A Rice University professor has developed a new early warning system and planning tool for the city of Houston. Photo courtesy of Kinder Institute

It's no secret: certain areas around Houston are at a high risk of flooding. And risks associated with such natural disasters become even more substantial in the middle of a pandemic.

"What if first responders have to go to a shelter, a nursing home, or another facility where there's COVID, right in the middle of a flood," Phil Bedient, director of Rice University's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, asks in a statement.

His solution? To develop a new early warning system and planning tool for the city of Houston to help hospitals and other critical facilities on the watersheds of Brays, Sims, Hunting and White Oak bayous respond.

"The idea is to provide a tool that can help emergency managers better deal with situations with multiple risks," he says.

Dubbed the Flood Information and Response System (FIRST), the tool is a radar-based flood assessment, mapping, and early-warning system based on more than 350 maps that simulate different combinations of rainfall over various areas of the watershed. The maps are compared to a weather radar and stream gauges on the bayous to alert users of likely scenarios during a weather event.

FIRST was derived from the Rice/Texas Medical Center Flood Alert System (FAS), which Bedient created 20 years ago. The latest iteration, FAS5, debuted in 2020. Since the product's creation it has accurately alerted users in more that 60 storms and has warned hospital officials in the TMC of the threat of rising water in the area more than two hours before it would eventually occur, according to a statement.

FIRST was funded by federal CARES Act dollars and commissioned by the Houston Health Department, following concerns that overflows at wastewater treatment plants could potentially expose communities to the COVID-19, Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice, says in a statement.

"The FIRST model assessed what areas and facilities are at highest risk of overflows that could spread SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens during flooding and similar events," Hopkins added. "During a flood, the information gained through this system will inform the public health response to control the spread of pathogens that could make people sick."

CARES funds for FIRST's development were approved in the fall and Rice University undergraduates jumped at the opportunity to build out the product by the December 31 deadline, using hydrologic software and maps they had created with training from Bedient about a year prior.

"They performed herculean tasks," Bedient says. "Our deadline was hard and fast, and they helped us deliver the operational project and report on time."

FIRST was reported to have worked well during May's deluge, and will continue to be refined as more data, storms, and floodwaters arise. A demo is available to test online.

Houston has proven to be resilient time and time again. In a guest column, Amy Chronis explores if 2020 has the potential to be Clutch City's breaking point. Photo via Pexels

Clutch City: Is 2020 a time of devastation or doubling down for Houston?

guest column

"Clutch City" may be Houston's most befitting nickname — and it has proven to stand the test of time. Whoever coined the term likely had no idea in how many ways this moniker would be tested and upheld over the next 20-plus years.

Time and time again the fourth largest city in America has proven to be resilient, whether it be a natural catastrophe, tough economic times or the global pandemic. But, will the multi-dimensional stresses of 2020 break the city's winning streak?

Houston is also well known for being The Energy Capital of the World, a qualifier that has meant record revenue and jobs growth, as well as weathering several oil and gas economic down cycles. While the city has taken many hits from previous downturns, it has always been able to recover. The oil, gas and chemicals downturn of 2020, however, is unlike anything we've ever seen before — and could fundamentally transform the energy industry, as well as Houston's economy.

This year, the industry has been grappling with the energy transition while it is also is facing the "Great Compression," sustained low oil prices on top of diminished oil demand from the global pandemic, and the "Great Crew Change." The confluence of these simultaneous challenges could have profound impacts on the workforce and future of work in the oil, gas and chemicals industry. According to Deloitte's latest report, 70 percent of jobs in the industry lost during the pandemic may not return by the end of 2021.

The silver lining "clutch" play may be that Houston already has been on the path and is continuing to diversify its businesses, even within the energy and industrial sectors. The Greater Houston Partnership touts Houston's key industries beyond energy, including advanced manufacturing, aerospace and aviation, life sciences and biotechnology, digital technology and transportation and logistics. Notably, the common thread linking these industries is the need for greater digitalization of and within business models.

The encouraging news is that Houston has anticipated this need and factored it into its future planning. For example, the development of Ion Houston is designed to be the anchor of a 16-plus acre Innovation District in Houston dedicated to innovation, entrepreneurship and technology. This could be the type of investment the city needs to focus on as we grapple with a hard-hit economy. At this point, it is beyond choosing to prioritize moving to what's been called Industry 4.0 — digitalization should be a priority for companies wanting to survive and stay competitive.

According to an analysis conducted by the Greater Houston Partnership of the largest Texas cities, the following sectors had the most VC deals in technology over the last 20 years: life science, oil and gas, oncology, B2B payments, infrastructure and FemTech. The analysis also showcased the top niche tech specialties outside of oil and gas spanned multiple industries including life sciences, legal, space, environmental and FinTech. Houston's dual effort of industry diversification and focus on digitalization has been prescient.

COVID-19 has further accelerated the importance for companies across sectors to get on the fast track to Industry 4.0. The time for transformation is now. The oil, gas and chemicals sector, as well as all sectors, should start building a workforce for the future in order to survive and break the barriers to entry to Industry 4.0. This effort typically includes attracting people across generations by promoting sustainability, offering new digital ways of working, making flexible/remote working a permanent reality while building a sense of pride amongst the workforce toward the work product and organization itself.

Organizational agility is one way through this downturn. Challenging traditional ways of thinking and functioning will likely be required for companies to remain competitive.

The advance work and planning Houston has undertaken to diversify its economy by expanding its industries and focusing on digitalization and the future of workforce, together may ensure that we keep Houston strong and that the "Clutch City" lives up to its name.

