Houston-based Spark Spaces is looking to build out luxury spots for electric vehicle charging. Rendering courtesy of Spark Spaces

At 3 a.m. one night, just as he had many nights before, Tarun Girish found himself leaving his Houston apartment in search of an EV charger.

Once he located one, he would sit in his car for an hour and a half while his vehicle charged — with not much to do but wait.

But it was on this night he wondered if there was a way to use his previous hospitality experience to build a new kind of experience for EV drivers. He then developed his first iteration of a business plan — all while sitting in his driver’s seat.

His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base.

Eventually, the company’s goal is to take forgotten buildings and transition them into becoming EV charging hubs.

“The Ion is giving us a lot of resources to make sure that we are tailoring the solution to the right problem,” he says. “We’ve learned how to build a frictionless experience where the driver scans a QR code, pays for the duration of the charging session and then plugs in.”

When Sparks Spaces scales out, the team is eyeing two locations inside The Loop — one in Montrose and one on Shepherd Drive. The design would focus on natural lighting, safety and security.

The startup went through the Smart City Ion Accelerator but will be applying to a couple more accelerators that have more exposure into the EV construction space.

“We’re trying to provide a brand consistent experience from the time a driver drives into a lot to the time they leave,” he says. “We’ll be providing all fast-charging and level 2 charging services for drivers and will be completely universal so that any EV can utilize us.”

Sparks Spaces is looking to raise a $1.1 million seed round that will focus on research and development, the case studies and the architectural designs for a prototype that can be implemented in its locations.

“We want to be the definition of charging and lounges and experiences should be the forefront of EV charging,” he says. “The average household who owns an EV expects a certain level of luxury and expectations on experience. They are used to airport lounges when traveling. We want to reflect that in the EV charging space.”

Tarun Girish is on a mission to make EV charging easier and more comfortable. Photo courtesy

Aatonomy sees autonomous vehicles as inefficient and unsafe. That's why the Houston startup is doing something differently. Sean Pavone/Getty Images

This tech startup envisions Houston as a self-driving city

smart cities

When there isn't a global pandemic, nearly 7 million people drive around Houston, and an estimated 77,000 people commute for more than an hour and a half to work. Drivers spend $1,376 and waste 31 gallons of fuel a year — to sit in traffic for what adds up to 75 hours each year.

When Wilson Pulling moved to the city two summers ago, he set out to fix all that traffic-sitting using autonomously driven cars, but not the high-priced ones that Uber and Tesla have designed. These are your regular, three- or four-year-old Honda Civics and Kia Sorentos — the cars you already own.

In 2016, Pulling founded had Aatonomy with his partner, Yang Hu, based on their thesis work from Cornell's Computer Science program. Moving the company south after two years operating out of San Francisco, they aimed not to build the self-driving car of the future, but to make the cars that Houstonians are wading through congested freeways in today drive themselves.

"Everyone doesn't get to buy a Tesla. They're driving their Corollas," Pulling says. "The way autonomy is going right now, that person is never going to benefit. We are the only way."

The company's technology attaches a wireless receiver to the car, which has to be from at least 2016 to work with them. Then, Aatonomy places sensors all along the roads and streetlights. The sensors and receiver communicate with each other, and enable autonomous driving.

Imagine, Pulling says, a 30-mile of I-45 with Aatonomy's sensors. You'd roar up the freeway, handling the controls. Then, the car's computer, under guidance from Aatonomy's network of sensors, would take over. You'd sit back, the car will navigate the traffic along with the other cars — and if all the cars are autonomous, Pulling says, the algorithm could slash congestion. When your car exits the freeway, you'd take back control.

That stretch of freeway would cost $26 million for 200,000 commuters across Houston, Pulling says, but other self-driving cars cost around $250,000 per vehicle — summing up to $50 billion for those same commuters. And Pulling says the Aatonomy system is a safer bet than the way Uber's autonomous driving. Uber's car once killed a pedestrian because, somehow, the company didn't program it to avoid people jaywalking. But because Aatonomy will manage sensors all over the street, the company will be able to monitor potential accidents more quickly than an Uber car would.

"This is a really radically different approach to a technology that, frankly, a lot of people have lost a lot of faith in," Pulling says.

Aatonomy's approach requires a smart city commitment — but the city of Houston is already buying in. First, Aatonomy, a member of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities accelerator's inaugural cohort, got a short-term project with Aatonomy and Verizon to mount intersection cameras for studying how to prevent collisions with pedestrians on the Northside.

