3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sujatha Kumar of Dsider, Andrew Bruce of Data Gumbo, and Payal Patel of Softeq. Courtesy photos

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

Sujatha Kumar, founder and CEO of Dsider

Sujatha Kumar discusses her decarbonization data company on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

For years, Sujatha Kumar has been consulting with companies to help them make decisions, including ones that affect decarbonization. For Kumar's clients, data is power when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. That's why she started Dsider, a decision intelligence platform with a suite of software tools to equip energy businesses with the data they need to make informed decisions.

"We are creating transparency so that companies can have a digital footprint of how decarbonization can happen, and allowing them to make decisions along the way that are always going to be towards decarbonation and not forgetting that everything has an economic trade off," she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Kumar shares more on Dsider's potential impact on decarbonization and how she has observed changes in Houston's innovation ecosystem on the podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo

Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo Andrew bruce's growing Houston blockchain startup has raised $4 million to go toward supporting sales. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo, an industrial smart contract blockchain company, has expanded overseas with a new office in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that will give the company new regional business opportunities to continue international adoption of its blockchain network.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and broader Middle East present outstanding opportunities for our company. We are committed to putting down roots, and to the long-term growth of a Data Gumbo workforce in the Kingdom and beyond,” says Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo in a news release.

“Establishing a regional office provides companies in the Greater Middle East with increased access to our smart contract network, GumboNet," Bruce continues. "The more the network grows, the more value it delivers to local and global members, as well as investors. We look forward to expanding our presence to best support demand and set the standard for how industrial organizations do business by guaranteeing transactional certainty in commercial relationships.” Click here to read more.

Payal Patel, director of the Softeq Venture Studio

Payal Patel has a new gig. Photo courtesy

Softeq Development Corp. has named Payal Patel as director of the Softeq Venture Studio, a startup accelerator that provides business mentoring and engineering development resources. Patel will oversee programming and operation for the studio, and she will help in in selecting startups for investment as principal of the fund.

“I’m excited to join the talented team at Softeq," she says. "Having been a part of the Houston tech and startup community for a few years, I see a niche our team can fill. We aim to do our part supporting founders by providing capital, advice, and helping level up the community." Click here to read more.

Payal Patel has a new gig. Photo courtesy

Houston tech company hires innovator to lead startup accelerator

new gig

A Houston software company has announced a new leader of its venture studio that supports tech startups.

Softeq Development Corp. has named Payal Patel as director of the Softeq Venture Studio. The studio, which announced its inaugural cohort last fall, a startup accelerator that provides business mentoring and engineering development resources. Recently, Softeq announced the $40 million Softeq Venture Fund that will support the operations and invest in member companies.

“We’re thrilled to have Payal join the team at Softeq. Her in-depth knowledge of the Houston startup community combined with her management consulting background makes her uniquely qualified for her new role,” says Christopher A. Howard, Softeq founder and CEO.

Patel will oversee programming and operation for the studio, and she will help in in selecting startups for investment as principal of the fund.

“I’m excited to join the talented team at Softeq," she says. "Having been a part of the Houston tech and startup community for a few years, I see a niche our team can fill. We aim to do our part supporting founders by providing capital, advice, and helping level up the community."

Patel joins Softeq most recently from Plug and Play's Houston office, which focuses on energy and sustainability startups, where she served as director of the program. She began her career as a management consultant for restructuring firm Alvarez & Marsal before she transitioned to running the corporate business development function for Station Houston.

Softeq Venture Studio is currently accepting applications for its spring cohort, which will run April to June, and applications are available online. The deadline for applications is Saturday, March 19. Candidates who apply for the program receive $125,000 in cash and services in exchange for 6 percent equity in their eligible company.

"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Overheard: Local innovation leaders share what they see has changed in Houston for venture investing

Eavesdropping online

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

Plug and Play, an international accelerator and investment group with a presence in Houston, joined a panel to discuss startup investment, networking, and more during the pandemic. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Overheard: International startup accelerator shares advice for Houston companies navigating COVID-19 era

Eavesdropping online

It's no secret that the spread of COVID-19 has greatly affected startup ecosystems by shutting down coworking and accelerator spaces and providing economic uncertainty in the venture capital world. However, organizations focused on investment and acceleration are still working to virtually guide startups virtually.

Plug and Play Tech Center, an accelerator and investment group based in Silicon Valley that recently launched its Houston presence, is still offering support and even investments to startups as the pandemic continues on. One way they've recently done so is through Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to answer questions from Houston entrepreneurs.

