3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Get to know this week's Houston innovators to know — and the companies they've founded. Courtesy photos

This week's innovators to know are all Houston startup founders who have identified a need in their industries and created companies to provide solutions.

From blockchain and data to real estate and smart materials, these Houston entrepreneurs are making an impact across industries as well as the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo Corp.

andrew bruce

Andrew Bruce had the idea for Data Gumbo when he realized how difficult it was to share data in upstream oil and gas. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

The oil and gas industry was sitting on a gold mine without any idea of how to harvest it before Andrew Bruce and his company Data Gumbo came around. If energy companies were ever going to be able to set up autonomous drilling, they needed to integrate data and challenge the commercial model.

"Data Gumbo was originally founded to solve that integration problem. Take data from different sources, standardize it, clean it up, and make sure only the people who have the authority to get access to the data, can get access to the data," Bruce says on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's why we're called Data Gumbo — take a bunch of data, put it in the pot, stir it up, and make it taste good."

Now, years after founding the company, Bruce has raised millions and has expanded to new industries, and he has more up his sleeves. Listen to the episode and read more here.

Reda Hicks, CEO and founder of GotSpot Inc.

reda hicks

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

Every company, once a year, has to face the annoying and challenging tasks associated with the planning the holiday party — including identifying the point person for planning, which is usually someone who has an entire other job to focus on in addition to their new party planning tasks.

"I've worked at a law firm for over a decade, and I remember the giant hassle it was at the last minute to figure out who was responsible for the holiday party," says Reda Hicks founder and CEO of GotSpot Inc., a platform that connects people with short-term commercial space.

GotSpot's new seasonal tool — Holiday SOS — aims to be companies' one-stop shop for planning corporate holiday celebrations, from luncheons to happy hours and no matter the size of the event. The opportunity allows for the burden to be taken off that person within the company — who has a real, non party-planning job — while also allowing for new avenues of daytime business for party service providers. Click here to read more.

Ody De La Paz, CEO and founder of Sensytec

ody de la paz

Ody De La Paz's company, Sensytec, started as a class project and turned into a growing startup. Courtesy of Sensytec

Some people find and accept a post-graduation job while in college, but Ody De La Paz actually created his job and his company while in school. Sensytec, a smart concrete developer, may have began as just a class project at the University of Houston's Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship within the C. T. Bauer College of Business, but De La Paz and his team have proven the market need of his product over and over again.

De La Paz saw the need to really grow and develop his company after competing in a series of pitch competitions. He and his cofounder, Anudeep Maddi, competed in eight across the world, and took hope first place prizes in five.

"That kind of gave us the hint that this should be a company, and we need to make it happen as quick as possible," De La Paz, CEO of Sensytec says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more here.

GotSpot's Holiday SOS tool will help you plan a seamless holiday event for your company. Getty Images

Houston startup launches 1-stop shop for corporate holiday event planning

holiday hero

A Houston startup that specializes in finding short-term real estate space for various purposes is putting its coordination skills to good work this holiday season.

GotSpot's Holiday SOS aims to be companies' one-stop shop for planning corporate holiday celebrations, from luncheons to happy hours and no matter the size of the event.

"I worked at a law firm for over a decade, and I remember the giant hassle it was at the last minute to figure out who was responsible for the holiday party," says Reda Hicks founder and CEO of GotSpot Inc.

The opportunity allows for the burden to be taken off that person within the company — who has a real, non party-planning job — while also allowing for new avenues of daytime business for party service providers.

"The idea is that I'm pairing spots with local service providers to make it really easy for somebody to have a corporate holiday luncheon or happy hour," Hicks says.

And, on the GotSpot end, Hicks is able to make connections with venues and service providers, while also testing GotSpot's business plan.

"It's a little bit of a pilot for us," Hicks says.

Down the road, GotSpot will have the technology for the process to be completely automated, but for now it's manual. Interested companies can head to GotSpot's website to view options for various venues and service providers, including menus, available bartenders, etc. Within a day, Hicks will get in touch to confirm details and explain next steps.

