A local church deploying handwashing stations across town was one of this year's top social impact stories on InnovationMap. Photo by Nijalon Dunn

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. InnovationMap's most read articles regarding social impact innovation include a new incubator program from impactful startups, a church providing handwashing stations for Houston's homeless, and more.

Local organization creates handwashing stations for Houston's homeless communities

A local church is deploying handwashing stations across town. Photo by Nijalon Dunn

When the coronavirus forced the closure of restaurants, stores, and community centers, it disproportionally affected the health of a population of people: The homeless.

Homeless individuals are acutely vulnerable amid the public health and hygiene concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic, says Houstonian Nijalon Dunn. These communities of people have been left without immediate access to soap and clean water, especially with the closure of local businesses whose restrooms sometimes served as individuals' only sources of clean water.

"[Local businesses are] where people were able to use the restroom, wash their hands and have access to soap and water," Dunn says. "Take public restrooms away, now you have an increase in public urination and people using the restroom outside. Not only that, but people aren't washing their hands because of a lack of education and awareness about social distancing and hygiene practices."

Observing this effect of the virus, a group of Houstonians pulled together their skills and resources to provide handwashing stations across the city for Houston's homeless population.

Rise Houston Church, a local organization servicing inner-city Houston, is behind the initiative. Eager to help the community during the coronavirus pandemic, Rise Houston's pastor Stan DePue proposed the idea of building and distributing handwashing stations that would provide clean water and soap to homeless communities. Click here to continue reading.

Houston area high school students develop innovations to help  in coronavirus crisis response

Teens at a local school took initiative to create entrepreneurial solutions amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photo courtesy of The Village School

Some Houston-area high school students have stepped up to help their community during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The students have worked on two separate teams to create an intubation box to reduce the spread of COVID-19 from patients to healthcare workers and SpeeDelivery, an app that delivers food for at-risk individuals.

The students from The Village School in the Energy Corridor, known for its unique and enriching IB diploma, are getting support from school educators. The two projects grew naturally from the interests of the high school juniors, who wanted to do anything that could help others during this crisis.

"Our teachers have been very supportive have really enjoyed having the opportunity to see the students," says TeKedra Pierre, director of experiential learning at The Village School. "It's hard enough to teach virtually but with platforms like Zoom, Google classroom, and other platforms that they have been using to communicate and make sure that our students are still doing well."

The students created the intubation box out of clear plastic with two areas of access so that doctors can put their hands through it and intubate a patient who needs a ventilator. The box prevents exposure to the virus which can be passed in microdroplets from patients to healthcare workers. Click here to continue reading.

Houston nonprofit introduces new startup incubator ahead of impact-focused innovation week

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, introduced a new program for startups. Courtesy of Grace Rodriguez

Impact Hub Houston — the local chapter of a nonprofit focused on supporting startups in the social impact space — has a lot on its plate this month.

Not only is next week The Houston Innovation Summit — the fourth annual week of entrepreneurship programming — as well as the second annual Climathon, but the organization has also just launched a new business incubator program.

Accelerate is a program that Impact Hub has offered across 17 international markets. Houston's new chapter already has a few Houston startups involved — including Potentia Workforce and McMac CX. Structured as an ongoing accelerator with mentorship, education, and support, the program is currently accepting new members.

"We actually sit down with each new Accelerate member and then go through a diagnostic interview to help them understand what stage they're at," says Grace Rodriquez, CEO and executive director of Houston Impact Hub. "And then we create a development strategy with them."

Whether the Accelerate member needs one-on-one mentorship, specialized education, or more, the program match makes each member's needs. EY is a network partner and — since everything is virtual — member companies have access to international experts through Impact Hub and its partners' networks.

"The ideal entrepreneur for the Accelerate membership is somebody who has already developed a solution — at least an MVP — for their social venture, whether it's a product or a service," Rodriguez says. Click here to continue reading.

Growing Houston thrift startup aims to impact the unsustainability of the fashion industry

Houston-based Goodfair takes clothing that would otherwise end up in landfills and turns it into a "mystery shopping" thrift experience. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

A Houston-based online retailer for second-hand clothing is quickly growing, aiming to make "No New Things" the mantra of the fashion world.

As the popularity of "Fast Fashion," or cheap clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers, begins to decline, brands are refocusing on upcycled, recycled, and sustainable clothing — and Goodfair has bet its business plan on this movement.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild."

The fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics according to a report from Business Insider in October 2019. Additionally, the outlet reports that 85 percent of all textiles go to the dump every year.

