Nauticus Robotics has been awarded another multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit. Photo via nauticusrobotics.com

Webster-based Nauticus Robotics Inc., a newly minted public company, continues to make waves with government contracts.

Nauticus says it has been awarded a second multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit, part of the U.S. Defense Department, for development of a self-piloted amphibious robot system powered by the company’s ToolKITT command-and-control software.

In February, Nauticus said it had been given a ToolKITT contract by the Defense Innovation Unit. Under that contract, ToolKITT is being used aboard a remotely controlled undersea vehicle operated by the Navy.

Similar contracts with the Defense Innovation Unit could be on the horizon, Nauticus says.

Nauticus develops oceangoing robots under the brand names Aquanaut and Hydronaut, along with the ToolKITT autonomy software and related services. It’s forecasting 2023 revenue of $90 million.

Driven by machine learning, ToolKITT helps identify, categorize, and perform activities that can “remove, detect, identify, inspect, and neutralize hazards underwater,” according to a Nauticus news release.

ToolKITT is used for various self-piloted robotics products, including Nauticus’ Aquanaut.

“We are humbled and honored to be doing our part to advance the usage of robotics and autonomous systems to remove servicemembers from harm’s way,” says Ed Tovar, director of business development for defense systems at Nauticus.

Nauticus’ stock began trading September 13 on the Nasdaq market. The milestone came four days after Nauticus merged with publicly traded CleanTech Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” shell company formed to acquire or merge with a business. At one point, the merger was valued at $560 million.

The new combo, operating under the Nauticus name, is led by Nauticus founder and CEO Nicolaus Radford.

“The closing of this business combination represents a pivotal milestone in our company’s history as we take public our pursuit of transforming the ocean robotics industry with autonomous systems,” Radford says in a news release. “Not only is the ocean a tremendous economic engine, but it is also the epicenter for building a sustainable future.”

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Brad Burke of the Rice Alliance, Trevor Best of Syzygy Plasmonics, and Nicolaus Radford of Nauticus Robotics. Photos courtesy

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 photonics to robotics — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Brad Burke joins this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via alliance.rice.edu

Collaboration has made a world of a difference for growing Houston's innovation ecosystem, according to Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"I think Houston has this culture of collaboration that I suspect that some other major cities don't have in the same way," Burke says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And while we're a big city, the entrepreneurial ecosystem feels like a small network of a lot of people who work really well together."

Burke has played a major role in the collaboration of Houston for the past 20 years leading the Rice Alliance, which coordinates many event programs and accelerators — including the Rice Business Plan Competition, energy and life science forums, the Clean Energy Accelerator, Owl Spark, Blue Launch, and more. Click here to read more.

Trevor Best, CEO and co-founder of Syzygy Plasmonics

A new partnership for Houston-based Syzygy will generate 1.2 million tons of clean hydrogen each year in South Korea by 2030. Image via Syzygy

Houston-area energy tech startup Syzygy Plasmonics is part of a new partnership that will develop a fully electric chemical reactor for production of clean hydrogen in South Korea.

The reactor will be installed in the second half of 2023 at Lotte Fine Chemical’s facilities in Ulsan, South Korea. Lotte Fine Chemical, Lotte Chemical, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas are Syzygy’s partners in this venture.

“Simply improving existing tech isn’t enough to reach the world’s decarbonization goals. Stopping climate change will require industries to reimagine what is possible,” Syzygy co-founder and CEO Trevor Best says in a news release. “Our technology expands the accepted paradigms of chemical engineering. We have demonstrated the ability to replace heat from combustion with renewable electricity in the manufacture of foundational chemicals like hydrogen.” Click here to read more.

Nicolaus Radford, CEO and founder of Nauticus Robotics

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics has hit the public market. Image via LinkedIn

Fresh off its September 13 debut as a publicly traded company, Webster-based Nauticus Robotics Inc. is aiming for $90 million in revenue next year as it dives deeper into the ocean economy.

The stock of Nauticus now trades on the NASDAQ market under the ticker symbol KITT. Nauticus went public following its SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) merger with New York City-based CleanTech Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” company that went public in July 2021 through a $150 million IPO. The SPAC deal was valued at $560 million when it was announced in December.

Nauticus continues to be led by CEO Nicolaus Radford and the current executive team.

“The closing of this business combination represents a pivotal milestone in our company’s history as we take public our pursuit of transforming the ocean robotics industry with autonomous systems,” says Radford, who founded what was known as Houston Mechatronics in 2014. “Not only is the ocean a tremendous economic engine, but it is also the epicenter for building a sustainable future.” Click here to read more.