Hicks says she's gotten several requests already — including one for an event in San Antonio, which is interesting to Hicks since that's a market she has her eye on for launching GotSpot. In fact, when GotSpot launches its booking technology in the second quarter, a few "spots" of hers will be in central Texas.

Spaces plans to open a new location in Houston this month, Chevron Technology Ventures invests in autonomous vehicle tech, and more Houston innovation news. Courtesy of Spaces

New coworking space to open, Houston to host Accenture's health tech awards, and more innovation news

Short stories

A lot is happening in the Houston innovation ecosystem — so much that you may have missed a few key news items. Let's hit the highlights, shall we?

Applications are open for major health tech awards program that is coming to town, a Houston corporate venture fund doles out cash to self-driving cars, new coworking space to deliver, a diversity-focused partnership launches, and more Houston innovation news.

Chevron Technology Ventures invests in self-driving cars

Voyage is growing its fleet of self-driving vehicles with the help of a Houston corporate VC fund. Photo via voyage.auto

Silicon Valley's Voyage, a self-driving car technology company, closed its series B round at $31 million. Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures contributed to the round.

The round's funds will go toward expanding the company's fleet of G2 autonomous vehicles in California and Florida, as well as introduce Voyage's G3 self-driving car, Oliver Cameron, co-founder and CEO at Voyage, writes in a release.

"Chevron has been supporting the public's transportation needs for over 100 years. As our customers' mobility needs and preferences change, we want to continue to be part of their journeys. Our investment in Voyage affirms this commitment," says Barbara Burger, CTV president, in a release. "We established the Future Energy Fund in 2018 with an initial commitment of $100 million to invest in breakthrough technologies that enable the ongoing energy transition. The fund looks for technologies that lower emissions and support low carbon value chains. Our investment in Voyage fits well within the objectives of the Future Energy Fund while also informing our perspective on the changing energy landscape."

Accenture to close out health tech challenge in Houston

accenture

The national challenge will conclude in Houston. Courtesy of Accenture

Applications are open for the fourth annual Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge and close on September 22. Finalists will present to judges from global health companies at one of two regional events — in Boston on Nov. 7 or in San Francisco on Dec. 5. The final judging event will take place in Houston on February 6, 2020.

"We look forward to this year's submissions as we continue to identify bold ideas from startups that deliver new solutions for health organizations to improve the lives of consumers, clinicians and employees," says Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health and innovation at Accenture, in a release. "Since its inception, the Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge has brought healthcare organizations and startups together to tackle the world's biggest health issues where we have received more than 2,200 applications, invited more than 90 startups to compete and who have benefitted from the guidance of nearly 1,000 executive judges from the healthcare industry."

The submission form, including additional details about the challenge's criteria, eligibility, and requirements, is available at: Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge-Health.

GotSpot wins pitch competition

Reda Hicks claimed the win at a military spouse pitch event. Trish Alegre-Smith/Military.com

Reda Hicks, who founded Houston-based GotSpot Inc., won a $15,000 check from the StreetShares Foundation and Samuel Adams' Brewing the American Dream at the Great American Military Entrepreneur at the Military Influencer Conference in Washington, D.C.

GotSpot is 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.

"This award is a game-changer for me," Hicks says to Military.com. "This will allow me to hire more incredible military spouses and help GotSpot on its path to go global."

Rice University launches new sports business course

Rice University

Rice University has a new sports business program. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University, along with the Houston Texans, is introducing a new program for the university's sport management students. Pro Sports: Management is a course designed to teach the business side of the sports world.

"We are thrilled to partner with Rice University on a curriculum that will provide their best and brightest students with insight into the real-world opportunities and challenges facing today's sports teams," says Houston Texans President Jamey Rootes in a release from Rice. "This program is rather unique because our leading executives will work alongside Rice professors to teach current best practices in franchise management across every discipline. We believe that this type of practical industry exposure is the best way to prepare the next generation of leaders in the field of sports management and a valuable contribution to the level of professionalism within our industry."

