From a water-absorbing tower to sensor-enabled rubber ducks, here are some flooding solution ideas coming out of Houston. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston.

Self-deploying flood protection for buildings

FloodFrame's technology can protect a home or commercial building from flood water damage. Photo via floodframe.com

A self-deploying flood damage prevention device caught Tasha Nielsen's eye on a trip to Denmark, and then launched the U.S. iteration of FloodFrame to bring the technology here.

FloodFrame works by using buoyancy. A lightweight cloth is wrapped around a tube is installed underground outside the perimeter of your home or business. One end of that cloth is attached to a box that is also installed underground. As flooding begins, an automatic system will release the lids to deploy the inflation of the tube that will protect the structure. When the flood comes in, the system will float on top of the flood — kind of like a pool noodle — and protect the structure from the water.

FloodFrame adds a level of security during flooding events and can be considered more cost-effective when compared to the high cost of renovating or rebuilding after flooding.

"Right now we are focused on residential but I think there's a huge potential for it to go commercial. A lot of commercial buildings are self insured, and commercial developers, industrial developers, this would be a drop in the bucket for the overall cost of the entire project," Nielsen tells InnovationMap. "For homeowners, it's kind of a bigger expense, but I think there is the potential for homebuilders to include it as an option in the entire package of a new house because when you put it in to a mortgage, it's only another like $0.50 a month."

A waterproof container for your car.

After the floods from Hurricane Harvey totaled her car, Rahel Abraham wanted to find a solution. ClimaGuard/Facebook

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey seriously damaged about 600,000 vehicles in the Houston area, which included Rahel Abraham's 2008 Infiniti G35. Now, Abraham's brainchild forms the backbone of her Houston-based startup, ClimaGuard LLC. The company's waterproof, temperature-resistant, portable Temporary Protective Enclosure (TPE) can entirely cover a compact car, sedan, or midsize SUV. It comes in three sizes; the cost ranges from $349 to $499.

To protect a vehicle, someone sets a TPE on the ground, a driveway, or another flat surface, then drives the vehicle onto the bottom part of the product, and connects the bottom and top parts with the zipper. Abraham likens it to a clamshell preserving a pearl.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham tells InnovationMap.

A network to find shelter.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks tells InnovationMap. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Now Hicks is growing GotSpot in hopes that short-term rental space and emergency housing can be smooth sailing no matter the circumstances. Recently, the company was named a finalist for MassChallenge Texas in Austin.

A water-absorbing tower. 

Fil Trat would be able to absorb water, filter it, and release it into the body of water when the time comes. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many Houstonians began to think of solutions for the next time Mother Nature struck with her full-force of flooding. Gensler designers Chelsea Bryant, Jordan Gomez, Luisa Melendez, Barbara Novoa, Benjamin Nanson, Maria Qi, and Melinda Ubera created a solution as a part of Gensler's By Design program called Fil Trat. The tower can absorb, filter, and store flood waters until the bayou is ready for the water to be released — cleaner than it was before.

During Harvey, thousands of people were displaced, but Fil Trat has a solution for that too. The tower's floors would alternate between filtration floors and shelters, which could house up to 24 families per floor.

While the suggested Houston locale would be by Buffalo Bayou, the group suggests putting the tower in other coastal cities at risk of devastating flooding.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks that can track weather developments.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl, tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

Restored native wetland coastal prairies.

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water. Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership, has been taking every opportunity to raise awareness on the importance of prairie restoration.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Memorial Park Conservancy's master plan redevelopment project, which is being supported by the Kinder Foundation, includes a lot of prairie restoration plans is expected to deliver by 2028.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks, Kinder Foundation, and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. An ongoing part of the transformation will be stormwater management upgrades. MPC has budgeted $3 million to this asset of the renovation. While a part of the plan is tributaries for run-off water, bringing back prairie and wetlands will do a great deal to help abate stormwater.

"We're taking ball fields, parking lots, and roads and converting them back to what was here — native wetland coastal prairie," MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold tells InnovationMap. "This serves important stormwater purposes."

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Natural disaster relief technology records a successful pilot program just outside of Houston

Digital duck crossing

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl (organization, whereabouts, and logistics), says the initiative marries:

  • A deployable IoT network of DuckLink devices that can quickly provide a basic WiFi setup where communications infrastructure might be down, like a region where a hurricane just hit. A single device can connect through WiFi to smartphones and laptops.
  • A software data visualization platform that speeds up and simplifies data monitoring on the Clusterduck network.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Knouse tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

"Once this network of ducks is deployed and then clustered, civilians are able to basically get on the devices through a really intuitive interface and contact first responders with a list of things that are really essential to them," Project Owl team member Magus Pereira explained in an October 2018 blog post.

Project Owl, which won IBM's Call for Code Global Challenge in 2018, is being developed by Code and Response, an IBM program that puts open source technologies in communities that most need them. Knouse and Houston software engineer Charlie Evans lead Project Owl.

