Constantine Zotos (left) and Mitchell Webber pivoted their coffee business toward hand sanitizer manufacturing amid the pandemic. Today, the company has around 60 employees and produces 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day. Photo courtesy of Modern Chemical

Houstonians' workday routines look much different today than they did seven months ago. With a large percentage of people working from home, office rituals have come to a halt and few habits have been immune to change — including our coffee consumption.

In early March, Constantine Zotos and Mitchell Webber already knew this didn't mean good things for their local nitro coffee company, Recharge Brewing Co. Though the brand had grown steadily over the better course of two years, the duo had focused their business on installing and supplying their nitro coffee taps to two of the most taboo markets at the time: office spaces and restaurants.The duo aptly predicted that the demand for their product would soon dry up and quickly shifted their operations to focus on a product that was considered a necessity: hand sanitizer.

To get started, the young entrepreneurs and their small team of six began cold calling down a list of Purell distributors they found online. They soon found that many businesses could hardly keep the product in stock.

"They asked us if they could fly a jet down to pick up the hand sanitizer themselves," Zottos says of one distributor. "I told them not to get ahead of themselves, but it just speaks to the sense of urgency everyone had."

The team studied up on the basic ingredients of hand sanitizer to make the liquid, alcohol-based form that infiltrated the market in the first few weeks of the pandemic. At the time there was such a rush for the product, and such a low supply of the material needed to make it, that the team resorted to selling the product without traditional pump tops or plastic caps. Instead they used the slow release plastic pourers that are often used on liquor bottles.

Still, they were focused on doing it right. In addition to the long hours spend to get the product out the door, Zotos and Webber took special care to ensure that their sanitizer met all FDA and EPA requirements by working with consultants and lawyers, as well as reading up on all the pertinent documents and literature between sleeping shifts and time on the shop floor.

"We took the stance that we would rather rush toward compliance rather than run from it," Zotos says.

It didn't seem to slow down the demand. One week in they formed Modern Chemical, and by the middle of the month the company was fulfilling substantial orders with a team of 40 employees. By the summer, Modern Chemical released a gel-based, FDA-registered sanitizer that got them in with giant B2B clients, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Jefferson Parish School District, and recently the City of Austin.

The pair agrees that their background with Recharge gave them a leg up in the beginning.

"Knowing the pumps and hoses and all the stuff you really need to run a bottle facility and a hand sanitizer facility, we already had," Webber says. "On top of that when all this started, there were some long days and long nights, but being in the nitro coffee business, we were used to long hours. It prepared us for this huge push for the drastic demand that needed to be filled."

Location and timing also played a huge role in their success, Zotos adds. "When the pandemic struck we were able to bring on a lot of people who are extraordinarily talented throughout the company. If we weren't hiring in the pandemic environment like this I think we would be hard pressed to find people as talented as we did as quickly as we did," he says. "And Houston really played a big part in that."

Today, the company of about 60 employees is producing about 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day and is in the process of launching disinfectant wipes and spray. They recently moved all of the Modern Chemical operations into a new and improved facility off Air Tec and Interstate 45 that will allow for more efficient packaging and loading of products and — in another pivot — are even offering custom labeling, scenting and color dyes, plus specialty dispensing stands for their product.

"Neither of us have a chemical background and we are not ignorant to that. But we know how the equipment works from an operational side of things and if we can make the packaging look the best. If we can package the most for the best price then people are going to want to buy it," Zotos says. "Instead of taking the let's do everything route, we found our niche in the chemical supply chain, which is packaging."

And as Modern Chemical continues to settle into its new space and eventually a post-pandemic market, Zotos and Webber plan to revisit and revamp Recharge Brewing with the lessons they've learned. The duo plans to use their original facilities to help other small business owners launch and produce beverage brands of their own by early 2021.

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Houston hospital introduces first-of-its-kind voice technology into its operating rooms

Hey, MIA

Hey, MIA. Start surgery.

These are the words Houston doctors are learning to say in the operating rooms, thanks to a first-of-its-kind voice technology developed by the Houston Methodist's Center for Innovation in collaboration with Amazon Web Services. In the same way we use programs like Alexa or Siri to make our everyday tasks easier, the Methodist Intelligent Automation, or MIA, is allowing medical professionals to improve the way they interact both with technology and patients alike.

"There's been a push in the industry for a long time that people sitting behind computers and typing and staring at a computer screen is inadequate," says Houston Methodist Chief Innovation Officer Roberta Schwartz. "There's been a desire to return people back to each other rather than physicians and look at a screen and patients look at a doctor looking at a screen."

Currently in its pilot phase, MIA is working to do just that through two key functions that shift the way medical professionals work in what Schwartz calls the "era of electronic medical records."

The first is through operating room voice commands. Here medical professionals can run through a series or checklists and initiate important actions, such as starting timers or reviewing time of anesthesia, through voice instead of by typing or clicking, which can become cumbersome during lengthy and highly detailed surgeries. Information is displayed on a large 80-inch TV in the operating suite and following surgery all of the data captured is imported into the traditional EMR program. The technology has been prototyped in two Houston Methodist O.R. suites so far and the hub aims to trial it in a simulation surgery by the end of the year.

Additionally, the hub is developing ambient listening technology to be used in a clinical setting with the same goal. Houston Methodist and AWS have partnered with Dallas-based Pariveda to create specialized hardware that (after gaining patient permission) will listen into doctor-patient conversations, transcribe the interaction, and draft a note that is then coded and imported directly into the EMR.

