The ultimate who's who of 2020 — favorite Houston Innovators Podcast guests of last year. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: With 2020 in the rearview, InnovationMap is looking back on the top stories of the year. With over 60 episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast and about half of those being recorded in 2020, here are the top episides from the year.

Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline

With sports went offline, esports startup Mainline saw an opportunity for growth during the COVID-19 outbreak. Photo courtesy of Mainline

What happened when collegiate sport stadiums shut down and seasons were postponed? People started to turn to esports to get their competitive fix. And Houston-based esports tournament software company Mainline saw a huge boost to business.

"Everyone is looking for how to get sports, or esports, in front of people because everyone is just missing [sports] so much," Chris Buckner, co-founder and CEO of Mainline, says in a June episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've been very fortunate to work in the industry we do."

On campuses this past spring, colleges are looking for a way to connect with and engage students, Buckner says. And, Mainline has even been able to attract interest on the professional level.

"Our June will pretty much be the best month of our company, and a lot of that is driven by the fact that everyone is looking for a digital solution rather than an in-person solution," Buckner says.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Fiona Mack, head of JLABS @ TMC

Fiona Mack joined JLABS @ TMC as head of the incubator. Photo courtesy of JLABS

Last year, JLABS @ TMC — a local health tech startup incubator under the Johnson & Johnson arm — welcomed Fiona Mack as the new head of the program. On her plate was assessing the needs of the incubator's 49 member companies in the portfolio and understanding the needs of the Texas innovation ecosystem.

"As I learn more about the history of life science sector in Texas, over the past 20 years there has been an impetuous to build up this critical mass of companies here to really make it a strong hub that competes with the energy sector to make it a pillar of the economy here," Mack says in a November episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

One of the things that's top of mind for Mack is a focus on diversity — both from an entrepreneurship and a representation standpoint.

"From a research perspective, there's a strong effect of having a lack of diversity in a lot of the metrics we're looking at," she shares.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard

Joe Alapat is the CEO of Houston-based Liongard, which just raised a $17 million series B round. Courtesy of Liongard

Despite a pandemic that at least in some ways negatively affected venture capital investment, a Houston software startup managed to persevere with a $17 million series B. Liongard's CEO Joe Alapat, who co-founded the company with COO Vincent Tran in 2015, says in a May episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that the round was the result of ongoing relationships with advisers and investors that meant a successful round — even in light of a pandemic.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle

Megan Eddings and Amanda Cotler of Accel Lifestyle joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share how they made the pivot from making T-shirts to face masks. Photos courtesy

For years, Megan Eddings, founder and CEO of Accel Lifestyle, worked on perfecting the perfect antibacterial fabric for an anti-stink athletic clothing line, but it only took her a few weeks to pivot toward using the material to make masks.

On a May episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Eddings and Amanda Cotler, director of operations, shared the story of how this pivot came to be and how they saw the Center for Disease Control was recommending wearing bandanas and cloth when face masks weren't available, they had an epiphany.

"Megan and I read that and immediately hopped on a call with our team," Cotler says. "We had a realization with our antibacterial fabric that a face mask made from it would be so much cleaner."

Within 24 hours, the duo had a sample in their hands, and they had 14,000 yards of their Prema fabric being shipped from California to Houston, where they had managed to find 60 local sewers ready to start making the masks.

Now, with the Houston workforce making moves to return to the workplace, Eddings says she's seen an increased interest in corporations wanting custom masks with the company logo on it for their employees.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Durg Kumar and Allen Bryant,  partners at Knightsgate Ventures

Houston-founded venture capital firm heads into second fund focused on social impact Durg Kumar (left) and Allen Bryant, partners at Knightsgate Ventures, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund. Photos courtesy

Durg Kumar founded Knightsgate Ventures in order to find and fund startups with a social impact and a profitable business strategy. The Houston-based firm was founded in Houston and has since expanded to add a New York partner, Allen Bryant, to the operation. The duo joined the Houston Innovators Podcast in November.

"For a very long time, there was a perceived trade off between social returns and financial returns," Bryant says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "What we are seeing now is that's really not the case. You actually have businesses that are bringing impactful change and those businesses are propelled by that."

The VC's first fund invested in six startups — including Houston-based Voyager — and is now heading into its second fund. Kumar says the first fund's success was in part due to his network. Now heading into the second go around, Knightsgate's network has grown with the addition of Bryant.

The end of the year, Kumar and Bryant were focused on helping their portfolio startups focus on the next year.

