The 2022 Houston Innovation Awards revealed its big winners across 11 categories. Photos courtesy

That's a wrap on the Houston Innovation Awards Gala. InnovationMap and Houston Exponential announced the winners of the 2022 awards that celebrated Houston's booming innovation ecosystem, and 11 startups and individuals walked away with the awards.

The event, held November 9 at the Ion, honored all 43 finalists as well as Trailblazer Award recipient, Blair Garrou, managing director and founder of Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury. Click here to read about all the finalists.

Eight judges evaluated over 150 companies and individuals across 11 categories for the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards. This year's judges included Carolyn Rodz, founder and CEO of Hello Alice; Wogbe Ofori, founder of Wrx Companies; Scott Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs; Ashley Danna, senior manager of regional economic development of Greater Houston Partnership; Kelly McCormick, professor at the University of Houston; Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice University; Lawson Gow, CEO of Houston Exponential; and Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap.

Without further adieu, here the winners from the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards.

BIPOC-Founded Business: Steradian Technologies

The winner for the BIPOC-Founded Business category, honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation, is: Steradian Technologies, a health tech startup that uses deep-photonics technology to diagnose respiratory diseases in seconds, all for the price of a latte.

Female-Founded Business: Sesh Coworking

The winner for the Female-Founded Business category, honoring an innovative company founded or co-founded by a woman, is: Sesh Coworking, a women and genderqueer inclusive coworking and community.

Hardtech Business: Fluence Analytics

The winner for the Hardtech Business category, honoring an innovative company developing and commercializing a physical technology across life science, energy, space, and beyond, is: Fluence Analytics, real-time analytics solution that optimizes processes and provides novel insights into material properties that enable customers to increase yields, improve product quality, and reduce costs.

B2B Software Business: Liongard

The winner for the B2B Software Business category, honoring an innovative company developing and programming a digital solution to impact the business sector, is: Liongard — software company that unlocks the intelligence hidden deep within IT systems to give MSPs an operational advantage that delivers both higher profits and an exceptional customer experience.

Green Impact Business: Cemvita Factory

The winner for the Green Impact Business category, honoring an innovative company providing a solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, alternative materials, and beyond, is: Cemvita Factory, a biotech company that uses a sustainable, economical, nature-inspired approach to empower companies with sustainable products and environmental technologies to decrease their carbon footprint, reverse climate change, and create a brighter future for the planet.

Smart City Business: Sensytec

The winner for the Smart City Business category, honoring an innovative company providing a tech solution within transportation, infrastructure, data, and beyond, is: Sensytec, an IoT Solutions platform that expedites and enhances concrete construction operations.

New to Hou Business: Venus Aerospace

The winner for the New to Hou Business category, honoring an innovative company, accelerator, or investor that has relocated its primary operations to Houston within the past three years, is: Venus Aerospace, the creator of a hypersonic spaceplane capable of one-hour global travel.

DEI Champion: Loretta Williams Gurnell

The winner for the DEI Champion category, honoring an individual who is leading impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and progress within Houston and their organization, is: Loretta Williams Gurnell, founder of SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation.

Mentor of the Year: Kara Branch

The winner for the Mentor of the Year category, honoring an individual who dedicates their time and expertise to guide and support to budding entrepreneurs, is: Kara Branch, founder and CEO of Black Girls Do Engineer Corp. and developer and manager at Intel Corp.

Investor of the Year: John "JR" Reale

The winner for the Investor of the Year category, honoring an individual who is leading venture capital or angel investing, is: John (JR) Reale, managing director of Integr8d Capital and venture lead of the Texas Medical Center Venture Fund

People's Choice (Startup of the Year): Milkify

The winner for the People's Choice: Startup of the Year category, selected via an interactive voting portal during of the event, is: Milkify — creator of patent-pending process to freeze-dry breast milk into a powder that is easy to use and transport and lasts for three years on the shelf.

These five individuals are up for the DEI Champion award this week. Here's what challenges they are facing promoting an equitable innovation ecosystem. Photos courtesy

Houston's DEI Champions share obstacles they are overcoming promoting equitable innovation

EAVESDROPPING AT THE HOUSTON INNOVATION AWARDS GALA

As one of the most diverse cities in the world, Houston's business and innovation community has a unique opportunity to prioritize not just its diverse population, but also to make sure the city has equitable and inclusive opportunities.