Additionally, the city has also greenlit a two-year pilot with Aatonomy to automate a bus route in downtown Houston. The aim, Pulling says, is making a "proof-of-concept" before rolling out sensors across I-45 — but it's also to use Houston as proof that autonomous driving can be achieved, but from a different angle than Uber.

"Self driving cars don't work. That's our thesis," Pulling says. "That's why we're building self-driving cities."

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has selected its next cohort. Courtesy of The Ion

Houston accelerator announces newest cohort to tackle cleantech

Smart cities

As the world celebrated the 50th annual Earth Day on April 22, a Houston innovation organization announced a new group of startups for its accelerator program that will focus on cleantech solutions within the city of Houston and beyond.

The Ion's accelerator, which recently renewed its focus on resiliency, announced its second cohort with six startups that will create solutions for Houston's air quality, water purification, and other cleantech needs.

"Through leveraging the power of our local Ion community, The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator is committed to solving challenges Houstonians face every day," says Christine Galib, senior director of accelerator programs at The Ion and the director of the accelerator, in a news release. "We connect participating startups with mentors, partners, and stakeholders, so they gain access to the resources they need to build, validate, and scale their technologies. Together, we are building a safer, smarter, and more accessible city for all Houstonians."

The program is supported by Intel, Microsoft, and TX/RX and has began its programming for the new cohort. The six startups selected for the program are:

  • Houston-based Eigen Control uses machine learning and chemical engineering models to combat rising CO2 emissions. Distillation process plants emit so much CO2 — and Eigen Control's processes are working to change that.
  • Houston-based Annapurna Solutions has cloud-based solutions for hazardous and solid waste management.
  • Mexico City-based S2G Energy focuses on sustainable and optimized solutions for businesses and governments with its energy-management-as-a-service technology.
  • Houston-based re:3D is a 3D-printing nonprofit that is democratizing small-scale manufacturing. Its Gigabot can use recycled and reclaimed materials for more sustainable and affordable production. The company, which has offices in Puerto Rico and Austin, donates a printer to someone making a difference with every 100 printers it sells.
  • Austin-based LifePod Corps is a nonprofit that provides disaster relief through renewable and sustainable technologies built and delivered by military veterans.
  • Houston-based Water Lens has created a real-time water data analytics platform for industries that use a lot of water — like oil and gas, agriculture, power generation, coal mining, and food processing. The technology allows for quicker, more reliable results.

The accelerator's leaders chose its theme for the cohort based on the City of Houston's Resilient Houston Strategy and Climate Action Plan. The program has identified these six startups as movers and shakers within these Smart Cities challenges.

"We are thrilled to collaborate with these startups to further develop Houston as one of America's smartest and most resilient cities," says Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, in the release. "By leveraging our resources and networks, the accelerator and Cohort 2 improve living conditions for all Houstonians. In this way, we stimulate our local economy with new jobs and economic opportunities."

Last year's inaugural cohort was announced in August and focused on resilience and mobility. After a demo day in December, the cohort continued its work in Houston through 15 pilot programs the startups had with the city. The third cohort is expected to launch toward the end of 2020, but the next theme has not yet been decided.

Launched in Houston, Umanity's new tool aims to better connect nonprofits with supplies and volunteers amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photos via umanity.io

Philanthropic supply chain tool connects Houstonians with resources during coronavirus crisis

oh the umanity

A Houston startup that has been working in a pilot program capacity with the city of Houston has accelerated the rollout of its platform to help connect and coordinate people's needs to resources in real-time during the coronavirus outbreak.

Umanity, which is a part of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator's first cohort, has created a philanthropic supply chain tool that's now available as an app or through desktop. The software can match and map local individual or nonprofit needs to organizations or volunteers, plus provide real-time analytics. During the coronavirus outbreak, they have mobilized its resources connecting supplies with nonprofits and volunteers with safe ways to help organizations that need it most during this crisis.

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator launched in 2019 to provide technology-driven solutions to Houston's most prevalent challenges. The accelerator is backed by Intel and Microsoft and partnered with the city of Houston and Station Houston.

"Our first cohort focused on transportation, resiliency, and connectivity," says senior director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, Christine Galib. "It was tightening much of the ways in which a vast and expansive city like Houston can come together and feel connected and supported as a city."

These themes are exemplified by Umanity, who is working with several city of Houston officials to direct citizens the resources they need during the crisis, and creating a network of communities to efficiently provide them the resources they need. The centralized platform shows a complete picture of who needs help and who can help all on the same platform while measuring the real-time economic impact of donations and every volunteer hour.

"I started this company because I wanted to transition everyday acts of service into actual data-driven solutions," says Ryan-Alexander Thomas, CEO and founder of Umanity. "My goal is that during the next crisis, for example, hurricane season, if somebody needs something they have access to get it when they need it, not two years later or after the crisis."

