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

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

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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."

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Statewide accelerator hires new Houston staffer and embraces 'virtual first' approach amid COVID-19

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For years, Capital Factory has existed to promote innovation and grow startups across Texas and has expanded from its headquarters in Austin to Dallas, Houston, and beyond. In light of COVID-19, the organization has pivoted to make sure it can work with startups remotely and online.

"I think Capital Factory has successfully embraced virtual first," says Bryan Chambers, vice president of the accelerator and fund at Capital Factory. "I think it's gone well and it feels like we're just hitting our stride."

Chambers admits that the onset of the coronavirus had a great effect on Capital Factory — SXSW being canceled did its damage on the organization, which has a huge presence every year. However, cross-state startup collaboration is the driving force behind Capital Factory's Texas Manifesto.

"We're one big state, and we're one big startup ecosystem," Chambers says. "The resources across Dallas, Houston, Austin, North Texas, and San Antonio are available for everybody. Candidly, COVID aligns with that. There's no better time — COVID is erasing the boundaries in a virtual world."

In addition to navigating the transition to virtual operations, Capital Factory has also introduced its newest Houston staff member, as Adrianne Stone has started this week as venture associate for the organization. Stone received her Ph.D in Translational Biology and Molecular Medicine from Baylor College of Medicine before heading out to the West Coast and working at 23andme. She brings both her experience with health tech and Silicon Valley to her position.

"The mindset in Silicon Valley is different from how it is here in Texas — in good ways and bad ways. It was interesting to be exposed to a very potent startup vibe," Stone tells InnovationMap. "I'm looking forward to being able to meet all the cool companies, founders, and investors we have here in the Houston area."

Stone replaces Brittany Barreto, who helped in coordinating her replacement and is staying on part-time for the rest of August to help with training and immersion into the ecosystem. Barreto, who is one of the founders of the recently launched startup masterclass Founder's Compass, has also introduced a new brand called Femtech Focus, that includes a podcast where she talks to innovators in the women's health and wellness space.

"I'm ready to get back into the founder's saddle," Barreto says, adding that there's more to come for Femtech Focus.

Throughout her tenure, Barreto has overseen Capital Factory's Houston portfolio companies — both identifying potential investment opportunities and connecting startups to resources and mentors. She passes the torch to her former BCM classmate, and says she's excited to do so to a fellow Ph.D.

"The last year and a half, I've working really hard on laying this foundation. I don't want all that hard work to go away, so I cared a lot about who was going to take my position," she says. "I wanted to make sure that all my founders had someone who cared about them as much as I do."

Impact Hub Houston has new HQ, HCC creates AI program, and more innovation news

Short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and not all make the news. For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a Houston startup incubator has a new home, a local school creates AI-focused program, Astros manager taps into sports tech, and more.

Impact Hub Houston makes downtown partnership

Impact Hub Houston has a new headquarters in downtown. Photo courtesy of Central Houston

Impact Hub Houston, a nonprofit organization that promotes and accelerates sustainability-focused startups, is resident partner at Downtown Launchpad, according to Central Houston and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The organization now has a 10-year lease and a new headquarters for its team and events. Impact Hub joins two accelerator programs — MassChallenge Texas and gener8tor — which both have a global presence and launched in Houston in the past two years.

"We celebrate Central Houston's vision in launching this 'vertical village' and appreciate their ongoing support in including Impact Hub Houston as a part of it," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "It takes a village to raise an entrepreneur, and now we have that village with the infrastructure and community to raise generations of diverse innovators. It's another exciting step towards our goal to build an authentically inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem that looks like Houston and works for all in our region."

HCC introduces artificial intelligence program

Data science startup based in Houston focus on neuroscience software nabs $3.78M grant

A local college system is training the future AI workforce. Getty Images

Houston Community College is the first community college in the state to introduce a new program focused on artificial intelligence. The new Associate of Applied Science degree program has been approved by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, according to a press release from HCC, and is available for the fall 2020 semester at HCC Southwest, HCC Northeast and HCC Southeast.

"It is the latest of HCC's ongoing efforts to embrace new technologies and keep a pulse on the ever-changing needs of the industry," HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado says in the release. "Offering an innovative program like AI will allow our students to take advantage of all the accelerated job openings in Houston, in Texas and beyond."