"Now's a good time to retrench and focus on building product," Kumar says, "so that in 2021 when travel restrictions ease, then you've got your refined product to go out and take it to the customers."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Joy M. Hutton, local leader of the Grow with Google in Houston

Joy M. Hutton leads the Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy of Google

In November, when Google announced it was expanding its Grow with Google Digital Coach program to Houston, Joy M. Hutton was named the local leader. The entrepreneur and business consultant is hoping to help provide important business resources to entrepreneurs just like herself.

"In Houston, you have a lot of different resources that weren't available to startups before just within the past few years, and I think that's huge," Hutton says in a December episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Being more inclusive with people who need the resources who haven't traditionally had access to those resources is a big initiative. I personally am proud to be a part of that."

Hutton specifically calls out resources like MassChallenge and Founder's Institute — both of which she serves as a mentor for — as well as DivInc, gBeta, and of course the Grow with Google program. To get involved, Houston entrepreneurs can head online to learn more and keep an eye out for monthly classes online — and hopefully, in the future, in person events as well.

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Kyle Judah, executive director of Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Kyle Judah joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his new role. Photo courtesy of Lilie

When Kyle Judah accepted his position as executive director at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, he had spent less than 48 hours in the city of Houston. In fact, his first two months in the role have been spent completely remote and out of town.

Still, his limited in-person interaction with the city and with Rice made an impact.

"One of the things I found so exciting about what's going on in Houston right now that, quite frankly, was incredibly attractive about the opportunity to come and join Lilie and Rice was that Houston has these big pillar companies in energy and health care and all these critical areas that the world, the economy, and the society needs," Judah says in a September episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's all in Houston right now."

Judah and Lilie's goal is to help identify the innovation happening on campus at Rice and bring it to the world. And, he says, Rice as a whole has a huge place in the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. The challenge is identifying what industries Houston and Rice have an opportunity to disrupt.

"We can't just copy and paste what works for the Bay Area or what works for Boston," he says. "We have to figure out what is going to be the authentic right sort of centers of excellence for Rice and for Houston — areas like energy, health care, space. It just so happens that these areas that Houston and Rice have historically done better at than anyone else — those happen to be the most grand challenges for all of humanity."

Read more and stream the podcast episode here.

Log on to one of these informative online events happening throughout the rest of the month. Getty Images

10+ can't-miss virtual business and innovation events in Houston for November​

Where to be online

November is usually the last busy month for business events before the end of the year and ahead of the holidays, and this year — even though events have pivoted to virtual gatherings — is no different.

From panels and ask-me-anything meetings to summits and startup competitions, here are over 10 Houston innovation events you can attend virtually via online meetings. This month in particular there's the return of The Houston Innovation Summit and the brand new awards program called, The Listies (nominate now for those). Be sure to register in advance, as most will send an access link ahead of the events.

November 5 — Dell Technologies Ask Me Anything

Dell Technologies is hosting an "Ask Me Anything" session for the Ion community. During this time, attendees can ask experts anything in regards to IT pain points during these times. Entrepreneurs may also use this time to brainstorm the back end IT Infrastructure of their business.

The event will take place online on Thursday, November 5, at 10 am. Register here.

November 5-6 — Greentown Labs Climatetech Summit

Join Greentown Labs for its first Climatetech Summit for a deep dive into scaling climate action. Across the two days, attendees will engage with Greentown's pillars of climate action — technology, finance, policy, and justice — discover groundbreaking startups and their climatetech solutions, learn from industry experts, and forge meaningful connections with entrepreneurs, investors, business leaders, policymakers, startup support organizations, and other climate champions.

The event will take place online on Thursday, November 5, and Friday, November 6. Register here.

November 10 — Igniting Leadership: The State of COVID Vaccines

Join Ignite Healthcare Network for a special night of discussion hosted by IGNITE Steering Committee member Susan Feigin Harris about the status of COVID19 vaccine development with Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, Co-director of Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, November 10, at 6 pm. Register here.

November 10-12 — Texas Life Sciences Forum

The Texas Life Science Forum is the premier life science event in Texas that brings together members from industry, emerging life science companies, academic, and investors. The 2020 event will be virtual and will still be the "must attend" event for anyone in the life science industry in Texas or affiliated with innovation at the life science academic institutions. This event represents an opportunity to meet investors, learn about promising life science companies, to learn about opportunities for entrepreneurs, investment professionals, big pharma, academics and business executives serving the life science industry.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, November 10, to Thursday, November 12. Register here.

November 12 — Plaza Tec: Funding Fundamentals

Though Latinx-owned businesses and startups make up at least 38 percent of businesses in the Houston area, there is still a lack of access to capital blocking growth and progress for Latinx founders.

