This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Essama of Teach for America Houston, Scott Schneider of HTX Labs, and Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local innovators across industries — from health tech to software — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Sarah Essama, director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston

Sarah Essama of Teach For America Houston shares how she innovated a new way for students themselves to learn how to innovate. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essama

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase. Click here to read more.

Scott Schneider, CEO and founder of HTX Labs

Scott Schneider of HTX Labs has something to celebrate. Photo via htxlabs.com

A Houston-based virtual reality training provider has closed its first round of funding. HTX Labs announced last month that it has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption. Click here to read more.

​Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez 

Two Houston health care innovators got the green light to distribute their low-cost COVID-19 vaccine in Indonesia. Photo courtesy of TMC

After months of development and testing, the Houston-born COVID-19 vaccine has gotten the go-ahead to be produced and distributed in Indonesia.

IndoVac was created by the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine. Drs. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi lead the vaccine project. Bio Farma is licensing IndoVac from BCM Ventures, the commercial group at the Baylor College of Medicine.

“Access to vaccines in the developing world is critical to the eradication of this virus,” Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release. Click here to read more.

Sarah Essama of Teach For America Houston shares how she innovated a new way for students themselves to learn how to innovate. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essama

Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

The new Dream Lab from Teach For America Houston will take 25 ninth graders to the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator. Image courtesy of TFA

National nonprofit launches Houston innovation lab for kids

dreaming up innovation

Teach For America's Houston chapter has announced a new initiative for children to check out educational opportunities within innovation.

TFA Houston's Network Learning and Innovation Hub is opening a new space, called The Dream Lab. The lab is a set of immersive spaces where students leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems affecting their communities.

“The Dream Lab is one of the novel ways we’re re-imagining the ways we meet the needs of Houston’s most vulnerable students and communities,” says Sarah Essama, founder of The Dream Lab and director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, in a news release. “It introduces a non-traditional approach to learning so that students are better equipped to handle the complexities of an ever-changing world.”

This Friday, the new concept is rolling out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 25 ninth graders will get to spend the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator. The students will be tasked to creatively solve problems in their own communities.

“If there is anything we have learned over the last two and a half years, it’s the need to be innovative, and it’s a skill we must teach our younger generations so they can be adequately prepared for the future,” says Tiffany Cuellar Needham, executive director of Teach For America Houston, in the release. “We look forward to growing The Dream Lab initiative as we continue exploring ways to re-invent and re-imagine what schools can look like for students.”

TFA, which has operated out of Houston for over 30 years, has hosted two other Dream Labs for fourth graders in Houston. Those students were tasked with using technology to design their innovative dream space, and TFA Houston receved positive feedback from participants.

The Dream Lab is right in line with Teach For America Houston’s quest to create educational equity for all students regardless of their socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

“All students should have access to education that prepares them to become leaders and change-makers of tomorrow. While we have made great progress on this front, we know we have a lot more work ahead of us. Programs like Dream Lab will help us realize our mission of ensuring that one day all children in our country will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” says Essama.

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17 Houston entrepreneurs named finalists in annual regional competition

on to the next round

Entrepreneurs from the Houston area have been named finalists for one of the region’s most prestigious business awards.

The 17 finalists are competing for Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur Of The Year 2024 Gulf South Award. The Gulf South region includes parts of Texas, along with Louisiana and Mississippi.

An independent panel of judges selected the 48 finalists. Contenders were evaluated based on their demonstration of building long-term value through factors such as entrepreneurial spirit, purpose, growth, and impact.

The Houston-area finalists are:

  • Shannon Payne, Allied Fire Protection, Pearland
  • Jay McEntire IV, Arva Intelligence, Houston
  • Andrew Levy, Avelo Airlines, Houston
  • Derek Maetzold, Castle Biosciences, Friendswood
  • Scott Aronstein, Connectivity Source, Houston
  • Joshua Weisman, Construction Concepts, Houston
  • Feras Moussa and Ben Suttles, Disrupt Equity, Houston
  • John Poindexter, J.B. Poindexter, Houston
  • James Ross, LJA Engineering, Houston
  • Asher Kazmann, Locke Solutions, Houston
  • Chad Millis, Millis, Missouri City
  • Mike Francis, NanoTech Materials, Houston
  • Stuart Hinchen and Peter Jenkins, Quva Pharma, Sugar Land
  • Trevor Best and Suman Khatiwada, Syzygy Plasmonics, Houston
  • Hal Brumfield, Tachus Fiber Internet, The Woodlands
  • Jared Boudreaux, Vector Controls and Automation Group, Pearland
  • Ting Qiao, Wan Bridge, Houston

“The finalists of this year are audacious entrepreneurs who are making a significant impact in their respective industries and communities,” says Anna Horndahl, an EY partner and co-director of the EOY Gulf South Program.