The platform has already rolled out in other cities such as Hyattsville, Maryland, to help connect their network of nonprofits with individuals as part of their crisis response as a result of supply shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With the help of their accelerator, Umanity is currently working with a number of the city of Houston's mayor's directors, including education and health leaders to create a broader coalition designed to collaborate and coordinate more efficiently by aggregating information from these sources.

"Having some of the mentors in the accelerator put us in touch with decision-makers in the city has really given us the boost we need to get a chance to show that we can do something good for the people and the community," says Thomas.

Thomas says Umanity is ready to be implemented in a dozen cities in the next few months. Their team is already close to signing partnerships with additional municipalities across the country.

"Our platform is available right now for download and we're growing," says Thomas. "We've tripled the number of organizations in the past week and we are always looking for new nonprofits, churches, and organizations to partner with to help those in need."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston energy storage startup secures $10M in federal funding

seeing green

A Houston-based company that's got a solution to renewable energy storage has just secured funding from a federal entity.

The U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, is granting Quidnet Energy $10 million in funding, the Houston company announced this week. The funding is a part of the ARPA-E Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential, the SCALEUP program. This initiative is aimed at providing funding to previous ARPA-E teams "that have been determined to be feasible for widespread deployment and commercialization domestically," per a news release.

“We’re honored that ARPA-E has selected Quidnet Energy as an awardee of the SCALEUP program,” says Joe Zhou, CEO of Quidnet Energy, in the release. “This funding will support continued work on our Geomechanical Pumped Storage (GPS) project with CPS Energy, which will demonstrate the benefits of using proven pumped hydro technology to create a long-duration energy storage resource that doesn’t require mountainous terrain. We look forward to continuing our partnership with CPS Energy and thank ARPA-E for acknowledging the potential of GPS for long-duration storage.”

The company's technology can store renewable energy for long periods of time in large quantities. The process includes storing pressurized water underground and, when the stored energy is needed, the water propels hydroelectric turbines and produces the electricity to support the grid at a fraction of the cost, per the news release. The concept is similar to existing gravity-powered pumped storage, but with less land required.

The fresh funding will be used toward Quidnet Energy’s ongoing project with San Antonio-based utilitary provider CPS Energy. This collaboration is scaling the company's GPS to a 1 MW/10 MWh commercial system, per the release, that will provide CPS Energy with over 10 hour long-duration energy storage system.

In 2020, Quidnet closed its $10 million series B financing round and secured a major contract with the New York State Energy Development Authority. The series B round included participation from Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Canada-based Evok Innovations, which both previously invested in the company, as well as new investors Trafigura and The Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.

New Texas-based mental health subscription box plans national launch at SXSW 2023

speak now and hold your peace

Mental health apps are so alluring, but once you’ve recorded your two-week streak and things are feeling a little more organized, it can be hard to keep going. It’s hard enough to keep up with journaling and a great bedtime routine, and many lovely self-help tools also lose their effectiveness when the novelty wears off.

A smart company might harness that novelty as its hook — and an easily distracted self-helper won’t fall off the wagon. Like many other companies in the mental health space, Speak As One will work on a subscription model, but this one won’t languish, unused on a credit card statement. The service, which plans to launch during SXSW 2023, delivers boxes of tangible mental health tools, inspiration, games, and even sensory objects that act as a monthly nudge to try something new, and curiosity takes care of the rest.

A sample box included:

  • Stress balls with short inspirational phrases by MindPanda
  • An Emotional First Aid Kit containing advice for situations as they come up, like sleeplessness and feelings of inadequacy
  • Tiny colorful putties at different resistances by Flint Rehab
  • A notebook, and two books: Athlete Mental Health Playbook and 1000 Unique Questions About Me
  • Other small items

It’s more than packing and shipping out a few toys each month. The boxes are curated with help from a licensed therapist, who leaves a personal note along with tips on how to use the items inside and additional resources. There is one type of box right now that aims to “reduce anxiety, increase mindfulness, and promote peace and balance,” but for further customization (for $10 more), the team is working on boxes tailored to first responders, veterans, athletes, and people in “recovery.”

Speak As One emphasizes community stories in its branding outside the delivery box, and uses inspiration from “influencers” (less content creators and more so people who can embody a relatable story) to build the specialty boxes. The company’s YouTube channel shares dozens of interviews with founder Julie Korioth, a former board member for Austin’s SIMS Foundation, a well-respected mental health resource for members of the local music industry.

