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

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."

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Houston startup uses AI and data to predict energy usage across sectors

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Among the many complications presented by the coronavirus pandemic is coping with power needs. Movie theaters, malls, schools, and stadiums are among the places where energy use has been uneven at best. And the unevenness promises to continue as a lot of locations turn the lights back on but their operating hours remain in flux.

Houston-based Adapt2 Solutions Inc. believes its software can help energy companies power their way through the pandemic-driven haziness of power demand from commercial and residential customers.

"Today's energy companies need the speed and flexibility that cloud-native technology provides to fully leverage the massive amounts of data available to them," Jason Kram, executive vice president of Adapt2 Solutions, said in a December 2019 release.

Kram says that by capitalizing on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud computing, his company's predictive analytics models forecast unexpected fluctuations in power capacity. Amid the pandemic, this technology enables energy companies to map out demand at a time when they're balancing strained revenue and squeezed spending is paramount, according to Kram.

Armed with this forecast data, Adapt2 Solutions' customers — including utility companies, energy traders, and power generators — can more easily plot power production, sales, and purchases, Kram tells InnovationMap. This data can be applied to conventional power, renewable energy, and battery-stored power.

"In times of disruption, big data can inform decision-making for energy companies to optimize energy-market operations with timely and reliable data," Kram says.

Adapt2 Solutions' load forecasting feature generates the predictive analytics models. This feature is embedded within the company's Adapt2 Bid-to-Bill flagship product, which helps energy companies manage front-office and back-office operations. Its other products are Adapt2 Green, designed for the renewable energy market, and Adapt2 Trade-to-Tag, aimed at improving management of energy trades.

"With Adapt2's AI-enabled solutions, we strive to help more customers focus on their core operations and bring business units together on a single platform to create an integrated approach," Kram says.

The company's customers include Consolidated Edison Inc. (ConEd), Duke Energy Corp., the East Kentucky Electric Cooperative, Exelon Corp., Invenergy LLC, Sempra Energy, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Tyr Energy LLC, and Vistra Energy Corp.

Adapt2 Solutions employs about 40 people, Kram says, and plans to grow its revenue and headcount by 25 percent to 40 percent this year. He says Adapt2 Solutions has managed to turn a profit even though it hasn't taken any outside funding since Francisco Diaz founded the company in 2008.

In March, Inc. magazine placed Adapt2 Solutions at No. 222 on its inaugural list of the fastest-growing private companies in Texas. The company's revenue shot up 72 percent from 2016 to 2018.

"The growth in our business reflects a growth in our customers' business, further validating that we have taken the right steps to help energy enterprises better respond to market and technology changes," Diaz said in a March release.


Jason Kram is the executive vice president of Adapt2 Solutions. Photo courtesy of Adapt2 Solutions

Here's what challenges — and opportunities — Houston startups are facing amid COVID-19

Houston voices

There are startups struggling to keep their heads above the deluge of a pandemic-induced depression.

Between 2016 and 2018, the global startup economy generated over $3 trillion — a far cry from today's economic value. Today, startups struggle to keep operations running during the pandemic. Web companies throughout Europe have lost close to 400 billion euros during the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese venture capital investing has dipped 50 percent compared to everyone else.

"Startups that are supported by venture capital funds are merely a small part of the startup ecosystem. Startups that don't have venture capital funding, which is the majority of them, stand to lose substantial money during this pandemic-caused shutdown," says Dane Stangler, a business writer for Forbes.

"All across the country, there are startups that, while they may not have hefty venture capital funding, are still significant to the ecosystem because of their job creation," he continues.

These startups face serious setbacks and are expected to see a giant decline of growth during this pandemic. Small businesses are already in a bind because of forced closures and rapidly waning sales.

Far-reaching effects

Startups supported by venture capital have far-reaching effects on the rest of the economy. These high-tech companies generate up to five jobs for every one job they directly create.

"That means that the inevitable economic bodyslam they're about to receive or have already received will be felt by almost every other facet of the job market," explains Stangler.

According to the Startup Genome report, the pandemic will damage startups that were in the process of raising capital and will likely kill the majority of them.

What can be done?

"Federal emergency support for small businesses is certainly the right play here. The deli down the street, the local mechanic, the mom and pop burger joint; they all need help right now," Stangler says.

Tech and science startups need help too — and many of which were in the middle of getting off the ground when the corona crisis crashed the economy.

"Pumping money into them right now is the best thing that can be done to help them in the now."

The low-interest rate climate that has helped boost venture funds has also pushed many startups to survive on debt. We'll have to come to terms with this for now.

"Market momentum isn't necessarily ideal for the time being. Moreover, the "reallocation" forces that you hear entrepreneurs mention a lot has been kiboshed for now," explains Stangler.

Startups struggling to put the pieces of their company back together might see a glimmer of hope on the horizon, though.

Hope is on the horizon

Recessions breed good businesses. Don't believe me? According to the Startup Genome report, over 50 billion dollar tech startups were created during the recession of 2007 to 2009. Fun fact: more than 50 percent of the companies on the Fortune 500 list to date were founded during a recession.

Sure, startups struggling during a national pandemic can paint a demoralizing picture. But there might be some good news peaking through the dark clouds. It's clear that venture capital funding is at a standstill right now. But it could mean that more startups will get funded when things return to somewhat-normal.

The Startup Genome report shows us that during the 2001 and 2009 recessions, the number of companies that were funded by venture capitalists exploded and fast. For example, in the four years after the 2009 recession, the number of venture capital deals spiked by 25 percent every year.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Houston accelerator leader shares how the cohort has seen success through virtual programming

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 34

In January, when Eléonore Cluzel was named the director of gBETA Houston, she had no clue Houston's first cohort of the international, early-stage accelerator would be conducted virtually. Now, five weeks in, the program and its five startups have adapted to provide programming and mentorship online only.

"Going virtual was a really good pivot on our end. I think that the cohort has adjusted very well," Cluzel says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It is tough. They put tremendous effort into it and I'm proud to be working with them."

Last week, gBETA Houston announced the five companies currently in the program. And, Cluzel is already excited about the second cohort, which opens applications after the first cohort's virtual pitch night on June 18. Cluzel says in light of how many applications she got for the first time around, she knows there's a lot of impact gBETA can make in Houston,

"I was really quite surprised — in a good way — how the first application round was really competitive," Cluzel says, "which shows that there is a lot of room to grow for accelerators in town."

Cluzel shares some of the challenges and opportunities gBETA Houston has seen throughout this time, and introduces each of the companies in the cohort, which represents sports tech, consumer tech, and more. Listen to the full interview with Cluzel below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.