"Still, we have an enormous demand for these clothes that are being thrown away and that demand is just being filled by more cheap new clothes at malls and things like that, instead of reintroducing second-hand clothes," says Luciani. "I've been working really hard on creating a way to make a frictionless process for reintroducing those clothes." Click here to continue reading.

New program at Rice University to educate corporate leaders on innovation

A new program within Rice University's Executive Education school will foster education for corporate innovation. Photo courtesy of Rice

As important as it is to foster innovation among startups, there's another side of the equation that needs to be addressed, and a new program at Rice University plans to do exactly that.

Executive Education at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, which creates peer-based learning and professional programs for business leaders, has created a new program called Corporate Innovation. The program came about as Executive Education, which has existed since the '70s, has evolved over the past few years to create courses and programs that equip business leaders with key management tools in a holistic way.

"We realized we need to open the innovation box," says Zoran Perunovic, director of Executive Education and is also a member of the Innovation Corridor committee and a mentor at TMCx.

The program, which is open for registration and will take place September 28-30, will flip the script on how innovation is normally discussed and observed and instead take a holistic approach to innovation in a corporate setting.

"In the innovation space, you have two lines — one is the entrepreneurial and the other is happening in large, established organizations," Perunovic tells InnovationMap. "The mechanisms of innovation within in those companies are different than the entrepreneurial." Click here to continue reading.

A local church is deploying handwashing stations across town. Photo by Nijalon Dunn

Local organization creates handwashing stations for Houston's homeless communities

democratizing hygiene

When the coronavirus forced the closure of restaurants, stores, and community centers, it disproportionally affected the health of a population of people: The homeless.

Homeless individuals are acutely vulnerable amid the public health and hygiene concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic, says Houstonian Nijalon Dunn. These communities of people have been left without immediate access to soap and clean water, especially with the closure of local businesses whose restrooms sometimes served as individuals' only sources of clean water.

"[Local businesses are] where people were able to use the restroom, wash their hands and have access to soap and water," Dunn says. "Take public restrooms away, now you have an increase in public urination and people using the restroom outside. Not only that, but people aren't washing their hands because of a lack of education and awareness about social distancing and hygiene practices."

Observing this effect of the virus, a group of Houstonians pulled together their skills and resources to provide handwashing stations across the city for Houston's homeless population.

Rise Houston Church, a local organization servicing inner-city Houston, is behind the initiative. Eager to help the community during the coronavirus pandemic, Rise Houston's pastor Stan DePue proposed the idea of building and distributing handwashing stations that would provide clean water and soap to homeless communities.

Dunn paired used his photography and filmmaking skills for a great cause when partnering with Rise Houston: Clean Hands. Dunn, a member of Rise Houston and founder of Black Visa Creative, a Houston company specializing in creative and commercial portraits that help small businesses tell their stories, knew that he could elevate DePue's project's reach and awareness through photojournalism.

"For us to have the impact and raise the support we needed, I knew that we needed to be documenting this [project]. So [Stan] and I partnered," Dunn says.

The idea evolved into an initiative with 10 sinks deployed across the city of Houston. According to Rise Houston's website, the sinks cost $300 to install. The church is looking for support in funding and maintaining the sinks — more information on giving back is available online.

DePue and his congregation are running the project's operation and physically constructing the sinks, and Dunn overseeing the project's documentation and awareness.

"We've been working with boots on the ground, creating partnerships so that we have strategic locations [for sinks] and know that they'll serve the best purpose in the areas where we place them," Dunn says.

After sink locations were identified across Houston, Rise Houston: Clean Hands volunteers delivered and set up the sinks on-site, each complete with a seven-gallon water tank, a water dispenser foot pump, soap and paper towel dispensers, trash bags, and signs that encourage the six-feet-apart social distancing rule.

"In order to stop the spread of coronavirus and flatten the curve, we needed to bring innovation to the way we serve our homeless brothers and sisters during this time," Dunn says.

A striking observation from Dunn's experience with this project, and the individuals he has worked and conversed with, has been how grateful people have been to learn about and be exposed to hygienic resources and practices, Dunn says.

"One of the greatest assets of the storyteller is knowing when to put the camera down. Some of the places we go to are some of the most vulnerable places in the city," Dunn says. "When we go into these homeless camps, I need to know when to put the camera down and live and exist with the person I talk to."

Through these interpersonal encounters, the teamwork of Rise Houston: Clean Hands volunteers and Dunn's innovative approach to communicating about this issue, the initiative has been able to sustain maintenance of the sinks and further spread hygienic awareness to Houstonians.

Letting hygiene sink in

Photo by Nijalon Dunn

Rise Houston: Clean Hands has deployed 10 outdoor sinks across Houston.

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Houston company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

tech support

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

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 esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.