"For EMR the feedback is that it's clunky, it's click-heavy, it's very task oriented," says Josh Sol, who leads digital and clinical innovation for Houston Methodist. "Our goal with the Center for Innovation and this technology hub is to really transform that terminology and bring back this collaboration and the patient-physician relationship by removing the computer but still capturing all the pertinent information."

The ambient listening technology is further off and is currently in user acceptance testing with clinicians.

"They've had some great feedback, whether it's changing how the note is created, changing the look and feel of the application itself," Sol adds. "All feedback is good feedback at this point. So we've taken it in, we prioritize the work, and we continue to improve the application."

And the hub doesn't plan to stop there. Schwartz and Sol agree that the next step for this type of medical technology will be patient facing. They envision that in the near future appointment or surgery prep can be done through Alexa push notifications and medication reminders or follow up assessments could be done via voice applications.

"It's all going to be of tremendous value and it's coming," Schwartz says. "We may be taking the first baby steps, but each one of these voice technologies for our patients is out there on the horizon."

Chevron to launch makerspace at The Cannon, Houston a top city for STEM, and more innovation news

Short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a startup snags a win at a pitch competition, Chevron announces a new makerspace, a software company makes an acquisition, and more.

Houston named a best city for STEM

Image via SmartAsset

For the fifth year, personal finance website, SmartAsset, analyzed data for the 35 cities in the county with the largest STEM workforces. The study looked at the racial diversity index as well as the gender diversity index. The data for both metrics comes from the Census Bureau's 2019 1-year American Community Survey.

Houston ranked No. 7 on the list, and according to the report, the total number of STEM workers in Houston, Texas exceeds 79,500. Around 70 percent of the total STEM workers there are men, and more than 30 percent are women. Additionally, Houston has the third-best race/ethnicity index score in the study with more than 19 percent of STEM workers are Hispanic or Latino, almost 20 percent are Asian, and more than 8 percent are Black.

Texas makes up about a third of the top 10 list with Dallas and Fort Worth coming in at No. 9 and No.10, respectively.

Chevron announces digital makerspace in The Cannon

Photo courtesy of The Cannon

The Cannon and its surrounding Founders District in West Houston has announced the addition of Chevron's digital makerspace, which will be dedicated to startup partnerships and community organizations.

"Chevron's support for The Founders District and The Cannon expands our commitment to Houston's growing innovation ecosystem," says Barbara Burger, Chevron vice president, Innovation and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, in a news release. "We look forward to utilizing this new space to collaborate with other Chevron organizations, such as our Wells group, as we work to deliver more reliable, affordable, ever-cleaner energy."

While Chevron has been a key partner for The Cannon since 2018 and even had branded office space within the hub, this new space represents a new lease agreement for a significantly larger footprint.

"We are thrilled to partner with Chevron Technology Ventures in developing this exciting makerspace at The Founders District," says Mark Toon, CEO of Puma Development, the company developing The Founders District and founder of Work America Capital, a venture capital firm dedicated to investing in Houston-based businesses. "CTV is the paradigm for meaningful innovation in Houston. By investing in emerging technologies in energy, they are paving the way for innovation to remain at the heart of Houston's most prominent industry."

Lazarus 3D wins The Ion's pitch competition

Photo via Laz3d.com

After months of pitching events, The Ion's Startup Demo Day for 2020 concluded on November 18 with four final pitches from Lazarus 3D, Skylark Wireless, HelloWoofy, and Swoovy.

After each of the four founders presented at the virtual event, which was powered by Dell Technologies, Lazarus 3D, a startup that produces 3D-printed organs and tissues for surgical practice, took home the win and the cash prize.

"I'm so grateful to Ion Houston — I've met so many people and made so many connections," says Smriti Zaneveld, co-founder and president. "All of the companies that present at these events are doing something so meaningful."

Applications are now open for the next series. Apply online by clicking here.

Houston tech co. acquires New Zealand business

Photo via Onit.com

Houston-based Onit Inc., a legal software provider, announced that the company has acquired McCarthyFinch and its artificial intelligence platform.

"Our vision is to build AI into our workflow platform and every product across the Onit and SimpleLegal product portfolios," says Eric M. Elfman, Onit CEO and co-founder, in a news release. "AI will have an active role in everything from enterprise legal management to legal spend management and contract lifecycle management, resulting in continuous efficiencies and cost savings for corporate legal departments.

"Historically, legal departments have been thought of as black boxes where requests go in and information, decisions or contracts come out with no real transparency," Elfman continues. "AI has the potential to enhance transparency and contribute to stronger enterprise-wide business collaboration in a way that conserves a lawyer's valuable time."

The newly acquired software has the capacity to accelerate contract processing by up to 70 percent and increase productivity by over 50 percent. With the acquisition, Onit is enhancing its new artificial intelligence platform Precedent and the company's first release on the platform will be ReviewAI.

New sustainability-focused app launches at Climathon

Photo courtesy of Footprint

Houston-based Footprint App Inc. launched its latest carbon footprint education and action software during the Houston Climathon that was hosted earlier this month by Impact Hub Houston.

By tracking the user's sustainable habits, the student-focused tool allows users to compete to reduce their environmental impact. Footprint has launched in over 50 classrooms across the nation and is also being used by several corporations.

"With the state of Texas recently receiving an 'F' in climate education from the National Science Foundation, we see Footprint as the perfect tool for K-12 and beyond to help Texas students engage with climate science in a fun, competitive way," says Dakota Stormer, Footprint App, Inc. CEO and co-founder, in a news release.