In the latest round up of Houston innovation news you may have missed, Houston has been deemed an affordable city for tech careers, HighRadius has a new product, and more. Photo via Getty Images

It's been a busy summer for the Houston innovation ecosystem, and for this reason, local startup and tech news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a software company has a new game-changing product, Houston was named an affordable city for a tech career, a health tech startup has a new C-suite leader, and more.

Houston ranks as affordable tech city

Houston is an affordable city to start off your career in tech, per this new report. Image courtesy of CodingDojo

While the coasts have some of the most booming tech hubs, Coding Dojo set off to identify the hubs with affordability for young professionals just starting off. The coding bootcamp started off by identifying the fastest growing cities in America using data from the Census, and factored in Apartment List's housing price data and the number of engineering jobs available in each city.

"The purpose of the report is to highlight cities that may be overlooked but have affordable living costs, plenty of open developer jobs in the vicinity and thus, are viable options to start or continue a career in tech," reads the report.

Houston ranks as No. 6 on the list, following Dallas at No. 1 and Austin suburb Leander as No. 2.

"With major campuses or headquarters in town for companies like FlightAware, Microsoft, Halliburton, and many others, you won't have a problem with Houston as your tech career destination," the report writes.

Houston data in the report:

  • Median Rent: $1,141
  • Entry-Level Developer Jobs: 81
  • Mid-Level Developer Jobs: 278

HighRadius announces new product

HighRadius has a new game-changing software update. Photo via highradius.com

Houston unicorn fintech SaaS company HighRadius has a new product that hit a milestone. The RadiusOne AR achieved "Built for NetSuite" status, according to a news release from the company.

"With RadiusOne AR, we can help NetSuite customers automate their AR processes, manage their operational costs, and increase efficiency," says Sayid Shabeer, chief product officer at HighRadius, in the release. "The RadiusOne AR SuiteApp will allow our joint customers to have stronger cash-flow using AI-based technology to automate their electronic invoicing, collections, cash reconciliation, and credit risk."

The product is aimed at streamlining invoicing and collections, cash reconciliation and credit risk services. The software is affordable and easy to deploy, potentially delivering value in as little as four weeks, per the release.

"Businesses continue to look for ways to bring automation and intelligence to their AR processes to better manage their working capital," says Guido Haarmans of Oracle NetSuite in the release. "This new SuiteApp extends our robust solution for receivables management and helps NetSuite customers further optimize their cash flow management."

Ignite Healthcare's pitch application deadline looms

Now's the time to apply for Ignite's annual accelerator. Photo courtesy of Ignite

Ignite Healthcare Network has opened applications for its annual mini accelerator programs for women-led digital health and med tech companies. The deadline to apply online is July 19.

The program "provides women-led healthcare startups the unique opportunity to engage with potential customers and investors who will assess and advise on the strengths and weaknesses of their companies," according to the website.

Following the mentorship and acceleration, Ignite's Pitch Competition Event allows finalists a chance to compete for several hundred thousand dollars in cash and investment prizes from health care executives and investors. This year, the audience will include parties interested in social impact investing, in search of companies that have solutions to the needs of underserved populations, reads the website.

Pulmotect names new CFO

Bill Noss joined Houston-based Pulmotect's C-suite in June. Photo courtesy of Pulmotect

Houston-based Pulmotect Inc., a clinical-stage biotechnology company, announced a new CFO late last month. William J. Noss III joined the company's team.

"I am delighted to welcome Bill to Pulmotect at such an important time for the company," says Dr. Colin Broom, CEO of Pulmotect, in the news release. "His expertise and experience will help build our infrastructure as we continue the clinical development of PUL-042. It is an exciting time to join Pulmotect, with two Phase 2 clinical trials for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 that have been supported with funding from the Department of Defense and our planned clinical trials for the prevention of respiratory complications in cancer patients."

Noss has over 15 years of experience in the life science industry, formerly at Harmony Biosciences, where he helped lead the company through their commercial launch and subsequently through their initial public offering of $148 million, per the release.

"I am very excited to join this outstanding team as the company grows," says Noss in the release. "PUL-042 has the potential to protect patients from a broad range of viral and other pulmonary infections by activating the innate immune system. I look forward to playing a key role in the drug development program by working hard for the future benefit of patients and creating long-term value for the company and our stakeholders."

Hess makes $9M donation to STEM initiatives in the community

Houston-based Hess Corp. has contributed to a citywide initiative. Photo via trammellcrow.com

Last month, Hess Corp. announced a $9 million donation over the next three years. The gift is a part of its Learning for Life Partnership to fund educational programs and support services for Mayor Sylvester Turner's Complete Communities Initiative.

