The Digital Fight Club made its Houston debut on November 20 at White Oak Music Hall. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

What do you get when you cross the information of an innovation panel with the ferocity of a boxing match? A verbal sprawling among innovation leaders that can only be known as the Digital Fight Club.

Houston's DFC came about with the help of Accenture, which had been a partner at the Dallas events, and InnovationMap, who teamed up as presenting sponsors for the event. DFC's founder, Michael Pratt, came up with the idea for Digital Fight Club as a way to liven up technology-focused events and networking opportunities.

The setup of the event is five fights, 10 fighters, and five judges. Each fighter has just a couple minutes to take their stand before the event moves on.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

The hour of fighting is coupled with a VIP event ahead of the showdown and an after party where further networking can continue on. At Houston's VIP event, InnovationMap got to check in with partners, fighters, and referees about how they thought the event was going to pan out. Check out the VIP event video here.

The panel of referees included Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston; Denise Hamilton, CEO of Watch Her Work; Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital; Lance Black, Director at TMCx; and Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

The refs asked two questions per fight, and were able to vote on the winners of each round — as was the audience through an interactive web-based application. The break down of the fights, topics, and winners are as follows:

Fight #1: Future Workforce of Robotics/AI. Matt Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems, vs Pablo Marin, senior AI Leader, Microsoft. Hager took the win with 77 percent of the vote.
Fight #2: Whose responsibility is cybersecurity. Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate vs Tara Khanna, managing director and Security Lead at Accenture. Khanna won this round, snagging 66 percent of the votes.
Fight #3: Oil & Gas Industry and the Environment. Michael Szafron - commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, vs Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone. Szafron received 76 percent of the voites, securing the win.
Fight #4: Digital in our personal lives. Grace Rodriguez, CEO of ImpactHub, vs Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs. Rodriguez won with the largest margin of the night — 85 percent.
Fight #5: Future of Primary Care Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, vs Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist. Goyal received 72 percent of the votes to take home the win.

The fights were heated, and some of the fighters had knockout quotes, from Hager's "AI is mostly bullshit" to Khanna's "Compliance doesn't mean you're secure." For more of the knockout quotes, click here.

The fight is on

Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Mike Pratt, who hosted the event, founded the Digital Fight Club in 2016.

Ten Houston innovators took the stage for five fights on the role technology plays in the future of industry. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Overheard: Local fighters land knockout statements at Houston's first Digital Fight Club

Eavesdropping in houston

On Wednesday, Houston's innovation ecosystem hosted the rowdiest crowd at a professional business event that the city has ever seen.

Digital Fight Club, a Dallas-based event company, had its first Houston event at White Oak Music Hall on November 20 thanks to presenting sponsors Accenture and InnovationMap. The event featured 10 fighters and five referees across five fights that discussed cybersecurity, the future of primary care, and more.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Michael Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

If you missed the showdown, here are some of the nights zingers made by the entrepreneurs and subject matter experts that were the fighters of the evening.

"I believe that computers can get a lot of information to create [something new]. That's my job, that's what I do, and I see it done."

Pablo Marin, senior AI leader at Microsoft, during the fight on robotics and AI in the workforce. Marin's argument was that artificial intelligence and robotics can and will replace all repetitive jobs. However, he also believes that computers have the ability to create, as well, based on their ability to see the whole world and have access to all the world's information.

"AI is mostly bullshit."

Matthew Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems. Hager, who won the first fight of the night, responded to Marin that, while businesses like to believe that AI is actually able to deliver results so that they can sell more, the technology hasn't actually arrived yet. Plus, Hager says AI will never be creative without the human element. "Creativity is about who created it. It's about the photographer, not the camera," he says.

"What if the seatbelt laws and the speed limits were defined by Dodge, Ford, or Chrysler?"

Ted Gutierrez, CEO and co-founder of Security Gate, who argued for government to take the reigns of cybersecurity. He adds that companies are never going to be able to agree to one set of rules. "We gotta get one group to set the standard, and it's up to everyone else to refine that and innovate for it," he says.

"Compliance doesn't mean you're secure."

Tara Khanna, managing director and security lead at Accenture, who won the fight on cybersecurity needing to be figured out by the business industry. She argues that the private sector wins the war on talent and recruiting, so it has the money and resources to dedicate to the issue in more ways than the government ever will.

"I was born, I'm going to die, and there is nothing like earth in the universe as we know it. It is worth preserving and protecting."

Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone, in the fight over the oil and gas industry's responsibility to the environment. He argued that it's going to be a mix of policy and corporate initiatives that changes the industry.

"I think the free market is going to get there if the consumer has the choice to pick what they want to do."

Michael Szafron, commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, who took home the win for the oil and gas and the environment fight. Szafron's argument was that corporations are going to do what their consumers want, so that's who would drive them to action. "Let's look at California —very regulated environmentalists, and a million of those people get moved to Texas," he says.

"Disconnecting our personal lives from technology would not only limit ourselves, but it would also limit our capacity to adopt those tools to the needs of our society." 

Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs, during the fight on digital in our personal lives. Fadul argues that not only does technology allow us to connect worldwide, but disconnecting would prevent that technology from developing further.

"I love tech, but now that it's on all the time everywhere, we need to make time to unplug."

Grace Rodriguez, CEO of Impact Hub Houston, who won the fight on personal technology. She says that yes, technology can help international connectivity, but it does more harm than good as people use personal tech as a default or distraction from humans right in front of them. "When your with people, be present," she says.

"Part of our innovation to redesign primary care is really to deploy technology out there to seamlessly provide care."

Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist, who argued that the future of primary care is new innovations within traditional medicine. He adds that virtual care, which is something Methodist is working on, can help improve accessibility.

"The future of primary care is here. It's called direct primary care." 

Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, who won the fight on the future of primary care with his argument for a new, free market approach to medicine. Direct primary care opens up treatment and access to physicians with a monthly fee for patients to work outside of health care plans.

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University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.