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Amy Chronis is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte.

Mayor Sylvester Turner was just named chairman of the Resilient Cities Network. Photo courtesy of The Ion

Mayor Turner recognized nationally for progress of moving Houston toward resiliency

Turner's plans

In the past five years, six federally declared flooding disasters have wreaked havoc in Houston — most notably Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Now, you might say Houston stands tall as a hub of resilience when it comes to disaster preparedness and myriad other pressing issues.

The Texas chapter of the American Planning Association recently honored Mayor Sylvester Turner's Resilient Houston initiative as the top entry in the resilience category of the chapter's annual awards program. In addition, Turner was just named chairman of the Resilient Cities Network.

With backing from Shell Oil Co., the City of Houston hired its first chief resilience officer, Marissa Aho, in 2019 and developed a multibillion-dollar resilience strategy to address threats from hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, and climate change. The plan also seeks to boost the resilience of Houston's economy, neighborhoods and natural resources.

"Our efforts need to be bold, transformative, and aligned to achieve the outcomes Houstonians deserve," Turner said in unveiling the resilience plan in February. "Resilient Houston is a framework for transformative change that comes from thinking and acting together to build and grow Houston's long-term resilience. We will need our partners and every Houstonian at the table to achieve this vision."

Dallas and El Paso also have resilience plans in place.

Houston's resilience effort outlines a number of ambitious goals, such as:

  • Updating city building codes and standards by 2030 to reduce damage from disasters.
  • Attracting or incubating 50 Energy 2.0 companies in the Houston area by 2025.
  • Planting 4.6 million new native trees by 2030.
  • Building at least 375,000 homes in Houston for all income levels by 2050.
  • Providing all Houstonians with easy access to high-frequency public transportation by 2050.

As explained by Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research, hurricanes and floods are examples of "acute shocks" in terms of resilience. These are sudden, large-scale events that disrupt and endanger life. Other shocks include economic crisis, cyberattacks, terrorism, chemical disasters, and extreme heat.

The Kinder Institute points out that Houston's resilience strategy not only addresses these shocks but also takes on "chronic stresses" that hamper recovery from these shocks. Those stresses include poor air quality, health disparities, crime, economic inequality, urban sprawl, and limited access to education.

"Stresses do not impact every Houstonian the same way," says the institute, which helped develop the Resilient Houston project.

Startups participating in Houston's Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator are tackling many of the same challenges that Resilient Houston is. The accelerator's second cohort launched in April with six startups.

Funded by Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp., the accelerator "is committed to solving challenges Houstonians face every day," Christine Galib, director of the accelerator, said in an April release. "We connect participating startups with mentors, partners, and stakeholders so they gain access to the resources they need to build, validate, and scale their technologies. Together, we are building a safer, smarter, and more accessible city for all Houstonians."

Houston's push for resilience meshes with Turner's new role as chairman of the Resilient Cities Network. The network is a global city-led nonprofit that aims to "empower cities to help them build a safe, equitable, and sustainable future for all."

"The reach, achievements, and vision of the Resilient Cities Network are impressive. I'm honored to be part of an organization that supports the critical needs of vulnerable communities by implementing projects that address multiple shocks and stresses and are improving the lives of people," Turner says in a release.

Among other goals, the network strives to strengthen local economies and bolster local campaigns to combat climate change.

Supported by $1.8 million from Shell, the City of Houston joined the Resilient Cities Network in August 2018. Houston is the U.S. headquarters for Shell.

"A year after Hurricane Harvey, Houstonians can clearly say we didn't let the storm get the best of us. Nevertheless, there's still work to be done across a wide range of challenges that we share as a community," Bruce Culpepper, who then was president and U.S. chairman of Shell, said in a 2018 release about his company's backing of Resilient Houston.

"Building long-term resiliency is much more than disaster response," Culpepper added. "It's about enabling the people of our city to thrive."

The innovations and Houston startups that came out of Hurricane Harvey are no coincidence. Richard Seline of ResilientH2O Partners explains how he's helping foster new hurricane and flood prevention technologies in the Bayou City. Photo courtesy of ResilientH20

New Houston hub calls for collaboration for flood and hurricane prevention innovation

Houston innovators podcast episode 43

When it comes to insurance, most people's interaction is pretty limited buying a plan, filing claims when need be, and paying the monthly bill. However, unbeknownst to most of their insured clients, insurance companies are investing in insuratech and new innovations within the natural disaster space.

Richard Seline, managing director of ResilientH20, along with the Insurance Information Institute and The Cannon, to launch the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub to foster this type of technology and bring insuratech startups and the big insurance players to the table — something that's not often done.

"It's two different languages," Seline says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's a whole language and a whole mindset within the insurance industry that is not real well known."

The hub, which is based in downtown Houston's Cannon Tower, has been hard at work hosting virtual pitch events and networking opportunities since it launched in June just as the 2020 hurricane season commenced. Seline explains the mission is threefold: allow for reverse pitching where insurance companies tell innovators what their challenges are in hopes of inspiring new technology, introducing insuratech companies to potential investors or clients, and fostering innovation for new natural disaster prevention innovations.

On the podcast, Seline discusses new endeavors he's working on within his organization and explains the role his feels the new hub has in Houston's innovation ecosystem. To him, the city must work collaboratively to move the needle on growth of its innovation ecosystem.

"The good news is there is a lot of great activity underway in Houston right now — no questions asked," Seline says. "What we are doing can be seen as complimentary and not competitive with anyone else."

From game-changing startups to watch out for to upcoming events and partnerships for the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub, check out the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



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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.