5 Houston entrepreneurs to know this Veterans Day

American heroes

With Houston having the fastest growing veteran population in the country, the innovation ecosystem has plenty of veterans turned entrepreneurs. Here are five to know today. Courtesy photos

Over a quarter of a million United States military veterans call Houston home, and that number is growing.

"Houston has the second largest and fastest growing veteran population in the country," says Reda Hicks, a Houston entrepreneur and military spouse herself. "That's a very significant chunk of our city to share an affinity, and it's not something Houston has talked about."

For its large veteran population, Houston was selected in January 2018 as the third location to set up a chapter of Bunker Labs, an acceleration and incubation organization for military-affiliated entrepreneurs.

"Our whole goal is to help empower military-affiliated people to start and grow businesses," says Hicks, who is one of the Houston leads for the program, a lawyer, and the founder of GotSpot Inc.

The program provides resources for veterans, military spouses, or anyone whose lives were affected by a family member in the military. Bunker Labs provides a digital platform for early-stage ideas called Launch Lab that's used by hundreds annually, and also has face-to-face programming through its Veterans in Business program hosted through WeWork.

"It can be the case that veterans can feel siloed, and it's wonderful to have those people around you who can really understand you, but for businesses to grow, they have to really understand the ecosystem they live in," Hicks says.

In honor of Veterans Day, here are a few Houston veteran entrepreneurs to know.

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO of Trumbull Unmanned

Dyan Gibbons

Dyan Gibbons translated her Air Force experience with unmanned missiles into a drone services company. Courtesy of Alice

Dyan Gibbons found her dream career in the United States Air Force Academy. She served as engineering acquisitions officer managing stealth nuclear cruise missiles, and even went on to supported Air Force One and Global Hawk UAS engineering and logistics. After her years of service, she transitioned into the reserves, when she discovered she was ineligible to serve again. She went back to the drawing board to recreate herself — this time, as an entrepreneur.

She went into a doctorate program — she already had her MBA — and was close to finishing up when her drone startup took flight. Trumbull Unmanned provides drone services to the energy sector for various purposes. With her experience as a pilot and managing unmanned missiles, she knew the demand for drones was only growing — and, being from Texas, she knew what industry to focus on.

"I wanted to start a company that uses unmanned systems or drones to improve safety and improve the environment and support energy," Gibbons tells InnovationMap in a previous interview.

Nicole Baldwin, chief visionary officer and founder of Biao Skincare

Nicole Baldwin

Photo via toryburchfoundation.org

Before founding her tech-enabled, all-natural skincare line, Biao, Nicole Baldwin served in the Army Civil Affairs Units and was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan. In honor of Veterans Day, she shared on Facebook an image of her with young girls outside the compound she lived in.

"I often tell people not to thank me for my service, because I don't feel like I should be thanked for doing something I genuinely wanted to do," she writes in the post. "I am grateful every moment of my life knowing that I did all the things in and out of uniform that was felt from the heart."

Baldwin's company, which uses a skin-scanning technology has taken off, and she's participated in Houston's Bunker Labs programming, and she has also been a Tory Burch fellow and appeared on Shark Tank.

Brett Rosenberg, founder of Semper Fi Systems

Photo via LinkedIn.com

Brett Rosenberg spent a few years in the U.S. Air Force before he took his experience from national security to a different kind of security.

Rosenberg's startup is another one utilizing the resources of Houston's Bunker Labs. Semper Fi Systems takes information security experts' knowledge and machine learning solutions to optimize cybersecurity and avoid regulatory financial exclusion.

Nathan Wilkes, CEO of Guidon Holdings

Photo via LinkedIn.com

After four years in the U.S. Army based in Georgia, Nathan Wilkes enrolled in business school at Texas A&M University. It was during the program when he founded Guidon Holdings, a Cypress-based aggregates company that — through screening, washing, separating, clarifying, and much more — can turn a natural resource that is considered waste into something of value.

Wilkes is also a West Point Academy graduate and a member of the 2019 Bunker Labs Houston cohort.

Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital

An U.S. Army vet, Tim Kopra spent over 244 days in space, and now he's using his tech background to invest in emerging energy companies. Courtesy of Tim Kopra

Before he spent a career total of 244 days in space, Tim Kopra first served his country in the United States Army. Nowadays, he serves the Houston innovation ecosystem as an investor and adviser to startups and entrepreneurs in the energy tech industry.

As a partner at venture fund Blue Bear Capital, Kopra uses his experience in the Army and in space to do figure out if entrepreneurs have what it takes to go the distance and if their technology is worth investing in.

"On face value, it may sound like an odd match, taking someone with a tech and operational background and putting them in venture, but quite frankly it feels very familiar to me because my career has really been focused on working on complex technology and operations with very small teams," tells InnovationMap in a previous interview. "It's not just a theoretical understanding of the technology, but understanding how to use the technology and how it works."

