This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Melanie Johnson of Collaborative for Children, Aditya Mohite of Rice University, Lani Doyle of Cart.com. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a nonprofit leader introducing new technologies, a solar tech-focused Rice University professor, and a new hire for a Houston fast-growing startup.

Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children

Collaborative for Children is focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys. Photo courtesy

Generally, when children are under the age of five, educators believe that they are best suited for and interested in learning, because those are the years in which there is the strongest opportunity to build a broad and solid foundation for lifelong literacy and well-being.

That sentiment is deeply held by Collaborative for Children, the Houston-based nonprofit organization with the mission to meaningfully improve the quality of early childhood education and provide access to cutting-edge technology through its Centers of Excellence to all children, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities.

“The reason the organization was started about 40 years ago is that a group of philanthropists in the greater Houston area suggested that this was so important because 90 percent of the brain develops or grows in the time frame between ages zero to five years of age,” Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, tells InnovationMap. Read more.

Aditya Mohite, director of Rice Engineering Initiative for Energy Transition and Sustainability

The new process developed by Rice University researchers makes solar cells that are about 10 times more durable than traditional methods. Photo courtesy

Presented on the cover of a June issue of Science, a study from Rice University engineer Aditya Mohite's lab uncovered a method to synthesize a high-efficiency perovskite solar cell, known as formamidinium lead iodide (FAPbI3), converting them into ultrastable high-quality photovoltaic films, according to a statement from Rice. Photovoltaic films convert sunlight into electricity.

The new process makes solar cells that are about 10 times more durable than traditional methods.

“Right now, we think that this is state of the art in terms of stability,” Mohite said in a statement. “Perovskite solar cells have the potential to revolutionize energy production, but achieving long-duration stability has been a significant challenge.” Read more.

Lani Doyle, chief people officer at Cart.com

Fast-growing Cart.com has named its new chief people officer. Photo courtesy of Cart.com

Houston-based e-commerce software and services company Cart.com has hired a former Shopify executive as its chief people officer.

Before joining Cart.com, Lani Doyle was chief HR officer at Strategic Solutions Group, a provider of health care software. Previously, she was vice president of HR and people operations at 6 River Systems, a provider of software and robotics for warehouses. Prior to that, Doyle was head of talent development and operations at Shopify, an e-commerce platform for businesses that posted revenue of $7.1 billion in 2023.

“Cart.com is one of the fastest-growing companies in commerce today, and I’m excited to partner with our teams to help drive growth and scalability,” Doyle says in a news release. “I am eager to contribute to shaping our culture and developing programming that supports and elevates high-performing teams, ensuring we achieve our ambitious goals.” Read more.

Collaborative for Children is focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys. Photo courtesy of Collaborative for Children

Education equity-focused nonprofit taps into robotics, AI to better serve Houston children

the future is bright

Generally, when children are under the age of five, educators believe that they are best suited for and interested in learning, because those are the years in which there is the strongest opportunity to build a broad and solid foundation for lifelong literacy and well-being.

That sentiment is deeply held by Collaborative for Children, the Houston-based nonprofit organization with the mission to meaningfully improve the quality of early childhood education and provide access to cutting-edge technology through its Centers of Excellence to all children, especially those in low-income and marginalized communities.

“The reason the organization was started about 40 years ago is that a group of philanthropists in the greater Houston area suggested that this was so important because 90 percent of the brain develops or grows in the time frame between ages zero to five years of age,” Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, tells InnovationMap.

“And if we were losing children and not preparing them by third grade to be literate, and then subsequently losing them after that for high dropout rates and achievement gaps between poor and affluent children, that this would be the perfect place to start," she continues. "And so, they put the collaborative, the emphasis, and finances collaborative of every, most every early education effort around this region.”

Collaborative for Children’s work in the community is centered around making sure that there is educational equity for all children, regardless of financial status, and providing access to technologies in meaningful ways.

“Ultimately, we want to bridge the digital divide early on so that when children start off their academic journey, they're starting off equipped with the skills to be successful there on,” says Johnson.

Most recently, the institution has focused on utilizing social-emotional learning robots and coding tech toys like the Pepper — the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions — and NAO, which resembles human being and stimulates, robots to enhance learning in the classrooms of its Centers of Excellence.

“Technology enhances the learning experience in the Centers of Excellence in ways that a teacher might not be able to,” says Johnson. “Artificial intelligence is used in gamification to allow a child to play and learn while playing.”

For Collaborative for Children, gamification involves transforming typical academic components into gaming themes.

“While playing, the AI gauges the level of skills that they’ve been able to enter into that system and respond with even more challenging tasks or tasks that are still lateral so that they can continue to repeat that skill,” says Johnson.

The socio-emotional learning robots are indeed fascinating, but how does the nonprofit reach these children, and their parents, who might be skeptical of technology?

Ultimately, through the teachers. They draw them in via the technology. If teachers are excited, they act as a conductor of that energy to their students, making their innovative lessons well, electric.

That resonates with most all children, but especially with those diagnosed with autism.

