Friday, October 1, is Manufacturing Day Houston at East End Maker Hub. Image courtesy of EEEMH

Manufacturing is critical to building the economy on both local and national levels.

According to Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, 4.6 million U.S. manufacturing jobs will be needed by 2030. The National Association of Manufacturing estimates that each $1 spent in manufacturing adds $2.79 to the economy and each $1 earned in direct manufacturing labor income yields $3.14 in labor income elsewhere. Failing to fill these jobs could cost the U.S. $1 trillion and thwart economic growth.

Manufacturing is a win-win for Houston. With Houston's manufacturing sectors tied to the overall U.S. economy, the Greater Houston area has the opportunity to thrive as a manufacturing powerhouse by returning manufacturing to the U.S.

"Houston is an amazing city with a wide variety of entrepreneurs, inventors and industry specialties. To support these firms, we need tens of thousands of skilled employees in a plethora of manufacturing jobs. On the product side, they include Space, Medical Devices, Robotics, Additive Manufacturing, BioEngineering, and next generation energy devices. From the process side - refined products, chemicals, beverages and plastics," said Michael Holthouse, CEO and founder of Holthouse Foundation For Kids.

In an effort to increase awareness of these advanced manufacturing careers, TXRX East End Maker Hub is hosting Manufacturing Day Houston on Friday, October 1. The event is attracting hundreds of middle- and high-school youth along with their teachers from the Greater Houston area.

EEMH is opening its doors to allow students the opportunity to engage in hands-on experiences, demonstrations, and interact with subject matter experts to learn the latest technologies in Process Manufacturing, Product Manufacturing, Bioengineering, Virtual Reality, Robotics, 3D printing and more. The keynote speaker, Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale of Gallery Furniture, will open the event.

Manufacturing Day Houston is a local effort to join National Manufacturing Day and Creators Wanted, both industry initiatives supported by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Manufacturing Institute. Manufacturing Day Houston has been created to reshape the perception of the advanced manufacturing industry and help today's youth understand how they can match their talents with in-demand product and process manufacturing careers that average $87,185 annually.

While attractive, many of these skilled manufacturing jobs go unfilled due to misinterpretations about the industry and educational opportunities. Houston's community colleges and technical programs offer affordable training for these opportunities, which can be completed in two years or less.

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Michelle Wicmandy serves as a marketing consultant for Imagina Communications.

Rice Business Professor Amit Pazgal found that in certain situations, gray markets can actually help manufacturers and retailers. Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Rice University researcher reveals the benefits to unauthorized manufacturing markets

Houston voices

A camera store in Taiwan buys Nikon cameras from an electronics shop in the Philippines, where photo equipment is cheaper. Then the store sells them to consumers in Taiwan at a lower price. The camera comes without a warranty and instructions are in Filipino – the buyers in Taiwan are happy to have a real Nikon for a lower cost.

The sellers and customers are operating in the so-called gray market – where genuine products are sold through unauthorized channels. Gray marketers buy goods in markets with lower prices, then ship them to a market with higher prices, where they will likely sell for a profit. Though the products are identical, consumers typically see gray market goods as inferior since they often lack benefits like after-sale services or warranty coverage.

For years, gray markets have posed a significant threat to both manufacturers and retailers, depriving both of customers and profits. It's estimated that around $7 billion to $10 billion in goods enter the U.S. market through gray market channels every year. The IT industry, for one, loses approximately $5 billion a year due to gray market activities.

No specific laws in the U.S. ban this practice outright, however. As a result, in recent years, retailers are increasingly taking advantage of potentially cheaper prices abroad, personally importing or using third parties to buy original goods not meant for direct sale in the United States – and then selling them here for less. Alibaba, China's most extensive online shopping site, offers its hundreds of millions of shoppers a large array of gray market goods to peruse.

Manufacturers usually respond to gray markets with knee-jerk hostility, urging customers to avoid gray market goods and even filing lawsuits against gray market peddlers. Nikon, for example, includes a website section to educate consumers on how to identify gray market products, to shun the gray market.

