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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Impact Hub Houston has new HQ, HCC creates AI program, and more innovation news

Short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and not all make the news. For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a Houston startup incubator has a new home, a local school creates AI-focused program, Astros manager taps into sports tech, and more.

Impact Hub Houston makes downtown partnership

Impact Hub Houston has a new headquarters in downtown. Photo courtesy of Central Houston

Impact Hub Houston, a nonprofit organization that promotes and accelerates sustainability-focused startups, is resident partner at Downtown Launchpad, according to Central Houston and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The organization now has a 10-year lease and a new headquarters for its team and events. Impact Hub joins two accelerator programs — MassChallenge Texas and gener8tor — which both have a global presence and launched in Houston in the past two years.

"We celebrate Central Houston's vision in launching this 'vertical village' and appreciate their ongoing support in including Impact Hub Houston as a part of it," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "It takes a village to raise an entrepreneur, and now we have that village with the infrastructure and community to raise generations of diverse innovators. It's another exciting step towards our goal to build an authentically inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem that looks like Houston and works for all in our region."

HCC introduces artificial intelligence program

Data science startup based in Houston focus on neuroscience software nabs $3.78M grant

A local college system is training the future AI workforce. Getty Images

Houston Community College is the first community college in the state to introduce a new program focused on artificial intelligence. The new Associate of Applied Science degree program has been approved by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, according to a press release from HCC, and is available for the fall 2020 semester at HCC Southwest, HCC Northeast and HCC Southeast.

"It is the latest of HCC's ongoing efforts to embrace new technologies and keep a pulse on the ever-changing needs of the industry," HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado says in the release. "Offering an innovative program like AI will allow our students to take advantage of all the accelerated job openings in Houston, in Texas and beyond."

The new program exists to fill the rising need for AI professionals. Last year, the job site indeed.com identified machine learning engineers at the top of its annual list of the 25 best jobs, citing a 344 percent increase in job postings from 2015 to 2018 with an annual base salary of $146,000.

"Because of a dire shortage of AI specialists, many companies are offering big salaries," says G. Brown, Ph.D., program coordinator of Networking and Telecommunications at HCC Southwest, in the release. "AI specialists are in high demand by companies like Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, as well as NASA and SpaceX."

Rice project re-envisions dorm layouts

The dorm design created socially-distant spaces that can be used in times of a pandemic. Photo via rice.edu

Two Rice University students received top marks in the 2020 American Institute of Architects Houston (AIAH) Gulf Coast Green Student Competition for their pandemic-proof dorm design. Carrie Li and Mai Okimoto, both 2022 Rice master's of architecture students, won first place in the competition that challenged students to design a dorm for the University of Houston-Downtown that would adhere to the Centers for Disease Control's social distancing guidelines.

"Carrie and Mai's timely and innovative proposal is beautifully conceived, highly resolved and elegantly presented," says interim dean, John J. Casbarian, in a news release. "I am particularly struck by how seamlessly it addresses the pressing issues of flooding, natural ventilation and social distancing, and how well sited it is in relation to UHD while mitigating the adversity of the freeway expansion.The competition consisted of eight teams from Texas and Louisiana which presented to judges from Kirksey, PDR Corporation, Gensler, Walter P Moore and UH-D. Li and Okimoto's project features 432 units across three villages and even factored in the area's flooding challenges.

"[Our design] aims to: allow social interaction to happen on different scales, from the one-on-one connection to larger scale gatherings; provide the users with safe but varied circulation paths, through which natural ventilation also occurs; treat dining as a key socializing program; and address the site's flooding risks and impacts of the I-45 corridor expansion," Li says in the release.

City of Houston passes small business-focused economic relief initiative

A new program from the city of Houston is helping to provide funds for businesses affected by COVID-19. Getty Images

Last week, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston City Council passed the city's Small Business Economic Relief Program, funded with $15 million of the City's allocated CARES Act 2020 funds. Small businesses can apply for up to $50,000 and the grant can be used for payroll, accounts payable, rent, mortgage, PPE for employees, marketing strategies, including creating an online presence and other sales alternatives.

"We know small businesses throughout Houston have suffered greatly due to the global pandemic, and it could take months or years before the business climate returns to normal," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "I thank Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Castex Tatum and other council members for bringing this program forward. We are working on other relief packages that will keep us Houston Strong as we navigate the public health crisis."