The classes will be held weekly in the executive offices of the Texans. The course will cover ticketing, public relations, event management, human resources and more.

Spaces plans to open second coworking location in Houston

Spaces, an Amsterdam-based coworking space company that entered the Houston market with a lease in Kirby Grove announced in 2017, plans to open its newest location this month. Courtesy of Spaces

The new Spaces CityCentre One location is planned to open on Monday, September 30. It's the Amsterdam-based company's second coworking space in Houston, with a third already in the works. The first location was in Kirby Grove in 2017, and Spaces Galleria at Post Oak will be opening in the second quarter of 2020.

The CityCentre One location will have over 60,000 square-feet of workspace with perks, including a business club, dedicated desk space, private offices, and seven fully-equipped meeting rooms. Plus, the building is just steps away from CityCentre, a mixed-use development with restaurants, entertainment, housing, and more. Membership pricing starts at $111 a month at the new location.

Cemvita Factory receives more backing from oil and gas industry

Cemvita Factory Cemvita Factory

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, a biotech company that can mimick photosynthesis and convert CO2 into glucose and other substances, has received equity investment from BHP. The amount of the investment was not disclosed.

The investment will help Cemvita Factory continue to develop its biomimicry technology for oil and gas applications to reduce the volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

"This strategic investment fits well with BHP's vision of the future: reducing operational greenhouse gas emissions, reducing environmental impact and the development of low-emissions technology, including increased application of carbon capture, utilization and storage technology," says BHP's chief geoscientist, Laura Tyler, in a release.

Last month, Occidental Petroleum's low carbon subsidiary, Oxy Low Carbon Ventures LLC, announced it invested an undisclosed amount of funds into Cemvita Factory.

Two organizations join forces to promote diversity in the Houston Startup Scene

Impact Hub Houston and The Cannon have teamed up to grow programming and events surrounding diversity. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

In an effort to promote diversity and inclusion within the Houston innovation ecosystem, The Cannon and Impact Hub Houston have teamed up. The collaboration will drive programming and events geared at growing the conversation and resources for startups and entrepreneurs.

"One of Houston's best differentiating qualities is that we are truly a melting pot," says Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. "We want our community to reflect the amazing diversity across our city, so we have to move beyond simply discussing diversity and work to create an environment where innovation can thrive and real change can happen. We are confident Impact Hub will be the perfect partner to bring those aspects to our community."

Gow, who is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO, opened the doors to its new 120,000-square-foot facility in July. Impact Hub Houston will have a presence in the space.

"Over the past few years, Lawson and I have brainstormed how we could work together to connect and grow our region's innovation ecosystem and demonstrate how organizations can evolve from competition to true collaboration," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and Executive Director of Impact Hub Houston, in the release. "I'm so excited that those talks have developed into this partnership: Through The Cannon and Impact Hub Houston, we'll be able to effectively 'meet people where they are' geographically, socially, and culturally, helping diverse entrepreneurs and startups at the myriad intersections of place, purpose, demographics, psychographics, and business growth stages."

Houston innovator nominated for prestigious Silicon Valley award

Alley Lyles is up for an award for her work in digital transformation.

Alley Lyles, digital transformation manager at Direct Energy and Houston startup mentor, was nominated for a Women in IT - Silicon Valley award as Transformation Leader of the Year. The awards event is on October 9.

She is up against Emily Dunn at Anaplan, Windy Garrett at Atos, Manju Abraham at Delphix, Aashima Gupta at Google, Patricia Grant at ServiceNow, and Nataliya Anon at Svitla Systems.

"I am proud to represent Houston in Silicon Valley. The Houston hustle is real. I see it amongst my colleagues who got me here. The hustle isn't always glamorous, so I appreciate the moment when a kid from the East End can shine."

