Payal Patel, former director of business development at Station Houston, has joined Plug and Play as director of corporate partnerships. Courtesy of Payal Patel

Plug and Play Tech Center — a global powerhouse startup accelerator with its headquarters in Silicon Valley — has hired its first boots-on-the-ground team member for its Houston outpost.

Payal Patel, former director of business development at Station Houston, has joined Plug and Play as director of corporate partnerships. Plug and Play already has a handful of corporate partners in Houston, and Patel will be working with those organizations as well as growing the partnerships. These large companies are crucial to Plug and Play's process.

"The way we help startups advance is by helping them get connected to the largest corporations in the world so that they can run pilots with those big companies and eventually get them as customers," Patel tells InnovationMap.

Patel might be the first Houston hire since Plug and Play entered the Houston market, but it won't be the last. According to Patel, the organization will be hiring to fill a venture management-focused person, as well as someone to run operations. The most immediate hire, however, will be for an office manager, as Plug and Play is currently looking for office space. Patel says the organization should make a decision regarding its Houston office space in the coming weeks.

The accelerator program's first batch of startups will launch later this month at a private pitch event on September 17 where Plug and Play companies from around the world will pitch for Houston corporate partners and select guests. The event will act as the launch of the program's first batch, which will continue throughout the rest of the year.

Plug and Play is always evaluating startups for inclusion into their ongoing accelerator programs, Patel says, and Houston companies can express their interest in joining the program via the website.

For Patel, the new position is exciting for her — from what she will be able to accomplish but also for what it means to Houston.

"As I've gotten to know Plug and Play, what I've been most impressed with is the resources and capabilities they have," Patel says. "They've got great Fortune 500 corporate partners, they work and know the best tech startups all over the world, and they have a strong investment capability. I'm excited that those resources and capabilities are coming to Houston."

Ahead of entering the Houston market later this year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play hosted three days of programming surrounding innovation in energy and health care. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Overheard: Prominent business leaders weigh in on innovation in the energy and health industries

Eavesdropping in Houston

Plug and Play, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm and accelerator program, plans to launch its operations in Houston later this year. And, in showing its commitment to the Bayou City, the organization hosted three days worth of panels, talks, and pitches at the Texas Medical Center's TMC Innovation Institute earlier this month.

Houston Innovation Week was Plug and Play's formal introduction to Houston startups and the local corporations that have the potential to support them. The programming focused on health and energy and sustainability, and the summit concluded with TMCx's Demo Day.

If you missed the event, we've hit the highlights for you by rounding up nine powerful quotes overheard throughout the week.

“Nowadays, I feel every industry is going to go through an incredible digital transformation. Even the oil and gas industry, which is very capital heavy, there’s going to be a layer of fast-moving technologies which would help the industry be more efficient. This is the crossroads where Plug and Play was born — bridging the gap between the entrepreneurs and the technologies. That changes an industry.”

— Saeed Amidi, CEO and founder of Plug and Play, says. He also shares the story of how Plug and Play got its start from a few lucky early investments to making over 150 investments a year.

“Now we have about 30 offices, and then quite frankly I realized I had forgotten about America.”

— Amidi says, announcing that Plug and Play will open five new offices across the United States in the next six months to a year.

“We’re not walking in terms of building this integrated robust innovation ecosystem, we’re sprinting in that direction.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner says, adding that, "If there is any city that ought to be leading the way when it comes to startups, technology, and innovation, it ought to be the city of Houston."

“You have to get people to invest more. It doesn’t happen on its own. People have to see that if we invest, we’re going to get a return.”

— Mayor Turner says, calling the crowd to action. "You can't just talk about what others have done and what we have accomplished. You have to take that now, build the platform, and move into where we are going."

“One of the things you look at is it’s not the technology itself that’s going to make you win or lose, it’s what you do with it.”

— Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, responding to a question about what technologies she has her eyes on. Burger continued on to say that, while she couldn't highlight any technologies in particular — it's like picking a favorite child, she's always evaluating how a new technology would help with the affordability, reliability, and lower environmental impact. "That's the game," she says.