In a June 6 blog post, Evans recalled the widespread damage his hometown suffered during Hurricane Harvey and stressed the importance of efforts like Project Owl.

"The sheer magnitude of storms like this," Evans writes of Hurricane Harvey, "and the fact that extreme weather isn't going anywhere anytime soon, really drive home the point that effective communication and logistics are among the highest [priorities] for organizations that are involved with rescuing people and with cleanup."

Katy was the second pilot site for Project Owl. The first large-scale test was done in March in Puerto Rico.

Members of the Project Owl team were pleased with the Katy test. Knouse says the speed of DuckLink deployment improved versus the Puerto Rico test, and the network error transmission rate fell from more than 30 percent to around 10 percent.

"This test is important for anyone who wants to see how we will support communities during natural disasters," Knouse tells InnovationMap. "The growth and improvement [seen in the Katy test] confirms that we can continue to improve the speed, scale, and performance of the network, elevating confidence that if it's deployed during a real disaster, we can support recovery and critical life saving activities."

Following the Puerto Rico and Katy pilots, Project Owl will test the technology again later this year in Puerto Rico, as well as in Alabama, California, and Washington state, according to Knouse.

"It's one thing to build something in a lab and say, 'It works.' It's another to have complete strangers watch the technology deployment and say, 'It works — we need this as soon as possible.' And we are working at maximum capacity to make that happen," Knouse wrote in May.

Owl deploys duck technology

Courtesy of Project Owl

About five of the "rubber ducks" are needed to track one square mile.

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Houston initiative receives $4M grant to promote biomedical entrepreneurship

fresh funding

The National Institute of Health has awarded a $4 million grant to a Houston-area initiative in the name of sparking biomedical activity.

The grant will create a new Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hub, known as REACH, in Houston. The team behind the Gulf Coast Consortium — one of the world’s largest inter-institutional cooperatives, which includes eight of Houston’s medical research leading lights — has been hard at work to bring REACH-GCC to fruition.

The result? A multidisciplinary means of promoting biomedical entrepreneurship, bringing innovators from concept to commercialization.

“I can tell you that a lot of those potential users came out of our research consortium. Those users span from a focus on mental health to antibiotic resistance to regenerative medicine to pain management to, of course, cancer,” says Suzanne Tomlinson of Rice University.

Tomlinson is the director of GCC research programs and worked with Stan Watowich of The University of Texas Medical Branch to create the grant. Peter Davies helped to submit it through Texas A&M University.

One of the dozen research and educational programs that Tomlinson directs is the Innovative Drug Discovery and Development Consortium.

“Within that, we have established a wide network of drug to drug discovery and development cores,” she says.

The vast majority of those are funded by CPRIT (Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas), and Tomlinson and Watowich (the chair of IDDD’s steering committee) were lead developers and authors of the grant to create TMCi’s Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics (ACT). That accelerator is a model for what GCC-REACH may do for taking other innovations from discovery to market.

“We get close to a billion dollars in research monies a year coming into the Medical Center. The question is, ‘Are we seeing a lot of those dollars resulting in products that benefit patients?’ And the answer always is, ‘We can do better,’” says Watowich.

How will GCC-REACH help to do that? By combining the forces of all eight full members of the GCC, plus outside help when it’s needed. Watowich sets for the example of a budding entrepreneur at his home institution, UTMB. That researcher could potentially receive guidance from an MD Anderson expert in immunotherapies or a Rice scientist who focuses on nanotechnology delivery systems.

“This grant is designed to put together a bespoke team of whatever is needed to have a discussion with and figure out what's the market for this technology. How might it get there?’” says Watowich.

Those options could include setting up a startup company, but could also mean licensing the idea to someone else, whether it’s a company or an institution.

“Our goal is, we help each other. We help ourselves. We help the patient population. And we do that through working together,” he continues.

Though it sounds like GCC-REACH could be a competitor to other accelerators, Watowich doesn’t see it that way. He sees the new hub as working with very early-stage creators who may still take part in those existing accelerators in the future. And the team hopes to do so quickly. The goal is to launch this month. Watowich says that the plan is to use the NIH’s $4 million to launch around 60 early stage biomedical companies over the next four years.

A variety of nascent founders — regardless of their type of innovative solution — will take part in the initiative.

“It can be a device, it could be an AI, it could be an app, it could be digital health, it could be therapeutics,” says Watowich. “We have experts across all of these areas that could help provide guidance and mentoring to try to move those companies forward.”

New report ranks Houston as the top city for foreign investment

by the numbers

For the second time, a report has analyzed the top markets in the United States for the rest of the world to do business in. This year, that top spot belongs to Houston.

The second annual FT-Nikkei Investing in America ranking, which came out this week from the Financial Times and international financial newspaper Nikkei, put the Bayou City — and six other Texas cities — at the top portion of the ranking. Houston's at No. 1, up four spots from last year, but Austin and four cities in the Dallas area also claim spots in the top 20.