In this discussion presented by The Ion, representatives from baMa and NextSeed will join together to discuss angel investing and crowdfunding options for Latinx founders and what challenges one might face when seeking capital.

The event will take place online on Thursday, November 12, at 5:30 pm. Register here.

November 12 — Women in Tech and Biz

If you're interested in hearing from some badass women in tech and business, come to the virtual Women in Tech + Biz event created by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The event will be split into two sections — one focused on entrepreneurship and the other focusing more on software and engineering — followed by networking.

The event will take place online on Thursday, November 12, at 6 pm. Register here.

November 13 — Climathon 2020: Hacking Solutions to Houston’s Climate Challenges

On Earth Day this year, the City of Houston published its first Climate Action Plan. The plan is the culmination of thousands of volunteer time from industry professionals, policy stakeholders, and community advocates. Together the working groups have laid out a concise plan to address the climate challenges that Houston faces along with maintaining a leadership role in the energy transition. This year's Climathon will look to realize some of the goals of the plan through design sprints led by local subject matter experts in the areas of transportation, energy innovation, building optimization, and materials management.

The event will take place online on Friday, November 13, at 1 pm. Register here.

November 16-20 — The Houston Innovation Summit

The Houston Innovation Summit — THIS — celebrates Houston's innovation ecosystem during Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW). THIS responds to 2020 with a special focus on the intersection of Impact and Innovation, spotlighting Houstonians at the forefront of education, ecosystems, inclusion, and policy. Join Impact Hub Houston and Houston's startup and small business community for a week of exciting programs and connect with the thinkers, doers, makers and innovators driving Houston forward.

The event will take place online on Monday, November 16, to Friday, November 20. Register here.

November 17 — Struggles and Bubbles: Pivoting during a Pandemic

Join General Assembly Houston to listen to a panel of startup founders who will share their journey and entrepreneurial struggles, and what it really takes to launch a startup during global pandemic, and scale a startup.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, November 17 at 5 pm. Register here.

November 17-19 — Capital Factory's Texas Startup Roadshow

For the first time, Capital Factory is taking its roadshow online. For three days, the organization will be introducing investors to the various innovative cities across the Lone Star State.

Houston will be the city of focus on Wednesday, November 18.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, November 17, to Thursday, November 19. Register here.

November 20 — The Listies

Let's toast to the entrepreneurial spirit of Houston in a time when celebrating victories is more important than ever. Introducing the Listies, brought to you Houston Exponential and InnovationMap, commemorating the launch of HTX TechList, Houston's innovation discovery platform.

The event will take place online on Friday, November 20, at 3 pm. Register here.

Robyn O'Brien joined the Liu Idea Lab of Innovation and Entrepreneurship to discuss how she's found success in advocating for change with her latest startup. Photo via robynobrien.com

Rice University professor and startup founder talks advocating for change and strategy

Houston voices

Robyn O'Brien, co-founder of rePlant Capital and Rice adjunct professor, joined the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the first virtual Ladies who LaUNCH. RePlant Capital is working with food industry players to invest in resilient and sustainable agricultural practices. She continues working toward her goal to "make clean and safe food affordable and accessible to anyone who wants it."

After receiving an MBA from Rice, O'Brien found herself thrust into the world of food as a financial analyst. Years later when her one-year old child had a severe allergic reaction, Robyn's previous work experience in the food industry suddenly became much more personal. She dug into the data and unearthed injustice hidden in the US food industry, resulting in her book, The Unhealthy Truth. She brought to light some shocking realities about the rise in food related allergies in the US and the double standards of food quality in the US versus other international markets. Companies were selling one product in Europe with wholesome ingredients, while "the same" product in the US was made of artificial ingredients and chemicals.

As a rebel-rousing public figure, Robyn has received her fair share of push back, but she has come out of the storm more resilient and compassionate because of it. Over the course of her hour-long talk, Robyn shared some of the ways that she has been able to advocate for change, as a mom up against industry giants and those with power to silence her. A few of the strategies she has found to be fool proof are:

1. Although her story about the US food market is quite shocking, O'Brien explained that she has lead and advocated from a place of love, not fear. O'Brien reminds us, "The reason we're hurting… is because we love." Whether she's communicating with a national audience or working on a team, Robyn has found success by turning to empathy and encourages us to do the same. Even internally, when there is discourse in her team, she says, "Start with compassion."

2. Lead with data. Despite how personal the issue felt to Robyn and the anger we are justified in feeling about this issue, Robyn continually relies on the data to do the convincing as opposed to an emotional response. "Don't exaggerate… data will tell it's own story." She encourages us to do our homework, know our facts, and walk into meetings confidently.

