Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his new venture, Velostics. Photo courtesy of ChaiOne

For over a decade, Gaurav Khandewal has been working with clients to provide software solutions to industrial problems with his company, ChaiOne. Now, in his latest venture, he's addressing a market within logistics that can be run a whole lot smoother: The middle mile.

On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Khandewal explains that the middle mile in logistics is the trucks transporting between warehouses, for instance, and that includes trucks checking in and checking out at these warehouses. This process, and other aspects to the middle mile, is antiquated and manual — something his new company, Velostics, is looking to address.

"This middle mile commerce is very ancient," Khandewal says. "There is a lot of friction between ordering and paying. A lot of it is unnecessary and should be made simpler."

This middle mile represents a $700 billion market, and Velostics is ready to make an impact in that space. Last month, the company acquired Terusama, a logistics tech company with dock management and truck scheduling capabilities. The company's software solution that speeds up truck loading and unloading will be rolled into Velostics's platform.

The potential impact Velostics can make is exciting to Khandewal, who relates the technology to truck drivers being able to check in like passengers do with airlines. Smoothing out the so-called "log jam" of the middle mile can be a gamechangers for consumers and businesses alike.

"If we could accelerate the middle mile where a lot of the log jam is happening, we could get stuff in 30 minutes," Khandewal says. "We'd never have to go to a store again."

Khandewal has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. Now, he's on the Houston Exponential board and thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says.

Velostics is one of seven Houston startups tied to logistics — and Khandewal mentions others like Voyager, GoExpedi, and Cart.com that are providing solutions in the space.

"If you look at Chicago — it's had some crazy amount of logistics unicorns that have popped up over the past few years, and they aren't slowing down," Khandewal says on the show. "Houston, I would argue, is better positioned, because we have this massive port. I think logistics is a massive opportunity for Houston."

He shares more on his passion for Houston, as well as what's next for Velostics on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

A program at UH has just gotten a rare and prestigious accreditation. Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

University of Houston logistics and transportation program receives global accreditation

leveled up

A program at the University of Houston has received a rare global accreditation that will allow for more opportunities for the students in both the graduate and undergraduate programs.

The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport has accredited UH's Supply Chain & Logistics Technology bachelor's and master's degree plans. Now, students can apply for membership upon graduation and use the CILT credential after their name, according to a press release from UH, and this is the first academic program in the United States to have this distinction.

"In launching our globally-recognized credential program, we are addressing gaps in skill sets and focusing on filling those gaps with our students, helping them become more marketable," says Margaret Kidd, program director of Supply Chain & Logistics Technology, in the release.

Port Houston has granted $50,000 to the program, and these funds are being used to take the curriculum digital and allow for an online platform for certificate courses.

"The College of Technology prides itself in providing degree programs that support the workforce – a workforce that both needs to expand in numbers to boost the economy, but also to provide a more relevant education for industry and commerce," says Anthony P. Ambler, dean of the UH College of Technology, in the release. "We are grateful to the Port Houston and its support of our technology program which explicitly exposes students to how business operates so that they are able to be productive quickly."

The news was announced at a press conference at UH. Harris County Commissioner for Precinct 2 Adrian Garcia and Port Houston Commissioner Wendy Montoya Cloonan joined UH representatives at the event.

"The pandemic has wrecked several sectors of the economy, directly impacting thousands, and so many are searching for new skills that translate to this new normal. This UH program, funded by Port grants, is yet another way we and our partners are addressing that," says Commissioner Garcia. "Hardworking people need locally elected officials, educational institutions, and industry to help us get past these difficult times, which is why I am extremely excited about the launch of this program."

The first group of participants for the program will come from dual-credit high schools with a logistics focus and community colleges offering logistics and international business degrees.

"Our program plays an integral part in preparing the next generation of workers. We thank Port Houston for funding our project which provides meaningful influence for area students," says Kidd.

Houston-based The Now Network's last-mile logistics platform is growing its development team. Getty Images

Houston-based energy logistics software prepares to hire, raise funds as it scales up

now hiring

Many startups turn to offshore outsourcing to fuel their growth. The Now Network, a Houston-based energy tech startup, is doing just the opposite — relying on stateside in-sourcing.