About 22 schools and over 13,000 children from pre-K through high school will benefit from the funds in the Third Ward, Magnolia Park-Manchester, and Second Ward Complete Communities neighborhoods.

Among other initiatives, the Hess Learning for Life Partnership will fund STEM equipment and curricula, teacher training, computer equipment, mentorship programs, accreditation initiatives, career life guidance counseling, and other support, according to a news release.

"Our company has a proud history of social investment programs that make a positive and lasting impact on the communities where we operate," says CEO John B. Hess in the news release. "In partnership with Mayor Turner's initiative, we are delighted to expand our commitment to provide children in the neighborhoods adjacent to Hess Tower in downtown Houston with the academic and social resources they need to reach their full potential."

Houston-based Pulmotect announced a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense that will fund two COVID-19 drug trials. Photo via Getty Images

Houston biotech receives up to $6M federal grant for COVID-19 treatment

DOD delivered

The Pentagon is putting its financial power behind two COVID-19 clinical trials led by Houston-based biotech company Pulmotect Inc.

The U.S. Department of Defense is pumping as much as $6 million into the pair of Phase 2 trials, which involve a total of 300 U.S. participants, according to a January 27 news release from Pulmotect. When it's inhaled, Pulmotect's drug, PUL-042, stimulates the lungs' immune system to fight bacteria, viruses, or fungi that cause respiratory illnesses.

Pulmotect joins a number of Houston organizations that have tapped into Department of Defense funding for research into COVID-19 therapies.

In January, for instance, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) collected $5.1 million from the department to evaluate whether an investigational oral drug, vadadustat, can help prevent acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) in COVID-19 patients.

"It's wonderful that we have COVID-19 vaccinations available now, but they won't directly help patients who are already sick in the hospital or who will become sick in the future," Dr. Holger Eltzschig, chairman of Department of Anesthesiology at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School, says in a news release.

Also in January, Houston-based clinical research organization Pharm-Olam LLC sealed a $36.3 million deal with the Department of Defense to conduct a clinical trial of an antibody treatment for inflammatory problems associated with COVID-19.

So far, Pulmotect's PUL-042 has shown promise in battling the coronaviruses that trigger MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). The current trials related to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 are evaluating PUL-042's effect on prevention of infections and reducing the severity of the disease.

Pulmotect initially designed PUL-042 to treat and prevent respiratory complications in cancer patients. But once the coronavirus pandemic set in, the company pivoted to testing the effectiveness of its drug in combatting the virus that causes COVID-19. Last May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Pulmotect's COVID-19 trials.

Pulmotect says PUL-042 someday could be a therapy that's deployed during pandemics, epidemics, and bioterrorism attacks.

Invented at Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center and at Texas A&M University, PUL-042 has earned patents in 10 countries. The National Institutes of Health, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, and other organizations have supported R&D for PUL-042.

Founded in 2007, Pulmotect emerged from Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, which nurtures early stage companies in the life sciences sector. In September 2019, the company brought aboard Dr. Colin Broom as CEO. He previously was CEO of an Irish biopharmaceutical company.

Thus far, Pulmotect has garnered about $18 million in equity and about $20 million in other funding.

Before the pandemic, Pulmotect was evaluating the effectiveness of PUL-042 in treating patients with mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who've been exposed to a respiratory virus.

COPD, which affects 30 million Americans, is the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S., according to the COPD Foundation. Pulmotect says 40 percent of COPD-related costs could be avoided by heading off complications and hospitalizations, which usually result from COPD problems caused by a bacterial or viral infection. In this context, the drug is meant to treat cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy whose weakened immune systems make them susceptible to pneumonia.

COVID-19-related stories topped this year's health tech trending articles on InnovationMap. Photo via Getty Images

Here are Houston's top 5 health innovation stories of the year

2020 in review

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. The medical world has had a busy year amid the pandemic, and health tech innovation has never been more important. InnovationMap's top stories of the year included a new academic psychiatric hospital, Houston-based COVID-19 innovations, and more.

These 7 Houston health tech companies are providing COVID-19 solutions

These Houston startups have created health care-related solutions amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

It's all hands on deck in Houston in the battle against coronavirus — and local biotech startups have risen to the occasion.

From mental health solutions and online portals to virtual medicine and new treatments, these Houston companies have recently launched or pivoted to new options in health care. Click here to continue reading.

Houston to be home to the largest academic psychiatric hospital in the country

The UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center, set to open next year, will be unlike anything in Houston. Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

Film and TV portrayals of psychiatric hospitals have driven a narrative based in cold, clinical rooms and unwelcoming corridors. That picture couldn't be more inaccurate when it comes to Houston's first public mental health hospital in more than three decades. Breaking stigmas and setting a new bar for design, the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center is set to open its doors in late 2021.