3. You have to exercise courage daily. ""Courage is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets." And when your internal meter senses something is misaligned, listen to it. There is room for change in departments and large organizations and it takes courage to address these issues. But it also takes courage to recognize the "gut check" and acknowledge when the misalignment is too great, and to walk away.

O'Brien is a great example of sticking to your guns, even when you're up against a global industry. Now, I leave you with the challenge of taking smaller steps – plant seeds of change where you are and advocate for individuals in need.

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This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

Here's what interactive, virtual events to log on to this month. Getty Images

Updated: 15+ can't-miss virtual business and innovation events in Houston for October

where to be online

Every year, October is jam packed with tons of business events across Houston. Even in light of the pandemic, the shows must go on — online, that is.

From fireside chats and ask-me-anything meetings to summit and startup competitions, here are over 10 Houston innovation events you can attend virtually via online meetings. Be sure to register in advance, as most will send an access link ahead of the events.

Note: This post has been edited and republished to reflect new events.

October 5 — Introduction to the Latinx Startup Alliance

The Ion is hosting this fireside chat to allow attendees to learn what resources San Francisco-based Latinx Startup Alliance will bring to Houston and the importance of promoting opportunities and access for all Houstonians launching a tech startup and funding resources.

The event will take place online on Monday, October 5, at 5:30 pm. Register here.

October 6 — HXTV| VC Ask Me Anything Virtual Event ft Companyon Ventures

Houston Exponential is hosting a virtual ask-me-anything event with Companyon Ventures, which funds B2B software startups into their expansion-stage by injecting decades of startup and VC experience through operational hands-on investing.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, October 6, at noon. Register here.

October 6, 13, 20, & 27 — ABC's of Accelerators Series

Join The Ion for a series of virtual events throughout the month that tackle the ins and outs of startup accelerator programs.

The events will take place online on every Tuesday of the month at noon. Register here.

October 8 & 15 — Houston Low-Carbon Energy Innovation Summit

The Center for Houston's Future has put together two full days of programming centered around low-carbon innovation. Registration options $50 one-day passes or $75 two-day passes.

The event will take place online on Thursday, October 8, from 9 am to 1:30 pm, and Thursday, October 15, from 9 am to 3 pm. Register here.

October 14 — HXTV| VC Ask Me Anything Virtual Event ft IronSpring Ventures

Houston Exponential is hosting a virtual ask-me-anything event with IronSpring Ventures, a network-driven venture capital fund investing in digital industrial innovation.

The event will take place online on Wednesday, October 14, at noon. Register here.

October 14 — Pandemic Rising: The Threat to Female Ambition & Our Nation's Recovery

Join Sesh Coworking for a virtual town hall to discuss the impacts of the global pandemic and economic downturn on female career trajectory, female unemployment rates, increased childcare burdens and how the pandemic has thrust female equality in the workspace backwards by decades.

The event will take place online on Wednesday, October 14, at 1 pm. Register here.

October 14 — Core Conversations: Transition with Purpose

Join a Core Conversation with Brandy Guidry to learn how she leveraged her outreach and advocacy work to start consulting with startups.

The event will take place online on Wednesday, October 14, at 4 pm. Register here.

October 16 — Design Thinking for Tech and Innovation Workshop | Prototypes+User Testing

At this Ion Online event, learn some of the ways to prototype and identify features that will make up your MVP and usability testing techniques.

The event will take place online on Friday, October 16, at 11:30 am. Register here.

October 19 — PR 101 for Startups and Small Businesses

Want to generate press for your startup but have no budget? Join General Assembly for this PR 101 session to learn how to leverage PR strategies to grow your business. This session is ideal for startup founders and marketers and general enthusiasts who would like to learn PR strategies and tips. Our panelists will cover effective story telling, media relations, and content development.

The event will take place online on Monday, October 19, at 5 pm. Register here.

October 19-29 — Space Com Expo

We are dedicated to accelerating the global business of space. SpaceCom 2020's online event will feature eight days of unprecedented innovation, superior thought-leadership, and forward-thinking strategies all for free.

The event will take place online at various times from Monday, October 19, to Thursday, October 29. Register here.

October 20 — Houston, We Have a Leader: Fireside Chat with Head of JLABS @ TMC

Fiona Mack, the new regional head for JLABS @ TMC has landed in Space City, and she's sitting down with the one-any-only Melinda Richter, Global Head of JLABS, for a fireside chat on all things Lone Star State, JLABS and her Texas-sized plans for the future of JLABS @ TMC.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, October 20, at 11 am. Register here.