The SaaS company is in the midst of building out its in-house development team, including full stack developers and UX/UI designers. This year, The Now Network plans to add another four to six developers, on top of the six who already are on board. Stacey McCroskey, the company's director of product since September 2019, leads the team.

Previously, the development team consisted of more than a dozen contract workers in Ukraine and India, says Mush Khan, president of The Now Network. Khan assumed the president's role in May 2019.

"We believe that having our own in-house team drives a sense of ownership over the product. We have to eat our own cooking, because what we build, we have to support," Khan says.

Compared with the outsourcing model, the in-house team enables the company to more quickly release higher-quality products and more quickly respond to customers' needs, he says.

"Over the years, The Now Network has seen immense growth, consistently advancing its technology framework to drive faster payments, increased driver retention, an expanded 3PL network, and increased business revenue," Sam Simon, the company's founder, chairman, and CEO, says in a release. "The addition of an in-house development team will only amplify this growth, promoting more opportunities for cross-collaboration and customer feedback, to expand upon and refine existing features."

Members of the in-house development team are working on expansion of The Now Network's last-mile logistics platform for wholesalers, third-party logistics (3PL) carriers, drivers, and users of fuel. Khan says the platform offers "complete visibility and accuracy" throughout the fuel delivery process.

Competition for tech talent in Houston industries like energy and manufacturing is ramping up as the region evolves as "a fast-paced, innovative environment," he says.

"We believe companies like ours offer an opportunity to build a product from the ground up," Khan says, "and in an environment that allows them to express themselves creatively."

In June 2019, staffing firm Robert Half Technology put Houston in fourth place for the anticipated volume of IT hiring in U.S. cities during the second half of the year.

"The technology market in Houston remains strong as more companies are investing in systems upgrades, focusing on security, and taking on digital projects," Robert Vaughn, Robert Half Technology's regional vice president in Houston, said in a release. "The candidate market remains tight, and companies that prolong the interview process or don't make competitive offers tend to have the hardest time staffing open roles."

Today, The Now Network employs 15 people, all but one of whom works in Houston. The company expects to grow its workforce to around 30 by the end of 2020, Khan says. To accommodate the larger headcount, The Now Network is moving this month from WeWork at the Galleria to a 6,000-square-foot office in the Upper Kirby neighborhood.

To help finance its growth, The Now Network will soon launch its first-ever fundraising effort. Khan says the company will seek more than $5 million in investment capital.

Founded in 2015, The Now Network strives to simplify the last mile of the "energy ecosystem," which Khan describes as "slow, opaque, and expensive." Its SaaS platform automates delivery functions in the energy supply chain, doing away with manual labor and tedious paperwork, he says.

Since early 2018, the startup has handled more than 180,000 customer transactions involving over 1.8 billion gallons of fuel.

The Now Network is a portfolio company of Simon Group Holdings, a private equity firm based in Birmingham, Michigan. One of its key areas of focus is the energy sector.

In 2017, The Now Network (previously known as FuelNow Network) entered a strategic partnership with Houston-based Motiva Enterprises LLC, a fuel refiner, distributor, and retailer owned by Saudi Refining Inc. Khan says his company is collaborating with Motiva to roll out The Now Network platform to U.S. fuel wholesalers.

"As of now, Motiva doesn't have a stake in our company," he says.

Motiva owns East Texas' 3,600-acre Port Arthur Refinery, the largest oil refinery in North America, with a daily capacity of more than 600,000 barrels. State-controlled Saudi Aramco — which went public last year in an IPO valued at $2 trillion — owns Saudi Refining.

Validere, a Canada-based energy logistics company, is expanding in Houston. Courtesy of Validere

Canadian startup fresh off $7 million seed funding raise picks Houston for U.S. expansion

Energy Tech

Houston's established reputation as the energy capital of the world combined with burgeoning tech scene has made the city attractive for a growing oil and gas company with roots in Canada.