“With hundreds of millions of people struggling with mental health, and COVID making the issue much worse, society continues to ostracize those who openly discuss mental health issues,” said Korioth in a release. “I founded this company so we can change the way the world sees, discusses, and supports mental health. Our goal is to promote empathy, connectedness, acceptance, and thoughtfulness with an innovative toolkit that caters to specific needs."

In addition to offering a nudge, these boxes could make great care packages for a loved one who is feeling introspective or going through a significant life event. It is possible to buy gift boxes, if presentation is your thing, but it’d be just as easy to repackage a box that comes before the receiver ready to appreciate the items at home.

The cost of one box is manageable at $49.99 (especially considering the retail value of products included, which the sample box far exceed), but for many subscribers this adds up fast. Luckily, there is no pressure to continue a lengthy commitment — subscriptions last between one and six months, so users have plenty of time to reconsider and sit with the items that have already been delivered.“

The goal is to meet our audience at any phase of their mental health journey,” said Korioth. “We’re creating change and a global life-long support system for children and adults dealing with mental health challenges. We simultaneously highlight businesses, the tech community, athletes, and artists doing wonderful work in this space.”

The company plans to partner with corporations to connect with employees and provide boxes to individuals the company chooses, and will turn some content into session albums with sales proceeds dedicated to mental health research.

More information and links to preorder are available at speakasone.com.

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert shares tips for navigating cybersecurity challenges amid the holiday season

guest column

It’s a grinch's cyber-playground, and this holiday season, you’re at risk — even if you think it won’t happen to you.

The good news is you can protect yourself from scams and fraud. Just remember that cybercriminals don’t discriminate, they can prey on anyone.

These statistics may surprise you:

  • Anxiety about having a mobile device hacked differs by demographic; low-income Black women rank mobile security as their number one concern, while the general population ranks mobile security as their third largest concern, according to a recent Recon Analytics survey of more than 3,297 U.S. consumers.
  • 44 percent of millennials have been victims of online crime in the last year and 31 percent admit they share their passwords with others.
  • Romance scams resulted in the most financial losses for adults aged 60 and over
  • Younger consumers took fewest actions after being notified of a data breach affecting their identity/online accounts in Q1 2022
  • Nearly 50 percent of American gamers have experienced a cyberattack on their gaming account or device
  • 47 percent of women who live in cities say their identities and/or data has been compromised in the past 6 months due to lack of home internet protections, compared with 53 percent of city men who say the same thing, according to a recent Recon Analytics survey.

People everywhere, regardless of gender, race, income level, education, or age, deserve to feel safe online. And yet, many aren’t aware how to protect themselves, don’t make it a priority, or wait to act until they are alerted to suspicious activity.

With words like malware, phishing, spoofing, and encryption, learning to protect yourself can feel like a college-level course. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Top 5 ways to guard against cyberthreats

By following five simple steps, you can start to protect your network, devices and data from many digital threats.

  1. Understand cyberattacks are real. One of the first hacks was documented in 1963 and today, nearly 60 years later, hackers are attacking phones and computers every 39 seconds. Cyberattacks continue to grow in number every year.
  2. Be proactive. Don’t wait for an attack to happen. Monitor your accounts daily so you are the first to know if suspicious activity is occurring. Check with your wireless carrier to see if they have tools to help. AT&T customers can download the free ActiveArmor mobile security app to help block spam calls and secure their personal data. And ask your internet provider about extra layers of security available to you at home. AT&T Fiber customers can access AT&T ActiveArmor internet security features at no additional cost to them.
  3. Step up your mobile security. Mobile devices now account for more than 60 percent of digital fraud. Mobile banking, online shopping, streaming videos and storing documents make our phones a central location for sensitive information. Your wireless carrier may be able to help. AT&T offers advanced security like Public Wi-Fi Protection, Identity Monitoring and Safe Browsing for no extra charge with some of our plans. Check with your carrier to make sure they’re doing what they can to keep you safe.
  4. Protect your passwords. We all know it’s necessary, but not all of us take steps to do it. 68 percent of people admit to using the same password across multiple logins. Using a strong password that differs from site-to-site will help decrease your chances of being hacked. If you struggle with passwords, consider getting a password manager.
  5. Report suspicious text messages. As mobile operators have more success blocking illegal robocalls, scammers have turned to text messages. But now it’s easier than ever to report spam texts to help block and control them. The latest iOS and Android operating systems have a simple reporting feature in their Apple and Google messaging apps.
Dedicate some time to safeguard your information this holiday season. For more cybersecurity resources (regardless of your carrier), visit att.com/CyberAware. If you or someone you know is new to computers or mobile devices, click here for more information on our free digital literacy courses.

------

Luis Silva is vice president and general manager at AT&T.