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."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.