3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

From smart pillboxes to innovation incubators, here are three people you need to know this week in innovation. Courtesy photos

One of the cornerstones of InnovationMap is shining a spotlight on the individuals who are leading innovation in Houston, which is why we created a section dedicated to this. Our Featured Innovators section will have a Q&A with a startup owner, entrepreneur, or thought leader every week.

Another weekly article on InnovationMap that's geared toward introducing the city to prominent innovators is a roundup of who's who in the industry — not just the forces to be reckoned with in town, but people whose names you need not forget. Why? Because they've got big plans up their sleeves.

Here are this week's innovators to know, who, it just so happens, are our inaugural Featured Innovators.

Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston

Courtesy of Gabriella Rowe

It's been a winding road for Gabriella Rowe, but she's finally made it to a city she adores and in a position she says is her dream job. The New York native has worked in consulting, banking, education, tech, and more, and she has learned a lot of valuable lessons on the way.

Rowe accepted her position as CEO of Station Houston in August — a decision she says took her all of four seconds to make. The acceleration hub has a lot going on ahead of Houston's Innovation District launch, including announcing Station 3.0 in January. Read more about that — and why Rowe says wild horses couldn't drag her out of Houston —in her Featured Innovator piece.

Brian Richards, managing partner at Accenture

Courtesy of Accenture

Brian Richards is in the business of being lightyears ahead of everyone else. His job is to start thinking of solutions for tomorrow's problems, from consulting clients on innovative technologies to serving on the board of Houston Exponential.

In fact, Richards came up with the vision for Accenture's innovation hub before clients even knew they needed it. He also moved to Houston against the advice of many colleagues because he sees the potential this city has as a mecca for innovation. Read more about the hub and his career here.

Regina Vatterott, COO and co-founder of EllieGrid

Courtesy of Regina Vatterott

The idea for Regina Vatterott's smart pillbox, called EllieGrid, hit her in one fell swoop — literally. She fainted on the way to lunch and decided it was time to start taking her health seriously. She created EllieGrid shortly after and realized that medical devices don't have to be clunky or purely functional.

Now, she's got big plans to reinvent the wheel on a few other medical devices by focusing on the user experience, because, as she likes to say, people are always people first, before they are patients. Learn more about EllieGrid here.

Brian Richards created Accenture's innovation hub before his clients even knew they needed it. Courtesy of Accenture

Head of Accenture's Houston innovation hub leads the charge for energy ingenuity

Featured Innovator

Brian Richards knew from his first college internship that, even as an engineer, he wasn't interested in a typical engineering position after college.

"The pace was slow and structures are rigorous — as they have to be," says Richards, managing director at Accenture's Houston office. "So, there's not much room for experimentation and innovation. I could tell that those were things that were going to excite me."

He found a position in Accenture's technology labs in Chicago that focused on spotting tech trends ahead of market demand. In 2011, he transitioned to energy innovation, noticing the potential for innovation in the energy industry, yet a lot of companies weren't focusing on new ways to do business more effectively.

Now, that's all changed, and Richards says he's seen an increased demand from energy companies seeking innovation projects.

Last year, Richards opened the doors to Accenture's innovation hub in Houston. The hub acts as a one-stop shop for Accenture clients looking for a new tool or better process to do something. Once Richards and his team find a solution for the client, Accenture is able to deploy its team of consultants to scale up that innovation to the entire company.

A steward for Houston innovation, Richards is on the board of Houston Exponential, the city-created innovation arm dedicated to making Houston optimized for innovation. With both of his HX and Accenture roles, he sees the same goals and ideas — from the need for resources to the need to execute plans.

"What we're trying to do in the city of Houston and within the innovation Hub are similar," Richards says. "Houston needs the right skillsets and mindsets, and we need the right skillsets and mindsets in our talent. You got to bring these people together, which we're doing in the city with the Innovation District, and what we did in our offices."

InnovationMap: You started developing ideas and processes for the innovation hub when you were still in Chicago, but when did you move to Houston?

Brian Richards: In 2015, I decided to move my family down to Houston to give it a real shot — we obviously wanted to build [the innovation hub] in Houston. I got approval in 2016, and we launched in February of 2017.

IM: Did your colleagues question your move to Houston?

BR: It was an odd path. Very few people in Chicago aspire to move into the energy industry. When I was looking at the potential in moving down for this, many of my friends told me to go to Austin or Silicon Valley and not to go to Houston — that's not where innovation is happening. On one hand, [at the time], they were right, but on the other hand, they definitely [ended up being] wrong. It's the fourth largest city, with energy and health industries booming. It makes all the sense in the world to try innovation in this city.

IM: What was the reception of the hub?

BR: I saw the innovation hub as something people didn't know they needed it until it was built — within both the market and within Accenture. Obviously, it was a big investment — it takes time, people, and space — and we were in the middle of an oil downturn, which isn't really a good time. But when it came to digital innovation, it was the right time and the right opportunity to make that investment. It took a lot of advocating, sponsorships, and ongoing support. When we look at repeat visits from clients who have been here a couple dozen times, that to me speaks to the demand and the experiences.