Validere is an oil and gas company focused on using real-time data and both artificial and human intelligence insights to improve its clients' quality, trading, and logistics. The company's technology enhances the ability of oil and gas traders to make informed decisions, which currently are made based off unreliable product quality data. Annually, $2 trillion of product moves around the oil and gas industry, and Validere uses the Internet of Things to improve the current standard of decision making.

"It's like if you'd go to the grocery store to buy milk not knowing if it's 1 percent, 2 percent, or cream," co-founder Nouman Ahmad says about how companies are currently making oil and gas trading decisions.

In October, Validere concluded its seed funding round with $7 million. Among Validere supporters are several Silicon Valley power players, such as Sallyport Investments, Y Combinator, Real Ventures, Moment Ventures, and ZhenFund. The funds, in part, will help the company expand into the United States market.

"The goal in 2019 is to be at the same stage — in terms of customer success — in the U.S. market as we were at the end of 2018 in the Canadian market," Ahmad says.

The company has seen great success in Canada, and some of its existing clients have business in the Houston area already, Ahmad says.

With the increased focus on Houston comes a growing office. Currently, Ahmad leads the efforts in town with one other staffer, however, operations won't be a skeleton crew for too much longer. Ahmad says he is "aggressively hiring" in the Bayou City, which will be a key office for them as they grow across the country.

"As we think about the long-term future of the business, Houston is one of the most important markets for us going forward," Ahmad says.

Houston has been a welcoming community to the Canadian transplant, who says he spends most of his time here now. Both the startup and tech scenes in Houston have been valuable resources to the company — as has the energy industry's potential clients.

"Houston market is very receptive and ready for innovative companies that are solving problems for them," Ahmad says.

The company was founded in 2015 at Harvard by entrepreneurs who saw the potential for better transparency in the oil and gas industry. Validere's other co-founder and CTO, Ian Burgess, first had the idea for the technology after an accident happened in Canada; a train carrying crude oil derailed and blew up a small town killing 45 people.

"The industry largely bases important operational decisions on poor quality data," Burgess says in a release. "Our platform not only informs product quality reliably and in real time, but it also uses AI to help oil and gas companies optimize product movement."

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Growing Houston-based drone software company snags government contract

ready for liftoff

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Report: Houstonians lose days-worth of time each year due to rush hour

not in the fast lane

Traffic is a part of life in Houston. But a new study quantifies just how much time the average Bayou City dweller spends sitting in rush hour gridlock every year—and the results are eye opening.

According to a study released this month by CoPilot, Houstonians lose nearly four days of time each year due to rush hour commuting.

The report found that rush hour extends Houstonians' commute by an extra 22 minutes per day. Annually, that totaled an additional 91.6 hours commuting due to rush hour.

This earned the Houston area (including the Woodlands and Sugar Land) a No. 8 spot on CoPilot's list of cities where commuters lose the most time to rush hour.

Evening commutes saw the highest increase in time in Houston, with the average commuter spending 14 additional minutes on roadways due to rush hour. Morning rush hour in Houston added about eight minutes to commuters' daily drives.

Houston was the only Texas city to make CoPilot's list of the top 15 cities that lost the most time to rush hour traffic. New York drivers lost the most time to rush hour, which adds about 32 minutes to daily commutes and 132 hours a year, according to the report. Los Angeles drivers lost the second-most time, followed by urban Honolulu, Miami, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Birmingham, Alabama.

The report found that drivers in Houston spend about eight more minutes commuting during rush hour than the average driver in the county. That totals to about 30 more hours per year than the average U.S. driver.

Commute times have been dropping nationally, reaching a low of 25.6 minutes in 2021 compared to 27.6 minutes in 2019, as more workers have transitioned to hybrid schedules or working from home, according to CoPilot

In 2020, Houston drivers even witnessed a 33 percent drop in traffic compared to in 2019, according to a study from Rice.

Still, Houston roadways are consistently ranked among the most congested in the country. Last year, a similar study found that the typical Houston driver wasted 46 hours due to traffic congestion.

Portions of the 610 West Loop are notorious for being ranked as the state's most congested roadways, and other stretches of roads are known as some of the worst bottlenecks in Texas.