A handful of Houston startups will be bouncing back and forth to Austin for the second annual MassChallenge Texas accelerator. Getty Images

These are the Houston companies headed to MassChallenge Texas in Austin

Texas road trip

It's the second cohort for Boston-based MassChallenge Texas in Austin, and this year's 74 selected finalists are well represented by Houston.

"Coming from an extremely competitive application pool, the startups in our second Austin-based cohort represent an incredibly high bar of creativity and talent, all of who are poised to make an impact," says Mike Millard, managing director of MassChallenge Texas, in a release. "This year's program will offer the finalists innovation at scale with direct access to resources through our programs in Houston and Austin, and our community around the state. Through these channels, startups will have more opportunities to test and validate their ideas with partners while creating meaningful engagements to help them get to pilot or pivot as fast as possible."

While there is the upcoming MassChallenge Texas inaugural Houston cohort, these seven companies opted for a spot in the Austin-based cohort where the stakes are higher and cash prizes are on the line — $500,000, the largest equity-free cash prize in Texas, to be precise. (Houston's inaugural set of prizes reportedly don't included money.)

These are seven of the Houston-related companies that will be trekking back and forth to Austin from June until October.

crewcollar

Getty Images

It's crewcollar's mission to optimize hiring for industrial and blue-collar jobs, simplifying the entire process from curated job posts to paperwork filing. The company is based just outside of Houston in Missouri City.

"We are super excited to be joining MassChallenge Texas, and know that this experience will help us take it to the next level," says M. Siler, CEO and founder, in a release.

GotSpot Inc.

Courtesy of GotSpot

Houston-based GotSpot is Reda Hicks solution to finding temporary space quickly and easily — in a way that benefits all sides of the transaction. The model is like AirBnb, but for retail, meeting, and even emergency space. The corporate lawyer has grown the platform over the past few years and the MassChallenge opportunity is another move in the right direction. Click here to read more about Hicks and GotSpot.

Grant Source

Photo via grantsourceapp.com

Grant Source is like the magic genie to help organizations find funding through grants and opportunities. The Houston startup has a database of opportunities and can help match businesses with appropriate grants to apply to — all within the Grant Source mobile app.

Guzo

Getty Images

Guzo is the tool every traveler has dreamed up. The Houston-based app connects travelers — not just in the planning phase — but throughout the travel process. The company was created by two brothers — Joshua and Gordon Taylor — and is the recreation of Croozen, formerly a long-distance carpool app.

"One of the things that got Gordan and I excited in the beginning of Croozen was just the idea of someone else in the car with you and that shared experience," Joshua Taylor tells InnovationMap in a previous interview about revamping Croozen as Guzo. "Looking past that, just being focused on the car was hindering us. Let's divorce the car and focus on travel as a whole."

Lazarus 3D

Photo via laz3d.com

Practice makes perfect, and surgeons should be as close to perfect as possible, right? Lazarus 3D uses 3D printing to make realistic body parts and organs so that surgeons can rehearse their surgeries before ever slicing into a patient. The company is conveniently located in the Texas Medical Center.

Pilot Plus

Photo via pilotplus.com

The trucking industry needs a rebrand. It's a tireless job that's go-go-go, and the unappealing nature of the career isn't ideal. Pilot Plus puts the humanity back in the process that benefits the driver and makes for bragging rights for the company employing the trucker. The logistics company allows for a system of drivers that work together for the long haul so that drivers can actually spend time resting in their own homes.

Topl

Courtesy of Topl

Topl's MassChallenge bio lists their HQ in the Netherlands, but the blockchain startup founded by three Rice University alumni has some of its operations right here in town. Topl has a goal of using blockchain technology to connect the dots and enhance transparency in various applications from retail to even being able to track the success of investments or scholarships.

"We are a generation that wants a story," Kim Raath, president at Topl, tells InnovationMap in a previous interview. "We want an origin, and don't want to be fooled. And, because you might be able to reduce the cost by having this transparency, you might be able to bring down the cost on both sides."