On the panel, Neda Amidi, partner and global head of health at Plug and Play Tech Center, Milad Malek, associate at Plug and Play Ventures, and Payal Patel, director at Plug and Play Houston, discussed concerns and questions about the organization's dedication to Houston, advice amid the pandemic, and more. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Timing and opportunity set up the Plug and Play Houston office. The mayor and other business leaders in Houston had seen what happens in our Silicon Valley office and with all the things that are going on in the burgeoning startup community in Houston, we saw the opportunity.”

— Patel says on how Houston snagged its very own Plug and Play location. "Given the high concentration of large companies here — as well as the growing number of investment opportunities — we moved quite quickly to open the office here," she adds.

“There’s a number of great entrepreneurs here in this city. I think a missing ingredient has been the number of early stage investments — especially in that Seed or series A stage. So, we hope to make an impact in that. Our CEO has publicly stated that he’d like to make five investments in Houston a year.”

— Patel shares about Plug and Play's investment strategy in Houston. She adds that five investments in Houston a year is the bare minimum, and they actually are striving for more.

“[Investing virtually is] kind of the same process, but we definitely try to make sure we have cameras on and distractions are away, really giving that entrepreneur that same experience as we can in a face-to-face meeting."

— Amidi says on how Plug and Play's investment team approaches investment meetings and pitches during this time. She explains that during the beginning of the pandemic, most of their investments were with companies that had existing relationships with or follow on deals. Now they have made investments in companies they've never met in person. She says Plug and Play has relied on its network to give feedback on these potential deals.

“During COVID, we’ve recommended to a lot of our portfolio companies to raise more than what they needed at the time to be able to power through what’s happening now and what will happen on the economy side as well."

— Amidi says about investment advice they've given to Plug and Play startups.

“A lot of hardware companies get too intense in terms of thinking about one avenue of fundraising. Spend a lot more time thinking about fundraising strategy.”

Malek says on fundraising for hardware startups specifically. He adds that there are other options for generating cash flow, like grants. "Don't forget the business side of things" he adds. "I know early on, a lot of founders are focused on the technology and prototyping, but it's important as well to think about a compelling narrative for potential investors — even if you're pre-revenue."

"For SaaS, it’s important to have a unique differentiation. There are a lot of copy cats in this realm. It’s ok to be doing something that has competitors — every startup has competitors."

— Malek says about software-as-a-service startups pitching to investors. "It's a red flag when we're talking to a startup — especially one with a SaaS product — that says we don't have competitors," he adds, saying it's usually not true.

“A lot of investors out there prefer teams with multiple founders and not just one founder. It never hurts, at least in an investor’s eyes, to have two or three founders.”

— Malek explains, responding to a question about how to begin the process of bringing another co-founder on board. Investors, he says, value a team with diverse backgrounds and expertise.

“Take your time — it’s kind of like picking a spouse or partner. You want to make sure you’re compatible.”

Amidi adds, saying it's an exceptionally difficult process nowadays. She recommends reaching out to your network for leads on a potential co-founder or even looking into sites like AngelList or LinkedIn.

From new tech jobs in Houston to an entrepreneurship minor at Rice University, here are some short stories in Houston innovation. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

Rice creates entrepreneurship minor, Houston tech jobs grow, and more innovation news

Short stories

While much of the city's news — along with the rest of the country — has been focused on COVID-19, headlines are starting to resemble some sense of normalcy again.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, there's a mix of news items pertaining to the coronavirus, as well as news items outside of the pandemic — from a new minor program at Rice University to Baylor College of Medicine testing for a COVID treatment.

Rice University introduces entrepreneurship minor

Rice University plans to offer undergraduate students an opportunity to minor in entrepreneurship. Courtesy of Rice University

Three of Rice University's programs — the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Jones Graduate School of Business, and Brown School of Engineering — are teaming up to provide undergraduate students an opportunity to minor in entrepreneurship.

"Entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses and industries are critical to Houston and Texas' future prosperity and quality of life," says Yael Hochberg, Rice finance professor who leads Lilie, in a release. "Rice students continuously seek to lead change and build organizations that can have real impact on our world. In today's new and uncertain world, the skills and frameworks taught in the new minor are particularly important."

According to a news release, the minor's curriculum will provide students with professional skills within entrepreneurship, such as problem solving, understanding customers and staff, communication, and more. The program will be housed in Lilie, which features a coworking space, graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship courses, the annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, and other courses.

Houston named No. 12 for tech jobs

Houston's tech jobs are growing — just not at an impressive rate, according to a new report. Christina Morillo/Pexels

CompTIA has released its Cyberstates 2020 report that identifies Houston as No. 12 in the country for tech jobs. However, the Bayou City was ranked No. 38 for job percent growth. Austin and Dallas appear in the top 10 of each of the Cybercities rankings.