October 21 — Diversity Investor Academy's panel on cleantech

The Diversity Investor Academy has announced a panel will be discussing the latest reports published, the trends in Cleantech, and how it could affect early-stage investment from different perspectives: startups, BA, and VC.

The event will take place online on Wednesday, October 21, at 2 pm. Register here.

October 22 — MassChallenge 2020 Virtual Awards

MassChallenge Texas's Houston Cohort will reveal its top companies of 2020 at MCTX's first virtual awards. Cohorts from Austin, Boston, and Rhode Island will also be represented, and headliners for the event include Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of the Boston Globe, and Chris Denson of Innovation Crush will be the host.

Click here to see the Houston finalists.

The event will take place online on Thursday, October 22, at 4 pm. Register here.

October 22 — How to Start a Startup: Heath Butler, Mercury Fund

Learn how to identify problems, needs, and trends worth pursuing and then how to create and evaluate possible solutions to these problems.

The event will take place online on Thursday, October 22, at 5:30 pm. Register here.

October 26-28 — 2020 Ken Kennedy Institute Data Science Conference

Now in its fourth year, the Ken Kennedy Institute Data Science Conference is a research, development, and innovation (RD&I) gathering, bringing together university and research labs (technology developers), key industry verticals (technology consumers), and IT industry (technology providers) that are looking at opportunities created by advances in AI, data analytics, machine learning and deep learning. It is structured to facilitate engagement and networking across all of these boundaries. The conference is specifically interested in highlighting use-cases that translate data to knowledge enabled by data and fueled by advances in data analytics, machine learning, deep learning, and AI.

The event will take place online on Monday, October 26, to Wednesday, October 28. Register here.

October 27-29 — ATCE Startup Village 

In addition to the Energy Startup Competition, the event will include expert presentations and table discussions. Participants will have opportunities to ask questions and hear advice from investors, industry representatives and veteran entrepreneurs. ATCE Startup Village is a partnership between the Society of Professional Engineers and the Rice Alliance.

The event will take place online on Tuesday, October 27, to Thursday, October 29. Register here.

October 28 — Venture Development Series #3: No Coding Required

In the last of its Venture Development Lilie workshop series, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship will build upon the themes covered in previous events and show participants how to create low fidelity prototypes without spending a dollar or knowing how to write a single line of code.

The event will take place online on Wednesday, October 28, at 4 pm. Register here.

October 29 — Ignite Madness finals

Female-led health tech founders face off in a startup competition like none other. Catch the first round bracket on October 22 at 9:30 am, or just tune in to the finals to see who takes the win (and, more importantly, the investment prizes).

The event will take place online on Thursday, October 29, at 6 pm. Register here.

Kyle Judah is executive director of Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship. Photo courtesy of Lilie

New innovation leader at Rice University plans to take campus innovations to the world

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 50

When Kyle Judah accepted his position as executive director at Rice University's Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, he had spent less than 48 hours in the city of Houston. In fact, his first two months in the role have been spent completely remote and out of town.

Still, his limited in-person interaction with the city and with Rice made an impact.

"One of the things I found so exciting about what's going on in Houston right now that, quite frankly, was incredibly attractive about the opportunity to come and join Lilie and Rice was that Houston has these big pillar companies in energy and health care and all these critical areas that the world, the economy, and the society needs," Judah says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's all in Houston right now."

Judah and Lilie's goal is to help identify the innovation happening on campus at Rice and bring it to the world. And, he says, Rice as a whole has a huge place in the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. The challenge is identifying what industries Houston and Rice have an opportunity to disrupt.

"We can't just copy and paste what works for the Bay Area or what works for Boston," he says. "We have to figure out what is going to be the authentic right sort of centers of excellence for Rice and for Houston — areas like energy, health care, space. It just so happens that these areas that Houston and Rice have historically done better at than anyone else — those happen to be the most grand challenges for all of humanity."

Another priority Judah has leading Lilie, which was founded at Rice in 2015, is to make sure opportunities are available for everyone. This month, the university launched the Rice Experiment Fund — a $500 semesterly stipend available to all students. The funds are meant to be used on early market testing and experiments, which can be prohibitive obstacles for students.

"We want to make sure that the diversity of entrepreneurship at Rice speaks to the diversity of the city in our backyard," says Judah, adding that diversity and inclusion is at the top of mind for programs like this.

Judah shares more on where he plans to lead Lilie and his early impressions on Houston's startup scene in the podcast episode. Overall, he's found it extremely welcoming.

"I found that everyone here wants Houston to win," he says. "We're really playing as a broader collective, and that's incredibly special."