But is gray market commerce always destructive? Rice Business Professor Amit Pazgal joined then-Rice Business Ph.D. student Xueying Liu (now an assistant professor at Nankai University) to explore scenarios in which gray markets could be good for both manufacturers and retailers. Testing the theory in recent research, Pazgal and Liu found that there are indeed situations in which both manufacturers and retailers can profit thanks to gray markets, while the associated product also improves in quality.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers started by recruiting 118 participants between the ages of 25 and 45 to complete a gray market product survey. They found the majority had no problem buying gray market goods. Only 3 percent of consumers wouldn't consider buying cosmetics from a gray marketer, while 6 to 7 percent wouldn't buy electronics. Despite this, more than 90 percent of participants who were willing to buy required a price discount of 20 to 30 percent, showing the goods were seen as slightly inferior.

The researchers then tested responses to a model of a manufacturer selling a single product to two markets – or countries – that differed in size and in customer willingness to pay for the product. Consumers in one market would pay more, on average, for quality. For example, the Nikon D500 camera is sold for a 7.5 percent premium in Taiwan versus Thailand and a 10 percent price premium in Taiwan versus the Philippines.

Pazgal and Liu found that when the manufacturer sells their product directly to consumers in both markets when there is also a gray market, both the manufacturer's profit and product quality decrease. But when the same manufacturer sells their product indirectly to a retailer in at least one of these markets, both the manufacturer's and the retailer's profits can increase. So can the product's quality.

This occurs for several reasons. First, gray marketers increase total demand and profit for the retailer in the lower-priced market, or in the market where the gray marketer buys their goods. The manufacturer can set a higher wholesale price for the better quality product in a market where consumers pay more, and increase sales in both markets as consumers compare the regular, high-quality product to the gray market one. In fact, by offering a lower-priced, lower quality (that is, gray market) alternative to its own high-quality product, the manufacturer can better segment consumers in the higher-priced market.

Finally, the retailer in the higher-priced market becomes more profitable even though they lose some customers to the gray market. This is because increased product quality and price more than make up for lost sales. Researchers found that the results hold regardless of whether the gray marketer buys from the manufacturer or a retailer.

The bottom line: in certain situations, gray markets can improve profitability for both manufacturers and retailers (and, of course, the gray marketers). Counterintuitive though it is, manufacturers that sell through retailers shouldn't automatically see gray markets as an obstacle to their profits, rushing to demand that governments and courts shut them down. Instead, in some cases, companies could do well to embrace these gray markets, because they lead to overall improved profits.

Manufacturers can use this information to their advantage, Pazgal noted. Nikon, for example, could introduce a higher quality camera to the market, allowing it to set even higher wholesale prices and increase sales in both markets, far exceeding the cost of the higher quality product.

For consumers, meanwhile, gray markets are always beneficial because of lower prices. If companies heed Pazgal's findings, however, customers could also benefit from more innovative and higher quality cameras and other merchandise, as manufacturers hurry to create better products to bump up their profits.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Amit Pazgal, the Friedkin Professor of Management – Marketing at the Jones Graduate School of Business.

Misha Govshteyn joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the evolving electronics manufacturing industry. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

Global electronics manufacturing is changing — and this Houston company is leading the way

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 87

When the pandemic hit, global supply chains across industries were affected, and major corporations and consumers alike continue to be affected — especially when it comes to manufacturing.

In March, General Motors had to shutdown production at three factories due to the global shortage of semiconductors, while gaming systems like PlayStation and Xbox are dealing with a chip shortage that will affect production into next year.

Houston-based MacroFab has a solution. The company has developed a software solution and digital platform to optimize electronics manufacturing by creating a network of factories across North America. The growing business, which was founded in 2013 by Chris Church, saw a setback at the beginning of the pandemic just like most industries. But, Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab, says the company finished last year on track.

"We really reignited our growth in the second half of 2020 just as the economy started to reopen," Govshteyn says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We had about 100 percent growth in the second half of the year, and that really led to our ability to close our most recent round."

