A Rice University study will consider how "design strategies aimed at improving civic engagement in stormwater infrastructure could help reduce catastrophic flooding." Photo courtesy of Kinder Institute

Houston will be the setting of a new three-year National Science Foundation-funded study that focuses on a phenomenon the city is quite familiar with: flooding.

Conducted by Rice University, the study will consider how "design strategies aimed at improving civic engagement in stormwater infrastructure could help reduce catastrophic flooding," according to a statement.

The team will begin its research in the Trinity/Houston Gardens neighborhood and will implement field research, participatory design work and hydrological impact analyses.

Rice professor of anthropology Dominic Boyer and Rice's Gus Sessions Wortham Professor of Architecture Albert Pope are co-principal investigators on the study. They'll be joined by Phil Bedient, director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice, and Jessica Eisma, a civil engineer at the University of Texas at Arlington.

According to Boyer, the study will bring tougher researchers from across disciplines as well as community members and even elementary-aged students.

"Our particular focus will be on green stormwater infrastructure—techniques like bioswale, green roofs and rain gardens—that are more affordable than conventional concrete infrastructure and ones where community members can be more directly involved in the design and implementation phases,” Boyer said. “We envision helping students and other community members design and complete projects like community rain gardens that offer a variety of beneficial amenities and can also mitigate flooding.”

Rice's Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED Center, is a leader in flood mitigation research and innovation.

In 2021, the center developed its FIRST 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 system was derived from the Rice/Texas Medical Center Flood Alert System (FAS), which Bedient created 20 years ago.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston Community College and its partner received funding that will go toward creating a certificate program that will launch in the fall 2022 semester as part of The Resilient Workforce Collaborative. Photo via HCC

Houston college system snags part of $3.3M investment in resiliency innovation

impact investment

Houston Community College and partners received a $1.8 million grant from JP Morgan Chase this month with the goal of training underserved Houstonians in jobs that will help boost the city's preparedness for the aftermath of natural disasters.

The funds will go toward creating a certificate program that will launch in the fall 2022 semester as part of The Resilient Workforce Collaborative.

“The Resilient Workforce Collaborative brings together the public sector, private sector, higher education institutions, and our nonprofit partners to make transformational change in our most underserved neighborhoods,” Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a statement. “The collaborative complements our efforts within the Complete Communities to prepare low-to-moderate income Houstonians for high-demand jobs and increase the diversity of candidates in the talent pipelines for green careers that will advance our city’s resilience. This resourceful partnership is a welcomed addition to Houston’s workforce development landscape.”

The collaborative will operate out of HCC's Resiliency Center of Excellence, which was first announced in May and is slated to open its $35 million Resiliency Operations Center at HCC's Northeast College in 2024. Other members of the collaborative include City of Houston, Harris County, Workforce Solutions Gulf Coast, Resilience Innovation Hub, American Youth Works, WorkTexas, TRIO Electric, TRIO Education, Memorial Assistance Ministries, South Union CDC, Impact Hub Houston, Neuhaus Education Center, TXRX Labs, Volunteers of America-TX, Wesley Community Center, and JPMorgan Chase.

The program will aim to help residents who come from some of Houston’s most underserved and under-resourced neighborhoods find career opportunities in the clean energy, disaster response, utilities, trades and manufacturing fields. According to HCC, "an important element of the collaborative is employers changing some of their hiring practices to emphasize specialized training certificates over traditional 4-year degrees."

So far, partnering employers include The City of Houston, Harris County and TRIO Electric—and the collaborative is looking for more employers and funders to support its mission.

“This collaborative provides a ‘go-to place’ for Houstonians to learn skills that will lead to good paying jobs. It is a better system because it’s set up to fulfill needs that already exist in the workplace,” HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado said in a statement.

HCC and the City of Houston signed a memorandum of understanding in August, on the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, that the organizations would train 500,000 citizens, employees, small businesses, volunteers, and first responders in new resiliency training programs starting this fall.

At the time, seven courses in resiliency were announced, with an additional 30 courses slated to be added in 2023. The program will be offered at 22 HCC locations.

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

Rice University debuts new flood alert system for Houston

water feature

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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New Houston venture studio emerges to target early-stage hardtech, energy transition startups

funding the future

The way Doug Lee looks at it, there are two areas within the energy transition attracting capital. With his new venture studio, he hopes to target an often overlooked area that's critical for driving forward net-zero goals.

Lee describes investment activity taking place in the digital and software world — early stage technology that's looking to make the industry smarter. But, on the other end of the spectrum, investment activity can be found on massive infrastructure projects.

While both areas need funding, Lee has started his new venture studio, Flathead Forge, to target early-stage hardtech technologies.

“We are really getting at the early stage companies that are trying to develop technologies at the intersection of legacy industries that we believe can become more sustainable and the energy transition — where we are going. It’s not an ‘if’ or ‘or’ — we believe these things intersect,” he tells EnergyCapital.

Specifically, Lee's expertise is within the water and industrial gas space. For around 15 years, he's made investments in this area, which he describes as crucial to the energy transition.

“Almost every energy transition technology that you can point to has some critical dependency on water or gas,” he says. “We believe that if we don’t solve for those things, the other projects won’t survive.”

Lee, and his brother, Dave, are evolving their family office to adopt a venture studio model. They also sold off Azoto Energy, a Canadian oilfield nitrogen cryogenic services business, in December.

“We ourselves are going through a transition like our energy is going through a transition,” he says. “We are transitioning into a single family office into a venture studio. By doing so, we want to focus all of our access and resources into this focus.”