The new program exists to fill the rising need for AI professionals. Last year, the job site indeed.com identified machine learning engineers at the top of its annual list of the 25 best jobs, citing a 344 percent increase in job postings from 2015 to 2018 with an annual base salary of $146,000.

"Because of a dire shortage of AI specialists, many companies are offering big salaries," says G. Brown, Ph.D., program coordinator of Networking and Telecommunications at HCC Southwest, in the release. "AI specialists are in high demand by companies like Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, as well as NASA and SpaceX."

Rice project re-envisions dorm layouts

The dorm design created socially-distant spaces that can be used in times of a pandemic. Photo via rice.edu

Two Rice University students received top marks in the 2020 American Institute of Architects Houston (AIAH) Gulf Coast Green Student Competition for their pandemic-proof dorm design. Carrie Li and Mai Okimoto, both 2022 Rice master's of architecture students, won first place in the competition that challenged students to design a dorm for the University of Houston-Downtown that would adhere to the Centers for Disease Control's social distancing guidelines.

"Carrie and Mai's timely and innovative proposal is beautifully conceived, highly resolved and elegantly presented," says interim dean, John J. Casbarian, in a news release. "I am particularly struck by how seamlessly it addresses the pressing issues of flooding, natural ventilation and social distancing, and how well sited it is in relation to UHD while mitigating the adversity of the freeway expansion.The competition consisted of eight teams from Texas and Louisiana which presented to judges from Kirksey, PDR Corporation, Gensler, Walter P Moore and UH-D. Li and Okimoto's project features 432 units across three villages and even factored in the area's flooding challenges.

"[Our design] aims to: allow social interaction to happen on different scales, from the one-on-one connection to larger scale gatherings; provide the users with safe but varied circulation paths, through which natural ventilation also occurs; treat dining as a key socializing program; and address the site's flooding risks and impacts of the I-45 corridor expansion," Li says in the release.

City of Houston passes small business-focused economic relief initiative

A new program from the city of Houston is helping to provide funds for businesses affected by COVID-19. Getty Images

Last week, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston City Council passed the city's Small Business Economic Relief Program, funded with $15 million of the City's allocated CARES Act 2020 funds. Small businesses can apply for up to $50,000 and the grant can be used for payroll, accounts payable, rent, mortgage, PPE for employees, marketing strategies, including creating an online presence and other sales alternatives.

"We know small businesses throughout Houston have suffered greatly due to the global pandemic, and it could take months or years before the business climate returns to normal," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "I thank Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Castex Tatum and other council members for bringing this program forward. We are working on other relief packages that will keep us Houston Strong as we navigate the public health crisis."

The program will be administered by Houston's Office of Business Opportunity and the Houston Business Development Inc.

To qualify for the SBERP, businesses must be located in Houston, have been in business for at least one year, provide evidence for revenue decrease due to COVID-19-caused closures, have less than $2 million in gross annual revenue pre-COVID-19, be in good standing with the city, and commit to complete technical assistance.

"The SBERP will help all sizes of small businesses move one step closer toward financial recovery. This program is intended to maximize the long-term, positive impact of these small businesses on our local economy through their contribution to job retention and the continued availability of their services," says Marsha Murray, director for the Office of Business Opportunity, in the release. "If our local small businesses did not qualify for other federal or local programs, or did not receive enough funds to mitigate the impact of the crisis, we encourage them to apply for this program."

Astros manager joins venture capital firm

Not only is Dusty Baker at the helm of the 2017 World Series-winning Astros, but he's also a founding partner of a sports-focused venture capital firm. Getty Images

The Houston Astros manager, Dusty Baker, is a founding partner of a new venture capital firm focused on sports tech and innovation. New York-based Turn2 Equity Partners is a new fund is beginning with a focus on amateur and professional baseball markets.

"For decades, baseball players, managers and executives have lended their credibility to brands as endorsers," Baker says in a press release. "With the establishment of Turn2 Equity, for the first time, faces of the game have the opportunity to own and influence people at all levels."

Co-founded by sports venture capitalists Jarett Sims and Peter Stein, the firm's team also includes Jim Duquette, New York Mets general manager; Bobby Evans, who was formerly with the San Francisco Giants as general manager; and John Haegele, the former CEO of Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment.