The report looked at four dozen metrics, including workforce and talent, quality of life, openness, business environment, investment trends, and more.

In addition to the ranking, the Financial Times dove a little deeper into what made Houston a standout this year, interviewing many of Houston's most prominent business community members. The article points to the city's storied past as an oil and gas leader, also calling out its busy airports and global shipping ports, as well as its medical technology and aerospace industries. But one of the biggest factors in Houston's business climates success is its opportunity within the energy transition.

“We’re clear in Houston that if we’re going to continue to have prosperity — to the degree to define prosperity as job growth and wealth creation — it’s going to need to come from places other than the incumbent energy business,” Bobby Tudor, chief executive of Artemis Energy Partners, tells FT in the article.

Houston scored an overall 73 out of 100, and its scores across metrics in the report include:

  • Workforce and talent: 68/100
  • Openness: 80/100
  • Business environment: 64/100
  • Foreign business needs: 100/100
  • Quality of life: 47/100
  • Investment trends: 73/100
  • Aftercare: 69/100
Last year's top city was Miami, which ranks at No. 6 this year. Most of the top 10 cities in this year's report represent major gains on the ranking.This report falls in line with others in terms of noticing a change within the green economy in Houston. Earlier this year, personal finance website SmartAsset ranked the Houston metro area as the fifth best place in the U.S. for green jobs, which pay an average of 21 percent more than other jobs. The SmartAsset study found that 2.23 percent of workers in the Houston area hold down jobs classified as “green.”

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

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 hardtech to digital solutions — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Wogbe Ofori, founder and chief strategist of WRX Companies

Wogbe Ofori, founder and chief strategist of WRX Companies, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss hardtech and Houston as an innovative city. Photo via LinkedIn

To Wogbe Ofori, the definition of entrepreneurship is simple: "To be more opportunity centric than risk averse." And Houston, as he says, has be entrepreneurial for a very long time — despite it being considered the specialty of a certain coastal region.

"Silicon Valley has hijacked the concept of innovation and entrepreneurship, and this city has been filled with entrepreneurs long before the concept of 'tech entrepreneurs,'" Ofori says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Ofori, the founder and chief strategist of WRX Companies, has developed a keen eye for entrepreneurship and innovation activity in Houston and shares his observations on the show. An adviser to Nauticus Robotics and strategist to Intuitive Machines and Jacobs, he's also served as a mentor across the local innovation community. Read more or listen below.

Amy Chronis, vice chair, US Energy and Chemicals Leader and Houston managing partner at Deloitte

Amy Chonis shares Houston listmakers from Deloitte's annual report. Photo courtesy Deloitte/AlexandersPortraits.com

Deloitte just unveiled the fastest-growing technology companies in North America — and four businesses from Houston made the cut.

For the 29th year, 2023 Technology Fast 500 ranked top tech, media, telecommunications, life sciences, and energy technology companies based on fiscal year revenue growth from 2019 to 2022. While no Houston business was able to break into the top 100, four did make the cut for this year's list.

“It is great to see Houston represented alongside established technology hubs on this year’s Fast 500 list,” Amy Chronis, vice chair, US Energy and Chemicals Leader and Houston managing partner at Deloitte, says in a statement. “Houston is planting seeds for future innovation, and the companies named to this year’s list confirm our city’s value proposition as an innovative community. We look forward to this growth continuing in the future and extend our congratulations to this year’s Houston winners.” Read more.

Steve Altemus, co-founder, president, and CEO of Intuitive Machines

Intuitive Machines has some big news. Photo via intuitivemachines.com

Intuitive Machines has landed a nearly $9.5 million Air Force contract to develop technology for NASA’s Gateway project, the first space station that will orbit the moon. Specifically, the technology will support a high-powered nuclear fission system that will supply electricity for satellites, bypassing the need for power from solar, battery, or fuel-cell sources.

“As space exploration ventures become more ambitious and diverse, the need for efficient and reliable power sources in space is paramount,” Pete McGrath, vice president of business development at Intuitive Machines, says in a news release. “Developing the ability to expand power sources beyond solar, which requires heavy battery storage, could remove the burden of constantly worrying about a spacecraft’s arrays relative to the sun, and potentially deliver long-term stability for satellites that would otherwise lose power over time.”

Second, Intuitive Machines has set January window for the launch of its IM-1 lunar mission in conjunction with private aerospace company SpaceX. The liftoff is targeted for a multiday window that opens January 12, 2024. Read more.

The 2023 Houston Innovation Awards winners

The 2023 Houston Innovation Awards revealed its big winners across 13 categories. Photos courtesy

Who are the top innovators and startups in Houston? We just found out for you. The Houston Innovation Awards honored over 50 finalists categories, naming the 12 winners at the event. The 2023 Trailblazer Award recipient, Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, was also honored at the event by inaugural winner, Barbara Burger. Read more.