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics has hit the public market. Image via Nauticus

Houston-based robotics tech company goes public via SPAC

ipo-ed

Fresh off its September 13 debut as a publicly traded company, Webster-based Nauticus Robotics Inc. is aiming for $90 million in revenue next year as it dives deeper into the ocean economy.

The stock of Nauticus now trades on the NASDAQ market under the ticker symbol KITT. Nauticus went public following its SPAC (special purpose acquisition company) merger with New York City-based CleanTech Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” company that went public in July 2021 through a $150 million IPO. The SPAC deal was valued at $560 million when it was announced in December.

Nauticus continues to be led by CEO Nicolaus Radford and the current executive team.

“The closing of this business combination represents a pivotal milestone in our company’s history as we take public our pursuit of transforming the ocean robotics industry with autonomous systems,” says Radford, who founded what was known as Houston Mechatronics in 2014. “Not only is the ocean a tremendous economic engine, but it is also the epicenter for building a sustainable future.”

That “tremendous economic engine” is valued at $2.5 trillion.

Radford says money from the sale of Nauticus shares will enable the company to move closer toward developing a fleet of subsea and surface robots that can perform an array of ocean-related tasks.

Nauticus’ ToolKITT autonomy software powers the company’s robotic fleet of Aquanauts and Hydronauts. Nauticus hopes to ultimately replace human-operated ships that deploy other submersible vehicles with its better-for-the-environment robotic fleet. The company envisions widespread use of its RaaS platform by the oil and gas, offshore renewables, and government sectors.

Nauticus estimated its 2021 revenue stood at $8.2 million. It forecasts next year’s revenue will reach $90 million.

The company is staking out its position in an emerging sector known as robotics as a service, or RaaS. The RaaS model lets companies lease robotic devices through a cloud-based subscription service. The global RaaS market was valued at $14.5 billion in 2021 and is projected to reach $44 billion by 2028, according to market research company Fact & Factors.

In August, Nauticus announced a deal with energy conglomerate Shell to advance ways to obtain subsea integrity data using Nauticus robots and technology. Three months earlier, Nauticus unveiled a strategic partnership with consulting and engineering giant Wood.

“The passion and conviction of our team at Nauticus has fueled the creation of a truly disruptive and innovative company in the ocean space, and we are eager to take the next step in our growth trajectory as a public company,” Radford said in December. “A substantial core of our team has been together, first starting at NASA and now at Nauticus, for 15 to 20 years, and I am inspired by their relentless pursuit toward this dream.”

Nicolaus Radford is the founder of Nauticus Robotics Inc. Photo courtesy

Houston-based Nauticus Robotics has moved on to the next stage of working with energy giant Shell. Image via Nauticus

Houston robotics company announces partnership with Shell

subsea agreement

A Houston tech company that has developed subsea and surface robotic services using autonomy software has announced an agreement with Shell.

The partnership will provide technology from Nauticus Robotics Inc. to Shell in order to enhance and optimize subsea integrity data collection via the company's robotic platforms, according to a news release. Nauticus has two robotic vessels — fully electric subsea robot, Aquanaut, which is deployed from Nauticus’ small surface vessel, and Hydronaut, which is used to transport, recharge, and communicate with Aquanaut, among other tasks.

This collaboration comes following the completion of an initial feasibility study for the phase-gated project. The next step is this operational qualification phase, per the release, which will focus on remote operations of the robotics. The collaboration is targeting the preliminary work required for an offshore pilot project.

“Working with a leading company such as Shell marks an exciting milestone for Nauticus, and this collaboration further validates the superior capabilities and extensive use cases of our robots across the energy sector,” says Todd Newell, senior vice president of business development at Nauticus, in the release. “Implementing our supervised autonomous method – one that has proven more robust and dynamic than most of its kind – is expected to provide our partner and future customers more than 50 percent cost savings compared to today’s methods of operation.”

A robotics-as-a-service company, Nauticus's technology — a mix of hardware and software — optimizes and automates subsea data collection for its partners, like Shell.

“An exciting aspect of this project is the opportunity to combine the strengths of advanced inspection tooling with the advanced marine robotic capabilities developed by Nauticus Robotics,” says Shell's Deepwater Robotics Engineer Ross Doak in the release. “This project aims to fundamentally improve how we collect subsea facility data, through the combination of ‘AUV native’ tooling design, supervised autonomy, and recent improvements in remote communications.”

