From Houston inventors being recognized to Chevron's latest investment, here's what innovation news you need to know. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston's innovation news hasn't quite slowed yet for the holidays. This most recent news roundup includes lots of money raised, a new contract for a Houston startup, innovators recognized and more.

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Chevron Technology Ventures invests in Texas company

Courtesy of CTV

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures has contributed to Austin-based motor tech company Infinitum Electric's $12.5 million Series B round of financing. New Mexico-based Cottonwood Technology Fund and includes participation AJAX Strategies and other individual investors.

The company plans to use the funds to build out its research and development, engineering, supply chain, and production teams.

"Infinitum's mission aligns well with our goals for the Future Energy Fund," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in a release. "The purpose of the Future Energy Fund is to invest in breakthrough energy technologies that reflect Chevron's commitment to lower emission energy sources and that are integral to low-carbon and efficient value chains."

4 Houston researchers named fellows of the National Academy of Inventors

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The National Academy of Inventors named 168 academic innovators to NAI Fellow status — and four conduct their research right here in Houston. The program "highlights academic inventors who have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society," reads the news release.

The four Houston inventors and their institutions are as follows:

List ranks Houston's fastest growing companies

Chart via Grojo.com

Growjo named the 100 fastest-growing companies in Houston for 2019, and, while the study notes the city's large oil and gas and medical industries, also acknowledges its growing tech and software scene. The companies were selected by a myriad of factors.

"Our algorithm is based on multiple datasets including employee growth, estimated revenue growth, valuations, quality and quantity of funding, hiring announcements, current job openings, leadership team announcements, and numerous other growth triggers," reads the website.

The top five companies on the list are:

  1. Midcoast Energy, which has 183 employees and a 17 percent employee growth rate.
  2. ibüümerang, which has 528 employees, and a 633 percent employee growth rate.
  3. Arion, which has 136 employees and a 216 percent employee growth rate.
  4. GoExpedi, which as 59 employees and a 119 percent employee growth rate.
  5. Code Ninjas, which has 338 employees and a 63 percent employee growth rate.

For the full list, visit Growjo.com.

TMCx company wins awards 

Image via abilitechmedical.com

Abilitech Medical, which recently completed the TMCx program, has taken home some wins in Minnesota, where it's based. The company was named named among the state's topmed tech companies by the Minnesota High Tech Association at the 2019 TEKNE awards and 2019, as well as the grand prize winner and top woman-led business by the University of Minnesota's business school at its 2019 Minnesota Cup competition.

The medical device company's technology includes the Abilitech™ Assist, which assists patients with Multiple Sclerosis, rehabilitating from stoke, or other conditions with eating, drinking, and using a computer.

"We've met so many people whose lives will be changed with this innovation," says CEO and founder Angie Conley in a news release. "Through the Texas Medical Center accelerator, we met Dr. Hany Samir who championed our upcoming stroke study."

Samir is a cardiac anesthesiologist at Houston Methodist. He lost his ability to work and perform simple daily functions after a stroke debilitated his left arm.

"I'm unable to practice the medicine I love. I want to hold my wife again with two hands and enjoy dinner with her, without having her cut my food. I want to have a cup of coffee without asking for help," says Samir in the release. "Regaining function in my arm will restore my life."

Pandata Tech receives Department of Defense contract

Photo courtesy of Pandata Tech

Houston-based ​Pandata Tech secured a contract with the United States Department of Defense from the Rapid Sustainment Office of the the United States Air Force last month. The Phase II contract will allow the company to work with Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska to develop a scalable data quality platform.

The access to data will aid in natural disasters, per the release. The goal of the contract would be for a Phase III contract and an opportunity to scale the technology into other branches of military. The company also had a Phase I contract signed in August before securing the Phase II in November.

"Pandata Tech's proprietary DQM software was built during a development partnership with one of the world's largest offshore drilling companies. Because the technology was tested and built with offshore drilling data, the shift to aircraft carriers would be smooth," explains Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder of Pandata Tech, in a news release.

Houston company receives Department of Energy funding

Photo via aerominepower.com

The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory — with funding from the DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Wind Energy Technologies Office — selected a Houston company for its Competitiveness Improvement Project.

Westergaard Solutions, founded by Houstonian Carsten Westergaard, was named among the 2019 CIP Awardees. Among the company's assets is AeroMine, which competed in the most recent Houston cohort in MassChallenge Texas. The company "will implement an innovative building-integrated wind generation concept with no external moving parts, moving from a preliminary conceptual design to a pre-production prototype design that is ready for testing," according to the release.

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Houston unicorn fintech company launches new B2B education platform

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Houston-based HighRadius — which recently hit $1 billion valuation, reaching unicorn status — has launched a new learning platform.

Highako Academy by HighRadius, launched the platform to help credit and collections teams build certain skills faster. Highako features over 650 expert-led videos, community forums, and resources. The new on-the-job training platform, which announced its launch this week, is used by more than 2,800 companies, according to a press release.

"Our customers have asked us for an online self-service learning platform, and that led us to launch highako.com as a beta platform last year," says HighRadius COO Urvish Vashi in the release. "With 10,000+ users on the platform and a vibrant partner ecosystem consisting of credit groups, collection agencies, attorneys and industry associations, we see this echoing a larger trend of millennials and Gen Z gravitating towards microlearning platforms."

