Texas cities dominate list of best places to work in tech, a startup contest is accepting applications, Amazon invests in Houston community, and more local innovation news. Getty Images

Just like Houston's temperatures, the Bayou City's innovation news is heating up for the summer. From a new startup competition and a big donation from Amazon to Texas cities dominating a list of best places to work in technology, here's a roundup of innovation news happening in town.

Study finds greater Houston area ranks as best place to work in tech

Four Texas metros appear on the ranking. Chart via SmartAsset

A new study from SmartAsset identified the best places to work in technology, and Houston ranked at No. 15. The researchers looked into the country's top 50 populated areas across five metrics: percentage of workers employed in tech, average salary for tech workers, ratio of average tech salary to average salary across all fields, percentage of currently listed bachelor's jobs that are in tech and cost of living.

Texas was well represented on the list, and three Lone Star State metroplexes landed on the list ahead of Houston. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington tied for the No. 3 position with Raleigh, North Carolina. Meanwhile, central Texas' Austin-Round Rock and San Antonio-New Braunfels tied for No. 7.

The study found that most of these top cities reside in the south, and the northeastern part of the country ranked poorly on these metrics.

Capital Factory launches $100,000 startup competition

Calling all cognitive tech startups. Photo via austinstartups.com

Austin-based Capital Factory, which has a presence across the state, has opened applications for a $100,000 contest for tech startups. The Human Performance Investment Challenge is looking for hardware and/or software solutions that enhance physical or cognitive capabilities, according to an article the organization posted.

The challenge will conclude at Fed Supernova, a virtual event on July 15. The event is in collaboration with the Army Futures Command's Innovation Combine and xTechSearch programs. Applications are open now and close June 28.

Amazon teams up with Houston Food Bank to feed at-risk seniors

The Houston Food Bank is working with Amazon to feed senior citizens. Photo courtesy of Houston Food Bank

Last month, Amazon made a strategic donation focused on providing food to senior citizens disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. The tech giant's Amazon Flex sent drivers around town to make contactless deliveries to residents' doors, and, in just two days after launching, Amazon has delivered over 3,000 pounds of food — representing more than 2,000 meals.

"For so many of our senior citizens, the pandemic is especially troubling as they have health concerns, limited mobility and need assistance for such regular tasks as grocery shopping," says Brian Greene, president and CEO of Houston Food Bank, in a news release. "Because this population needs help, we wanted to add direct food deliveries for them, and we are so thankful to Amazon for stepping up to make this happen for our beloved senior citizens."

Amazon's efforts within the Bayou City are just one part of its commitment to deliver millions of meals across the country. In addition to the donated delivery service, Amazon has gifted a $50,000 COVID-19 response grant to the local organization to go to operational needs and food supplies.

"Communities around the world are facing the COVID-19 pandemic together, and in Houston we're proud to be doing our part to support our local community," says Bri Tye, general manager at Amazon's Fulfillment Centre in Katy, in the release. "The donation of $50,000 to the Houston Food Bank, and Amazon's Flex deliveries will go directly to helping feed seniors and families who need it most."

Houston fintech startup launches new product

HighRadius has premiered a new software product. Photo via highradius.com

Houston-based fintech startup, HighRadius, which provides software solutions and automation technology, announced its new RadiusOne A/R Suite for mid-sized businesses.

"We launched the RadiusOne B2B Network to facilitate suppliers and A/R teams to digitally connect with their buyers and A/P teams for faster processing of receivables and payments. Currently, the network has millions of active businesses," says Sashi Narahari, founder and CEO of HighRadius, in a news release. "The RadiusOne A/R Suite will provide the essential apps for A/R teams at mid-sized businesses to instantly plug their ERPs and A/R processes into this network and digitally connect with their buyers across the globe."

The new product is especially key in today's work-from-home environment in order to prevent slowdowns in accounts receivable departments.

"COVID-19 is putting a lot of working capital strain on businesses globally," Narahari says. "We are hoping to help by automating clerical A/R processes for mid-sized businesses and by reducing the friction for supplier A/R teams to digitally collaborate with their buyers and A/P teams."

The Cannon partners with minority-focused angel investment group

The Business Angel Minority Association launched at a breakfast event in March. Photo by Nijalon Dunn

The Cannon — an entrepreneurial hub — has joined forces with The Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, to prioritize diversity within angel investing in Houston.

"Diversity plays an important role in early-stage investment decisions. The existing Business Angel associations are not diverse enough and this translates to a lack of pre-seed and seed angel investment in Minority-led startups", says Maria Maso, founder and CEO of baMa, in a news release.

The organization launched earlier this year to connect angel investors to minority-led startups. This partnership is in line with The Cannon's commitment to diversity, says the Cannon's CEO, Jon Lambert.

"baMa's mission to fill the glaring need for an early-stage investment focus on minority-led startups and/or startups targeting minority-driven markets is fundamental to The Cannon's vision to deliver every entrepreneur access to the startup resources needed to thrive," Lamber says in the release.

"For us, community is diversity – our partnership with baMa will extend and enhance the support system we are passionately growing and will provide baMa with access to our expanding community of startups and partners. We're excited to see where this partnership takes us – there is so much alignment in our desire to help the entire entrepreneurial community, we are expecting to accomplish big things together."

UH program addresses need for technology teachers

UH's teachHOUSTON program is preparing the next generation of technology educators. Photo courtesy of Chris Watts/uh.edu

With the number of jobs within technology expected to grow, the University of Houston has geared up to train the future's tech educators. UH's teachHOUSTON program, which trains STEM teachers who work in economically disadvantaged high schools within Houston, recently received $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation to continue its mission.

The funding will go toward a new program called UH-ACCESS — short for Advancing Cultural and Computational Engagement in STEM Scholars. The program, which begins this fall, will train 30 UH students from varying disciplines to teach computer science, physics and technology at the high school level.

"Our goal is to prepare a diverse group of teachers who will inspire students to become the country's next technologically advanced, highly-skilled workforce," says Paige Evans, associate director of teachHOUSTON and principal investigator on the project, in a news release.

The selected UH-ACCESS scholars will receive a $12,000 scholarship per year for two years, and they will work in the field across Houston, Alvin, Pasadena, Spring Branch, and Cy-Fair Independent School Districts.

"We are trying to find potential teachers who already exhibit a sociocultural awareness," continues Evans. "Research has shown that students do better in science, technology, engineering and math if the content is connected to their community and culture."

HCC launches tech tool for job hunters

HCC is helping job hunters across the city. VioletaStoimenova/Getty Images

Houston Community College has launched a new tool for job hunters that identifies occupations and the accelerated certificate programs within the higher educational system. JobsNowHouston.org will help Houston's unemployed gain key skills and certifications to make them a more marketable employee.

"COVID-19 has challenged us all, forcing us to rethink every facet of education and community responsiveness," says Dr. Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of Houston Community College, in a news release. "JobsNowHouston.org will connect people with the resources they need to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to compete in our new workforce and is a great example of how everyone at Houston Community College is working even harder to provide training and education to fill in- demand jobs."

According to the release, COVID-19 pushed over 1.5 million Texas residents into unemployment but — at the same time — nearly 481,000 job openings have been posted recently. HCC hopes its JobsNowHouston.org initiative can connect the dots to more easily facilitate retainings and upskilling for these unemployed.

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Houston company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

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As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.