At this point, Flathead Forge has seven portfolio companies and around 15 corporations they are working with to identify their needs and potential opportunities. Lee says he's gearing up to secure a $100 million fund.

Flathead also has 40 advisers and mentors, which Lee calls sherpas — a nod to the Flathead Valley region in Montana, which inspired the firm's name.

“We’re going to help you carry up, we’re going to tie ourselves to the same rope as you, and if you fall off the mountain, we’re falling off with you,” Lee says of his hands-on approach, which he says sets Flathead apart from other studios.

Another thing that's differentiating Flathead Forge from its competition — it's dedication to giving back.

“We’ve set aside a quarter of our carried interest for scholarships and grants,” Lee says.

The funds will go to scholarships for future engineers interested in the energy transition, as well as grants for researchers studying high-potential technologies.

“We’re putting our own money where our mouth is,” Lee says of his thesis for Flathead Forge.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston-based lunar mission's rocky landing and what it means for America's return to the moon

houston, we have a problem

A private U.S. lunar lander tipped over at touchdown and ended up on its side near the moon’s south pole, hampering communications, company officials said Friday.

Intuitive Machines initially believed its six-footed lander, Odysseus, was upright after Thursday's touchdown. But CEO Steve Altemus said Friday the craft “caught a foot in the surface," falling onto its side and, quite possibly, leaning against a rock. He said it was coming in too fast and may have snapped a leg.

“So far, we have quite a bit of operational capability even though we’re tipped over," he told reporters.

But some antennas were pointed toward the surface, limiting flight controllers' ability to get data down, Altemus said. The antennas were stationed high on the 14-foot (4.3-meter) lander to facilitate communications at the hilly, cratered and shadowed south polar region.

Odysseus — the first U.S. lander in more than 50 years — is thought to be within a few miles (kilometers) of its intended landing site near the Malapert A crater, less than 200 miles (300 kilometers) from the south pole. NASA, the main customer, wanted to get as close as possible to the pole to scout out the area before astronauts show up later this decade.

NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will attempt to pinpoint the lander's location, as it flies overhead this weekend.

With Thursday’s touchdown, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to pull off a moon landing, a feat previously achieved by only five countries. Japan was the latest country to score a landing, but its lander also ended up on its side last month.

Odysseus' mission was sponsored in large part by NASA, whose experiments were on board. NASA paid $118 million for the delivery under a program meant to jump-start the lunar economy.

One of the NASA experiments was pressed into service when the lander's navigation system did not kick in. Intuitive Machines caught the problem in advance when it tried to use its lasers to improve the lander's orbit. Otherwise, flight controllers would not have discovered the failure until it was too late, just five minutes before touchdown.

“Serendipity is absolutely the right word,” mission director Tim Crain said.

It turns out that a switch was not flipped before flight, preventing the system's activation in space.

Launched last week from Florida, Odysseus took an extra lap around the moon Thursday to allow time for the last-minute switch to NASA's laser system, which saved the day, officials noted.

Another experiment, a cube with four cameras, was supposed to pop off 30 seconds before touchdown to capture pictures of Odysseus’ landing. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s EagleCam was deliberately powered off during the final descent because of the navigation switch and stayed attached to the lander.

Embry-Riddle's Troy Henderson said his team will try to release EagleCam in the coming days, so it can photograph the lander from roughly 26 feet (8 meters) away.

"Getting that final picture of the lander on the surface is still an incredibly important task for us,” Henderson told The Associated Press.

Intuitive Machines anticipates just another week of operations on the moon for the solar-powered lander — nine or 10 days at most — before lunar nightfall hits.

The company was the second business to aim for the moon under NASA's commercial lunar services program. Last month, Pittsburgh's Astrobotic Technology gave it a shot, but a fuel leak on the lander cut the mission short and the craft ended up crashing back to Earth.

Until Thursday, the U.S. had not landed on the moon since Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt closed out NASA's famed moon-landing program in December 1972. NASA's new effort to return astronauts to the moon is named Artemis after Apollo's mythological twin sister. The first Artemis crew landing is planned for 2026 at the earliest.

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate

Emma Konet, co-founder and CTO of Tierra Climate, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo via LinkedIn

If the energy transition is going to be successful, the energy storage space needs to be equipped to support both the increased volume of energy needed and new energies. And Emma Konet and her software company, Tierra Climate, are targeting one part of the equation: the market.

"To me, it's very clear that we need to build a lot of energy storage in order to transition the grid," Konet says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "The problems that I saw were really on the market side of things." Read more.

Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. Photo courtesy of Sage

A Houston geothermal startup has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Houston-based Sage Geosystems announced the first close of $17 million round led by Chesapeake Energy Corp. The proceeds aim to fund its first commercial geopressured geothermal system facility, which will be built in Texas in Q4 of 2024. According to the company, the facility will be the first of its kind.

“The first close of our Series A funding and our commercial facility are significant milestones in our mission to make geopressured geothermal system technologies a reality,” Cindy Taff, CEO of Sage Geosystems, says. Read more.

Clemmie Martin, chief of staff at The Cannon

With seven locations across the Houston area, The Cannon's digital technology allows its members a streamlined connection. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

After collaborating over the years, The Cannon has acquired a Houston startup's digital platform technology to become a "physical-digital hybrid" community.

Village Insights, a Houston startup, worked with The Cannon to create and launch its digital community platform Cannon Connect. Now, The Cannon has officially acquired the business. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“The integration of a world-class onsite member experience and Cannon Connect’s superior virtual resource network creates a seamless, streamlined environment for member organizations,” Clemmie Martin, The Cannon’s newly appointed chief of staff, says in the release. “Cannon Connect and this acquisition have paved new pathways to access and success for all.” Read more.