3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

In honor of Labor Day, here are three Houston innovators who probably aren't taking the day off. Courtesy photos

It may be Labor Day, but some of the hardest working Houston innovators are probably still checking their email on their phones from the pool.

Here are this week's innovators to know around town.

Marie Myers, CFO of UiPath

Marie Myers is the CFO of UiPath. Courtesy of UiPath

Marie Myers is a self-proclaimed Houstonian, avid bike rider, and robotics nerd — for lack of a better word. She's had a 20-year career in tech — most roles based right here in town — and throughout her whole experience, robotics process automation has been the most exciting technology she's gotten to work with.

UiPath just opened an office in Houston earlier this year, and Myers serves the company as CFO. She first worked with UiPath on the client side of things, and the technology awed her. She says she jumped at the opportunity to join the organization.

"When I think about RPA, the world lights up for me," she says. "It's truly transformative."

Click here to read more about the company.

Marco Bo Hansen, chief customer officer at Sani nudge and his executive team

Marco Bo Hansen, right, the chief customer officer at Sani nudge. Courtesy of TMCx

The Sani nudge executives may not be from Houston, but we give the Denmark-based company a pass for all its success coming out of the Texas Medical Center's accelerator program earlier this year. Sani nudge is a medical device company that can better track and encourage hand sanitation. The company is headed to California after being selected for a prestigious program with the Mistletoe Foundation.

Dr. Marco Bo Hansen is the chief customer officer and says that he'll be vigilantly advocating that his Sani nudge colleagues and the Mistletoe researchers keep hospital patients and staff in mind as Sani nudge moves forward with its innovations.

"We have to make sure that our solutions always generate value to the end users and can easily be used by the clinicians, infection preventionists, and hospital managers," he says.

Click here to read more about the company.

Ashley Gilmore, CEO and co-founder of Tracts.co

When Ashley Gilmore was studying law — specifically for the purposes of going into oil and gas — it amazed him how non-digitized the industry was, especially the mineral buying process. Gilmore figured out a way how to use tech to make the process way easier — and cheaper.

Now, his company, Tracts, has a new land group that's growing at a revenue rate of 30 percent month to month. With more and more clients, Tracts engages more data. And, with more and more data, the product increases in value for his customers.

"For some of our clients, Tracts is now existential for their business," Gilmore says. "In other words, they wouldn't be able to operate on their current business model without Tracts."

Click here to read more about the company.

Marie Myers is the CFO of UiPath and is based in the company's new Houston office. Courtesy of UiPath

Robotics exec talks plans for new Houston office and the future of automation

robot revolution

It's safe to say that Marie Myers — CFO of UiPath, which opened its 71-person office in Houston earlier this year — loves her job.

The robotics process automation company, which was founded in Romania before moving its headquarters to New York City last year, is in major growth mode. At the helm of the financial side of things is Myers, who has over 20 years of experience in technology.

When Myers was working on a spinoff project for HP, she started seeing the difference software automation makes on a company's bottom line.

"I realized RPA was the fastest way to drive efficiencies, so I started building bots," she tells InnovationMap. "During that time, I came across UiPath and I saw how impressive their technology was. In my more than two-decade career, I hadn't really come across a technology that I felt that had such an impressive impact in such a short time."

She drank the UiPath Kool-Aid, and when the company came to her adopted hometown of Houston to open an office to be its central, Midwestern location, she leapt at the opportunity to join the team. Now, with several months under her belt in the position and a growing office, Myers speaks with InnovationMap about the company's growth and the revolution that RPA is having in business.

InnovationMap: You've been in your role since January, but you've been in tech for a while now. How has the transition been for you?

Marie Myers: This has been one of the most exciting times for my career. I've been in tech for about two decades. I started with Compaq — quite an incredible company that started right here in Texas. It was a very famous startup in its own time, and I had a chance to be a part of that wave, which was really incredible. Then, it got bought out by HP, and then I pivoted and spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley for a couple decades.

I got involved in robotics process automation quite by happenstance about four years ago when HP decided to split. I was involved in setting up a company from the finance and legal perspective. I got challenged to drive some cost efficiency, so I turned to RPA as a means to drive some of that impact within my own organization of a couple thousand folks.

When the opportunity came up to be CFO for UiPath, I really jumped at it because it filled two important things for me. I wanted to be a leader of a finance organization and team. Secondly, I wanted to do something where I was really passionate about the technology. When I think about RPA, the world lights up for me. It's truly transformative.

IM: How did UiPath decide to open a Houston office? What made the city a key market?

