3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's set of innovators to know are making waves in industries across Houston. Courtesy photos

In this Monday roundup of Houston innovators, we traverse into the restaurant, health care, and higher education industries with a startup founder focused on using technology to improve the dining experience, a self-starter in health care, and a leader on the Rice University campus with a new office for his growing staff.

Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship

Photo via alliance.rice.edu

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has moved into its new Gensler-designed, 3,000-square-foot Bill and Stephanie Sick Suite that is expected to be a game changer for the program.

"The Rice Alliance meets frequently with venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, students, mentors, and other members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem," says Brad Burke, who leads the innovation arm of Rice University. "The new space is on the first floor of the Jones School and is much more accessible and visible to our guests and visitors." Click here to read more and see photos of the space.

Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist

Courtesy of Houston Methodist

Roberta Schwartz is an innovator by nature. On last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, she shared her story of overcoming breast cancer as a young woman. Seeking a support system and camaraderie, she co-founded the Young Survival Coalition.

"I was 27 when I was unexpectedly diagnosed with breast cancer — I have no family history, no cancer in the family. It certainly was a shock to my system," Schwartz says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Once I was diagnosed, and through some of the original surgery and care I had to do, I knew that I wanted to reach out and find a larger community of young women."

Now, she's leading Houston Methodist's Center for Innovation, another entity she saw a need for, then created. Click here to read the story and stream the podcast episode.

Ken Bridge, founder of Roovy Technologies

Photo courtesy of Roovy

People use their smartphones for everything these days. So, Houston restaurateur Ken Bridge thought, why couldn't they use them to optimize their dining experience? Bridge created Roovy Technologies, and the app uses point-of-sale technology to put the power of ordering, paying, and communicating with the kitchen and bar, right into the hands of customers.

"Roovy is a platform that allows the user to order and pay entirely from their phone," says Bridge. "We will soon be the first company to have all three categories of this type of app: dine-in, take out and delivery." Click here to read more about Roovy.

Houston-based Roovy Technologies has created a mobile app where people can control their dining experience completely from their phones. Photo via roovy.io

Growing Houston startup is digitizing the dining experience

Digital dinner

Imagine going into a popular restaurant, sitting down at an open table and controlling the entire dining experience from a smartphone.

That's food, drinks, and even dessert all ordered and paid for on a phone.

Prolific Houston-area restaurateur Ken Bridge had the vision to converge dining with technology by creating a digital solution to combat chronic wait times in restaurants.

That vision became the Roovy Technologies mobile app, a platform designed to create the ultimate convenience for gastronauts everywhere.

"Roovy was birthed out of frustration," says Bridge, the serial entrepreneur behind the Delicious Concepts restaurant group. "Years ago, we would typically have lines out the door, so I thought to myself, that with technology, there should be a way for a guest to come in and manage their experience entirely from their phone.

"I felt like guests could go in, get sat at a table and order their food from their phone and pay from their phone and call it a day. That's how the idea of Roovy was conceived."

Three years ago, after putting mock pages together, Bridge started attending South by Southwest Interactive in Austin for research and inspiration. That led to commissioning a local boutique development agency in Houston to build out Roovy's Minimum Viable Product or road map before creating a fully functional platform.

"Roovy is a platform that allows the user to order and pay entirely from their phone," says Bridge. "We will soon be the first company to have all three categories of this type of app: dine-in, take out and delivery."

Bridge deployed Roovy in his Japanese concept restaurant, Blackbird Izakaya, at 1221 W. 11th St. in the Heights several months ago to test out the app before rolling it out to several other restaurants.

"It's a work in progress like everything else," says Bridge, who hopes for Roovy to be deployed in 20 restaurants very soon, then 40. "Everyday we're going to have issues that we need to resolve. But for now, we'll build it, we'll test it, we'll learn and we'll continue to go back and work out the kinks and keep pushing forward from there."

Convenience — on both sides of the transaction

For users, the value proposition is to be able to order and pay from their phone.

"Even a really good server can be impeding at the same time, over-qualifying or checking too much on a table that it becomes a distraction," says Bridge. "With Roovy, when the user is ready to order they can. It's convenience-based technology."

For operators, it streamlines the entire process, up to and including payment.

"We built this as a native solution, so restaurants can technically operate their entire restaurant on one single iPad, while cutting out all hardware," says Bridge.

The restaurant's menu is fully interactive and constantly updated in the app.

When a user places an order, they can add notes to alert the kitchen or bar with their allergies or substitutions and the kitchen or bar receives the notice on the Kitchen Display Side.

That order is then colored and timed, depending on the restaurant's flow and the user then receives a page when the order is ready.

"When restaurant's not packed, they can prepare orders in four minutes, but when packed, it may take eight minutes," says Bridge. "So through the machine learning, they can input a flow time, but then the system intuitively will become more and more intelligent based on the number of tickets and how frequently the operator is stocking and selling a particular item."

Bridge funded Roovy with his own money, so running the cloud-based platform in his own restaurants provided another distinct advantage for his startup's bottom line. And, with operators running the Roovy platform, it has officially entered post-revenue valuation. Roovy's revenue, like other payments facilitators, comes from its restaurant clients.

With the method of payment tied into the app, users pay from their phone and Roovy processes that payment transaction between the user, operator and bank tied to that payment method for a processing fee, much like a point-of-sale provider would with traditional POS devices.

Increasing opportunities for sales

What separates Roovy from other processors, though, is more than just the disruption of bulky hardware, printers and other equipment that can be very expensive for the operator.

It's the ability to maximize sales through convenience.

Case in point: in a busy restaurant, customers who have finished their meal, but possibly have cravings for another drink or a dessert might choose to eschew the urge based on the availability of their wait staff or the line at the bar.

But with Roovy, they could simply add the additional food item or drink to their cart, and have it at their table in no time.

"A lot of restaurants are not taking advantage of opportunities to maximize their sales," says Bridge. "If the per person average for a particular restaurant is $20, the likelihood that there are customers that want one more beer but don't want to go through the motions of ordering it based on service not being around is high. They're going to just leave and the restaurant just missed out on a potential $6.

"That would have been a 30 percent increase in sales," Bridge continues. "So, because of Roovy's ease of use, restaurants can increase their per person revenue and we guarantee an increase of 19 or 20 percent for operators that use our platform."

An additional revenue stream for Roovy centers on its pinpointed marketing campaigns designed to push promotions to its users based on user data and analytics.

"We can help operators run promotions for our users that can be very specific to the demographic of their choice," says Bridge. "They can be very direct and specific push notifications that go out to users based on location, vicinity or proximity, for example. We could also push notifications to a restaurant's repeat customers."

More features to come

For users that want take out, Roovy will be working with predictive arrival technology to estimate better execution times for orders so that they will be as fresh as possible for customer pickup.

Roovy will also be adding "Roovy Coin," a loyalty and rewards programs, as well as a social component for those users that like to share their experience with their friends.

"Beyond this super unique emerging technology, we are building heavily on the sociability aspects of it," says Bridge. "For example, users will be able to check in with friends, plan potential meetups, share video clips with their friends and the community on the platform and be able to review restaurants.

"I kid about this all the time, but most of us remember two things: the first kiss we had and the first time we used Uber. We'll never forget that. Our goal is to come in with that same kind of impact and convince users and operators that Roovy is not just a great technology, it's the inevitable technology that will be adopted on mass levels."

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Houston company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

tech support

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

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 — from esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.