You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Liu Idea Lab's Carol Tyger shares her experience on product managing for a tech startup. Getty Images

Houston expert reflects on why product management and user experience are key for tech startups

Houston voices

Consider planning a wedding. An impossible task of delivering a grand, completely personal event for all sorts of guests at a minimal cost.

At first, my fiance and I were freaking out because we heard that wedding planning is full of hidden costs and impossible expectations. But then the light bulb went off: that sounds a lot like my job as a product manager (PM). I can be the PM of my own wedding! I knew I wanted to provide a kick-ass party (great experience) for every guest (users) with limited resources (efficiently maximizing value).

Relying on my product manager skills, my fiancé and I started off by considering our goals and removing assumptions. I even conducted some user interviews by asking my friends what they value in weddings. Then we defined the "Wedding Minimum Viable Product (MVP)" and organized ourselves like a software team with a backlog and kanban board.

In the end, the wedding was a huge success. It felt just like a major software product release…from the planning to the execution. Product management is all about making a great user experience, maximizing value and working efficiently. In other words, it is a foundation for getting things done that can be applied to almost any situation.

Ultimately, as a product manager, you build an entrepreneurial mindset that can be applied to any future role. At the bare minimum, the PM is responsible for providing detailed requests for the tech team to build. But to be a great PM, it takes a lot more.

You rely on empathy. Product managers are the voice of the user for both the business and the tech team. To understand the user, you conduct user interviews, gather market analysis and collaborate with internal groups – exploring all corners of the organization – to determine user needs. Skilled product managers don't directly ask users what they want, but instead, understand through observation. You will be using various types of user data before and after software releases to forecast and measure the impact of innovations made.

You strengthen soft skills. It doesn't matter how technical you are if you don't have good rapport within the organization. The basics begin with communicating effectively, remaining flexible, acknowledging bad decisions and being comfortable with the unknown. The best product managers have built enough trust throughout the organization to lead at a senior level despite not having direct authority.

You strategize. You must understand the users, software cycle, and business needs well enough to plan months – even years – ahead while listening to and setting expectations with everyone involved. You will be blazing trails and solving new problems. The company will rely on you to operate with integrity while continuously innovating. Your entrepreneurial mindset will make setting the strategy second nature.

The entrepreneurial mindset and product management responsibilities hone skills that are not only transferable to future roles, but to your life in general. Whether you are preparing for a major software release or planning a fantastic party, your entrepreneurial mindset and product management skills will help you succeed.

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Carol Tyger is Lilie's product management expert-in-residence and was head of product at Spruce, a Houston-founded managed marketplace for apartment residents to book services such as housekeeping.

This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

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Here are 3 breakthrough innovations coming out of research at Houston institutions

Research Roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research projects, we look into studies on robotics advancing stroke patient rehabilitation, the future of opioid-free surgery, and a breakthrough in recycling plastics.

The University of Houston's research on enhancing stroke rehabilitation

A clinical trial from a team at UH found that stroke survivors gained clinically significant arm movement and control by using an external robotic device powered by the patients' own brains. Image via UH.edu

A researcher at the University of Houston has seen positive results on using his robotics on stroke survivors for rehabilitation. Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, director of UH's Non-Invasive Brain Machine Interface Systems Laboratory, recently published the results of the clinical trial in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical.

The testing proved that most patients retained the benefits for at least two months after the therapy sessions ended, according to a press release from UH, and suggested even more potential in the long term. The study equipped stroke survivors who have limited movement in one arm with a computer program that captures brain activity to determine the subject's intentions and then works with a robotic device affixed to the affected arm, to move in response to those intentions.

"This is a novel way to measure what is going on in the brain in response to therapeutic intervention," says Dr. Gerard Francisco, professor and chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and co-principal investigator, in the release.

"This study suggested that certain types of intervention, in this case using the upper robot, can trigger certain parts of brain to develop the intention to move," he continues. "In the future, this means we can augment existing therapy programs by paying more attention to the importance of engaging certain parts of the brain that can magnify the response to therapy."

The trial was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and Mission Connect, part of the TIRR Foundation. Contreras-Vidal is working on a longer term project with a National Science Foundation grant in order to design a low-cost system that would allow people to continue the treatments at home.

"If we are able to send them home with a device, they can use it for life," he says in the release.

Baylor College of Medicine's work toward opioid-free surgery

A local doctor is focused on opioid-free options. Photo via Getty Images

In light of a national opioid crisis and more and more data demonstrating the negative effects of the drugs, a Baylor College of Medicine orthopedic surgeon has been working to offer opioid-free surgery recovery to his patients.