That round — a $15 million series B — was led by New Jersey-based Edison Partners. ATX Venture Partners also participated, along with strategic investor Altium Limited, a leader in the electronics design software space. Govshteyn says that it's an important moment for MacroFab to prove out its solution to manufacturing.

"In a lot of ways, the concepts we've been talking about actually crystalized during the pandemic. For a lot of people, it was theoretically that supply chain resiliency is important," Govshteyn says. "Single sourcing from a country halfway around the world might not be the best solution. ... When you have all your eggs in one basket, sooner or later you're going to have a break in your supply chain. And we've seen nothing but breaks in supply chains for the last five years."

For years, global manufacturers have faced supply chain challenges with tariffs, and the pandemic and its accompanying shutdowns took these challenges to a whole new level.

"Supply chains haven't recovered — if anything, things have gotten worse. It's a perfect storm of customers realizing they have to rethink the way they source products," Govshteyn says.

One of the ways to bring the logistics of the process into the modern era. Some industries, like plastics manufacturing, are already doing this, Govshteyn says, but MacroFab has a huge opportunity within electronics.

"We think everything's going to look like a cloud service in the future. Everything is going to be software-driven, and API-addressable," Govshteyn says. "We're staking a claim to electronics manufacturing being one of those areas — and we're still the only company doing so."

Govshteyn shares more about the manufacturing business and the role Houston is playing on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes

Houston-based MacroFab has created the Uber or Airbnb of electronics manufacturing. Getty Images

Houston electronics manufacturing company gears up for growth

On the line

It takes an unnecessarily long time for electronic devices to get from idea to reality — and much of that is due to inefficiency in manufacturing. Just getting a prototype together takes weeks of back and forth between the engineer and the manufacturer.

"The business model for contract manufacturing hadn't changed in 30 years," Chris Church says. "It was phone calls, emails, going out and playing golf, going to lunch, and negotiating everything endlessly."

Houston-based MacroFab is addressing these antiquated and outdated ways of manufacturing and changing the way electronics manufacturing is done. For its revolutionary work, the company has consistently seen its revenue at least double — sometimes tripling or quadrupling — every year, and projects to at least triple in 2019.

Addressing an underserved market
Church — who has a background in hardware development, specifically within robotics — created MacroFab in 2013 and launched the platform in 2015. Misha Govshteyn joined the board in 2014 and became CEO last summer. The duo co-founded cloud-based security-as-a-service company, Alert Logic, in Houston in 2002.

Using its custom software, MacroFab enables customers to upload their designs through the website, where they can then receive projected timeline and pricing information from the get go. The company has its own manufacturing area in its office for prototypes and small orders, but its network of large manufacturers is a key part of the MacroFab's growth equation.

The company has about 20 manufacturing plants as partners that can pick up manufacturing jobs from MacroFab customers when the plant has space on its lines up for grabs. Rather than let available capacity go to waste, these plants can easily pick up the design and materials to start production.

"It's not dissimilar to what Uber is doing with cars — there's a lot of people with cars that could give you a ride if they knew you were out there," Govshteyn says. "It's that matchmaking function is essentially what we're doing with our customers."

The manufacturing partners benefit from jobs they otherwise wouldn't have, and the MacroFab customers get access to a plant that they didn't have to do the legwork to find. Govshteyn says a he's heard horror stories from people who had orders that were unceremoniously dropped by a manufacturer because another one of its clients just placed a large order.

"That shouldn't happen. If a factory gets too busy, it should be easy enough to take that job and move it somewhere else," Govshteyn says. "But, right now, there's not a way to do that."

Using cloud technology, the MacroFab platform can easily share the design and translate it to any given factory, Church says. They also have a technology that combine smaller orders together so there's no wasted resources, which brings down the cost for the customer.

While usually a company might have to find a new manufacturer as they scale up and start making larger orders, MacroFab customers don't have to start from scratch to find a new plant that can take their order — MacroFab will do the matchmaking for them.

