This restaurant concept will have no dining-in option for guests and will act as an incubator for restaurant ideas. Photo by www.jillianekristine.com

Gabe Medina is back. The chef, who earned raves for his work at restaurants such as Kata Robata, Soma, and Aqui, will launch a new project this week in partnership with beverage expert Steven Salazar (The Kirby Group).

Under the banner of Click Robot Run, Medina will open five restaurants in a commercial kitchen in Rice Military (4901 Rose St.). Rather than traditional sit down establishments, they're "virtual restaurants" that will only serve diners via pick-up, to-go, or delivery apps such as Uber Eats and DoorDash. They are:

  • A&J Provisions (opens Wednesday, June 26): a comfort food restaurant that offers both an array of grilled meats as well as vegan and vegetarian dishes.
  • Bowling Club (opens August 2019): a Japanese rice bowl restaurant inspired by Medina's time working at Narisawa in Tokyo, widely considered one of the best restaurants in the world.
  • Sandwich Legend (opens November 2019): meatball subs, cold cuts, sandwiches inspired by Houston's immigrant cuisines, and more will be on the menu at this restaurant.
  • 7000 Islands (opens January 2020): Medina will explore Filipino cuisine its various forms at this restaurant, which is inspired by both his heritage and trips to the island nation.
  • Fifth concept: TBD. Salazar says that he and Medina will develop the fifth restaurant in collaboration with the chefs the hire to run the other four.

While one media account stated the concepts will open in sequence in a style similar to Chris Shepherd's One Fifth, that's not correct, according to Salazar. Instead, the five concepts will operate simultaneously — making it more like a food hall where each restaurant could someday be spun off into its own brick and mortar space.

"It's important to remember there's two aspects of this," Salazar says. "We like the idea of being able to utilize multiple concepts out of the same facility, that's one rent, one labor force.

"The second thing to remember is this is an incubator for us. It's about testing multiple menus for multiple concepts. It's about getting data from multiple sources: Favor, DoorDash, even our neighbors stopping by."

Operating as a "virtual restaurant" without a dining room means that one set of cooks can do the work, which reduces costs. It also means only paying rent for one location while they use the sales data to determine which concepts to promote.

While Medina is the chef who will develop the menus, train the cooks, etc, Salazar says his role is to serve as a sounding board and provide logistical support; he will also maintain his current role as the operating partner of The Kirby Group (Wooster's Garden, Heights Bier Garten, Holman Draft Hal, etc). The two friends have a history that goes back to the two years they spent working together at Kata Robata.

"Gabe is like one of my brothers, and I want to be part of his success," Salazar says. "I said, 'please, can I help you? Let me be involved if you'll let me.' I just have so much respect for him as a chef."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Gabe Medina is the culinary mind behind Click Robot Run. Photo by Eric Sandler

Vinegar Hill will be divided into a restaurant and a bar. Courtesy of Vinegar Hill

Former restaurant reemerges as showcase for up-and-coming Houston chefs

Chef incubator

A new concept aims to give chefs on the rise a space to get their feet wet. Vinegar Hill Houston will serve three distinct roles when it opens in November: A co-working space by day, a bar by night, and an incubator for the next generation of culinary talent by design.

Axelrad owner Adam Brackman and chef Monica Pope have taken over the original location of Beaver's and are turning it into the new concept. Vinegar Hill's name is taken from a nickname for the area now known as the Old Sixth Ward. The co-working aspect will provide people who have been working at coffee shops with a more comfortable environment that better suits their needs. Design changes to the space will separate the restaurant from the bar. General manager Shawn Busch will work with the space's bar manager to maintain Beaver's reputation for innovative cocktails, but it's the incubator that's the most intriguing aspect.

Described as a chefs-in-residency program, the incubator will provide chefs with the opportunity to refine their concepts before committing to a brick and mortar. Pope will offer participants mentorship based on her experience operating restaurants such as t'afia and Sparrow Bar + Cookshop.

"I'm passionate about working with entrepreneurs," Brackman tells CultureMap. "At Axelrad we have regular pop-ups. It's been neat to see these entrepreneurs go from ideas to buying food trucks, seeing these people grow and flourish. It's kind of the next step in that process."

Chefs will create two menus during this residency. The first is a dinner menu for a 30-seat area within the space that will require reservations. In addition, the chef will offer a menu of casual bar bites designed to be served in the bar area and on the patio. Residencies will typically last for three months, but Brackman also sees the potential for chefs from out of town to use Vinegar Hill for a week or two as a way to market themselves to Houstonians prior to opening here.

At a time when chefs might be considering a stand in one of Houston's new food halls, Brackman sees the setup at Vinegar Hill as an alternative for the person who wants a less permanent arrangement.

"This will be more of their own private restaurant within a bar that will give them a full kitchen to work with and be creative with their own menu and have more of a captive audience," he says. "They can do things like have wine and beer pairings. It's going to be more intimate than a food hall experience."

Evelyn Garcia, a one-time Chopped champion who has earned a devoted following for her Southeast Asian-inspired pop-ups, will take the first turn in Vinegar Hill's kitchen. "The opportunity to take my craft from a tent and portable stoves into a full kitchen and dining room to showcase what I am capable of is a thrilling opportunity," said Garcia in a statement.

"We would like to seek out the next person. We have a couple in mind," Brackman says. "The perfect candidate is someone who wants their next move to be opening a brick and mortar. We want to help them through a bit of mentorship and even crowd funding."

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

innovation delivered

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — startup development, fintech, and health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Impact Hub Houston has two new initiatives for female founders. Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Two accelerator programs were recently announced and they both are aimed at supporting female founders — and one Houston organization is behind them both. Impact Hub Houston announced that it has partnered up with Frost Bank to sponsor eight female founders to participate in Impact Hub's new Accelerate Membership Program.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston has teamed up with MassChallenge for their own initiative supporting female founders in the Houston-Galveston region in partnership with Houston-based Workforce Solutions. The three organizations are collaborating to launch launch a bootcamp to support female founders in the greater Houston region.

"As a female founder myself, I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity to support and uplift more women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses in our region," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "By now, it's no secret that women, and especially women of color, are under-invested in; and this is our chance to change that by helping more women strengthen their businesses and prepare to seek funding." Click here to read more.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

The world of investing is changing — and the power shift is tilting from the rich elite to individuals. Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic, has seen the change starting several years ago.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

Lee shares more about the future of investing and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo courtesy

No industry has been unaffected by COVID-19, Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health, observes in a guest column for InnovationMap. But hospitals — they've had a spotlight shown on them and their technology adoption since day one of the pandemic.

"The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time," she writes.

Hospitals, she says, look and feel completely different now than they did last year and the year before that. Click here to read more.

Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.