GotSpot Inc. wins veterans competition

A Houston startup that's using technology to optimize short-term real estate space took home a prize in a virtual pitch competition. Image via LinkedIn

Houston-based GotSpot Inc. has claimed another pitching competition prize for veteran-owned businesses. Reda Hicks, founder of the Houston startup, received third place and $10,000 at the Ford Fund Virtual Pitch Competition last month. Memphis-based Pure Light Clean Air Services took first place and $15,000 and Raleigh, North Carolina-based Blue Recruit won second place and $10,000.

"The experiences, teamwork and skills learned in service of our country can serve as a solid foundation for these men and women as they build sustainable businesses," says Yisel Cabrera, manager of the Ford Motor Company Fund, in a news release. "We're proud to work with Bunker Labs to assist these inspiring entrepreneurs as they pursue new roads to success."

Calling all energy startups

Upstream startups can submit to a new virtual pitch competition. Photo via atce.org

The Society of Petroleum Engineers is calling for applications from energy startups to compete in a virtual pitch competition. Applications for the ATCE Startup Village, which is a collaboration between SPE and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, are live online and due by August 14. The competition will take place Tuesday, October 13.

The competition is free to compete and to apply, and open to early stage upstream technology companies. Each company selected to present will have 5 to 8 minutes to provide a "quick pitch" about their company to a group of venture capitalists, angel investors, and industry leaders. Judging will be based on innovative technology, commercial strategy and business plan, market potential, and management team and advisers.

Rice University research: Collaboration with the community can be key to success

houston voices

In Pittsburgh, a coalition of 100 community groups brokered a deal with developers of the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team for $8.3 million in neighborhood improvements. In Oakland, California, developers of an $800 million high-tech complex promised local residents 50 percent of its construction jobs. And in Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center is working with residents to shield them from skyrocketing rents.

Community Benefits Agreements, or CBAS, as these agreements are called, are increasingly common between businesses and the places where they want to set up shop. But are they worth the money? To find out, Rice Business professor Kate Odziemkowska joined Sinziana Dorobantu of New York University to analyze market reactions to 148 CBA announcements between indigenous communities and mining firms in Canada. The financial value of these agreements, the researchers found, was real.

While it's easy to imagine that CBAs are just costly giveaways, they're more than goodwill gestures. Instead, they are legally enforceable contracts to distribute benefits from a new project and to govern the response to any potential social and environmental disruptions. For businesses, the researchers found, they are also good strategy, because they prevent costly, drawn-out conflict.

To conduct their research, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu analyzed a sample of 148 legally binding CBAs signed in Canada between mining firms and indigenous communities between 1999 and 2013. In Canada, mining companies and indigenous communities often hammer out agreements about extraction and use of local resources. Studying only the mining sector let the researches control for the economic variations that characterize different industries.

Since CBA negotiations cannot be disclosed, the announcement of such agreements represents new market information. To conduct their study, the researchers tracked the market reaction to these announcements, using a technique that measured short-term returns.

Creating CBAs from the start, they found, can head off catastrophic costs later. That's because even when a company has disproportionate economic strength, the public relations, legal and economic costs of community conflict can be draining. Consider the 1,900-kilometer Dakota Access oil pipeline, whose developers faced six months of round-the-clock protests that included nearly 15,000 volunteers from around the world. The drumbeat of litigation and negative news coverage still continues today.

In general, the researchers found, the more experience a community has with protests or blockades, the more firms gained from signing a CBA. Property rights protections also provide strong incentive for making a deal. Mining companies, for example, need access to land to do business. Communities with robust property rights to the resource or location sought by the firm have strong standing to stop that firm if they don't make a deal.

Because access to valuable resources like land or intellectual property can mean the difference between financial success or failure, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu said, the lesson from their findings extends far beyond Canadian mines. It's a lesson Disney learned the hard way when it failed to acknowledge the culture of Norway's Sami people in "Frozen." Assailed for cultural appropriation by using, but not crediting, traditional Sami music, Disney quickly made amends. After negotiating with the Sami people, Disney pledged to consult with them and portray them thoughtfully in the film's sequel.

The deal may have cost Disney on the front end, but it was nothing compared to the advantage of freezing out years of bad press.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Kate Odziemkowska, an assistant professor of Strategic Management at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.