four tech and startup opportunities happening in Houston and open for Houston innovators.

MassChallenge and IBM's Mentorship Program for Underrepresented Founders

MassChallenge and IBM are bringing back a second cohort of their mentorship program, which provides AI mentoring support and resources to high-impact startups with historically underrepresented founders. In addition to artificial intelligence, IBM is expanding this program to invite startups innovating with cyber and data security.

The IBM Mentorship program will take place over the course of three months, starting May 11, and the early-stage startups enrolled in the program will be matched with IBM Mentors who will share their expertise helping them advance their businesses.

Select participating startups will be invited to participate in a Prize Competition where IBM will award $50,000 in non-cap-table cash prizes.

Applications for the IBM Mentorship program close at 11 pm April 13, 2022. Accepted startups will be notified by May 3, 2022. Apply now.

Additionally, MassChallenge has applications open for its international cohorts — including their Texas programs. The global network supports entrepreneurs and their startups through the early stages of building a business. Founded in 2009, MassChallenge’s non-profit, zero equity accelerator model supports more than 400 startups, from all industries and anywhere in the world, across seven locations and nine programs.

Eligibility requirements include:

  • Less than $1 million in funding (equity-based)
  • Less than $2 million in revenue
  • From any industry
  • From anywhere in the world
Applications are due April 20 at 11 am. Apply now.

Small Business Growth Fund

Houston-based Hello Alice's Small Business Growth Fund provides the capital entrepreneurs need to make their next big move. Each recipient will receive a $5,000 grant to accelerate their growth and help make 2022 the year of their small business .Eligible businesses must:

  • Be a for-profit business
  • Have less than $1 million in 2021 gross annual revenue
  • Have a commitment to their customers and community
  • Have a clear plan for use of funds

If you applied and were not selected for a previous round of the program, you are welcome to submit a new application. The deadline for this application is May 20, 2022, at 5 p.m. Apply now.

M1 MedTech

Proxima Clinical Research's M1 MedTech, a medical technology accelerator, is accepting applications for its fall cohort. The accelerator is looking for five to seven of the most promising early-stage medical device companies to participate in its three-month program. The program has closed its first fund and will be selecting companies over the summer for investments up to $100,000 as a combination of both cash and in-kind services.

“Our program is unique in that it combines acceleration capital, company building expertise, and the regulatory and clinical services of a top CRO,” says Larry Lawson, a venture partner and investor with M1, in a news release. “Access to the M1 founders’ network, both within and outside of the Texas Medical Center, sets these companies up for success. There’s no better group to build a MedTech company with, period.”

Experts from Greenlight Guru, Medrio, Galen Data, and Merge Medical Device Studio join Proxima CRO as sponsors of the program and will assist with content delivery and mentoring. Applications will remain open until May 31. Apply now.

Deloitte's Technology Fast 500

Applications for Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500 are now open. Now in its 28th year, the ranking recognizes the most innovative, fastest-growing technology companies in North America across industries — media, life sciences, fintech, energy tech, and more.

“Each year, Houston’s Fast 500 applicants illustrate the important role innovation and technology play in our daily lives and in the advancement of our city,” says Amy Chronis, vice chair, oil, gas and chemicals leader, and Houston managing partner, Deloitte LLP. “We look forward to seeing the diverse portfolio of innovations Houston applicants bring to the table this year.”

To be eligible, companies must:

  • Be in business for at least four years
  • Be headquartered in North America
  • Have fiscal year 2018 operating revenues of at least US$50,000
  • Have fiscal year 2021 operating revenues of at least US$5 million
  • Have a growth rate of at least 75 percent (growth rate is computed as [(FY2021 rev. – FY2018 rev.)FY2018 rev.] x 100)
  • Own proprietary intellectual property or proprietary technology, which must be sold to customers in products or services that contribute to a majority of the company’s operating revenues

Past Houston-based winnersast Houston-based winners include Enercross LLC, Onit, and Graylog Inc.

The application period is open from April 4 to June 24. And winners will be announced on Nov. 16. Apply now.

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Health tech startup launches Houston study improve stroke patients recovery

now enrolling

A Houston-born company is enrolling patients in a study to test the efficacy of nerve stimulation to improve outcomes for stroke survivors.

Dr. Kirt Gill and Joe Upchurch founded NeuraStasis in 2021 as part of the TMC Biodesign fellowship program.

“The idea for the company manifested during that year because both Joe and I had experiences with stroke survivors in our own lives,” Gill tells InnovationMap. It began for Gill when his former college roommate had a stroke in his twenties.

“It’s a very unpredictable, sudden disease with ramifications not just for my best friend but for everyone in his life. I saw what it did to his family and caregivers and it's one of those things that doesn't have as many solutions for people to continue recovery and to prevent damage and that's an area that I wanted to focus myself on in my career,” Gill explains.

Gill and Upchurch arrived at the trigeminal and vagus nerves as a potential key to helping stroke patients. Gill says that there is a growing amount of academic literature that talks about the efficacy of stimulating those nerves. The co-founders met Dr. Sean Savitz, the director of the UTHealth Institute for Stroke and Cerebrovascular Diseases, during their fellowship. He is now their principal investigator for their clinical feasibility study, located at his facility.