IM: Who are the innovation hub's clients?

BR: Most all fall within the resources — chemical, utilities, mining, oil and gas — range from all over the world. They come here because they are interested in what the market is doing. To develop your own innovation, you need different types of skills. These companies aren't able to have the teams of experts we have.

IM: What types of projects do you work on?

BR: All sorts of things, but I obviously can't talk about specific projects, but we organize our studio to have different domains. We have the data science team, which is focused on AI and things of that nature. We have an Industry X.0 cyber team, focused on automation and securing that. We have a design and engineering team. And then we focus on our platforms and partners as our last pillar.

Then, we use three core methodologies together: Design thinking, agile software delivery, and lean startup. Design thinking is putting the user at the center of what you're designing. Agile is running tests and workshops to ensure we're creating value. … They all fundamentally sit at the intersection of improving the business operations by bringing design capability and bringing developers to create the novel product. Then using the leverage and power of Accenture to scale that up.

IM: What does the scaling up process look like?

BR: Most of the time, if you're trying to do innovation, you're going to come up with ideas, use a whiteboard, concept, but it's usually going to have a mix of a different type of process or use of data. Any time you're doing something with new processes or something, there's risk inherent to that. Our innovation projects are designed around you not wanting to spend a bunch of money, because you don't know what you don't know until you start building it. So, we're very much focused on building it, and then when it works well at one plant, and they want to deploy it at 50 plants. Now, it's not about innovation, it's about the ability to deliver that across time zones and geography. That's where the rest of Accenture comes into play.

IM: What's next for innovation hub?

BR: The key for us is growth in general — we need to be able to support that demand we have. We are looking at our capabilities, the people and the skillsets we need, the facilities we need — we're looking at all of that.

IM: In the few years you've been here, how has Houston's innovation scene changed?

BR: I think it's pretty impressive. In 2016, was when we first got the innovation round table at the Greater Houston Partnership together. There were very passionate people in Houston for some time, so I don't want to make it sound like they finally came to their senses; that's not the case, people have been working on this for a long period time. But, what changed in 2016, was that it really hit at the institutional level of Houston — the mayor's office, GHP, Rice University. That's what led to the innovation strategy and to the commitment from leaders. We can't be the Energy Capital of the World or have the world's largest medical center and not have a focus on startups, venture capital, and more. We need that to maintain our superiority. Companies in Houston are growing these capabilities and working with different types of startups — if they can't find that here to improve their companies, they are going to go somewhere else. That was the major shift in 2016.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Exclusive: Houston blockchain startup closes $4M series B round led by new investor

money moves

An industrial blockchain-as-a-service startup based in Houston has closed a series B funding round thanks to support from both new and returning investors.

Data Gumbo Corp., which uses its blockchain network GumboNet to optimize smart contracts for oil and gas supply chains, announced its first close in its $4 million series B funding round that was led by new investor L37, which has operations in the Bay Area and in Houston. The round also saw contribution from returning investors Equinor Ventures and Saudi Aramco Energy Venture.

The funds will go toward growing Data Gumbo's sales team, which has been busy with the company's growth. While providing their own set of challenges and obstacles, both the pandemic and drop in oil prices meant oil and gas companies are prioritizing lean operations — something DataGumbo is able to help with.

"The opportunity in all this is companies have got to cut expenses," Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder, tells InnovationMap. "What's happened to us is our sales have absolutely exploded — in a good way. We have a huge number of leads, and we have to be able to deliver on those leads."

Bruce says leading the sales growth is Bill Arend, who was hired Data Gumbo's chief commercial officer this spring. Data Gumbo also recently announced that Richard Dobbs, 30-year veteran of McKinsey and former director of the McKinsey Global Institute, has joined the board as chairman.

"Dobbs is a recognized strategic industry thinker," Bruce says in a release. "His distinct expertise will lend structure, support and validation to Data Gumbo as we experience aggressive company growth."

Of course, fundraising in this unprecedented time, isn't easy. Bruce says he and his team were able to succeed thanks to a new investor, L37, which came from an introduction within Bruce's network.

"Data Gumbo is the category leader for industrial smart contracts, which is an inevitable next step in digital transformation of the oil and gas industry," says Kemal Farid, a partner in L37, in a statement. "There is a lack of transparency, visibility and accuracy between counterparts of contracts that increases the costs of doing business and this has been greatly exacerbated by the current business landscape. We look forward to applying our experience to propel the company along its journey to bring transactional certainty and cost efficiency to commercial relationships."

Additionally, Bruce says he's very proud of his company's return investors, who are also clients of DataGumbo.

"[We also have] the continuous support by our original investors — Aramco and Equinor — they invested in us not just once but twice," Bruce says. "They have been tremendously supportive, not just from an investor perspective, but also proving the value. We've got multiple projects starting with both of those companies."