MM: Houston — particularly Texas — are both important for us, from a customer perspective. We have some of our larger companies in the country here in Texas, so it was a natural place to look to build capability. Secondly, we're impressed with the overall quality of the market and the availability of different skills here as we build out our company.

IM: What are some goals UiPath has for its new Houston office?

MM: Overall, one of the key goals is to establish a strong Midwest presence for the company. Texas is an ideal location if you think about it for customers that range from the East to the West. Being in the middle is a good, central location. Also, as we grow and expand in Latin America, it's another interesting spot for us. So, one, to ensure that we are able to support the growth needs of the company throughout the United States and leverage the strategic location that Texas has.

I think the other goal is to build some of the core skills we need for the overall organization as we grow in the United States. UiPath is a relatively new player in the U.S., only been here a couple of years.

Finally, we've got terrific customers here, so what's important is to continue to support and nurture those customers. We have a big presence in oil and gas and the support companies within energy.

IM: Tell me about the Academic Alliance and how the company engages with students.

MM: Basically, we offer free training to the universities so that students can get first-hand experience for robotics process automation, which is part of our broader commitment we've made to ensure RBA is available in an open, democratized way.

We are big proponents of supporting students, and we had a great intern program this last summer. We had a double-digit number of interns — I think the largest population in the U.S. We love the fact that we have this access to universities that we can easily tap into.

Just a couple weeks ago we ran UiPath's first-ever hackathon for students in the United States. We had over 50 participants.

We're really excited about building out the ecosystem with the universities and the students here in Houston.

IM: What sort of misconceptions do you encounter within automation?

MM: First and foremost, a lot of it is misconceptions about RPA replacing jobs. I'd say it's a shift in the workforce — I witness this first hand because I had a team where we implemented and built bots. What happens is you create capacity and end up creating new jobs. You have roles of managing bots, bot controllers, bot librarians — these are roles that fundamentally didn't exist five years ago.

IM: What advice do you have for women in tech?

MM: I think it's so critical for women to be in the driving seat and in the forefront of technology. I have two daughters and I'm adamant about how they are exposed to robotics. I did a coffee talk in Houston not too long ago, and I really challenged the women to get out there and get digitally literate. It's really important as women that we don't let ourselves fall behind on technology and how they are impacting both our work and our families. So, staying informed, no matter how you do that — reading, podcasts, news. Another way is to join and network with associations. Myself and another woman important in this space are looking to create a network for women in automation. We want to build a group that will allow women to look for jobs, board roles, mentors, etc. in this industry.

IM: What role do you see Houston playing in the greater innovation conversation and where does the city have room to improve?

​MM: I'm a big fan of Houston. I'm Australian, but I feel like a Texas implant now. It's an incredibly diverse city, and I think that's one of its greatest strengths. You've got people from all walks of life from all parts of the world and a great education system. That creates a really unique backdrop for the technology-led era we're in. The historical strengths of the city have been predicated on the healthy oil and gas sector and medical sector — both are important industries going through major technology transformations. I think for Houston being able to capitalize on all that is a very unique opportunity. It will position Houston very well for the future. You've got the right ingredients here.

Where the city is going to have to continue to build is specifically around some of these skills for the future. Artificial intelligence and having that depth of experience is an area the city struggles in. Certainly other cities like Seattle and San Francisco have tens of years of experience from companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon that have been able to build deep AI. In Houston, that skillset is going to come more from oil and gas, where they've been building some of those skills, just not in the same breath and not in the same depth as those other cities. I think the real opportunity is to nourish and nurture this in the academic institutions and then take that talent out of the academic institutions and integrate them into the corporations.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

UiPath's Houston office is in a historic downtown Houston building that's been renovated. Courtesy of Main&Co

Global automation company doubles down on Houston as it grows its United States presence

New bot on the block

When UiPath decided to look into an office in Houston, it was a bit of a gamble, since Houston's not particularly known for its wealth of hardware talent.

"We did a little bit of an experiment to see what the skills would be like specifically in a Houston office," Marie Myers, CFO of the company and based in Houston, tells InnovationMap. "As a robotics company, we weren't sure if we'd get more of those software skills. It's not a natural market for those skills."

But Houston — and Texas in general — is a great location for the robotics process automation company, Myers says. It's central and optimal for customer acquisition. Valued at $7 billion, UiPath has over 2,500 customers — adding six more a day on average, according to a news release.

Since beginning Houston operations in January, Myers says she's very pleased with the 71-person team the company has assembled locally, and the company has even expanded in that short time. Following a $568 million Series D round closing, the company almost doubled its office size.