Five Houstonians have been named finalists in the DEI Champion category for the Houston Innovation Awards Gala, which will be held on November 9. They shared some of the challenges they are facing as they fight to make sure Houston has an equitable innovation ecosystem.

"I have always been the only Black women in all of my engineering roles, and I worked so hard to get there and quite often feel so uncomfortable in this space. So, individuals who question my name don't always understand the important of someone expressing that I see you to an individual can mean. However, this is a challenge I am willing to face because I am changing people lives and these lives I am changing will impact the world."

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— Kara Branch, founder and CEO of Black Girls Do Engineer Corp. "Although I believed in myself and that girls that look like me needed that representation and someone to mentor them and expose them to S.T.E.M., I had no one to do this for me, so I had to do this for girls in my community," she says. "I have faced some people who fight me about my name, but my name had to be my name because I needed to let Black girls know I was talking to them."

"You can’t expect to make an impact, big or small, if you’re not willing to meet people where they are. One challenge we’ve seen when it comes to talking about and implementing DEI programs within the organization is that not everyone has the same understanding of what diversity, equity, and inclusion is."

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Arianne Dowdell, vice president and chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer for Houston Methodist. "Another challenge we see is that sometimes people expect to see change immediately," she continues. "This is a journey not a race, and if done right, it’s something that will continue to evolve and grow."

"Nobody wants to be tagged as difficult or uncomfortable to be with. A lot of bystanders will also make a calculated risk when witnessing bias, what is in it for me? Many will turn a blind eye if there are other interests at play."

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— Juliana Garaizar, head of Houston incubator for Greentown Labs and lead investor for Portfolia. Garaizar explains that she sees people afraid of facing the repercussions that come with speaking up or standing up to bias and harassment.

"Sustainable funding. We have the talent, the access to mentors and STEM education/activities and preparation workshops and certifications. But not having the capital to hire and effectively manage this growth has been very challenging to where we've had to say no to expansion (girls in need) and and increase in girls within our yearlong and skill-building programs."

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— Loretta Williams Gurnell, founder of SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation. She continues, "However, because we are serious in creating a diverse and sustained pipeline for more underserved girls (women) in STEM, we heavily rely on organizations that are like-minded in practices and core values to partner with and provide our services and opportunities to their girls and vice versus. It builds community and sustainability for all who are involved."

"The problems we face are so daunting and overwhelming that it can be hard to know where to start. ... At some point I realized that you just have to start somewhere, and you have to go deep in one area." 

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— Rob Schapiro, director of Microsoft's Energy Acceleration Program. "Only 27 percent of STEM workers are women. A mere 2 percent of venture capital money goes to women and far less to black women. The average wealth of the top 5 percent of White American households is seven times more than the average of the top 5 percent of Black households. These kinds of statistics can paralyze you into inaction," he explains. "It is great to be an ally to all, but you can have more impact if you focus your attention and efforts on a specific area. What is challenging still is that you will want to do more and spread your efforts, but you have to stay disciplined. One person cannot fix everything. But, using your privilege and your network you can influence many others and through them make a huge impact."

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Loretta Williams Gurnell of the SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation, Al Ansari of FreshBrew, and Carolyn Rodz of Hello Alice. Photos courtesy

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 advocacy to coffee manufacturing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Loretta Williams Gurnell, founder and executive director of the SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation

Loretta Williams Gurnell, founder and executive director of the SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how she's impacting young women in STEM. Photo courtesy of SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation

Years ago, through her own experience working with students, Loretta Williams Gurnell realized there wasn't any initiative connecting the dots for young women in terms of translating their state-mandated math and science classes into successful careers and job opportunities.

She set out to connect those dots and increase STEM opportunities for young women and launched her organization SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation in early 2016 to focus on programming to spark STEM interest and education for girls age 10 to 17. Later, amid the pandemic, she realized she needed to do more than just put on events and programming for these young women.

"We had to look at what's going to be longterm for these girls. How can we take the programatic piece that we do so well and make it a part of their lifestyle and decision making opportunities, so we had to pivot," she says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Click here to read more.