Bruce says he already has eyes for another venture capital round — perhaps sometime next year — for Data Gumbo, which has raised $14.8 million to date. However, the company isn't far from profitability and growth from that avenue too.

"We're going to have the luxury of choice," Bruce says. "We want to grow as aggressively as possible so we are probably going to go the venture capital route."


GumboNet: Smart Contacts Made Simple www.youtube.com

Houston coworking space to donate office space to startups affected by COVID-19

need some space?

A Houston-based commercial real estate company in the historic East Downtown District, is giving away free space to two startups who have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.

The Headquarters is currently accepting submissions from startups, founders, and entrepreneurs to be considered for free office space through Friday, October 2, with recipients set to be announced the week of October 5th.

Founded in 2014 by brother and sister duo, Peter and Devin Licata, Headquarters provides flexible office space and suites to startups and young businesses in a variety of industries. Inspired by creative office spaces in Denver and coworking sites to create a completely new way to work.

Devin and Peter Licata founded Headquarters six years ago. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

"For Devin and I being local Houstonians," says Peter. "It was very exciting to bring a product to Houston that we had never seen before in the city. When we started the search for a building, we had a very specific idea of how we wanted it to look and feel, and the amenities we wanted to provide."

The building located on 3302 Canal St, was repurposed from an old warehouse built in the mid 20th century. The Licatas spent about eight months designing the building, which had sat vacant for seven years. The design features, evoke a feeling of a corporate campus but for small business which works perfectly for COVID-19 social distancing measures.

"One of the things we wanted was really wide hallways," says Devin. "Typical hallways here are about seven feet, when we were working with our architect we said, double it. The specific visuals are there to invoke a feeling, with an interior courtyard, and lots of natural light.

"Our architects weren't used to working with clients in commercial real estate who were designing based on an office where we would want to work, instead of a client who wanted to maximize every square footage."

The coworking space is adhering to social distancing recommendations. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

The wide open spaces, with hallways over 13 feet wide, high ceilings about 18 feet tall, and HVAC unit that does not recirculate air, along with the office suites that are on average 2 to 3 times larger than other coworking spaces allows all of their tenants to practice social distancing in a safe environment.

Headquarters is monitoring infection rates locally, while following safety guidelines to operate their facility safely. All guests are required to answer health screening questions upon entry and wear face coverings. They continue to clean all common areas and high touch surfaces with EPA-approved products and provide hand sanitizer at all points of entry.

With 35,000 square feet in total and 45 office suites, the Licatas say they chose the East End as their headquarters because of its close proximity to downtown and renewing growth of the community.

"The East End was an obvious location for us, we had been looking for buildings in the area for other development opportunities," says Devin. "Given it's proximity to downtown and its access to three different freeways, from a commuter standpoint it was really important as well as the community aspect."

Headquarters is located just east of downtown Houston. Photo courtesy of Headquarters

Mental health gets a spotlight at free online summit for Houston employers

Mental Health Matters

While the world's population has been focused on the physical effects of COVID-19, there hasn't always been as much attention paid to mental health amid the pandemic.

Every socio-economic class, demographic group, and industry has felt the strain, brought on by social isolation, job instability, and increased stress.

"It quickly became clear that these preventative measures, while recommended for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, were not providing the feeling of security for company employees that we had hoped for," says Next Level Urgent Care's chief medical officer, Karen Rakers, MD. "We needed to address employee mental health."

Next Level Urgent Care began COVID-19 testing across its 15 urgent care locations in March, and shortly after expanded into Houston workplaces, providing onsite COVID-19 testing and temperature checks for large employers in the Houston area.

When it became clear that mental health required more attention than it had been getting, the Next Level Health and Wellness team worked with clinical psychologist Ilyssa Bass, PhD, to assemble a group of diverse mental health and workplace wellness professionals.

Together, they worked to address mental health stigma in the workplace and educate employers on how to implement creative solutions to address employee mental health issues.

One of the major results is the Prioritizing Workplace Wellness Summit, a free five-day virtual event taking place September 28-October 2.

Attendees can look forward to interviews with more than 25 interviews experts, including such as Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D; Daryl Shorter, MD; Craig Kramer; Liz Kislik; Bill Judge, JD, LL.M; and Jeff Gorter, LMSW.

Here's a taste of what you'll discover during the summit:

  • How a multi-faceted approach to improving the mental health of an employee group leads to success
  • Which qualities make organizations resilient when responding to crises including the pandemic
  • Leadership skills and techniques that help maintain a strong workforce
  • Threat assessments and multidisciplinary workplace violence prevention programs to keep an employee group safe
  • How now, more than ever, technology can help reach the masses and deliver easily accessible solutions for common mental health issues
  • Steps employers can take to reduce stigma in their organizations
  • Why the time for action is right now during the pandemic

As a bonus, each free ticket also comes with access to an exclusive new report, "The Top Workplace Wellness and Mental Health Strategies."

Sign up to discover what's working today to optimize mental health in the workplace — your employees will thank you.