"The Series D is critical for us as we continue to grow and we're using those proceeds to grow our base across the world, and obviously part of the Houston expansion has been just that," Myers says.

UiPath plans to really settle into Houston and even bring a an RPA Immersion Lab into its Houston office. The lab would allow for potential customers to try out the technology and run simulations. The lab is on the docket for 2020, Myers says.

Another way UiPath is engaging with the Houston community is through its connection to students and universities. The company has an arrangement with six universities in Houston and is even located just across the street from the University of Houston-Downtown. Myers says the company had one of its largest group of interns working in Houston.

"It's going to be so important for students graduating to have experience in up-and-coming technologies, like RPA," Meyers says. "We see such great support from the local universities."

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New Houston-based fund raises $50 million to back mobility startups

Making money

A new venture capital fund has mobility on the mind — and it's just raised $50 million to support startups working on solutions in the mobility or mobility-related industries.

Proeza Ventures, which is based in Houston and Monterrey, Mexico, reportedly closed its first fund Proeza Ventures I. The fund is backed by Grupo Proeza, a Mexican portfolio management company with two global platforms operating in the mobility and agroindustry sectors, according to the fund's website.

"Our mission is to discover and invest in visionary founders building early stage startups transforming the way in which we think about mobility and with whom we can partner to make a more sustainable world," says Rodolfo Dieck, managing director at Proeza Ventures, in a news release.

With the fund's money, Proenza Ventures will invest in 12 to 15 early or growth-stage startups with solutions or new technology within industrial, smart components, new vehicles, MaaS, and digital data services.

"We expect to be writing first time checks in the range of $500,000 and up to $2 million reserving enough capital to support companies in their development trajectory," says Dieck in the release.

Rodolfo Dieck, managing director, (left) and Enrique Marcelo Zambrano, principal, lead the fund. Photo via proezaventures.com

Grupo Proeza comes with a network of experts. The company owns Metalsa, a structural automotive products supplier and current market leader in frames for light trucks in North America, per the release. The subsidiary has more than 60 years of global manufacturing and operating experience within the industry.

The group will use its platform to benefit startups within its portfolio, which already includes Boston-based Indigo Technologies that's developing an in-wheel e-motor and a California-based micro mobility company that is disrupting the scooter ecosystem.

"We back entrepreneurs with an ambitious vision and the grit and operational skills to execute their business plan and transform the sectors they participate in," says Enrique Marcelo Zambrano, principal at P.V., in the release. "We expect to help them leverage our deep expertise in mobility, our unique platform and network."

Houston listed among top cities expected to see office job growth

new hires

Texas cities — including the Houston area — will see a slew of new office jobs this year, according to a new projection.

Commercial real estate services company CBRE predicts Houston will see a 1.9 percent rise in office jobs this year compared to last year. That ranks Houston as the No. 4 spot for anticipated office-job growth in 2020 among U.S. markets with at least 37.5 million square feet of office space. Office jobs include those in the tech, professional services, and legal sectors.

"Tech, talent, and low taxes continue to fuel Texas' rising status as an inevitable, leading force in the U.S. economy," Ian Anderson, Americas head of office research at CBRE, says in the release. "2020 will be another year where companies and people from around the country relocate to the Lone Star State, leaving most of the rest of the country in envy of the growth in Dallas, Houston, and Austin."

Dallas only narrowly outpaced Houston in the ranking coming in at No. 3 with 2.1 percent expected growth. Austin, however, is the big Texas winner with an expected 2.6 percent rise in office jobs this year compared with last year. That puts Austin in first place on the ranking, edging out San Francisco for the top spot in CBRE's forecast, published January 9. The company predicts a 2.5 percent increase in San Francisco office jobs this year versus last year.

Personal finance website WalletHub recently ranked San Francisco and Austin third and fourth, respectively, on its list of the U.S. best cities to find a job.

"It's not surprising that the forecast for Austin is extremely bright, and we expect that technology companies and professional firms will still drive the demand for more [offices]," Troy Holme, executive vice president in the Austin office of CBRE, says in a January 22 release.

In November, Austin's unemployment rate decreased to 2.5 percent from 2.6 percent in October and 2.7 percent in September, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. Austin's jobless rate in November was the third lowest among the state's metro areas; Dallas-Fort Worth's rate was at 3 percent, while Houston's was at 3.6 percent.

CBRE says the growth of office jobs was more robust in the top U.S. markets last year than it is estimating for 2020. Dallas (5.7 percent) leads the 2019 list, followed by San Francisco (5.2 percent), Seattle (4.2 percent), Houston (3.7 percent), and Charlotte, North Carolina (3.6 percent).

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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.