Al Ansari, president and CEO of FreshBrew

FreshBrew has upgraded to some high-tech roasting equipment. Image courtesy of FreshBrew

Al Ansari takes coffee seriously — and he's putting his money where his mouth is. Houston-based FreshBrew, one of the largest private-label coffee and tea producers in the country, announced this month the recent investment of $10 million into its specialty roasting and production divisions.

The company, which supplies specialty blended coffee, tea and total beverage solutions to hospitality and retail business, is expanding its current roasting production and will fund extraction, bottling and canning capabilities, making FreshBrew one of only a few companies in the country to offer total end-to-end beverage solutions. The expansion, which is on the same land the company has owned since its inception in 1995, is slated to be complete in early 2023.

“Over the years, we take a myopic approach with our customers, we look at what they want to achieve and look at their market, and blend their wants and our knowledge and create custom profiles for them,” says Ansari, president and CEO of FreshBrew. Click here to read more.

Carolyn Rodz, founder and CEO of Hello Alice

In an interview with InnovationMap, Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners. Photo courtesy of Hello Alice

Last month, Hello Alice — now with 1 million members in its community — announced a new program with MasterCard that provides small business owners a simpler way to unlock access to capital.

The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard offers users expert business advice, business insights, cash back, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

"As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had," Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, tells InnovationMap. "We really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access." Click here to read more.

Loretta Williams Gurnell, founder and executive director of the SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how she's impacting young women in STEM. Photo courtesy of SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation

Houston innovator shines a spotlight on ways young women can get involved in STEM and innovation

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 151

Years ago, through her own experience working with students, Loretta Williams Gurnell realized there wasn't any initiative connecting the dots for young women in terms of translating their state-mandated math and science classes into successful careers and job opportunities.

As she explains on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast, you don't know what you don't know — how can girls be expected to picture themselves as a researcher, a startup founder, or a business leader if they aren't exposed to people who look like them in those roles?

So, she set out to connect those dots and increase STEM opportunities for young women. She officially launched her organization SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation in early 2016 to focus on programming to spark STEM interest and education for girls age 10 to 17. Later, amid the pandemic, she realized she needed to do more than just put on events and programming for these young women.

"We had to look at what's going to be longterm for these girls. How can we take the programatic piece that we do so well and make it a part of their lifestyle and decision making opportunities, so we had to pivot," she says on the show.

The organization's three pillars are innovation, STEM, and leadership, and Williams Gurnell says she's excited to welcome her latest batch of SHINEGirls at the second annual membership induction ceremony on Sept. 23. The year-long program will match the students with mentors who will support and encourage them.

Looking back on the past few years, the pandemic also reinforced a need for community for SUPERGirls SHINE Foundation. Williams Gurnell says the shutdown nearly put her nonprofit out of business, but she realized one way to stay afloat is to be involved with an engaged group of people.

"We knew that if we could build community, we could build our power," she says. "So we built a community and put it online."

Another way the foundation is tapping into community is through the Ion. Williams Gurnell says that the hub for innovation and tech reached out to her to initiate a partnership. Now, the nonprofit is headquartered out of the Midtown building and provides interns and job placement for its members, working with startups and other companies — as well as hosts programming and opportunities in the space.

Williams Gurnell says it's a matter of working together — with schools, students, other organizations, and partners — to really allow for impact. It's not one person's responsibility and there's not one quick fix — just like it's not just affecting one person or a group of people.

"It's not an urban problem — and it's not a low-, moderate-income problem. It's an economic problem and a systemic problem," she says. "But when you give people skills and access and equity, it changes the game and allows them to play in that game with the skills to be able to be successful."

Williams Gurnell says she hopes to expand opportunities nationwide and is looking to her Houston community for support — whether that's financial or through volunteering and attending events, like the induction ceremony later this month.

She shares more details about the future of the organization on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston university's online MBA program rises in the ranks of newly released report

A for improvement

Rice University's online MBA program has something to brag about. According to a new report, the program has risen through the ranks of other online MBA curriculums.

MBA@Rice, the online program at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice, has ranked higher in four categories in the latest edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Online Programs. The report evaluated schools based on data specifically related to their distance education MBA programs, and U.S. News has a separate ranking for non-MBA graduate business degrees in areas such as finance, marketing and management. The MBA list focused on engagement, peer assessment, faculty credentials and training, student excellence, and services and technologies.