The program will be administered by Houston's Office of Business Opportunity and the Houston Business Development Inc.

To qualify for the SBERP, businesses must be located in Houston, have been in business for at least one year, provide evidence for revenue decrease due to COVID-19-caused closures, have less than $2 million in gross annual revenue pre-COVID-19, be in good standing with the city, and commit to complete technical assistance.

"The SBERP will help all sizes of small businesses move one step closer toward financial recovery. This program is intended to maximize the long-term, positive impact of these small businesses on our local economy through their contribution to job retention and the continued availability of their services," says Marsha Murray, director for the Office of Business Opportunity, in the release. "If our local small businesses did not qualify for other federal or local programs, or did not receive enough funds to mitigate the impact of the crisis, we encourage them to apply for this program."

Astros manager joins venture capital firm

Not only is Dusty Baker at the helm of the 2017 World Series-winning Astros, but he's also a founding partner of a sports-focused venture capital firm. Getty Images

The Houston Astros manager, Dusty Baker, is a founding partner of a new venture capital firm focused on sports tech and innovation. New York-based Turn2 Equity Partners is a new fund is beginning with a focus on amateur and professional baseball markets.

"For decades, baseball players, managers and executives have lended their credibility to brands as endorsers," Baker says in a press release. "With the establishment of Turn2 Equity, for the first time, faces of the game have the opportunity to own and influence people at all levels."

Co-founded by sports venture capitalists Jarett Sims and Peter Stein, the firm's team also includes Jim Duquette, New York Mets general manager; Bobby Evans, who was formerly with the San Francisco Giants as general manager; and John Haegele, the former CEO of Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment.

GotSpot Inc. wins veterans competition

A Houston startup that's using technology to optimize short-term real estate space took home a prize in a virtual pitch competition. Image via LinkedIn

Houston-based GotSpot Inc. has claimed another pitching competition prize for veteran-owned businesses. Reda Hicks, founder of the Houston startup, received third place and $10,000 at the Ford Fund Virtual Pitch Competition last month. Memphis-based Pure Light Clean Air Services took first place and $15,000 and Raleigh, North Carolina-based Blue Recruit won second place and $10,000.

"The experiences, teamwork and skills learned in service of our country can serve as a solid foundation for these men and women as they build sustainable businesses," says Yisel Cabrera, manager of the Ford Motor Company Fund, in a news release. "We're proud to work with Bunker Labs to assist these inspiring entrepreneurs as they pursue new roads to success."

Calling all energy startups

Upstream startups can submit to a new virtual pitch competition. Photo via atce.org

The Society of Petroleum Engineers is calling for applications from energy startups to compete in a virtual pitch competition. Applications for the ATCE Startup Village, which is a collaboration between SPE and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, are live online and due by August 14. The competition will take place Tuesday, October 13.

The competition is free to compete and to apply, and open to early stage upstream technology companies. Each company selected to present will have 5 to 8 minutes to provide a "quick pitch" about their company to a group of venture capitalists, angel investors, and industry leaders. Judging will be based on innovative technology, commercial strategy and business plan, market potential, and management team and advisers.

Rice University research: Collaboration with the community can be key to success

houston voices

In Pittsburgh, a coalition of 100 community groups brokered a deal with developers of the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team for $8.3 million in neighborhood improvements. In Oakland, California, developers of an $800 million high-tech complex promised local residents 50 percent of its construction jobs. And in Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center is working with residents to shield them from skyrocketing rents.

Community Benefits Agreements, or CBAS, as these agreements are called, are increasingly common between businesses and the places where they want to set up shop. But are they worth the money? To find out, Rice Business professor Kate Odziemkowska joined Sinziana Dorobantu of New York University to analyze market reactions to 148 CBA announcements between indigenous communities and mining firms in Canada. The financial value of these agreements, the researchers found, was real.

While it's easy to imagine that CBAs are just costly giveaways, they're more than goodwill gestures. Instead, they are legally enforceable contracts to distribute benefits from a new project and to govern the response to any potential social and environmental disruptions. For businesses, the researchers found, they are also good strategy, because they prevent costly, drawn-out conflict.

To conduct their research, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu analyzed a sample of 148 legally binding CBAs signed in Canada between mining firms and indigenous communities between 1999 and 2013. In Canada, mining companies and indigenous communities often hammer out agreements about extraction and use of local resources. Studying only the mining sector let the researches control for the economic variations that characterize different industries.