“Robotics like NAO are great for children on the autism spectrum because they are emotionally sensitive and emotionally intelligent,” says Johnson. “They are low sensory, so as NAO runs around the classroom, it can literally have individual and unique conversations with each child based on facial recognition. But most importantly for me, is that this particular robot is able to evaluate children without statistical bias that a teacher might have.

“A teacher might think that because a child confuses the letter D and B, which are basically shaped the same in opposite directions, that they're not learning," she continues. "And the robot will have no prior knowledge in terms of, is this child the better child, or have they been learning throughout the year? The answers are accurate or inaccurate. So, they remove statistical bias when assessing children in the classroom.”

The misconception about teaching technologies is that it’s about screen time. According to Johnson, it’s not. It’s more about interacting with technology.

“We’ve added, you know, all kinds of modern-day technology so that this world that we're preparing these children for 80 percent of the jobs we don't even know will exist when they are adults,” says Johnson. “So, we're just trying to make sure that there is no divide in terms of 21st century skills and 21st century preparation.”

Building Blocks Ep. 12youtu.be

Collaborative for Children has so many facets to assist children with their early development, but there are inherent challenges when attempting to reach their target audience in low-income and marginalized communities that the organization counters with programs like the Collab Lab, which is a mobile classroom that brings critical, future-focused early childhood education directly to the community at no cost.

Designed to be convenient for families, Collab Lab connects parents and their youngest children with experts, educators, resources, and proven programs whose goal is to make sure that kids have the skills essential to learning from the moment they walk into kindergarten for the first time.

“There are a myriad of challenges in these communities that we serve, specifically with technology,” says Johnson. “When children enter first grade, and especially second grade, they're given notepads, basically, digital notepads, because it's no good in pre-K oftentimes, but it is very helpful for children who will never have access or have limited access to iPads and things of that nature.

“So while we don't want them to be babysat by screen time and have social media impacting their self-image and self-worth, we definitely want them to have appropriate doses and appropriate uses of technology in the early education, so that those barriers that their parents face with limited means, that these children can go to first grade and into the robotics class and be able to be evaluated and assessed on the digital notepads that are required nowadays,” she continues.

While technology is very important, Collaborative for Children also focuses on the critical social and emotional skills children need as they develop and the all too important relationship between children and their parents and teachers.

“Theory leads our work,” says Johnson. “It's all focused on fine motor skills, gross motor skills, social emotional, can a child build rapport with their teacher and with the students around them. Those things are paramount and will never change.

“What we use technology to do is enhance and remove biases from teacher-pupil interaction, but also to bridge any kind of divide in terms of 21st century skills. And in addition to that, we engage the families. So families who might not know about hydro-fueled cars in those communities that we serve will be able to be exposed to those concepts, as well through our group connections or parent partnerships.”

Ultimately, the last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world.

“At Collaborative for Children,” adds Johnson. “We are continuously pushing the envelope at our Centers for Excellence so that the children that we serve will always be on the cutting edge.

The last thing Collaborative for Children wants is to send children from early learning and childcare environments into the K-12 system unprepared to be successful for the real world. Photo courtesy of Collaborative for Children

A new business accelerator is launching to help grow access to child care. Educational First Steps/Facebook

Business accelerator focused on child care centers launches in Houston following $3M grant

for the kids

A Houston-based organization has launched the state's first business accelerator program focused on child care centers in order to strengthen Texans' access to child care.

The Texas Workforce Commission has awarded Collaborative for Children a $3 million grant as the organization has rolled out an eight-week business training program that will provide instruction and guidance for budgeting, performance management and emergency preparedness within the K-12 space.

"We are thrilled that the state has entrusted us with this grant to build a program that will provide the support so many child care programs need, particularly those in quality child care deserts," says Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, in a news release. "Child care is a priority for every community. It makes it possible for parents to earn a living and for businesses to have a stable workforce, but most importantly, it prepares our youngest citizens for the 21st century workforce. We must gird our child care system so that child care programs not only survive, but also thrive after the next crisis."

The program is a collaboration between Collaborative for Children and Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Policy Center for Nonprofits and Philanthropy. The school will be providing resources and will develop several online modules for the accelerator.

Collaborative for Children has also created a Centers of Excellence program as a part of the accelerator, and the Houston area has 24 locations within the program. The COEs will receive support within the program and have been recognized as providing "high-quality early childhood education." The type of support the COEs receive include professional development, emotional support, access to tallent, marketing help, and more.

The organization has been in Houston supporting local child care professionals since the late 1980s. Collaborative for Children has several programs for educators and families and has specialized COVID-19 help online as well.

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Energy giant announces deal retail company to bring EV tech to Houston malls

coming soon

Two Houston-area malls will be getting bp's electric vehicle charging technology thanks to a new global collaboration.

The global energy company will be bringing its global EV charging business, bp pulse, to 75 shopping facilities across the country thanks to a partnership with Simon Malls. Two malls in town — The Galleria and Katy Mills Mall — soon see bp's EV charging Gigahubs. The company will install and operate the chargers at the two area sites.