“We use the same professors to deliver the same rigorous, high-touch MBA in our online MBA as we do in all our campus-based programs,” said Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez. “The strong national rankings recognize our success in reaching highly talented working professionals who don’t live near enough to our campus or for whom an online program is the best option.”

Rice's virtual MBA program ranked No. 12 (tied) in the 2023 list, which was up several spots from its 2022 ranking, which was No. 20. Additionally, Rice stood out in these other three categories:

  • Best Online MBA Programs for Veterans: tied for No. 10 (No. 14 last year).
  • Best Online Business Analytics MBA Programs: tied for No. 10 (tied for No. 12 last year).
  • Best Online General Management MBA Programs: tied for No. 7 (tied for No. 11 last year).

Rice recently announced a hybrid MBA program that combines online instruction with in-person engagement. The first cohort is slated to start this summer.

The MBA@Rice program is the top-ranked Texas-based program on the virtual MBA list. Several other programs from the Lone Star State make the list of 366 schools, including:

  • University of Texas at Dallas at No. 17
  • Texas Tech University at No. 33
  • Baylor University, University of North Texas, and West Texas A&M University tied for No, 65

U.S News & World Report ranked other online programs. Here's how Houston schools placed on the other lists:

  • The University of Houston tied for No. 10 in Best Online Master's in Education Programs and tied for No. 75 in Best Online Master's in Business Programs
  • Rice University, in addition to its MBA ranking, tied for No. 27 on the Online Master’s in Computer Information Technology Programs ranking after being tied for No. 49 last year
  • University of Houston-Downtown ranked No. 26 in Best Online Master's in Criminal Justice Programs and tied for No. 55 in Best Online Bachelor's Programs

The full list of best online higher education programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report is available online.

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 sustainable fashion to tech manufacturing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Hannah Le, founder of RE.STATEMENT

Hannah Le founded RE.STATEMENT to provide a much-needed platform for sustainable fashion finds. Photo courtesy of RE.STATEMENT

It's tough out there for a sustainable fashion designer with upcycled statement pieces on the market. First of all, there historically hasn't been a platform for designers or shoppers either, as Hannah Le explains on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Most designers give up if they haven't sold an item within three months," Le says. "That's something RE.STATEMENT has dedicated its business model to — making sure that items sell faster and at a higher value than any other marketplace."

RE.STATEMENT won one of the city of Houston's startup competition, Liftoff Houston's categories last year. Le shares what's next for the early-stage company on the show. Read more and listen to the episode.

Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab

MacroFab has secured fresh investment to the tune of $42 million. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

MacroFab, a Houston-based electronics manufacturing platform, has announced $42 million in new growth capital. The company was founded by Misha Govshteyn and Chris Church, who built a platform that manage electronics manufacturing and enables real-time supply chain and inventory data. The platform can help customers go from prototype to high-scale production with its network of more than 100 factories across the continent.

“Electronics manufacturing is moving toward resilience and flexibility to reduce supply chain disruptions,” says Govshteyn, MacroFab’s CEO, in a news release. “We are in the earliest stages of repositioning the supply chain to be more localized and focused on what matters to customers most — the ability to deliver products on time, meet changing requirements, and achieve a more sustainable ecological footprint. MacroFab is fundamental to building this new operating model.”

The company has seen significant growth amid the evolution of global supply chain that's taken place over the past few years. According to the company, shipments were up 275 percent year-over-year. To keep up with growth, MacroFab doubled its workforce, per the release, and opened a new facility in Mexico. Read more.

Kelli Newman, president of Newman & Newman Inc.

In her guest column, Kelli Newman explains how to leverage communications at any stage your company is in. Photo courtesy of Newman & Newman

Kelli Newman took actionable recommendations from investors, customers, advisers, and founders within Houston to compose a guest column with key observations and advice on leveraging communications.

"The significance of effective communication and its contribution to a company’s success are points regularly stressed by conference panelists and forum speakers," she writes. "Yet for many founders it’s advice that fuels frustration for how to make communications a priority with a lack of understanding of the practice." Read more.

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