According to the report, Houston has a net total of 235,802 tech jobs, an increase of 826 jobs between 2018 and 2019. This figure means a growth of 25,904 jobs between 2019 and 2010. The full report is available online.

While Houston misses the top 10 metros, Texas ranks No. 2 for net tech employment and net tech employment growth. The Lone Star State came in at No. 4 for projected percent change in the next decade. The state was also recognized as No. 2 for number of tech businesses.

Baylor College of Medicine tests existing drug for COVID-19 cure

A Houston institution is looking into an existing vaccine for coronavirus treatment. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Baylor College of Medicine researchers — along with colleagues at four other institutions — are testing to see if the bacille Calmette-Guerin vaccine, known as BCG, can work against COVID-19.

"Epidemiological studies show that if you're BCG vaccinated, you have a decreased rate of other infections," says Dr. Andrew DiNardo, assistant professor of medicine – infectious diseases at Baylor, in a news release.

The vaccine has been found to help protect against yellow fever and influenza, and, according to DiNardo, the vaccine could show 30 to 50 percent improvement in immune response in patients with the coronavirus. The team is currently looking for subjects to participate in a clinical trial to test the vaccine.

While research is preliminary, the theory is that BCG changes the way the body responds to a pathogen, according to the release.

"Think of DNA like a ball of yarn," DiNardo explains in the release. "Some pieces of the ball of yarn are open and able to be expressed. Other pieces are wrapped up tight and hidden away, and those genes are repressed. It's a normal way for cells to turn certain genes on and off. BCG opens up certain parts of this ball of yarn and allows the immune system to act quicker."

Plug and Play announces physical space in Houston

Plug and Play Tech Center's local team will work out of the Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Since entering the Houston market last year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play Tech Center has hosted numerous events, named its first cohort, and hired Payal Patel to lead the local operations. However, the local operations still, until recently, lacked a plan for a physical space in town.

"Plug and Play intends to set up its permanent office in Houston in Rice's Ion development," says Patel in a statement. "We have engaged in preliminary discussions with Rice Management Company to secure office space for the building's expected Q1 2021 opening."

Until then, says Patel, who is director of corporate partnerships for Plug and Play in Houston, the Plug and Play team will have its base at Station Houston, which recently merged with Austin-based Capital Factory. At present, the local team is hiring to build up its team and has five open jobs on HTX Talent, a job portal for Houston tech.

UH professor named a Guggenheim fellow

A University of Houston professor has been honored with a prestigious award. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

A University of Houston mechanical engineer has been selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Pradeep Sharma is the only recipient in the engineering category.

The M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of mechanical engineering and chairman of the department, Sharma uses mathematics and technology to breakdown physical phenomena across a number of disciplines.

The Guggeinheim Foundation has funded more than $375 million in fellowships to over 18,000 individuals since its inception in 1925. This year, the organization selected 173 individuals.

"It's exceptionally encouraging to be able to share such positive news at this terribly challenging time," Sharma says in a news release from UH. "The artists, writers, scholars and scientific researchers supported by the fellowship will help us understand and learn from what we are enduring individually and collectively."

Houston health system to participate in coronavirus plasma study

HCA Houston Healthcare is participating in a plasma treatment program. Getty Images

HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division has announced that it will be participating in a national study to see if plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can help current COVID patients in severe conditions.

"We are proud to take part in this important study. We are asking for the help of our community to spread awareness about plasma donation for patients facing COVID-19 not only in Houston, South Texas and Corpus Christi, but also around the world," says Mujtaba Ali-Khan, chief medical officer at HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division, in a news release.

Per the study, the following HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division Hospitals will be participating:

  • HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Conroe
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Kingwood
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Southeast
  • HCA Houston Healthcare West
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball
  • HCA Houston Healthcare North Cypress
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Northwest
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Mainland
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Medical Center
  • Corpus Christi Medical Center
  • Rio Grande Regional Hospital
  • Valley Regional Medical Center

"This trial is just the first step, but hopefully it will help us determine if plasma transfusions can be a treatment for critically ill patients with COVID-19," says Carlos Araujo-Preza, MD, critical care medical director at HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball, in the release.

Dr. Araujo-Preza safely discharged his first plasma patient last week. The patient is recovering from home following their treatment.

The hospital system is looking for eligible volunteers to donate plasma via the American Red Cross to help treat current patients.

Early stage energy venture firm calls for startups

Industrial software

BBL Ventures is looking for energy companies to pitch. Getty Images

Houston-based BBL Ventures, which looks to connect tech startups to industrial and energy corporations, is seeking energy tech startups to pitch.