"Management is amazing at suppressing innovation. … We can move toward just trying not to suppress it. If someone has an idea, they are safe to go through the process and raise their hand."

— Bradley Andrews, president of digital at Worley. "I think it's a change in attitude," he says about how management can evolve to advance ideas within energy companies.

“It’s easy to say that we’ll do the thing that gives us the most competitive advantage — and it’s really hard to figure out what that means and how you do that. In general, if we see something that’s out there and implemented that someone else has done, I don’t need to create an internal capability like that. I just need to go access that.”

— Doug Kushnerick, senior technology scouting and venture adviser at ExxonMobil. For Kushnerick, technology solutions that fix specific problems are easy to go after, but things that affect big picture and strategic assets are harder to figure out if they are worth implementing.

“One of our big asks from our partners from an internal perspective is really to have a champion — whether its an innovation manager or someone who really advocates these startups internally. Someone who will find the clinician and the business unit and tap the legal team.”

— Neda Amidi, global head of health and partner at Plug and Play Tech Center, responding to a question about opening up the channels of communications between startups and large companies. She adds that it's a requirement for these people to visit a Plug and Play location four to six times a year.

“What I see from a culture perspective is that it really starts with the leadership in the institution. If the people at the top in the C-suite of the institution are focused on understanding why their organization isn’t performing as well as they expect it to be and are willing to look to the outside, that’s how it starts in my mind.”

— Thomas Luby, director TMC Innovation Institute, responding to a question from the audience about large organizations that tend to be slower adaptors to new technologies.

Plug and Play is on the hunt for real estate for its Houston office. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Exclusive: Silicon Valley startup accelerator and venture capital firm will launch its Houston program by the end of the year

Plugging in

Another accelerator with a global presence is itching to get into the Houston innovation ecosystem. California-based Plug and Play will launch its Houston accelerator program sometime in the fourth quarter of this year and is currently looking for the right location to house the company's local operations.

The organization, which has 30 locations all over the world and has made early stage investments in the likes of DropBox, PayPal, Lending Club, is hosting a series of events on June 4 to 6 at the TMC Innovation Institute. The events are free and open to the public.

"Our goal is to introduce innovation trends and disruptive technologies from Plug and Play's global ecosystem to leading corporations in Texas focused on energy, sustainability, and health care," says Omer Gozen, vice president of Plug and Play's New Materials, Food, and Sustainability Programs, in an email. "This event allows us to bring the very-best startups to Houston's backyard."

The Plug and Play programming's intent is twofold. While the talks and pitches will spark conversations within Houston's ecosystem, it will also give the organization a chance to meet face to face with Houston corporations and startups, says a spokesperson. And Houston's huge corporate presence is a major draw, says Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Houston Partnership, in a statement.

"With our large concentration of Fortune 500 companies and a broad diversity of industry, Houston is an ideal location for a platform like Plug and Play that connects startups with major corporations," says Davenport.

The city has been communicating with Plug and Play for a while and has "worked closely" with them on this new office. Representatives from the GHP and Mayor Sylvester Turner even visited Plug and Play's headquarters last year.

"Their announcement is further evidence of the growing momentum behind Houston's startup and innovation ecosystem—one that has seen the emergence of a series of accelerators and major investments in technology in less than two years," Davenport says in the statement. "That Houston is one of only a handful of locations for Plug and Play in North America indicates how important this region is to the relationship between emerging businesses and major companies."

The accelerator will run for three months twice a year with 20 startups in each cohort. The cohorts are stage-agnostic and do not require any equity or fees for the startups to participate.

Good things don't just come to those who wait. If you're wanting to get your startup in front of major corporations, you need to take matters into your own hands. Pexels

Overheard: Experts give advice for Houston startups looking for corporate partnerships

Eavesdropping in Houston

If you've ever wanted to know the best way to get your startup in front of a major corporation, according to experts from both sides of the table — here's your chance.

At the Houston Innovation Open Conference, five major players in Houston's innovation ecosystem sat on a panel and discussed startups, accelerators, and more. One question asked each panelist for their advice for corporate partnerships. Here's what they had to say.