Reda Hicks (left) of GotSpot Inc, Ghazal Qureshi (center) of Idea Lab Kids, and Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother are this week's innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston female entrepreneurs to know this week

Who's who

Another Monday means another set of innovators to know. This one focuses on a few female startup leaders changing the game in the commercial real estate and education industries.

Reda Hicks, founder and CEO of GotSpot Inc.

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

Turns out, Hurricane Harvey was the big push Reda Hicks needed to create her startup, GotSpot Inc., the Airbnb of commercial real estate.

"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."

Hicks, a lawyer by trade, now juggles startup life, being a wife and mom, and her full-time legal career. Read the rest of the story here.

Ghazal Qureshi, founder of Idea Lab Kids

Ghazal Qureshi wanted to engage her own kids in educational activities. Now, her programing has expanded worldwide. Courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

At first, Ghazal Qureshi just wanted to find her kids a quality after school educational program. When she couldn't, she decided to make something herself. Now, it's a franchised company with locations worldwide.

"From the beginning, we were never restricted by trying to make money. It was a passion project only," Qureshi says.

IDEA Lab Kids, an education program focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, has 18 locations in Houston, and, two years ago, she expanded the brand into a franchise business — the Idea Lab International Franchise Company. Read the rest of the story here.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell's startup, Work & Mother, provides a new way for new moms to pump breast milk during the workday. Courtesy of Work & Mother

When Abbey Donnell heard horror stories from some friends who recently returned to work after giving birth, she had an idea. What if new moms had a stylish, spa-like lactation experience during the workday that was less inconvenient and, well, awkward.

"There were constant stories about [women] being told the use the IT closet, or the conference room, or the bathroom or their cars," Donnell says. "Some of them were pretty big oil and gas firms companies that should've had the resources and space to do better than that."

Donnell founded Work & Mother, a boutique pumping and wellness center, and opened the first location in downtown Houston in 2017 and is planning its second downtown location. Read the rest of the story here.

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

How a Houston corporate lawyer is making short-term commercial space easier to find

Featured Innovator

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 says. "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."

GotSpot Inc. soft launched last June with 17 listings. The company now has 37 and new listings are generated daily. Hicks has won two pitch competitions and is headed to Silicon Valley in March for Women's Startup Labs.

"In 2019, we're going to be working with local business partners, like the chambers. We'll be working on building out a team. I'll be hitting the road in March headed to Silicon Valley for Women's Startup Labs."

She spoke with InnovationMap on her career and what it takes to be a mom, a wife, a corporate lawyer, and a startup founder — all rolled into one.

InnovationMap: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

Reda Hicks: I feel like I kind of grew up the way a lot of small town, lower middle class kids do. The options you're aware of were either people you know or what you see on TV. Growing up there were no people in my life who were entrepreneurs. Even as a professional, it never even occurred to me. It's more about seeing a problem I wanted to be solved more than I just wanted to own my own business.

IM: How does GotSpot work?

RH: I have two types of users. One is the person who has the space — a shop on Main Street or conference rooms you're not using — and you're looking for a way to monetize that space. We call those our spot holders. It's so easy to go on the platform and create your profile and generate a listing. On the other side, I have spot seekers who can go on the site and search the available listings they are interested in booking for hours, days, or weeks at a time. It's not fully automated right now. The booking process and the calendar is all ran by me. In the next two to three months, we'll have it up and running like that, and it will feel a lot like Airbnb.

It's strictly website based right now, and I did that intentionally. Spot holders don't want to build their profile on their phones. But the site is mobile friendly.

IM: What are some early challenges you faced?

RH: My biggest challenge honestly was having a problem and wanting to solve it, but not knowing where to start — especially because I'm not a tech person. From a subject matter and contacts perspective, I felt like I had the resources. My first question was, "Who can I call?" It's a testament to Houston. No one I called said no. We talk often about how we are a new ecosystem, but we also are an extremely generous and connected city. What I see and what I hope continues is that we are an ecosystem that builds by leveraging all the awesome that's already here.