The treatment is targeted for patients who have suffered an ischemic stroke, meaning that it’s caused by a blockage of blood flow to the brain.

“Rehabilitation after a stroke is intended to help the brain develop new networks to compensate for permanently damaged areas,” Gill says. “But the recovery process typically slows to essentially a standstill or plateau by three to six months after that stroke. The result is that the majority of stroke survivors, around 7.6 million in the US alone, live with a form of disability that prevents complete independence afterwards.”

NeuraStasis’ technology is intended to help patients who are past that window. They accomplish that with a non-invasive brain-stimulation device that targets the trigeminal and vagus nerves.

“Think of it kind of like a wearable headset that enables stimulation to be delivered, paired to survivors going through rehabilitation action. So the goal here is to help reinforce and rewire networks as they're performing specific tasks that they're looking to improve upon,” Gill explains.

The study, which hopes to enroll around 25 subjects, is intended to help people with residual arm and hand deficits six months or more after their ischemic stroke. The patients enrolled will receive nerve stimulation three times a week for six weeks. It’s in this window that Gill says he hopes to see meaningful improvement in patients’ upper extremity deficits.

Though NeuraStasis currently boasts just its two co-founders as full-time employees, the company is seeing healthy growth. It was selected for a $1.1 million award from the National Institutes of Health through its Blueprint MedTech program. The award was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The funding furthers NeuraStasis’ work for two years, and supports product development for work on acute stroke and for another product that will aid in emergency situations.

Gill says that he believes “Houston has been tailor-made for medical healthcare-focused innovation.”

NeuraStasis, he continues, has benefited greatly from its advisors and mentors from throughout the TMC, as well as the engineering talent from Rice, University of Houston and Texas A&M. And the entrepreneur says that he hopes that Houston will benefit as much from NeuraStasis’ technology as the company has from its hometown.

“I know that there are people within the community that could benefit from our device,” he says.

Texas Space Commission launches, Houston execs named to leadership

future of space

Governor Greg Abbott announced the Texas Space Commission, naming its inaugural board of directors and Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee.

The announcement came at NASA's Johnson Space Center, and the governor was joined by Speaker Dade Phelan, Representative Greg Bonnen, Representative Dennis Paul, NASA's Johnson Space Center Director Vanessa Wyche, and various aerospace industry leaders.

According to a news release, the Texas Space Commission will aim to strengthen commercial, civil, and military aerospace activity by promoting innovation in space exploration and commercial aerospace opportunities, which will include the integration of space, aeronautics, and aviation industries as part of the Texas economy.

The Commission will be governed by a nine-member board of directors. The board will also administer the legislatively created Space Exploration and Aeronautics Research Fund to provide grants to eligible entities.

“Texas is home to trailblazers and innovators, and we have a rich history of traversing the final frontier: space,” Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick says in a news release. “Texas is and will continue to be the epicenter for the space industry across the globe, and I have total confidence that my appointees to the Texas Space Commission Board of Directors and the Texas Aerospace Research and Space Economy Consortium Executive Committee will ensure the Texas space industry remains an international powerhouse for cutting-edge space innovation.”

TARSEC will independently identify research opportunities that will assist the state’s position in aeronautics research and development, astronautics, space commercialization, and space flight infrastructure. It also plans to fuel the integration of space, aeronautics, astronautics, and aviation industries into the Texas economy. TARSEC will be governed by an executive committee and will be composed of representatives of each higher education institution in the state.

“Since its very inception, NASA’s Johnson Space Center has been home to manned spaceflight, propelling Texas as the national leader in the U.S. space program,” Abbott says during the announcement. “It was at Rice University where President John F. Kennedy announced that the U.S. would put a man on the moon—not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

"Now, with the Texas Space Commission, our great state will have a group that is responsible for dreaming and achieving the next generation of human exploration in space," he continues. "Texas is the launchpad for Mars, innovating the technology that will colonize humanity’s first new planet. As we look into the future of space, one thing is clear: those who reach for the stars do so from the great state of Texas. I look forward to working with the Texas Space Commission, and I thank the Texas Legislature for partnering with industry and higher education institutions to secure the future of Texas' robust space industry."

The Houston-area board of directors appointees included:

  • Gwen Griffin, chief executive officer of the Griffin Communications Group
  • John Shannon, vice president of Exploration Systems at the Boeing Company
  • Sarah "Sassie" Duggleby, co-founder and CEO of Venus Aerospace
  • Kirk Shireman, vice president of Lunar Exploration Campaigns at Lockheed Martin
  • Dr. Nancy Currie-Gregg, director of the Texas A&M Space Institute

Additionally, a few Houstonians were named to the TARSEC committee, including:

  • Stephanie Murphy, CEO and executive chairman of Aegis Aerospace
  • Matt Ondler, president and former chief technology officer at Axiom Space
  • Jack “2fish” Fischer, vice president of production and operations at Intuitive Machines
  • Brian Freedman, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and vice chairman of Wellby Financial
  • David Alexander, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Rice Space Institute at Rice University

To see the full list of appointed board and committee members, along with their extended bios, click here.