UTHealth has brought on architecture firm Perkins and Will to design the upcoming mental health facility. The behavioral health campus will be the largest facility of its kind in the United States, becoming a place to train future physicians and specialists. Located near Texas Medical Center, the space will consist of two buildings connected by a glazed bridge, surrounded by a tranquil green space.

The 220,000-square-foot facility includes 264 new inpatient beds and will provide access to mental healthcare, substance use intervention and treatment, and medical care via integrated treatment programs. Click here to continue reading.

Photos: Houston Methodist opens new hub to showcase health tech of the future

The Center for Innovation at Houston Methodist has opened its new Technology Hub to showcase its efforts to advance digital health. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist is regularly exploring new digital health technologies, but, until recently, lacked a proper space to demonstrate their vision for the future of health care. Now, with the Center for Innovation's Technology Hub, the hospital has just that.

The tech hub opened earlier this month in Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more.

"Basically this space is like a laboratory for digital health innovations," says Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist. "It's an opportunity to bring doctors, administrators, and subject matter experts to talk through what digital health could be at Houston Methodist."

The tech hub has re-imagined the experiences patients have and demonstrated the effect technology can have in various experiences — from the waiting room or outpatient care to at-home health and a voice control-optimized patient room. There's a virtual reality demo room that showcases the hospital's use of VR for distraction therapy, as well as for a doctor to demonstrate a surgical procedure for his or her patient. Click here to continue reading.

Houston organization names 10 most promising life sciences startups

Here's which life science companies — in Houston and beyond — are ones to watch. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Last week, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship gathered over 1,000 life science experts and attendees virtually for thought leadership as well as 40 company presentations.

The three-day 2020 Virtual Texas Life Science Forum was made possible through a partnership with BioHouston and support from Texas Medical Center and Insperity. At the close of the summit, several companies were recognized with awards.

Houston-based Starling Medical won the Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award, established by BioHouston in honor of the groundbreaking Houston cardiovascular surgeon. The digital health device company is revolutionizing severe bladder dysfunction management with artificial intelligence.

Every year at the forum, the Rice Alliance names its 10 most promising companies working on developing innovative solutions in medical devices, digital health, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, and therapeutics. This year, Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, says they had more applications to present than ever before. Additionally, the presenting companies — about half of which are Houston-based — have already raised more than $275 million in funding. Click here to continue reading.

Houston biotech company is creating a drug that could fight the coronavirus

Pulmotect, a clinical-stage biotechnology company based in Houston, is testing a drug that could be useful in mitigating the threats of the coronavirus, which is currently been recognized as a global health emergency. Getty Images

A drug being developed by a Houston biopharmaceutical company eventually could help combat what the World Health Organization has proclaimed a global health emergency.

Experiments conducted by clinical-stage biotechnology company Pulmotect Inc. show its PUL-042 inhaled drug has proven effective in protecting mice against two types of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

In the Galveston experiments, a single inhaled dose of PUL-042 protected lab mice from the SARS virus, and it greatly reduced the amount of virus in their lungs after the mice became infected with SARS or MERS.

"With the risks of virulent coronaviruses and other threats increasing, as shown by the recent outbreak in Wuhan that has already spread from China to other countries including the United States, Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of current and emerging pathogens and protecting vulnerable populations," says CEO Dr. Colin Broom in a news release. Click here to continue reading.

Pulmotect, a clinical-stage biotechnology company based in Houston, is testing a drug that could be useful in mitigating the threats of the coronavirus, which is currently been recognized as a global health emergency. Getty Images

Houston biotech company is creating a drug that could fight the coronavirus

Med tech

A drug being developed by a Houston biopharmaceutical company eventually could help combat what the World Health Organization has proclaimed a global health emergency.

Experiments conducted by clinical-stage biotechnology company Pulmotect Inc. show its PUL-042 inhaled drug has proven effective in protecting mice against two types of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

In the Galveston experiments, a single inhaled dose of PUL-042 protected lab mice from the SARS virus, and it greatly reduced the amount of virus in their lungs after the mice became infected with SARS or MERS.

"With the risks of virulent coronaviruses and other threats increasing, as shown by the recent outbreak in Wuhan that has already spread from China to other countries including the United States, Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of current and emerging pathogens and protecting vulnerable populations," says CEO Dr. Colin Broom in a news release.

The ability of PUL-042 to ward off the newest type of coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, hasn't been tested yet. However, the drug eventually could help prevent the new virus from spreading, says Broom, who joined Pulmotect as CEO last fall. A separate study would be required to evaluate PUL-042 in patients exposed to 2019-nCoV, he says.