"Digital transformation, automation, emerging technologies and sustainability have never been more important to these industries than in this challenging macro environment," says Patrick Lewis, founding managing partner of BBL Ventures, in an email. "We are launching a 6-week challenge campaign to find BEST in class solutions to BIG pain points in the energy and industrial sectors."

In the email, Lewis lists over a dozen challenges or pain points from the organization's corporate partners. The goal would be to find startups with to solutions to any of these identified pain points. Winners of the pitch competition are eligible for POCs, pilots, and funding.

For more information and to submit a pitch, visit BBL's website. BBL is also introducing the program with a virtual kick-off panel on May 21 at 2 pm. Registration is available online.

From M&A action to the development of Houston's innovation corridor, these are five Houston innovators to keep an eye on in 2020. Courtesy photos

5 Houston innovators to know in 2020

Who's who

For so many Houston innovators, 2020 will be a year of growth, execution, proof of concept, piloting, pivoting, fundraising, and more.

It's hard to narrow down the list of movers and shakers in Houston innovation, but a few have stood out for making waves in the new year. From M&A action to the development of Houston's innovation corridor, these are five Houston innovators to keep an eye on in 2020.

Rakesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of SnapStream

Photo courtesy of SnapStream

This past year has been good to SnapStream, but it's only the beginning of the company's next growth phase. The software company's technology allows its clients to easily record, search, and share video and broadcast content and has attracted clients from the likes of Saturday Night Live and Last Week Tonight.

In 2019, the company was named the transition partner for Volicon Observer, a company Verizon brought under its umbrella and then changed its mind about, Rakesh Agrawal, CEO of SnapStream, explains on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Volicon's specialty is in monitoring and compliance, and with that move, SnapStream brought on around 150 new clients. To maintain those clients and grow its services, SnapStream has rolled out a whole new department. The launch of SnapStream Monitoring and Compliance is the next step for SnapStream's takeover of Volicon, according to a news release.

The M&A activity sparked a move to hire and expand the SnapStream team as the division grows throughout 2020.

Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston has its eyes on The Ion, a 270,000-square-foot building innovation center being developed in the former Sears building in Midtown. Behind the project is the Rice Management Company, which is led by Allison Thacker, president of the organization.

The Ion broke ground in May, and also named its operations leader, Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston earlier this year. While the project isn't expected to deliver until 2021, next year will likely entail determining a few key things about The Ion and the surrounding innovation corridor Rice Management and the city will be developing.

The Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed organization, has recently expressed its concerns with the development of the property in the historic Third Ward. The community organization wants Rice Management and all parties involved with the innovation corridor to agree to a Community Benefits Agreement, which would protect local residents and provide positive initiatives for growth. The CBA is expected to be arranged in 2020 as the project moves forward.

Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo

Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Another Houston company that plans to grow throughout 2020 is Data Gumbo. The blockchain-as-a-service company has raised some significant funds — a $6 million series A round closed in May — and will be putting that money to work by expanding the company's footprint and services.

Earlier this year, the company announced its entrance into the construction industry — Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, says in a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that the funds will also take Data Gumbo to new global markets, including the Middle East.

"The whole thing for us is building this blockchain network of interconnected companies," Bruce says. "The more companies that are a part of that network, the more value that network has."

Payal Patel, director of corporate partnerships at Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston

Courtesy of Payal Patel

San Francisco-based Plug and Play Tech Center quickly established its new energy-focused Houston location — from announcing its entrance into the market in June to hiring its director of corporate partnerships, Payal Patel, in September. The first cohort of portfolio companies were named in October, and several new Houston partner corporations have been announced as well.

Next year, the local team is expected to grow and is currently hiring for a few positions, as well as announce its office space in town. Patel, specifically, will spearhead the initiatives to grow the organizations already impressive list of corporate partners.

"[Plug and Play ha] great Fortune 500 corporate partners, they work and know the best tech startups all over the world, and they have a strong investment capability," Patel previously told InnovationMap. "I'm excited that those resources and capabilities are coming to Houston."

Travis Parigi, CEO of LiquidFrameworks

Courtesy of LiquidFrameworks

Travis Parigi has always been the one to write the code for his company's software technology, but now, he's in acquisition mode thanks to new support from private equity. Last January, LiquidFrameworks entered into a partnership with private equity firm, Luminate Capital. The new financial partner has opened doors for Parigi, CEO of LiquidFrameworks, and the company as a whole — including putting merger and acquisition activity on the table.

The company has grown its team and even moved to a bigger space in Greenway Plaza. LiquidFrameworks, which has created a suite of software solutions for upstream and downstream oil and gas companies called FieldFX, is also working on key updates and new features for its software.

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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.