Founded in 2014 as Houston Mechatronics by Nicolaus Radford, the company rebranded to Nauticus in 2021. Earlier this year, the company announced a partnership with Wood, a Houston-based energy company.

In the latest round up of Houston innovation news you may have missed, an offshore robotics company has rebranded, two startups earned bragging rights, and more. Photo via Getty Images

Houston robotics company rebrands, startups snag​  international spotlights, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston startups have had a busy fourth quarter so far with exciting news from all around the local innovation ecosystem.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a pair of Houston startups receive national and international praise, a local robotics company rebrands, Houston Community College receives funding for BIPOC female founders, and more.

Houston-area robotics company rebrands

Nicolaus Radford is the founder of Nauticus Robotics Inc., neé Houston Mechatronics. Photo courtesy

Houston Mechatronics Inc. based in Webster, Texas, announced that it has rebranded its offshore robotics firm as Nauticus Robotics Inc.

"The name Nauticus Robotics makes clear our commitment to the blue economy," says Nicolaus Radford, the company's founder and CEO, in a news release. "Our mission is to grow that economy through sustainable robotics that deliver value while protecting our planet's most valuable resources. This rebrand aligns us with that goal and positions us as a leader in our space."

The company has also launched a new website, representing an expanded vision of "Green robotics for a blue economy," according to the news release.

"Our new website will really lead the charge for us on the sales side," says Todd Newell, senior vice president of business development at Nauticus Robotics, in the release. "Prospective customers can get an overview of our robotics and their capabilities. If they desire, they can download detailed specifications to see how a product might fit into their operations. And we've made it very easy for those interested in a demo or a call to quickly get in touch with our team."

Houston IT company forms new partnership

Joe Alapat is the CEO of Houston-based Liongard. Courtesy of Liongard

Liongard has formed a new partnership with email defense solution Vade to release a new tool for its users. The feature automatically surfaces critical account data, streamlining user management, and billing for M365 users, according to a news release.

"I'm very pleased that Vade for M365 is now integrated with Liongard's leading IT automation platform," says Adrien Gendre, chief technology and product officer at Vade, in the release. "MSPs who offer managed cybersecurity can now combine the threat detection and remediation capabilities of Vade for M365 with the automation and unified visibility of Liongard. Together, Liongard and Vade for M365 give MSPs the tools they need to save time, improve efficiencies, and grow their businesses."

The tool is already included in Liongard’s latest release and users can leverage licensing, billing, and security data to simplify security management, accounting, and reporting.

“We’re very excited about our new Vade Inspector and the value it brings to the MSP community,” says Matt Miller, vice president of product for Liongard. “Both Vade and Liongard are committed to helping the managed services community stay security-focused. This Inspector enables MSPs to maintain a strong security posture through automation, with the added benefit of saving time and effort across the organization.”

Houston startup snags national spotlight

Cobalt's founders wanted to avoid harsh alcoholic smells and opted for calming and fun scents. Photo courtesy of Cobalt

Southern Living magazine's December issue features the annual holiday gift guide, and making the list this year is Houston-based small business Cobalt's Crisp Peppermint Hand Sanitizer.

“We are beyond thrilled to be included in Southern Living magazine with the best company,” says Christina Milligan, co-founder of Cobalt, in a news release. “It’s so exciting to see how much Cobalt has grown in the past 12 months. The idea has surpassed the pandemic and become an everyday necessity for healthy lifestyles. What started out as blending and filling each bottle from our kitchen tables has evolved into corporate partnerships, multiple scents, and new product lines. We are so grateful for all of our customers across the country and look forward to the next phase of Cobalt.”

Milligan and Molly Voorhees launched Cobalt in November 2020 with a line of personal-sized surface cleaners, hand sanitizers, and travel kits.

Cobalt is the only Houston-based company in the 2021 guide, according to the release. The issue is on newsstands now.

Houston blockchain company wins startup of the year

Data Gumbo's team was recognized internationally for its impact. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo, which has created an industrial smart contract network company, announced last month that it has been named the Oil and Gas Start Up Company of the Year at the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference Awards Gala — the largest annual oil and gas awards event in the Middle East.

According to a news release from the company, "Data Gumbo was recognized for its potential to reshape the energy industry based on its continued innovation, strong business model and the impressive impact of its global industrial smart contract network."

“Our industrial smart contract network, GumboNet, offers the new gold standard for organizations to execute business better through guaranteed transactional certainty across commercial relationships,” says Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo. “It’s an honor to be recognized by ADIPEC for our work and commitment to expanding our network across the global energy industry, allowing companies to eliminate the lack of trust in industrial sectors, streamline contract execution and capture significant cost savings.”