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Houston university's online MBA program rises in the ranks of newly released report

A for improvement

Rice University's online MBA program has something to brag about. According to a new report, the program has risen through the ranks of other online MBA curriculums.

MBA@Rice, the online program at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice, has ranked higher in four categories in the latest edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Online Programs. The report evaluated schools based on data specifically related to their distance education MBA programs, and U.S. News has a separate ranking for non-MBA graduate business degrees in areas such as finance, marketing and management. The MBA list focused on engagement, peer assessment, faculty credentials and training, student excellence, and services and technologies.

“We use the same professors to deliver the same rigorous, high-touch MBA in our online MBA as we do in all our campus-based programs,” said Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez. “The strong national rankings recognize our success in reaching highly talented working professionals who don’t live near enough to our campus or for whom an online program is the best option.”

Rice's virtual MBA program ranked No. 12 (tied) in the 2023 list, which was up several spots from its 2022 ranking, which was No. 20. Additionally, Rice stood out in these other three categories:

  • Best Online MBA Programs for Veterans: tied for No. 10 (No. 14 last year).
  • Best Online Business Analytics MBA Programs: tied for No. 10 (tied for No. 12 last year).
  • Best Online General Management MBA Programs: tied for No. 7 (tied for No. 11 last year).

Rice recently announced a hybrid MBA program that combines online instruction with in-person engagement. The first cohort is slated to start this summer.

The MBA@Rice program is the top-ranked Texas-based program on the virtual MBA list. Several other programs from the Lone Star State make the list of 366 schools, including:

  • University of Texas at Dallas at No. 17
  • Texas Tech University at No. 33
  • Baylor University, University of North Texas, and West Texas A&M University tied for No, 65

U.S News & World Report ranked other online programs. Here's how Houston schools placed on the other lists:

  • The University of Houston tied for No. 10 in Best Online Master's in Education Programs and tied for No. 75 in Best Online Master's in Business Programs
  • Rice University, in addition to its MBA ranking, tied for No. 27 on the Online Master’s in Computer Information Technology Programs ranking after being tied for No. 49 last year
  • University of Houston-Downtown ranked No. 26 in Best Online Master's in Criminal Justice Programs and tied for No. 55 in Best Online Bachelor's Programs

The full list of best online higher education programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report is available online.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from sustainable fashion to tech manufacturing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Hannah Le, founder of RE.STATEMENT

Hannah Le founded RE.STATEMENT to provide a much-needed platform for sustainable fashion finds. Photo courtesy of RE.STATEMENT

It's tough out there for a sustainable fashion designer with upcycled statement pieces on the market. First of all, there historically hasn't been a platform for designers or shoppers either, as Hannah Le explains on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Most designers give up if they haven't sold an item within three months," Le says. "That's something RE.STATEMENT has dedicated its business model to — making sure that items sell faster and at a higher value than any other marketplace."

RE.STATEMENT won one of the city of Houston's startup competition, Liftoff Houston's categories last year. Le shares what's next for the early-stage company on the show. Read more and listen to the episode.

Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab

MacroFab has secured fresh investment to the tune of $42 million. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

MacroFab, a Houston-based electronics manufacturing platform, has announced $42 million in new growth capital. The company was founded by Misha Govshteyn and Chris Church, who built a platform that manage electronics manufacturing and enables real-time supply chain and inventory data. The platform can help customers go from prototype to high-scale production with its network of more than 100 factories across the continent.

“Electronics manufacturing is moving toward resilience and flexibility to reduce supply chain disruptions,” says Govshteyn, MacroFab’s CEO, in a news release. “We are in the earliest stages of repositioning the supply chain to be more localized and focused on what matters to customers most — the ability to deliver products on time, meet changing requirements, and achieve a more sustainable ecological footprint. MacroFab is fundamental to building this new operating model.”

The company has seen significant growth amid the evolution of global supply chain that's taken place over the past few years. According to the company, shipments were up 275 percent year-over-year. To keep up with growth, MacroFab doubled its workforce, per the release, and opened a new facility in Mexico. Read more.

Kelli Newman, president of Newman & Newman Inc.

In her guest column, Kelli Newman explains how to leverage communications at any stage your company is in. Photo courtesy of Newman & Newman

Kelli Newman took actionable recommendations from investors, customers, advisers, and founders within Houston to compose a guest column with key observations and advice on leveraging communications.

"The significance of effective communication and its contribution to a company’s success are points regularly stressed by conference panelists and forum speakers," she writes. "Yet for many founders it’s advice that fuels frustration for how to make communications a priority with a lack of understanding of the practice." Read more.

Growing Houston-based drone software company snags government contract

ready for liftoff

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx