3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Durg Kumar of Knightsgate Ventures, Rand Stephens of Avison Young, and Shail Sinhasane of Mobisoft. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — from commercial real estate to venture capital.

Durg Kumar, managing partner at Knightsgate Ventures

Durg Kumar — along with his New York-based business partner Allen Bryant — join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund. Photos courtesy

As Durg Kumar enters into his venture capital firm's second fund, his focus is not diverted from Knightsgate Ventures' existing portfolio in this unprecedented time. Throughout the pandemic, Houston-based Knightsgate has been offering support to these startups.

"Now's a good time to retrench and focus on building product," Kumar says, "so that in 2021 when travel restrictions ease, then you've got your refined product to go out and take it to the customers."

Kumar and Allen Bryant, the VCs other partner, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund and more. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Rand Stephens, managing director of Avison Young's Houston office

Rand Stephens discusses COVID-19's effect on office and innovation spaces. Durg Kumar (left) and Allen Bryant, partners at Knightsgate Ventures, join the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss their second fund. Photos courtesy

Since the 1980s, Houston has been increasing focus on diversifying its economy from oil and gas. Rand Stephens has observed this and noted that new innovation centers rising — like The Ion and A&M's new hub in the TMC — are indicators of progress.

"Houston is an incredible diverse city. We have unlimited talent from an engineering standpoint, and I think those types of projects bode well for keeping and attracting top tech talent. I think that's really the key," he says.

He discusses this progress and the effect of the pandemic on CRE in a Q&A. Click here to read more.

Shail Sinhasane, CEO of Mobisoft

This Houston entrepreneur created a new tool can be used to coordinate responsible rides for passengers infected with COVID-19. Photo courtesy

As the pandemic's effects continue to reverberate into aspects of daily life, a Houston software company has pivoted its technology to create an app that can safely transport COVID-19 patients to their quarantine location.

Mobisoft announced the launch of NEMT Pulse, a non-emergency medical transportation app to be used by schools, community health centers, hospitals, and more to easily facilitate isolated rides.

"We pivoted our NEMT software that could be implemented to safely meet the needs of those affected by COVID-19," says Shail Sinhasane, CEO of Mobisoft, in a news release. "This app provides a solution to ensure individuals who have tested positive can get to their quarantine location with one less thing to worry about." Click here to read more.

Rand Stephens, managing director of Avison Young's Houston office, discusses COVID-19's effect on office and innovation spaces. Photo courtesy of Avison Young

Houston real estate expert shares why now's the time for the city's innovation ecosystem to emerge

Q&A

Rand Stephens has been in Houston since the '80s, and he's seen the city evolve from having an economy heavily dominated by oil and gas to a city focused on diversification of industry.

Now, as a technology and innovation ecosystem is emerging with new startup and lab space being developed, Houston is on a good path — even in light of the effects of the pandemic.

"I think that Houston is a very vibrant place and it always has been. It's very entrepreneurial, and it will adjust to the new environment," says Stephens, who's principal at Avison Young and the founding managing director of the company's Houston office.

Stephens discussed the importance of new developments and the effect of the pandemic on the commercial real estate industry in an interview with InnovationMap.

InnovationMap: Why is the timing right for Houston's innovation ecosystem to emerge?

Rand Stephens: Since the '80s, there's been a real emphasis within the city to diversify. Trying to do new things is always difficult because a lot of it has to do with timing — it has to make sense economically. Innovation is a hot thing right now, more so than ever. As a city or company, if you're not constantly innovating, you're going to get left behind.

From a real estate standpoint, we've really had an abundance of low-cost space in an environment that is very entrepreneurial.

IM: Why are emerging innovation campuses like The Ion and Texas A&M Innovation Plaza near the Texas Medical Center so important?

RS: Houston is an incredible diverse city. We have unlimited talent from an engineering standpoint, and I think those types of projects bode well for keeping and attracting top tech talent. I think that's really the key.

You have to have this kind of infrastructure to support the innovation. The more that we can do to make the city walkable and to provide connectivity to the different parts of the city, is important. It's all about the experience. And, I don't think people like getting in the car and fight traffic — I think it's that simple.

IM: Has COVID-19 affected the momentum of innovation development?

RS: It has. But, what I've seen, and it's totally anecdotal, but people are coming to grips with COVID. They are coming to grips with the risks, and, as time goes on, they will see it as a less risky disease as a vaccine and treatment become available.

These innovation spaces are going to be important for collaboration. You lose the spontaneity of innovation and collaboration if you're not around people. But, we're already seeing people in Houston returning to work.

IM: In general, how is the pandemic affecting commercial real estate?

RS: COVID is impacting the office market the most — and I think it will long term as well. There's been a trend for a long time now to use less square footage per person. I think corporations have evolved from looking at their office spaces as a place to put people to work to really trying to create an experiential environment to use the office to re-enforce their culture and brand in order to recruit top talent. COVID has accelerated that trend now.

My gut feeling on that is it's going to depend on the business. Different types of industries function differently, and the size of the business is going to depend on that too. I think the trend of using less square footage per person isn't going to go up. I don't think we're going to see companies taking more space for social distancing. I think what they'll do is give people more flexibility. I think corporates are going to say, "let's ammenitize our space and put people in places where it's experiential and a cool place to work." And I think people are OK with that.

IM: What makes Houston a good city for innovation?

RS: There are three or four reasons off the top of my head, but one is the entrepreneurial spirit and that's pervasive everywhere. Then, we have amazing infrastructure here, with talent and education. Another thing that is key is affordability. Relatively speaking, it's a very affordable city to do business in. The fourth thing would be the diversity and inclusion we have here. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country — and a lot of people don't know that. And I have found it to be an incredibly inclusive city. I think if you move here and you have good ideas and work hard, there's nothing to hold you back here.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Houston robotics company secures multi-million-dollar government contract

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Webster-based Nauticus Robotics Inc., a newly minted public company, continues to make waves with government contracts.

Nauticus says it has been awarded a second multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit, part of the U.S. Defense Department, for development of a self-piloted amphibious robot system powered by the company’s ToolKITT command-and-control software.

In February, Nauticus said it had been given a ToolKITT contract by the Defense Innovation Unit. Under that contract, ToolKITT is being used aboard a remotely controlled undersea vehicle operated by the Navy.

Similar contracts with the Defense Innovation Unit could be on the horizon, Nauticus says.

Nauticus develops oceangoing robots under the brand names Aquanaut and Hydronaut, along with the ToolKITT autonomy software and related services. It’s forecasting 2023 revenue of $90 million.

Driven by machine learning, ToolKITT helps identify, categorize, and perform activities that can “remove, detect, identify, inspect, and neutralize hazards underwater,” according to a Nauticus news release.

ToolKITT is used for various self-piloted robotics products, including Nauticus’ Aquanaut.

“We are humbled and honored to be doing our part to advance the usage of robotics and autonomous systems to remove servicemembers from harm’s way,” says Ed Tovar, director of business development for defense systems at Nauticus.

Nauticus’ stock began trading September 13 on the Nasdaq market. The milestone came four days after Nauticus merged with publicly traded CleanTech Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” shell company formed to acquire or merge with a business. At one point, the merger was valued at $560 million.

The new combo, operating under the Nauticus name, is led by Nauticus founder and CEO Nicolaus Radford.

“The closing of this business combination represents a pivotal milestone in our company’s history as we take public our pursuit of transforming the ocean robotics industry with autonomous systems,” Radford says in a news release. “Not only is the ocean a tremendous economic engine, but it is also the epicenter for building a sustainable future.”

Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”