The 11th annual ADIPEC Awards' judges reviewed more than 700 entries from over 50 countries across digitalization, sustainability, research, innovation and more. For more info on the ADIPEC Awards, click here.

Houston university system receives $750,000 grant to drive women-owned business success

HCC has fresh funds to support female entrepreneurs. Photo via Getty Images

Wells Fargo granted $750,000 to Houston Community College to support the new Open for Business program aimed at empowering women-owned businesses in the Houston region. The grant is part of a $420 million small business recovery effort by Wells Fargo to support nonprofit and educational organizations assisting women of color in overcoming longstanding obstacles to entrepreneurship.

“We are delighted to broaden our programs to help women succeed in owning and operating businesses,” says Maya Durnovo, HCC’s chief entrepreneurial officer, in a news release, adding that the program has a particular focus on African American, Indo-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American women.

The Open for Business Program – led by Director Tamala Austin – is already staffed with more than 165 women registered in the program.

“We can only imagine what kinds of businesses might have taken off, what products consumers might have enjoyed and what returns might have been realized had women and people of color enjoyed equal access to capital and opportunity,” Durnovo says in the release.

At a recent virtual event, experts discussed the hard tech wave that's coming for Houston. Photo via Getty Images

A hard tech revolution is coming, and Houston is primed to play a role in it

diving into deep tech

The past couple decades of innovation has been largely defined by software — and its been a bit of a boom. However, lately it's become evident that it's time for hardware innovation to shine.

At the HX Venture Fund's recent conference, Venture Houston, a few hard tech innovators joined a virtual discussion on the future of hardware — and what Houston's role will be in it.

When it comes to advancing technology for humankind, Adam Sharkawy, founder and managing partner of Boston-based Material Impact, a HXVF portfolio fund, says it's time to expand the walls of what is possible.

"Unlike other types of technologies that may facilitate the possible, deep and hard technologies expand what is in the realm of the possible," he says on the panel. "Software has caught up, and we need a new deep tech wave."

And the future looks promising, as Sharkawy says he's seen hard tech grow over the past 5 to 7 years by about 22 percent. Nic Radford, president and CEO of Houston Mechatronics agrees it's time to shift the focus to hard tech.

"The Information Age was the ubiquitous manipulation of the virtual world, but now we need to uncover the ubiquitous manipulation of the physical world is," he says. "And we need to make those investments toward that."

But investments seem, at least in the recent past, harder to come by for hard tech startups compared to software companies with quick exit strategies.

"Deep tech is traditionally thought of as requiring deep pockets," Sharkawy says.

Radford says there was over $167 billion in capital deployments last year, and only 8 percent of that went to industrial or hard tech. Hardware, he says, is tougher to evaluate, they take longer to exit and are tougher to scale.

"To me that's what makes them a gold mine," Radford adds. "It's an underserved market for sure, and that's because we're tougher to evaluate."

Something to note though, he continues, is that hard tech is going to have a bigger societal impact, but maybe it's not the one with the biggest return.

"I think corporates have an special role to play in the inevitability of hard tech," Radford says. "They aren't completely motivated by financial returns."

Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, says he's had a different experience with raising funds. The Houston entrepreneur has raised over $100 million and is planning to go public soon. He's achieved this by attracting investment from the top VC funds in the country. If you zero in on these powerful funds, you can see they are dedicating more and more funds to this arena. And, he predicts, other VC funds will follow.

"This is a unique time for hardware companies to go and and raise from the top venture capitals of the world," Chakrabarti says.

The city of Houston, with its firm footing in the energy and space industries has an important role to play in this new era.

"The Houston area has all the key ingredients to be an innovation hub — no question," Sharkawy says.

The panelists identified Houston's fine education institutions, major corporations present, access to talent, and more as indicators for success. But the innovation here needs to continue to develop intentionally.

"I'd love to see Houston not try to copycat into a general tech hub," Sharkawy says. "Instead it would be great for Houston leverage its unique position as a leader in energy and space and help its constituents of more traditional energy — big corporates, for example — transform into the new frontier."

Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says she's seen the space industry take off as the field becomes more and more commercialized. And locally there's a lot of potential for Houston and all the resources and infrastructure that already exists.

"It's about taking what you're good at, and making it better," she says.

Each of the panelists expressed confidence in this evolving wave of hard tech — and are keeping a close watch on the major players as well as the city of Houston.

"We're going to have to get into the world and do something," Radford says. "That next wave of innovation is specifically interacting with our environment, in my opinion."

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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

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.