This week's Houston innovators to know includes Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs, Derek Armstrong of Armstrong Innovations, and Megan Siliainoff of Med Meg Creative Services. Courtesy photos

It's a new month and Houston's innovation ecosystem is continuing to grow amid the coronavirus pandemic. This week's Houston innovators to know roundup reflects that growth with a new-to-town incubator's newly names leader — plus an entrepreneur creating an virtual reality app to escape and a communications expert's advice on navigating COVID-19.

Juliana Garaizar, launch director of Greentown Houston

Juliana Garaizar is working to help set up Houston's Greentown Labs incubator with diversity and inclusion in mind. Courtesy photo

Juliana Garaizar has had to keep a huge secret for a while. The launch director of new-to-Houston Greentown Labs has known about the cleantech incubator's plan to expand to the Bayou City for a while, and now the news is out. Of course, launching amid a pandemic isn't ideal, but Garaizar says its allowed a strong relationship with the original group based in Boston to form.

"I think the silver lining of this COVID-19 experience is that we are much more integrated with the Boston team, and we're learning at a much faster rate," she says. "That's why we decided to also open Houston for virtual memberships before we open our building in Q1 of 2021."

Garaizar joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to share her experience with the organization and how she'll be setting up Houston operations with diversity and inclusion in mind. Read more and stream the episode.

Derek Armstrong, CEO and founder of Armstrong Innovations

Derek Armstrong, a Houston native, founded his design company, Armstrong Innovations. Photo courtesy of Oculus Go

Derek Armstrong had been working on a new virtual reality app for relaxation and meditation that users can enter into for an opportunity to escape reality for a bit — little did he know that was something more people than ever would want to do.

His company, a Houston-area industrial design startup, Armstrong Innovations, just launched two Oculus Go app games, aptly named 'Escape'. The VR app was designed with relaxation and meditation in mind but has doubled as a new way to relax and sightsee without leaving your home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The sights and sounds of our new app assist with mindfulness and meditation," says CEO and founder Derek Armstrong. "It's about focusing on the sights and sounds, especially with the virus growing. It's a quick getaway without having to physically go anywhere." Read more.

Megan Silianoff, founder and creative director of Mad Meg Creative Services

Megan Silianoff has been helping clients navigate communications during a pandemic. Courtesy photo

The worst part of contracting COVID-19 — aside from suffering from the disease itself — is diligently communicating the risk of exposure to people you've been around especially to coworkers, employees, clients, etc. In a guest article for InnovationMap, Megan Silianoff of Mad Meg Creative Services, sets the scene for you to be prepared should you find yourself in this situation,

"We understand as communication experts, informing a client, boss, or anyone that you've potentially exposed them is scary messaging to share," she writes. "Guilt is the number one emotion people report experiencing when they realize they've potentially exposed someone or a group of people, even though the respective exposure was inadvertent. Nevertheless it's crucial to communicate the exposure quickly and effectively as that's how Houston can hinder the spread of this disease through our city." Read more.

It's important to craft an informative and considerate message when sharing news of a COVID-19 exposure. Getty Images

4 COVID-19 messaging tips from Houston communications expert

guest column

Houston is undoubtedly hitting critical mass with COVID-19. The common sentiment has transitioned from "knowing someone who knows someone that has COVID-19" to more frequent first-hand, anecdotal experiences. When a potential exposure happens in the workplace it's vital that employees and companies alike quickly, professionally, and responsibly inform any parties that could have been indirectly exposed including vendors, clients, or meeting participants of any kind.

We understand as communication experts, informing a client, boss, or anyone that you've potentially exposed them is scary messaging to share. Guilt is the number one emotion people report experiencing when they realize they've potentially exposed someone or a group of people, even though the respective exposure was inadvertent. Nevertheless it's crucial to communicate the exposure quickly and effectively as that's how Houston can hinder the spread of this disease through our city.

So, how have we been counseling our clients as these potential exposures arise? Here are some notes and even an email template that Houstonians can use to help get them started.

Respond quickly

This is not a time to wait for certainty. Do not wait for tangible test results or any type of certitude (such as you experiencing symptoms first-hand) before notifying a person or company that you've potentially exposed them. Remember: you aren't telling someone you gave them COVID-19, you are simply telling them that you have been exposed and therefore inadvertently exposed them.

Be honest and forthcoming with information

This is not a time to offload or dwell on your feelings of guilt, albeit that's a natural emotion. A simple apology for the situation you collectively find yourself is appropriate but a deep into your own feelings and context for the situation is neither necessary nor helpful. Remember, during times of crisis, people don't remember what you said, but that you said something at all when it would have been easier not to and that you're someone of high morals and character.

Be detailed, but not too detailed

Again, you want to share concrete information versus your own personal emotions and feelings surrounding the incident. Pertinent information includes the following;

  • When and where you were exposed
  • When and where you exposed others
  • If you're currently experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms
  • Pertinent test results (if any) in regards to how you were exposed

Work from a template

Salutation:


It has come to my attention on date that I was exposed to COVID-19 through home, work, office, etc.

Because of this, it's a possibility that I unknowingly exposed you at date and place of interaction.

Though I am not currently not experiencing any symptoms and feel healthy, I wanted to let you know about this and err on the side of caution.*OR*I currently am experiencing symptoms of Covid-19 including X,Y, Z. I plan to get tested and can let you know the results when I receive them.

I apologize for this situation and am here to answer any further questions that might help you determine how to proceed accordingly.

Sincerely,
Name

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Megan Silianoff is the founder and creative director of Mad Meg Creative Services, a Houston-based firm specializing in public relations, social media management, web design, and branding.

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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.