Since CBA negotiations cannot be disclosed, the announcement of such agreements represents new market information. To conduct their study, the researchers tracked the market reaction to these announcements, using a technique that measured short-term returns.

Creating CBAs from the start, they found, can head off catastrophic costs later. That's because even when a company has disproportionate economic strength, the public relations, legal and economic costs of community conflict can be draining. Consider the 1,900-kilometer Dakota Access oil pipeline, whose developers faced six months of round-the-clock protests that included nearly 15,000 volunteers from around the world. The drumbeat of litigation and negative news coverage still continues today.

In general, the researchers found, the more experience a community has with protests or blockades, the more firms gained from signing a CBA. Property rights protections also provide strong incentive for making a deal. Mining companies, for example, need access to land to do business. Communities with robust property rights to the resource or location sought by the firm have strong standing to stop that firm if they don't make a deal.

Because access to valuable resources like land or intellectual property can mean the difference between financial success or failure, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu said, the lesson from their findings extends far beyond Canadian mines. It's a lesson Disney learned the hard way when it failed to acknowledge the culture of Norway's Sami people in "Frozen." Assailed for cultural appropriation by using, but not crediting, traditional Sami music, Disney quickly made amends. After negotiating with the Sami people, Disney pledged to consult with them and portray them thoughtfully in the film's sequel.

The deal may have cost Disney on the front end, but it was nothing compared to the advantage of freezing out years of bad press.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Kate Odziemkowska, an assistant professor of Strategic Management at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.

5 innovation-focused takeaways from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual report

BY THE NUMBERS

In an annual economic report from the Greater Houston Partnership, researchers and data scientists outlined the city's economy by the numbers, and Houston's industries such as technology, health care, energy, and more were all represented.

The 2020 Houston Facts was released in an virtual event hosted by GHP and its team of data specialists. Here's what you need to know from the event and the report, which can be found online.

The Texas Medical Center is focusing on five new institutes

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

The Texas Medical Center has established itself as a topic of its own in the Houston Facts report. The 61-member nonprofit that connects medical institutions across the city. The organization is working on a new campus, TMC3, that is expected to complete in 2022 and bring an annual economic impact of $5.2 billion to the state of Texas along with 30,000 jobs. From

According to the report, TMC is continuing to develop five institutes that compliment the organization's focus on innovation, regenerative medicine, health policy, and more:

  1. TMC Innovation Institute
  2. TMC Health Policy Institute
  3. TMC Clinical Research Institute
  4. TMC Regenerative Medicine Institute
  5. TMC Genomics Institute

Houston's port business continues to stay strong, with potential for growth following expansion

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

The Port of Houston has long been a key part of Houston's history and its economic impact. Across four seaports in the Houston area, the city moved 242.9 million metric tons of trade last year, and the district has been consistently named the busiest or one of the busiest by tonnage for over a decade.

With over 200 companies calling the port home and a busy port district, the Houston Ship Channel has been working on an expansion project, called Project 11. Construction on the project could begin as early as next year, per the report.

Venture capital is on the rise as tech jobs stays steady

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

Again, Houston Facts has called out the growth Houston has seen in venture capital investment. According to the report, top industries for VC funding include health tech, software, and energy. Houston Facts reports the ecosystem saw $600 million invested last year. While numbers vary based on sources, Houston Exponential recently reported over $466 million of venture capital invested in Houston between January and July of 2020.

Meanwhile, when it comes to tech jobs in Houston, the city has held its place as 12th in the nation for cities with the most tech jobs. Last year, Houston had 235,802 tech workers according to data from CompTIA, Cyberstates 2020. That count is slightly increased from 2018's 223,000 tech workers in Houston.

Houston's evolving demographics continues to shape the city

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

Houston is regularly touted as the most diverse city in the nation, and that diversity has affected the city's business sector. As of last year, largest ethnic population in Houston is hispanic. Houston now has the fourth largest hispanic population in the country, however, according to the report, Houston's percent of African-American citizens has remained consistent.

COVID-19's full effect on Houston is still to be determined, but business has taken a hit

Getty Images

The 2020 edition of Houston Facts doesn't have much on the impact of COVID-19 — the 2021 issue should have more facts and figures from looking back on the pandemic. However, the GHP's team did address some of the economic impacts the coronavirus had on the city.

According to Yelp data based on listings, 3,518 businesses closed due to COVID-19 — of which, only 578 had reopened by mid-June.