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.

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Houston in-seat ordering app gets rodeo ready, prepares for busy XFL season

dining delivered

A Houston startup isn't afraid to take on the 21-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo with its in-seat ordering technology.

Houston-based sEATz, through its partnership with Aramark and NRG Stadium, will be serving up stadium food to rodeo goers this year every single night of the show. Rather than be intimidated the size and scale of Rodeo Houston, sEATz, equipped with a recently upgraded app, is ready for the challenge.

"Twenty-one nights in a row for us is great — that just shows the flexibility and scalability of our model," says CEO and co-founder Aaron Knape.

For those headed out to the rodeo with tickets in the 100s — the lower section — sEATz will have in-seat delivery and pickup lanes. Users can download the app, plug in their seat information, order, pay, and hang tight for a delivery. SEATz will be available every night of the rodeo — from the start of the show to the concert.

The sEATz app has been freshly updated and is ready to rodeo. Photo courtesy of sEATz

Knape and co-founder and COO Marshall Law founded sEATz in 2018 after an idea Law had when he missed a key play at an Astros 2017 World Series game. Now, SEATz is active in 10 different venues and plans to roll out in 15 more this year, Knape says. The app has served fans at football and soccer games — and even delivered during the Rolling Stones concert at NRG Stadium last year.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," Knape says. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

SEATz had a busy football season, servicing the likes of The Texans, the University of Houston Cougars, and more, but turns out, football is not over. Through its partnership with Delaware North, the food and beverage provider for UH's TDECU Stadium, sEATz has added the XFL's Houston Roughnecks fans to its roster of users.

The team's first game on February 8 had over 17,000 in attendance, according to news reports. The team won 37 to 17 against the Los Angeles Wildcats. The second game for the Roughnecks is on Sunday, February 16, and the league recently announced the final championship game will be hosted in Houston.

"I think those fans came to have a really good time," Knape says of last weekend's game. "We're actually going to be quadrupling staff for Sunday's game."

SEATz, which closed is seed round last fall with $1.3 million raised, plans to raise another round early this year. The company is also actively recruiting teams and venues ahead of the baseball season, Knape says.

New energy tech startup accelerator has its eyes on Houston

calling all energy entrepreneurs

Houston is on the radar of a newly formed startup accelerator that concentrates on companies in the energy sector and other commodities markets.

The Stamford, Connecticut-based accelerator, PointForward LLC, is seeking startups for its inaugural 12-week accelerator program, which kicks off in June. While the program will take place in Stamford, PointForward hopes to attract applicants from Houston. Each team accepted by the program will receive up to $100,000 in funding, along with mentoring and access to business resources, in exchange for a 7 percent equity stake.

"We are looking for early stage companies focused on a range of offerings — such as trading, logistics, and technology — related to the energy and commodity markets that can achieve high growth and scale," says Greg Schindler, founder of PointForward. "In particular, we are seeking companies where our network of industry contacts, including potential investors and customers, can provide key leverage."

In April, PointForward plans to choose three to six teams for its first accelerator program. Schindler says PointForward is willing to accommodate logistical challenges posed by a startup's critical people being located in, say, Houston but being asked to spend 12 weeks in Stamford.

"We understand that some companies may be working on physical products and may find it difficult to bring all the founders up to Stamford. That's OK," he says. "However, key members of each team should plan to be on site in Stamford for the full 12 weeks. This helps establish a vibrant founder community. We also understand if founders need to travel between Houston and Stamford."

PointForward plans to host demo days this September in Houston and New York City where startup teams will make pitches to potential investors.

Freepoint Commodities LLC, a commodities merchant based in Stamford, launched PointForward. Freepoint employs about 50 people in Houston, which is the headquarters of its retail energy business, Freepoint Energy Solutions LLC. Freepoint Commodities started that subsidiary in 2017.

"Houston is at the heart of the energy world," Schindler says, "and is extremely important to our efforts."

Freepoint Energy Solutions currently operates in Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas. The company entered Texas' commercial and industrial electricity market in July 2018.

Freepoint Commodities recently signed a deal with the Texas GulfLink LLC subsidiary of Sentinel Midstream LLC, based in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburb of Richardson, for construction and operation of a deepwater crude oil export facility near the Brazoria County town of Freeport. Texas GulfLink has an office in Houston.

The Texas GulfLink facility will include an onshore oil storage terminal connected by a 42-inch pipeline to a manned platform about 37 miles off the Texas Gulf Coast. From the platform, crude oil will be transported to two buoys, enabling large vessels to load as many as 85,000 barrels of oil per hour.

The Houston metro area is projected to see a $751.8 million economic lift from construction of Texas GulfLink and related facilities.