"We've created and are continuing to build a marketplace for excess manufacturing capacity," Church says.

MacroFab owns the customer experience and the sales aspect — ensuring a more positive and consistent experience — while the manufacturers can just take the jobs and go.

Scaling up
The manufacturing marketplace is a newer focus for MacroFab — the company just launched it in beta this year — and is a big proponent of the company's growth. Before, the company was limited to what it could produce in its own factory taking on prototype and small orders. Now, with access to the manufacturers, the company has served 1,700 customers, building 500,000 units for about 4,000 different products. Those figures, Church says, are scaling up so rapidly as they expand to new partners.

"This is the first quarter where more gets produced outside of our factory than inside of it," Govshteyn says. "By this time in Q1, 75 percent of our revenue will [come from outside manufacturing plants.]"

Since manufacturing plants haven't historically collaborated, Govshteyn says the reception from manufacturers has been "cautiously optimistic." But then they realize they are getting customers for free — all they have to do is meet the requirements and deliver on time, he says.

"It's great for them to see that their factory is only half used, but then they can fill it up with jobs from MacroFab," Govshteyn says.

Houston has been a great city for MacroFab with its port manufacturing and logistics, two things Govshteyn says MacroFab is focusing on.

"At the end of the day, we're a manufacturing company, and I think we'll dabble in logistics," he says. "There's a lot worse places to start a logistics-heavy company."

Suitcase company, Tiko, raised $100,000 in its first crowdfunding campaign. Courtesy photo

Texas-based travel brand unpacks stylish and affordable luggage

Wheels up

If Marcus Segui's successful 2016 Kickstarter is any indication, people are looking for innovative ways to make traveling a little easier. With that intention in mind, Segui launched Tiko, a Texas-based travel brand shaking up the industry by providing affordable, beautifully designed, quality luggage to passengers across the world.

On November 1, Tiko rolled into the world with its signature carry-on, priced at $195, and designed to fit in overhead bins (a must for those of us who find baggage fees insulting). Available only online, the company's first bag comes with 360-degree spinning wheels, and is offered in charcoal and gray.

For the Texas-born Segui, the idea for his company was born out of one thing: he travels — a lot. After a career in finance in New York, Segui traveled to Colombia, a trip that ended up lasting three years. "I got a Spanish tutor, found an apartment, and started looking for a way to do business," Segui says. "Before long I linked up with a local investment fund who asked me to launch a real estate company for them."

"Running a business in Spanish was really hard," he jokes, and by the time Segui decided to leave Colombia, he had logged countless flights across South and Central America. The University of Texas grad eventually made his way back to Austin with a busted carry-on in tow.

"After my time in New York and South America, I decided to return to Austin for two reasons: friends and family. Every entrepreneur needs to lean on their network to get a new company off the ground," he says.

And oh how that network helped. Unable to find a carry-on replacement that was both durable and affordable, Segui got the idea for a direct-to-consumer luggage company designed to bypass retailers and thus cut the price point for the luggage in half.

Segui began development on a series of prototypes, eventually landed on Tiko's current carry-on model, and decided to launch a Kickstarter to gauge interest (and funds, of course). The campaign raised over $100,000, allowing Segui to take off with the new company.

In order to move the company into its next phase, Segui assembled a who's who team of tech talent, including former execs from YETI and Airbnb. Earlier this month, the company officially launched its first product from its coworking space headquarters in South Austin.

A few weeks into the new endeavor, it remains to be seen if the public will embrace Tiko, but its launch points to a growing trend: consumers are demanding a different travel experience. Suddenly, people are beginning to question the inconvenient, expensive, and yes, unstylish things that must be endured in order to get from one point to another.

Perhaps one day we'll return to that glamorous apex of airline travel, the time where no one wore pajamas and passengers didn't have to line up like cattle to board the aircraft. Until then, at least we can have nice luggage.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.

Report: Federal funding, increased life science space drive industry growth in Houston

by the numbers

Federal funding, not venture capital, continues to be the main driver of growth in Houston’s life sciences sector, a new report suggests.