"Thanks to a number of refinements, we are now able to perform hip and knee replacements, ranging from straightforward to very complex cases, without patients requiring a single opioid pill," says Dr. Mohamad Halawi, associate professor and chief quality officer in the Joseph Barnhart Department of Orthopedic Surgery, in a press release.

"Pain is one of patients' greatest fears when undergoing surgery, understandably so," Halawi continues. "Today, most patients wake up from surgery very comfortable. Gone are the days of trying to catch up with severe pain. It was a vicious cycle with patients paying the price in terms of longer hospitalization, slower recovery and myriad adverse events."

Halawi explains that his work focuses on preventative measures ahead of pain occurring as well as cutting out opioids before surgery.

"Opioid-free surgery is the way of the future, and it has become a standard of care in my practice," he says. "The ability to provide safer and faster recovery to all patients regardless of their surgical complexity is gratifying. I want to make sure that pain is one less thing for patients to worry about during their recovery."

Rice University's breakthrough on recycling plastics

A team of scientists have found a use for a material that comes out of plastics recycling.

Houston scientists has found a new use for an otherwise useless byproduct that comes from recycling plastics. Rice University chemist James Tour has discovered that turbostratic graphene flakes can be produced from pyrolyzed plastic ash, and those flakes can then be added to other substances like films of polyvinyl alcohol that better resist water in packaging and cement paste and concrete, as well as strengthen the material.

"This work enhances the circular economy for plastics," Tour says in a press release. "So much plastic waste is subject to pyrolysis in an effort to convert it back to monomers and oils. The monomers are used in repolymerization to make new plastics, and the oils are used in a variety of other applications. But there is always a remaining 10% to 20% ash that's valueless and is generally sent to landfills.

Tour's research has appeared in the journal Carbon. The co-authors of the study include Rice graduate students Jacob Beckham, Weiyin Chen and Prabhas Hundi and postdoctoral researcher Duy Xuan Luong, and Shivaranjan Raghuraman and Rouzbeh Shahsavari of C-Crete Technologies. The National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Department of Energy supported the research.

"Recyclers do not turn large profits due to cheap oil prices, so only about 15% of all plastic gets recycled," said Rice graduate student Kevin Wyss, lead author of the study. "I wanted to combat both of these problems."

Houston biotech startup raises millions to battle pediatric cancer

fresh funds

Allterum Therapeutics Inc. has built a healthy launchpad for clinical trials of an immunotherapy being developed to fight a rare form of pediatric cancer.

The Houston startup recently collected $1.8 million in seed funding through an investor group associated with Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which focuses on commercializing biotech and medtech discoveries. Allterum has also brought aboard pediatric oncologist Dr. Philip Breitfeld as its chief medical officer. And the startup, a Fannin spinout, has received a $2.9 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

The funding and Breitfeld's expertise will help Allterum prepare for clinical trials of 4A10, a monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of cancers that "express" the interleukin-7 receptor (IL7R) gene. These cancers include pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and some solid-tumor diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted "orphan drug" and "rare pediatric disease" designations to Allterum's monoclonal antibody therapy.

If the phrase "monoclonal antibody therapy" sounds familiar, that's because the FDA has authorized emergency use of this therapy for treatment of COVID-19. In early January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced the start of a large-scale clinical trial to evaluate monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of mild and moderate cases of COVID-19.

Fannin Innovation Studio holds exclusive licensing for Allterum's antibody therapy, developed at the National Cancer Institute. Aside from the cancer institute, Allterum's partners in advancing this technology include the Therapeutic Alliance for Children's Leukemia, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Children's Oncology Group, and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Although many pediatric patients with ALL respond well to standard chemotherapy, some patients continue to grapple with the disease. In particular, patients whose T-cell ALL has returned don't have effective standard therapies available to them. Similarly, patients with one type of B-cell ALL may not benefit from current therapies. Allterum's antibody therapy is designed to effectively treat those patients.

Later this year, Allterum plans to seek FDA approval to proceed with concurrent first- and second-phase clinical trials for its immunotherapy, says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, and president and CEO of Allterum. The cash Allterum has on hand now will go toward pretrial work. That will include the manufacturing of the antibody therapy by Japan's Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which operates a facility in College Station.

"The process of making a monoclonal antibody ready to give to patients is actually quite expensive," says Varadhachary, adding that Allterum will need to raise more money to carry out the clinical trials.

The global market for monoclonal antibody therapies is projected to exceed $350 billion by 2027, Fortune Business Insight says. The continued growth of these products "is expected to be a major driver of overall biopharmaceutical product sales," according to a review published last year in the Journal of Biomedical Science.

