3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's innovators to know in Houston includes Marcelo Cordini of December Labs, Courtney Sikes Longmore of Pure Palate, and Josh Ruben of Z3VR. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators representing a diverse set of industries — from virtual reality to software development — all making headlines in Houston this week.

Marcelo Cordini, co-founder of December Labs

Marcelo Cordini, co-founder of December Labs, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the unique service his company provides an evolving tech workforce. Photo courtesy of December Labs

Marcelo Cordini realized that nowadays, software developers are like rockstars. They can make or break a startup or technology's success and finding the best development team can be hard to do. But hiring and cultivating software talent is a specialty most companies — big or small — has the time or expertise to handle. That's where December Labs comes in.

"We are always learning new technologies — that's our focus," Cordini says. "If you have a big company focused on real estate, your focus is on real estate — not technology. So, if you partner with a company like us, it will give you that value to have someone who knows how to hire developers and how to train them."

Cordini joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to discuss the unique service his company provides and the state of software employment is in these days. Read more and stream the episode.

Courtney Sikes Longmore, founder at Pure Palate

Women in the work place have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Photo via Pexels

According to Labor Department statistics, 1.1 million people left the workforce in August and September, and of that 800,000 were women. This data wasn't surprising to Courtney Sikes Longmore, an entrepreneur and founder of Pure Palate — however it was a call to action. She teamed up with Sesh Coworking to host a panel (click here to stream) to discuss how COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women and co-wrote a guest article with Maggie Segrich on the subject too.

"A decline of women in the labor force, on teams, in leadership positions and in decision-making roles compromises not just our economy's recovery and productivity, but also the innovation and effectiveness in industry, competitiveness on a global scale, aspirations of future generations of women, and society as a whole," they write. Read more.

Josh Ruben, CEO of Z3VR

Houston-based Z3VR has been granted $500,000 to work or virtual reality applications in space. Photo courtesy of Z3VR

The Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health is always trying to find and support innovations that will help current and future astronauts, and Josh Ruben's company, Z3VR, was a perfect fit to work on virtual reality applications in space. The company received a $500,000 grant from TRISH last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

"This TRISH funding means the world," he says. "Not only do we have these partnerships within NASA, which we expect will really help address these problems, but we are already taking the funds and putting them to work in the US health care system." Read more.

Marcelo Cordini, co-founder of December Labs, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the unique service his company provides an evolving tech workforce. Photo courtesy of December Labs

Houston company is connecting rockstar developers with growing startups and big corporations

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 53

For tech startups, a great business idea is step one, design and development is that next, make-or-break step. A Houston company exists to help staff development teams with talented specialists across various fields.

December Labs, which has offices in Uruguay and Houston, has seen the industry evolve since its founding in 2014. Nowadays, it's a competition for startups and corporations alike to get the best tech teams.

"Developers are kind of rockstars nowadays — it's very hard to attract them and keep them happy. We can help with that," says Marcelo Cordini, co-founder of December Labs, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Cordini and his co-founders — Martin Palatnik, Diego San Esteban, and Washington Miranda — designed their business's service to provide development teams to companies of all sizes and industries, from startups to big companies.

"We are always learning new technologies — that's our focus," Cordini says. "If you have a big company focused on real estate, your focus is on real estate — not technology. So, if you partner with a company like us, it will give you that value to have someone who knows how to hire developers and how to train them."

Similar to most companies, the pandemic posed its challenges to December Labs, but one thing that the company has going for it is the evolution of the workforce. Now, it's way less important to have your team in house, as Cordini explains.

"It's the same to have your developers in South America as having them in the U.S., right? Because we are all working from home," he says. "We were lucky and prepared [for the pandemic]."

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

When Marcelo Cordini moved his company to Houston, he didn't know what to expect. Now, a couple years later, he's poised for growth. Courtesy of December Labs

Growing UX developer credits Houston with company success

UX expectations

In December 2014, four guys from Uruguay banded together and created December Labs, a company specializing in UX and UI design, web development and mobile development for startups. After three years of success there, co-founder Marcelo Cordini's wife had her job transferred to "a city full of companies from everywhere" — Houston.

"To be honest, I came without expectations, not knowing what to do with the tech space here," Cordini says. "But I discovered that the city's innovation scene was rising and that the whole startup environment too. We didn't know Houston had a startup environment."

Cordini, along with co-founders, Martin Palatnik, Diego San Esteban, and Washington Miranda, have created a base here in Houston at Station Houston, with headquarters stationed in San Francisco as well as Uruguay.

The company's international presence can be seen in their client base, which includes industry giants like Google, Accenture, and Nest.

"When I got here, people told us that we should just go to Austin," Cordini says. "But, to be honest, this is a big city with lots of great companies — not just corporations, but startups — that are growing and thrive and have good connections. So, maybe you don't hear much about the startup world outside the U.S., but I think the startups right now are at a different level here."

December Labs has started working with local startups around the city and has grown to have around 15 engineers and designers working for the company.

Cordini says that their experience working at Station Houston has really broadened their horizons and allowed them to make connections that they wouldn't have made otherwise.

"It's great to have connections, and that's something that I love here in Houston," Cordini says. "People are willing to help each other."

A main goal for December Labs is to help other companies succeed through their mission-driven, people-focused work. But they're focused on the future.

"We've been growing like crazy over the past year," Cordini says. "We would love to keep growing here in Houston by getting more clients and helping more startups and corporations. Our idea is to continue our expansion here in Houston and all around Texas, for sure."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.