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.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

These Houston entrepreneurs and startups are searching for flooding solutions

Flood tech

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston.

Self-deploying flood protection for buildings

FloodFrame's technology can protect a home or commercial building from flood water damage. Photo via floodframe.com

A self-deploying flood damage prevention device caught Tasha Nielsen's eye on a trip to Denmark, and then launched the U.S. iteration of FloodFrame to bring the technology here.

FloodFrame works by using buoyancy. A lightweight cloth is wrapped around a tube is installed underground outside the perimeter of your home or business. One end of that cloth is attached to a box that is also installed underground. As flooding begins, an automatic system will release the lids to deploy the inflation of the tube that will protect the structure. When the flood comes in, the system will float on top of the flood — kind of like a pool noodle — and protect the structure from the water.

FloodFrame adds a level of security during flooding events and can be considered more cost-effective when compared to the high cost of renovating or rebuilding after flooding.

"Right now we are focused on residential but I think there's a huge potential for it to go commercial. A lot of commercial buildings are self insured, and commercial developers, industrial developers, this would be a drop in the bucket for the overall cost of the entire project," Nielsen tells InnovationMap. "For homeowners, it's kind of a bigger expense, but I think there is the potential for homebuilders to include it as an option in the entire package of a new house because when you put it in to a mortgage, it's only another like $0.50 a month."

A waterproof container for your car.

After the floods from Hurricane Harvey totaled her car, Rahel Abraham wanted to find a solution. ClimaGuard/Facebook

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey seriously damaged about 600,000 vehicles in the Houston area, which included Rahel Abraham's 2008 Infiniti G35. Now, Abraham's brainchild forms the backbone of her Houston-based startup, ClimaGuard LLC. The company's waterproof, temperature-resistant, portable Temporary Protective Enclosure (TPE) can entirely cover a compact car, sedan, or midsize SUV. It comes in three sizes; the cost ranges from $349 to $499.

To protect a vehicle, someone sets a TPE on the ground, a driveway, or another flat surface, then drives the vehicle onto the bottom part of the product, and connects the bottom and top parts with the zipper. Abraham likens it to a clamshell preserving a pearl.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham tells InnovationMap.

A network to find shelter.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks tells InnovationMap. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Now Hicks is growing GotSpot in hopes that short-term rental space and emergency housing can be smooth sailing no matter the circumstances. Recently, the company was named a finalist for MassChallenge Texas in Austin.

A water-absorbing tower. 

Fil Trat would be able to absorb water, filter it, and release it into the body of water when the time comes. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many Houstonians began to think of solutions for the next time Mother Nature struck with her full-force of flooding. Gensler designers Chelsea Bryant, Jordan Gomez, Luisa Melendez, Barbara Novoa, Benjamin Nanson, Maria Qi, and Melinda Ubera created a solution as a part of Gensler's By Design program called Fil Trat. The tower can absorb, filter, and store flood waters until the bayou is ready for the water to be released — cleaner than it was before.

During Harvey, thousands of people were displaced, but Fil Trat has a solution for that too. The tower's floors would alternate between filtration floors and shelters, which could house up to 24 families per floor.

While the suggested Houston locale would be by Buffalo Bayou, the group suggests putting the tower in other coastal cities at risk of devastating flooding.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks that can track weather developments.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl, tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

Restored native wetland coastal prairies.

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water. Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership, has been taking every opportunity to raise awareness on the importance of prairie restoration.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Memorial Park Conservancy's its master plan redevelopment project includes a lot of prairie restoration plans is expected to deliver by 2028.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. An ongoing part of the transformation will be stormwater management upgrades. MPC has budgeted $3 million to this asset of the renovation. While a part of the plan is tributaries for run-off water, bringing back prairie and wetlands will do a great deal to help abate stormwater.

"We're taking ball fields, parking lots, and roads and converting them back to what was here — native wetland coastal prairie," MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold tells InnovationMap. "This serves important stormwater purposes."

Houston startup creates device to keep loved ones in touch with each other

Caring is sharing

When Charley Donaldson's mother-in-law was battling cancer, he and his wife had great support from their friends and family. But they also knew there were a lot of people who cared about them who didn't know what to say or do during such a challenging time.

"It's like, you want to show people that you care about them, but you don't want to interrupt their day, or you don't want to be a burden to them if they aren't up to company," Donaldson says about the common reactions he heard from others – and often felt himself when he had friends going through similar struggles. "There had to be a way to share the idea of, 'Hey, I'm thinking about you.'"

It took three years of rattling around that idea before CaringBand came to life. The light-up bracelet is Bluetooth enabled, and connects to a mobile app. A person gives the bracelet to a loved one, who then pairs it with his or her smartphone. App users can send and receive pre-set messages of encouragement to and from other app users.

Those wearing a CaringBand bracelet get alerted by a blinking light or vibration that lets them know someone is thinking about them. The wearer then reads these encouraging messages on the CaringBand app when convenient and with no need to respond.

"When we pilot tested it, we were super excited to find out what we thought was validated," says Donaldson. "People really loved knowing that others were keeping them in their thoughts, and those who sent messages liked that they didn't have to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing."

Donaldson says he wanted The CaringBand to be as easy as possible for people to use, and also ensure that it was a solid support system. When someone is going through medical treatments, he knows that can be exhausting, and he also realizes that friends and family want to be able to do something, anything, to express their love and support.

"If you're a normal, compassionate person, you want to show you care about someone," he says. "This lets you do that in your own way."

And while it might sound like The CaringBand is designed to make the senders of messages feel better about offering a good thought for someone, Donaldson says those going through treatments have really loved seeing their bracelets light to up to tell them they're on someone's mind. That small show of support has made a big difference, they told Donaldson in surveys.

"She is sitting on the couch having so much fun reading her messages," says one user in a testimonial. "The smile on her face is priceless." "People tell you they think of you and pray for you all the time," read another. "The bracelet gives you a reminder that they really are."

"We made it super easy," he says. "It's a hardware to software solution and we wanted to erase as many friction points as possible in its creation. This is two touches of a smart phone."

Currently, the CaringBand app is live and functional. The bracelet is still in developmental stages, and Donaldson says the team is working with individuals and groups such as the Tyler Robinson Foundation to further test it. The bracelet should be a go for full distribution and sale by the first quarter of 2020.

"Obviously, this doesn't replace driving over to see someone or having a cup of coffee with a friend," says Donaldson. "But it is a great supplemental tool to show your love and care when you might not know what else to do."