IM: Where did the name come from?

RH: I reached out to three military spouses I know and asked them to help. We spitballed a bunch of ideas. I wanted it to be simple and clear, because so many brands come up with a cute name but it takes forever to explain. We literally pulled out a thesaurus and thought of all the words that mean "space" and "finding," and that exercise is where GotSpot came from.

IM: What makes GotSpot different from anything else out there?

RH: There are a few different marketplaces out there for commercial space, but they tend to be more specialized. But another way GotSpot is different is I'm being very intentionally community driven. I look at GotSpot as your digital sidekick to grow your business — whether it's helping you pay your rent by creating a new way to make money or helping you say yes to more opportunities. But I'm also collecting information on how that same space can be used for the community. Harvey is a part of my origin story. Every time I onboard a new space, I ask if you are willing to be activated in case of an emergency, and if so, how can you be used — industrial space or washer and dryers. In other communities, there are other kind of emergencies. And, I also know half the nonprofits in Texas don't keep their own space any more, because donors don't want their money to go to overhead. I ask my space holders if they are willing to give a discount to nonprofits.

IM: What expertise from your career as a corporate lawyer do you bring to your startup career?

RH: A couple of things. I've spent my whole career working in large corporations. I really understand how the inside of a company works and how to think creatively and mitigate risks. It's so interesting because when I start talking to people about GotSpot, I have to be honest about how this is my first entrepreneurial experience. So when I say that, people tell me, "well, you're going to have to have really good counsel." And I tell them, "well, actually, I am really good counsel." The demeanor of who I'm talking to — whether it's an adviser or a potential investor — fundamentally shifts.

IM: What's been the most challenging aspect of still working full time and having a family?

RH: Probably the thing that has been the most challenging has been access to resources as a female founder. What I mean by that is there's all this great programing and things happening around town are always in the evening. It's hard to make happy hours. What I'm starting to see is more programing is a diversity of when that programing is available. I'm privileged in that I can do my job from anywhere during the day, but if all of the golden opportunities are on a weekday at 5 pm, my mommy duties win. Always.

IM: How has Houston been as a home for your startup?

RH: I think one aspect of the secret sauce is how open and can do of a city it is. It is not the traditional thing you think of when you think of startups. But we know better. In the startup space, what I love, is that I am kind of seeing it like we're building the plane as we're flying it. We have some people who have been around for a long time, but even some of our incubators are startups on their own. We have the ability, since we're still building it now, to have an ecosystem that reflects our city. We have a long ways to go, there are still some things that we are working through — capital is one of them.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Overheard: Houston execs weigh in on the innovation ecosystem and local startups

Eavesdropping in Houston

Something has shifted in Houston, and businesses across industries — whether it be real estate, health care, or energy — are focused on innovation, emerging technologies, and the role of startups within the business community.

At the Greater Houston Partnership's annual Economic Outlook on December 5, three panelists from various industries gathered to discuss some of the biggest issues in Houston — from the multifamily real estate market to what the local workforce needs. The panel was moderated by Eddie Robinson, the morning news anchor for Houston Public Radio, and the panelists did weigh in a few issues affecting innovation.

Missed the talk? Here are a few overheard moments from the discussion.

"Houston allows you to do what you do. And you don't get that in other places."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Bradley R. Freels, chairman of Midway Cos. Freels says, while the city's been overshadowed by other Texas cities for innovation and tech — and even by its large oil and gas industry presence, the city is becoming a great place for startups. "This is a great place to do business because it's easy to get started in business here. I think it's just over shadowed to some degree," he says, adding later that, "the initiative around the innovation corridor is real."