The deal aims to deliver over 900 ultra-fast charging bays that will support most make and model of EVs with the first locations opening to the public in early 2026. Other Texas locations include Grapevine Mills in Grapevine, and Austin’s Barton Creek Square.

“We’re pleased to complete this deal with Simon and expand our ultra-fast charging network footprint in the U.S.,” Richard Bartlett, CEO of bp pulse, says in a news release. “The Simon portfolio aligns with bp pulse’s strategy to deploy ultra-fast charging across the West Coast, East Coast, Sun Belt and Great Lakes, and we are thrilled to team up with Simon so that EV drivers have a range of retail offerings at their impressive destinations.”

Last month, bp pulse opened a EV charging station at its North American headquarters in Houston. The company plans to continue deployment of additional charging points at high-demand spots like major metropolitan areas, bp-owned properties, and airports, according to bp.

“As a committed long term infrastructure player with a global network of EV charging solutions, bp pulse intends to continue to seek and build transformative industry collaborations in real estate required to scale our network and match the demand of current and future EV drivers,” Sujay Sharma, CEO bp pulse Americas, adds.

Houston space tech company reaches major milestone for engine technology

fired up

A Houston company that's creating the next generation of space exploration technology is celebrating a new milestone of one of its technologies.

Intuitive Machines reports that its VR900 completed a full-duration hot-fire test, qualifying it for its IM-2 lunar mission. With the qualification, the company says its VR3500, an engine designed for larger cargo class landers, also advances in development.

The engine technology is designed, 3D-printed, and tested all at Intuitive Machines' Houston facility, which opened in the Houston Spaceport last year.

Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus says in a news release that the company's goal was to lead the way in scalable deep space engines as the industry heads toward lunar missions.

“This validated engine design meets current mission demand and paves the way for our VR3500 engine for cargo delivery such as lunar terrain vehicles, human spaceflight cargo resupply, and other infrastructure delivery," Altemus continues. "We believe we’re in a prime position to build on our successful development and apply that technology toward current contracts and future lunar requirements for infrastructure delivery.”

Earlier this year, Intuitive Machines was one of one of three companies selected for a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Another Houston company has seen success with its engine testing. In March, Venus Aerospace announced that it's successfully ran the first long-duration engine test of their Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine in partnership with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Houston is the most stressed out city in Texas, report finds

deep breaths

Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but a new report by WalletHub shows Houston residents are far more stressed out than any other city in Texas.

Houston ranked No. 18 out of 182 of the largest U.S. cities based on work, financial, family-related, and health and safety stress, according to WalletHub's "Most & Least Stressed Cities in America (2024)" report. 39 relevant metrics were considered in the report, including each city's job security, the share of households behind on bills within the last 12 months, divorce rates, crime rates, among others.

Houston was ranked the most stressed out city in Texas, but it's still far less stressed than many other U.S. cities. Cleveland, Ohio took first place as the most stressed city in America, followed by Detroit, Michigan (No. 2), Baltimore, Maryland (No. 3), Memphis, Tennessee (No. 4), and Gulfport, Mississippi (No. 5).

Out of the four main categories, Houstonians are struggling the most with work-related stress, ranking No. 13 nationally. The report found Houston has the No. 1 highest traffic congestion rate out of all cities in the report. But at least Houston drivers are solidly average, as maintained by a separate Forbes study comparing the worst drivers in America.

Houston workers can rejoice that they live in a city with a generally high level of guaranteed employment, as the city ranked No. 151 in the job security comparison. The city ranked No. 16 nationwide in the metric for the highest average weekly hours worked.

Houston fared best in the financial stress category, coming in at No. 72 nationally, showing that Houstonians aren't as worried about pinching pennies when it comes to maintaining a good quality of life. The city ranked No. 39 in the comparison of highest poverty rates.

Here's how WalletHub quantified Houston's stress levels:

  • No. 17 – Health and safety stress rank (overall)
  • No. 36 – Family stress rank (overall)
  • No. 63 – Unemployment rates
  • No. 81 – Percentage of adults in fair/poor health
  • No. 95 – Divorce rate
  • No. 96 – Percentage of adults with inadequate sleep

WalletHub analyst Cassandra Happe said in the report that living in particularly arduous cities can play a big role in how stressed a person is, especially when considering uncontrollable circumstances like family problems or work-related issues.

"Cities with high crime rates, weak economies, less effective public health and congested transportation systems naturally lead to elevated stress levels for residents," Happe said.

Happe advised that residents considering a move to a place like Houston should consider how the city's quality of life will impact their mental health, not just their financial wellbeing.

Other Texas cities that ranked among the top 100 most stressed cities in the U.S. are:

  • No. 20 – San Antonio
  • No. 38 – Laredo
  • No. 41 – Dallas
  • No. 47 – Corpus Christi
  • No. 61 – El Paso
  • No. 68 – Fort Worth
  • No. 71 – Brownsville
  • No. 75 – Arlington
  • No. 78 – Grand Prairie
  • No. 88 – Garland
The full report and its methodology can be found on wallethub.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.