“These pioneers, chosen by an independent panel of judges, showcase relentless commitment to their businesses, customers and communities. We are thrilled to acknowledge their accomplishments,” adds Travis Garms, an EY partner and co-director of the EOY Gulf South Program.

Houston makes top 10 list of metros with most millionaires

living large

Anew population analysis has unveiled an exclusive view into how the elite live in the U.S., including a surprising discovery that Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land has the No. 9 highest concentration of millionaire households in the country.

The study by online real estate marketplace Point2Homes compared household data among millionaires in the 30 biggest U.S. metropolitan areas, including four Texas metros, between 2017 and 2022.

The report found that the number of U.S. households that earned at least $1 million a year more than quadruped within the five-year period, with the highest concentration of millionaire households located in the New York-Newark-Jersey City area across New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

There are just under 2,900 millionaire homeowners living across the Houston metro, making up 0.11 percent of all households in the area. The report revealed a majority (32.9 percent) of millionaires in Houston are actually Gen Xers, with the second highest share going to baby boomers (28.9 percent).

Most interestingly, the youngest generation, Gen Z, make up 15.4 percent of all millionaire households in Houston, with millennials making up 21.5 percent, according to the report. But the Gen Z percentage is misleading; as the report clarifies, there aren't actually that many Gen Z millionaires walking among us in H-Town.

"Instead, this high share is most likely almost entirely due to the people aged 15 to 24 who are still living with their (millionaire) owner parents," the report explained. "Unfortunately, living in a millionaire owner household does not a millionaire owner make — but it does come with some serious perks."

Physicians make up Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land millionaires' main occupations across all age groups, the study also found.

This is how Houston's millionaires live
The saying goes, "Go big or go home," and Houston's millionaire homeowners are taking that to heart when it comes to their own lavish households.

The report discovered the typical home owned by a millionaire in Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land is a five bedroom, nine total-room house, with an average assessed value of $1,466,682. As for wheels, a Houston-based millionaire is likely to have less than three vehicles (2.8) on average.

By comparison, the average value for a millionaire homeowner's abode in San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, California is $2,816,196, the highest amount out of all 30 U.S. metros in the report.

Big, expensive homes don't come without big costs to maintain them, the report reminds. And when it comes to managing finances for wealthy earners, making more money doesn't necessarily mean they'll be saving that income.

"Rather, it just means bigger homes with bigger mortgages and maintenance expenses; more cars; much costlier schools; and more over-the-top lifestyles, which simply bite bigger chunks out of the family's big budget," the report said. "However, despite the 'risks,' most of us would probably choose to have rich people problems. Or, as the saying goes, crying in a Ferrari might just feel better than crying in a Toyota when all is said and done."

Millionaire lifestyles across Texas
In a comparison of all Texas metro areas, Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land claimed the highest share of millionaire homeowners statewide. Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington took the No. 2 spot, while Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown rounded out the top three. San Antonio-New Braunfels took No. 4 in the statewide analysis.

Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington was right behind Houston in the national standings, ranking No. 10, with nearly 2,650 millionaire households situated in the Metroplex. DFW's millionaires are mainly chief executives and legislators, or physicians. Gen Xers (44.1 percent) make up the highest share of the metro's millionaires, with baby boomers (24.7 percent) not too far behind.

Austin-Round Rock-Georgetown, however, fell to No. 24 in the national ranking with only 749 millionaire households calling the Texas Capital home. Austin's millionaires are mainly chief executives and legislators, or other types of high-level mangers. Gen Xers (34.9 percent) make up the highest share of the metro's millionaires, with millennials (30.8 percent) not too far behind.

San Antonio-New Braunfels ranked at the bottom of the study at No. 29, above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There were only 414 millionaire households in the metro area between 2017-2022, and a majority of them (38.4 percent) were Gen X physicians.

The top 10 metros with the highest share of millionaires in the U.S. are:

  • No. 1 – New York-Newark-New Jersey City, New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania
  • No. 2 – Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, California
  • No. 3 – San Francisco-Oakland-Berkeley, California
  • No. 4 – Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Massachusetts-New Hampshire
  • No. 5 – Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-Virginia-Marland-West Virginia
  • No. 6 – Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, Illinois-Indiana-Wisconsin
  • No. 7 – Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, Florida
  • No. 8 – Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Washington
  • No. 9 – Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, Texas
  • No. 10 – Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas

The full report and its methodology can be found on point2homes.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.