"Houston is unique, in my opinion, in how open and welcoming it is."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

— David Milich, CEO of UnitedHealthcare - Texas & Oklahoma. Building off the panelists point that Houston is a spirited, can-do city, Milich specifies that it's the collaboration between people in Houston that sets the city apart. "When we present ourselves with something to get done, we generally get it down."

"We're realizing that the economy is shifting. As we move forward in the 21st century, our entire workforce needs to be tech fluent."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Nataly Marks, managing director and region manager at JPMorgan Chase. When asked about jobs needed in Houston, Marks specified technology positions. Moreover, JPMorgan Chase is emphasizing getting the entire staff proficient in the latest tech resources.

New travel startup plans the perfect vacations for Houston's busy young professionals

GET THERE NOW

Work-life balance for a young professional is hard. There's the dream of travel but the nightmare of planning. Then there's the challenge of working with limited vacation days and finding a friend whose schedule lines up.

To the rescue comes Houston-based Here & Now Travel, which aims to create a vacation free of stress and full of memorable experiences and offers adventurous group travel specifically for young professionals.

When discussing the inspiration for starting their company, cofounder Alex Coleman tells CultureMap that he and his wife and fellow cofounder, Elise, were caught between the benefits and drawbacks of individual versus group travel.

They loved the freedom of solo traveling but not the potential feelings of isolation and vulnerability. When it came to traveling with friends, they enjoyed the bonding and security in a group but not all the work involved with navigating everyone's schedules and preferences during planning.

"We decided to create a travel company that combined the best of both worlds," Coleman says. "A company that gave people the flexibility of going to their desired destinations at their desired time, without losing the experience of traveling with a group of awesome people."

As young professionals themselves, the Colemans also wanted their company to consider the typically low number of vacation days their target clients have. That's why Here & Now trips take advantage of weekends and holidays so participants only have to take a maximum of three days off from work.

Here & Now Travel currently has six trips planned for 2020: two to Costa Rica, two to Colombia, and two to Mexico. On these trips, the itineraries lean towards adventure activities and cultural experiences.

For example, their next trip scheduled for January 9 to January 13 to Costa Rica includes exploring Juan Castro Blanco National Park, zip lining through the rainforest, learning how to make tortillas with a local family, and more.

"We shy away from crowded tourist attractions. We pride ourselves on showing travelers hidden gems of our destinations, be it the hidden Mayan cenote in Tulum where we have to be blessed by the community's Mayan Shaman before entering, or one of the region's largest waterfall in Costa Rica which sits on the land of a small farming family," says Coleman. "Through these tucked away, amazing places, we get to see things others typically don't, and have true interaction with the communities we are visiting.

Each Here & Now package includes private transportation to and from the airport and for the duration of the trip, shared three or four-star accommodation, all breakfasts and lunches, and all entrance fees and itinerary activity costs. Flights, dinners, and the required travel insurance are not included.

If you decide to join one of their trips, you can expect to be in a group of between six and 14 young professionals — with 14 being the absolute max as Here & Now Travel doesn't want to overrun the visited communities or contribute to the overuse of their resources.

"Large groups in charter buses feel clunky and seem like you are trampling or disrupting the destinations you are visiting," says Coleman. "We cap our trips at 14 people, allowing us to be good stewards of the communities we visit, and maintain our feel as a small group of travelers...and not tourists."

Each travel group is also accompanied by a Here & Now host who handles all the logistics as well as a local guide, which is a feature that Coleman believes sets their company apart from others.

"Travelers on Here & Now trips are always led by someone who calls that destination home," he explains. "Our guides have an emotional bond to the places we explore. Their passion and connection to their homes is something that can't be replicated."

Along with employing these local guides, Here & Now Travel works with local drivers, restaurants, and lodging as a way to ensure the money they spend in each community stays in that community.

As a further testament to their commitment to sustainable tourism, Here & Now Travel plans to offset their carbon footprint, which is mainly caused by airline travel, by donating to the nonprofit Trees for Houston in 2020.

The company also has plans to increase their number of trips to once per month and to eventually include European destinations.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.