"PUL-042 has the potential to prevent and treat respiratory complications in many high-risk patient populations, including those where no effective therapies are currently available, as is the case with the current coronavirus outbreak," Brenton Scott, president and chief operating officer of Pulmotect, says in the release.

Since its discovery in late December 2019 in Wuhan, China, nearly 9,800 people around the world were infected with 2019-nCoV as of January 31, The New York Times reported. Of those people, more than 200 died. On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the virus outbreak a global health emergency.

No specific treatment or cure for 2019-nCoV virus is available. This virus is among seven known coronaviruses.

Symptoms of the Wuhan coronavirus include fever, cough, and shortness of breath, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The virus can cause pneumonia, SARS, kidney failure, or even death, the Virginia Department of Health says.

PUL-042 "would be a great tool to have available for future outbreaks and epidemics, in addition to being used more routinely for more common infections," Broom says.

Fighting coronaviruses is a potential byproduct of PUL-042.

Initially, Pulmotect is focusing development of PUL-042 on the prevention and treatment of respiratory complications suffered by cancer patients with suppressed immune systems. Phase 1 clinical trials already have taken place in the U.S., and Phase 2 clinical trials are scheduled for later this year.

A separate trial of PUL-042 is underway in London. There, the drug is being tested on patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who are prone to lung infections. COPD is an inflammatory disease that blocks airflow from the lungs. People with COPD face a heightened risk of conditions like heart disease and lung cancer, the Mayo Clinic says.

Broom says PUL-042 is a few years away from being considered for approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

To date, Pulmotect has raised more than $28 million in outside funding. Founded in 2007, Pulmotect emerged from Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, which nurtures early stage companies in the life sciences sector.

Patents for PUL-042, invented by MD Anderson Cancer Center and Texas A&M University, have been issued in nine countries.

A Houston biotech company has a new CEO and is ready for growth. Getty Images

Houston biopharmaceutical company brings on new CEO to grow company

Head honcho

With a veteran of the biopharmaceutical industry now aboard as its CEO and an executive at pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca now serving on its board, Houston-based biopharmaceutical company Pulmotect Inc. is poised for progress.

In September, Dr. Colin Broom joined Pulmotect as CEO. He previously was CEO of Ireland-based Nabriva Therapeutics plc, a biopharmaceutical company that went public in 2015. During Broom's tenure at Nabriva, he helped develop the recently approved drug Xenleta, which treats bacterial pneumonia. Before that, he was chief scientific officer at Pennsylvania-based pharmaceutical company ViroPharma Inc., which Massachusetts-based Shire plc purchased for $4.2 billion in 2014.

Broom's hiring came on the heels of Kumar Srinivasan being named to Pulmotect's board of directors. Srinivasan is vice president of United Kingdom-based AstraZeneca and is its global head of business development and licensing for biopharmaceuticals R&D.

Researchers at MD Anderson Cancer Center and Texas A&M University invented Pulmotect's main product, PUL-042, which holds patents in nine countries. Pulmotect, founded in 2007, emerged from Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, which nurtures early stage companies in the life sciences sector.

"Attracting such a highly regarded and proven CEO as Colin is a clear signal of the power and potential of Pulmotect's development program," Pulmotect's executive chairman, Leo Linbeck III, founder and chairman of Fannin, says in a release. "Under his leadership, I'm confident that we will advance our technology further into the clinic and closer to the marketplace. His addition is a real game-changer for the company."

Both Broom and Srinivasan are focusing on clinical trials for Pulmotect's PUL-042 product, an inhaled therapy that holds the potential to prevent or treat respiratory infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The current Phase 2 trial is evaluating the effectiveness of PUL-042 in treating patients with mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who've been exposed to a respiratory virus. The current trial is supposed to be followed by additional Phase 2 trials.

COPD, which affects 30 million Americans, is the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S., according to the COPD Foundation. Pulmotect says 40 percent of COPD-related costs could be avoided by preventing complications and hospitalizations, which typically result from COPD problems triggered by a bacterial or viral infection. PUL-042 could substantially decrease those complications, the company says.

Pulmotect seeks to gear PUL-042 toward patients with cancer who are undergoing chemotherapy, as their weakened immunity makes them highly susceptible to pneumonia, Broom says. If the product proves effective with those patients, then people at risk of developing respiratory infections also might benefit from it, including COPD patients and flu patients, he says.

To date, Pulmotect has raised more than $28 million in funding. That includes about $18 million in research grants, including a $7 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, as well as seven grants from the Small Business Innovation Research program.

Two of Pulmotect's three full-time employees work in Houston, and a team of consultants supports their work, Broom says. A small number of employees might be added during the current Phase 2 trial. Hiring would need to be ramped up if the Phase 2 trial demonstrates that PUL-042 works, he says.

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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

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.