One benefit of these antibody therapies, delivered through IV-delivered infusions, is that they tend to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs, the American Cancer Society says.

"Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cancer cells. They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells," the Mayo Clinic says.

Varadhachary says that unlike chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy takes aim at specific targets. Therefore, monoclonal antibody therapy typically doesn't broadly harm healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Allterum's clinical trials initially will involve children with ALL, he says, but eventually will pivot to children and adults with other kinds of cancer. Varadhachary believes the initial trials may be the first cancer therapy trials to ever start with children.

"Our collaborators are excited about that because, more often than not, the cancer drugs for children are ones that were first developed for adults and then you extend them to children," he says. "We're quite pleased to be able to do something that's going to be important to children."

Houston expert calls for more innovation within the construction industry

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The construction industry has the opportunity to drive positive change through the development and deployment of technologies influencing the way we work and live, ultimately affecting our environment, communities, and personal well-being.

Carbon emissions come from a handful of broad categories, including transportation, electricity production, and industry. According to the International Energy Agency, more than a third of all global greenhouse gases come from the building and construction industry. Concrete production alone contributes an estimated 8 percent of global carbon emissions. As a result, in Houston, we are vulnerable to longer, hotter summers, stronger hurricanes and once-in-a-lifetime storms. But I'm optimistic that there is opportunity for our industry to come together and reverse the current trajectory.

We must continue developing and deploying new technologies and best practices to reduce emissions. By using data to understand the environmental implications of the materials we use, we can make adjustments that are beneficial to both our clients and the environment.

One such example is the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, known as "EC3." Skanska USA developed the open-source, freely available software in collaboration with Microsoft and C Change Labs. The tool democratizes important building data and allows the construction industry to calculate and evaluate carbon emissions associated with various building materials.

Now hosted and managed by Building Transparency, a new 501c3 organization, the EC3 tool was incubated at the Carbon Leadership Forum with input from nearly 50 industry partners. Like the tech industry, we should promote knowledge-sharing among general contractors to drive innovation and sustainability.

The demand for this tool is growing because it's not only the right thing to do, but it also benefits our communities and drives stakeholder value. Now more than ever, clients want to be responsible global citizens and they know that adopting green building practices is attractive to their prospective workforce and their clients and customers.

In Houston, the current population of 7.1 million will double to 14.2 million by 2050. With that population growth comes the need for more housing, more office space and more transportation options. Last April, Houston enacted a climate action plan that sets goals aligned with those from the Paris accord — carbon neutrality by 2050.

Similar local plans have been and are continually being developed all around the world, a necessary step to address a global issue that impacts all of us. Like others, the Houston plan contemplates how to reduce carbon emissions that are the result of energy consumption which accounts for about half of Houston's greenhouse-gas emissions.

Innovations in energy efficiency can help drive down energy consumption. As conscientious global and local citizens, we also have to consider the emissions that are created by the raw materials that are used in construction. That's become a much easier process with the EC3 tool. Now architects, engineers and others involved in the design process can make data-driven decisions that can have significant impact on the carbon footprint — as much as a 30 percent reduction in embodied carbon — of a structure that are mostly cost-neutral.

Embodied-carbon reductions can be made simply by smartly using data. The EC3 tool is one of many steps toward innovative building practices and complements the important ongoing work done by the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees LEED certification.

Opting for sustainable building practices is good for the environment, but it's also good for the people who will spend time in these spaces. Green building reduces the use of toxic materials, and studies have found that sustainable structures, such as schools, health care facilities and airports, have positive impacts on cognitive ability, seasonal affective disorder and overall happiness.

We are also seeing an influx of client requests for sustainable and healthy building upgrades, especially since the onset of COVID-19. These upgrades are changing the way we live and work while supporting infection control, from touchless elevators to advanced air filtration systems.

For example, innovation has been instrumental throughout the pandemic for the aviation industry's safe operation. Increased biometrics across airport touchpoints, flexible passenger gathering areas that include modifications to passenger hold rooms and departure lounges, and environmental monitoring and wayfinding technology to alert passengers of airport congestion points are a few new concepts airports are incorporating into builds to keep travelers healthy now and in a post-COVID world.

Overall, the construction sector will play an essential role in how we approach expanding the built environment over the next 30 years. Using data and striving for continual innovation, we have a great opportunity to come together as an industry and create real change that will benefit our collective lives and those of generations to come.

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Dennis Yung is executive vice president and general manager at
Skanska, one of the world's leading project development and construction groups, where he oversees building operations for Houston and North Texas.