“Go to one of our programs — even if you used to work at an oil and gas company, as a startup, you need new pathways and you need help and support and lots of love along the way.”

Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Even with a Houston business background, there's strength in numbers, she says.

“Keep your identity along the way.”

Haibin Xu, regional manager of Shell Research Connect & GameChanger US and Canada. From the corporate side of things. Xu said sometimes the Shells of the world can't help you — find the right company that best aligns with your startup.

“Do your research. … And have a clear value proposition, and put it on the table.”

Wade Bitaraf, head of energy and sustainability practice at Plug and Play. Preparation and research is extremely important before you meet with any potential corporate partners.

“Find a community to join … and don’t limit yourself to what you think is your industry.”

Brad True, managing director of The Cannon and Cannon Ventures. True gave an example of a Cannon company that found success outside the industry they thought they were confined to.

“You have to find the pathways that are going to make it as easy as possible.”

Brian Richards, innovation lead and managing director at Accenture. Richards emphasized that startups can go bankrupt waiting for something formal from a big corporation.

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Rice University physicists granted $1.3 million to continue study on dark matter

researching the universe

Two Rice University physicists and professors have received a federal grant to continue research on dark matter in the universe.

Paul Padley and Karl Ecklund, professors of physics and astronomy at Rice, have received a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Energy for their research to continue the university's ongoing research at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a particle accelerator consisting of a 17-mile ring of superconducting magnets buried beneath Switzerland and France.

"With this grant we will be able to continue our investigations into the nature of the matter that comprises the universe, what the dark matter that permeates the universe is, and if there is physics beyond what we already know," Padley says in a press release.

This grant is a part of the DOE's $132 million in funding for high-energy physics research. The LHC has received a total of $4.5 million to date to continue this research. Most recently, Ecklund and Padley received a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to go toward updates to the LHC.

"High-energy physics research improves our understanding of the universe and is an essential element for maintaining America's leadership in science," says Paul Dabbar, undersecretary for science at the DOE, in the release. "These projects at 53 different institutions across our nation will advance efforts both in theory and through experiments that explore the subatomic world and study the cosmos. They will also support American scientists serving key roles in important international collaborations at institutions across our nation."

In 2012, Padley and his team discovered the Higgs boson, a feat that was extremely key to the continuance of exploring the Standard Model of particle physics. Since then, the physicists have been working hard to answer the many questions involved in studying physics and the universe.

"Over many decades, the particle physics group at Rice has been making fundamental contributions to our understanding of the basic building blocks of the universe," Padley says in the release. "With this grant we will be able to continue this long tradition of important work."

Paul Padley and his team as made important dark matter findings at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. Photo via rice.ed

Startup aims for goal of connecting Houston sports community

game on

In virtually no time at all, Sportlo has built its reputation on the simplest of foundations: community.

Thilo Borgmann and Sebastian Henke founded the local hub for sports parents earlier this year as a tool for sports moms and dads to stay connected with local leagues, sports clubs, coaches, and other parents with children involved in youth sports in the greater Houston area.

"We make it easy for sports parents to keep up with what's happening in their local youth sports community," says Henke. "With our platform, they can discover tryouts, camps, and sports clubs. They can also join and create groups, find private coaches for their kids, and more."

Borgmann and Henke are both former NCAA Division 1 soccer players who starred while they were student athletes at Houston Baptist University, then went on to become well-known private coaches.

The sports-loving duo saw a dearth of useful information for sports parents on popular social media sites, so they created the platform to give users a central place to communicate with each other, join and create groups, discover tryouts and camps for their children and find private coaches across the city to help their young athletes reach their goals.

"We were both involved in sports for most of our lives and then got into private coaching," says Henke. "Overall, what we saw was that there is an entire ecosystem of youth sports and it was very much unorganized."

Henke says sports clubs weren't able to reach potential members and their parents. He says they envisioned a one-stop-shop approach to the sports ecosystem.