The new Houston Life Science Insight report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows Houston accounted for more than half (52.7 percent) of total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across major Texas markets through the third quarter of this year. NIH funding in the Houston area totaled $769.6 million for the first nine months of 2022, exceeding the five-year average by 19.3 percent.

VC funding for Houston’s life sciences sector pales in comparison.

For the first nine months of this year, companies in life sciences raised $147.3 million in VC, according to the report. Based on that figure, Houston is on pace in 2022 to meet or surpass recent life sciences VC totals for most other years except 2021. JLL describes 2021 as an “outlier” when it comes to annual VC hauls for the region’s life sciences companies.

JLL notes that “limited venture capital interest in private industry has remained a challenge for the city’s life sciences sector. Furthermore, it may persist as venture capital strategies are reevaluated and investment strategies shift toward near-term profits.”

While life sciences VC funding has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with NIH funding, there are other bright spots for the sector.

One of those bright spots is the region’s rising amount of life sciences space.

The Houston area boasts more than 2.4 million square feet of space for life sciences operations, with another 1.1 million under construction and an additional 1.5 million square feet on the drawing board, the report says. This includes a soon-to-open lab spanning 25,000 square feet in the first phase of Levit Green.

A second bright spot is the migration of life sciences companies to the region. Two Southern California-based life sciences companies, Cellipoint Bioservices and Obagi Cosmeceuticals, plan to move their headquarters and relocate more than half of their employees to The Woodlands by the first half of 2023, according to the report.

“Houston’s low tax rate and cost of living were primary drivers for the decisions, supported by a strong labor pool that creates advantages for companies’ expansion and relocation considerations,” JLL says.

Here's what Houston startups need to know about internal communications

guest column

Startup founders often focus on outward victories. However, if they look inward and get internal communications right, this can prioritize, inspire, and retain talent, which is the heart of the company.

Consistent internal communication helps employees to understand the company's core values and mission and the evolving internal policies and procedures — health care benefits, reorganizations, remote work — that accompany a young business. Investing in internal communications also supports external public relations efforts because the best company storytellers are well-informed employees.

Consider these tactics for effective internal communications.

Prioritize messaging

In any startup, internal procedures evolve as the company grows. Take control of the narrative while easing employees' minds by prioritizing internal messaging.

Whether transitioning to a more flexible work schedule, updating healthcare benefits, or rolling out a performance review process, planning messages in advance can help team members understand the change, the impact, and how they can contribute positively to the development.

Well-informed employees help mitigate uneasiness and tend to achieve business goals more quickly. Make sure to allow the employees time to reflect and react.

Support managers

Leaders and mid-level managers play an integral role in internal communications by cascading information throughout the organization. They regularly engage with their employees, so it is important that managers feel confident and supported in their communication skills.

Managers can benefit from a common company language, talking points, or communications training for more effective and productive conversations. By identifying, clarifying, and reinforcing common goals and key objectives for managers, companies can strengthen productivity and eliminate confusion, especially if the company changes teams' roles and responsibilities.

Be consistent

Make sure that the drumbeat remains steady, whether this includes a monthly town hall meeting or weekly CEO emails. Since communication is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, use a communication approach tailored to the workforce.

For example, there might be more effective communication methods than email for employees not behind a desk. As a smaller company, take that time to connect with the team directly because as the company swells, that one-on-one experience will become increasingly difficult to manage.

Listen to employees

Delivering top-down messaging that resonates with the workforce remains critical. However, internal communication is a two-way street.

Allow team members to give valuable feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about the company, concerns, and how to improve communications. Issue internal surveys or hold face-to-face meetings to gain useful insight.

Understanding these critical proof points will enable more effective communication and quick action on any issues.

Be a human

Keep humanity at the heart of internal communications. Amid the company's transition, maintain transparency and recognize the emotional toll some changes can have on teammates. The best talent will remain when they feel connected, informed and listened to.

Greater employee engagement can help build a strong company culture of accountability, authenticity and communication, setting up the business for bigger success.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.