In honor of the launch of Highako Academy, the organization has announced plans for Credit SkillCon '21, a lunch-and-learn event from June 16 to July 20. The 53 live workshops, panel discussions, and on-demand sessions will focus on topics including negotiations, credit risk assessment, bankruptcy litigation, collections strategy and more. .

"We continually hear from members about wanting more and different educational options," says Jon Flora, president and CEO of NACM Business Credit Service. "The last year has changed much about how we answer this call, and now we have a solution. We are the first NACM affiliate to partner with Highako Academy."

HighRadius and its AI-powered SaaS technology, which streamlines accounts-receivable and cash-management processes, are growing fast. The company, which processes over $2.23 trillion in receivables transactions annually, per the release, raised $300 million in March. At the time of that raise, HighRadius, founded in 2006, employed more than 1,000 people around the world — and was hiring.

"Our goal has always been to build a long-lasting business that outlasts all of us," Sashi Narahari, founder and CEO of HighRadius, said in the news release. "I look forward to working with [our] high-quality, long-term investors, who share a common vision of transforming the office of the CFO using a combination of artificial intelligence built on top of connected-finance workspaces and embedded analytics."

Autonomous delivery company joins forces with FedEx for new pilot in Houston

self-driving mail

A tech company with self-driving robots deployed across Houston delivering pizza, groceries, and more has yet again launched a new pilot program — this time focused on parcel delivery.

Nuro and FedEx announced a new partnership to deploy Nuro's technology for last-mile delivery at a large scale with FedEx.

"FedEx was built on innovation, and it continues to be an integral part of our culture and business strategy," says Rebecca Yeung, vice president of advanced technology and innovation at FedEx, in a news release. "We are excited to collaborate with an industry leader like Nuro as we continue to explore the use of autonomous technologies within our operations."

The new pilot, which began in April, according to the release, is the latest in the FedEx portfolio of autonomous same-day and specialty delivery devices. The partnership allows for FedEx to be able to explore various use cases for autonomous vehicle logistics, like multi-stop and appointment-based deliveries. Meanwhile for Nuro, it's the company's first expansion into parcel logistics.

"Working with FedEx—the global leader in logistics—is an incredible opportunity to rethink every aspect of local delivery. This multi-year commitment will allow us to truly collaborate and bring Nuro's powerful technology to more people in new ways, and eventually reach large-scale deployment," says Cosimo Leipold, Nuro's head of partnerships, in the release. "Our collaboration will enable innovative, industry-first product offerings that will better everyday life and help make communities safer and greener."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer. The most recent pilot program — pizza delivery with Domino's — officially went live in Woodland Heights earlier this year.

Nuro's expansion in Houston has a lot to do with the legislation that's happening at the state level. Last year, Nuro was granted its exemption petition from the United States Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This move is a first for DOT, and it allowed Nuro to roll out its vehicles on public roads without the features of traditional, passenger-carrying vehicles — like side mirrors or windshields, for instance.

The city also just offers a lot of opportunities to try out various neighborhoods and environments.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Nuro Product Operations Manager Sola Lawal says an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Lessons in prototyping: Figuring out the best type of prototype

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As you continue your journey of developing and bringing a new product to the market, you have a series of decisions to make when it comes to prototyping — whether you're going to launch a hardware or a software product, or the combination of both — you need to have a prototype made.

Before you begin, there are a number of things to consider. In an article for InnovationMap last week, I looked at major choice points and their implications that will help you navigate the process in the most efficient way.

After you successfully laid the foundation for the development process and got you CAD models ready, you arrive at the next choice. Prior to making a prototype of your invention you need to decide what type of prototype you're going to build. Whether you're making it yourself or hiring a rapid prototyping company, you need to know the purpose your prototype will fulfil because it will help to select proper methods, techniques, and materials for building. With that in mind, let's go through the types of prototypes and purposes behind building them.

Types of Prototypes

Mockup

This type is usually used as a simple representation of your product idea, to gauge physical dimensions and see its rough look. It's especially useful for making physical models of complex and large products without investing a significant amount from the start. Mockup is perfect for initial market research and various types of early testing.

Proof of concept

This type of prototype is built when you need to validate your idea and prove that it can be realized. It comes in handy when approaching potential partners and investors.

Functional prototype

This kind of prototype is also called a "looks- and works-like" model because it has both technical and visual features of the product presented. It is used for testing product's functionality, conducting consumer surveys, and fundraising campaigns.

Pre-production prototype

This is the most complex type that is made at the latest stage of product development. It's used for ergonomics, manufacturability, and material testing, as well as to minimize risks of defects during manufacturing. This is a model that manufacturers use to produce the final product.

Choosing to Partner with Prototyping Company

It's important to note that prototyping is an iterative process. It is a fusion of art and science that helps you to uncover the full potential of your product, which in turn increases its chances for market success. Therefore, you will likely go through several types of prototypes, with each kind usually requiring a few versions to achieve the parameters you set for the model.

And this process also requires help of a company that builds prototypes or of a professional product development team. You can start looking for the one after you made your first mockup or proof of concept. It is recommended because creating more complex prototypes implies the use of sophisticated equipment, sourcing of materials and components that could be too expensive or complicated to do without an established network of suppliers. Plus, skills and experience play a huge role in creating quality prototypes. Taking all three factors – equipment, experience and skills - into account, it's smart to outsource your prototyping needs to a professional company.

This article is a follow up article to my post from last week. I have also previously contributed to guest columns on the following:

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Onega Ulanova is the founder of OKGlobal.