"So, Sportlo is focused on sports parents, but within the community, we try to connect persons with coaches, with clubs, with colleges and so on," Henke says. "That's the vision behind it, so people will have a place to have a community, to get advice and tips and then they will have access to certain services and information."

The plan for Sportlo has already evolved in its short life. Originally the platform was going to support just private coaching.

"After we got more feedback from parents and first users, we started to adapt the product and rebuilt the product," Henke says. "Based on the surveys we collected online, parents wanted us to find ways how to connect them with each other, so that's why we started building it as a new page and that's how we realized where it needed to go."

The biggest lesson in listening to their users was understanding that any initial vision to help a community must also be focused on or include what's intrinsically valuable to the users.

"Too often, people get focused on their own ideas and forget that feedback offers surprising moments," says Henke. "Users gave us a whole new path, which kept us from going in the direction where users wouldn't want the product to go."

Feedback from users is key, Henke says, and he recommends startup founders prioritize user experience and constructive criticism.

"All of the ideas that we had in our head, at some point we had to stop and reevaluate them and then focus on the most important thing first and then go from there," he says.

Still, the launch of Sportlo was not without its own unique challenges. Its March go-live date coincided in point of time with the spread of COVID-19, which ultimately turned into a worldwide pandemic.

"We haven't had to make any major changes," says Henke. "But groups on the platform have focused on that topic because there are no sports happening at the moment and they are eager to get them back. But other than that, it's not something we've had to focus on. But for parents, they've focused on related topics, like how to keep their kids busy at home doing exercises, things like that, or when discussing when their kids' clubs are starting back up and how to keep kids safe."

In addition to forming groups and sharing a variety of sports-related topics, parents can post pictures and videos of their child's latest tournament or game, get access to useful articles shared by fellow parents and find recommended sports products for themselves or their child.

"The main reason we added that social component was because we wanted to have a user timeline so when they log in, all the users can see something sports related," says Borgmann. "There's so much noise, with politics and posts that are only about the coronavirus and all that, so we wanted to focus on sports and have parents be able to show how their kid is doing, see other kids in action and support each other with a focus on sports without seeing all the other distractions that might be on other platforms."

For now, Sportlo is focused solely on keeping Houston informed, but it will look to expand to other cities and states when the time comes.

"We are focused right now only on Houston, because we know Houston and Texas and we've experienced different levels of sports in this area, so we want to stay local," says Henke. "Then, the next step is we intend to take it to other cities within Texas. And at some point, our vision is to have the entire youth ecosystem of the United States."

Now is the time to expand machine learning, says Houston researcher

Houston voices

One might not expect the game of checkers to have anything to do with artificial intelligence, but the game really marked the beginning of machine learning in 1959. Pioneered by an MIT professor named Arthur Lee Samuel, it was discovered that teaching a simple strategy game to a computer is not so simple when every move needs to be anticipated.

Smart machines Additionally, in a Forbes article about the difference between artificial intelligence and machine learning, Bernard Marr comments, "Artificial Intelligence is the broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in a way that we would consider 'smart'. And, machine learning is a current application of AI based around the idea that we should really just be able to give machines access to data and let them learn for themselves."

That's the premise of many a movie involving computers which become sentient, but is it really science fiction anymore?

Meet the new boss

Teaching a computer to think like a human is advantageous and includes the added bonus of increased speed. Computers aren't biased, either — which is why huge corporations, such as Unilever, use computers to thin out their first wave of applicants. You actually interview with a bot when you begin the employment process there.

Cause and effect AI and ML are often used in cybersecurity efforts — at least one would suppose. But in Security magazine, Jordan Mauriello writes: "AI/ML cannot do causation." That means artificial intelligence cannot, at this point in time, tell you why something happened. The why? is best left to experts who deal with game theory and other ways of determining how to defend against hypothetical attacks.

Get in on the ground floor

The field is growing and students at colleges across the country are beginning to train for careers in it in droves.

"America's top colleges are ramping up their research efforts and developing concentrations for their computer science degree programs to accommodate this high-tech field," writes Great Value Colleges on their blog. It looks as though this discipline is on an upward trajectory and shows no sign of slowing down.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.