3 Houston innovators to know this week

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This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sarah Groen of Bell & Bly Travel, Alex Reed of Fluence Analytics, and Bettina Beech of UH. Courtesy photos

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

Sarah Groen, founder of Bell and Bly Travel

Sarah Groen, travel entrepreneur and longtime Houston tech ecosystem member, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Bell and Bly Travel

It's been a scary time for travel-related businesses, and Sarah Groen has had to get innovative to maintain her business as a travel adviser. Lucky for Groen, who has a long career in tech and innovation, she had all the right pivots, including offering digital travel packages, launching a new podcast, and more.

"During COVID, a lot of businesses either shutdown or took a pause, but we accelerated," Groen says.

Groen her career on the Houston Innovators Podcast. She also gives some strategic advice for founders — like trusting your gut and reading the signs when it comes to product-market fit — on the podcast. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Alex Reed, co-founder and CEO of Fluence Analytics

Alex Reed joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on the company's move to Houston and its growth plans. Photo courtesy of Fluence Analytics

Alex Reed watched his father work in the labs on his research as he grew up, but he realized his future wasn't in the lab. Instead, he launched a career in taking that research and turning it into a company.

Founded in 2012 in New Orleans, Fluence Analytics has entered its next phase of growth by moving its headquarters to Houston following a $7.5 million venture capital raise.

We're working with the Houston of today, but also the Houston of tomorrow," Reed tells InnovationMap in a Q&A. Click here to read more.

Bettina Beech, chief population health officer at the University of Houston

Bettina Beech is a newly named AIM-AHEAD coordinating center team member. Photo via UH.edu

The University of Houston has joined in on a national initiative to increase the diversity of artificial intelligence researchers, according to a news release from the school. Unfortunately, AI — designed by humans — mimics human decision making through its choice of algorithms. This means that the same biases humans deal with have made it into the AI decision making too. These gaps can lead to continued disparities and inequities for underrepresented communities especially in regards to health care, job hiring, and more.

"Beyond health care, AI has been used in areas from facial recognition to self-driving cars and beyond, but there is an extreme lack of diversity among the developers of AI/ML tools. Many studies have shown that flawed AI systems and algorithms perpetuate gender and racial biases and have resulted in untoward outcomes," says Bettina Beech, chief population health officer at the University of Houston and newly named AIM-AHEAD coordinating center team member.

The initiative will bring together collaborators and experts across AI and machine learning, health equity research, data science training, data infrastructure and more. The other universities involved include: University of Colorado-Anschutz Medical Center in Aurora; University of California, Los Angeles; Meharry Medical College in Nashville; Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta; Johns Hopkins University, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Click here to read more.

Sarah Groen, travel entrepreneur and longtime Houston tech ecosystem member, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Bell and Bly Travel

Innovative travel adviser talks Houston tech and advice for female founders

houston innovators podcast episode 104

When the pandemic hit, it's safe to say that everyone in the travel industry panicked. Sarah Groen, who founded her company Bell and Bly Travel in 2017, caters her expertise to planning luxury travel experiences, and she didn't want her clients to forget about her expertise as the uncertainty of the pandemic continued. So, she got creative.

"Every single client who had a trip canceled, we sent them a digital package to help them feel like they were traveling," Groen says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. For example, if a client's trip to Italy canceled, Groen and her staff provided links to recipes of Italian dishes, virtual museum tours, and more.

"We didn't make money on that," Groen says. "We spent money to be able to have the bandwidth to be able to do that for our clients."

It's during this time thar Groen also launched her podcast, Luxury Travel Insider, where she gathers experts to discuss destinations.

It's these innovative endeavors that put Groen and Bell and Bly Travel on the map for Virtuoso's award — which Groen describes as the Oscars of the travel industry. She took home the title of "most innovative travel advisor" at the 2021 awards.

"During COVID, a lot of businesses either shutdown or took a pause, but we accelerated," Groen says.

The award is incredibly special to Groen she says especially to her background in tech. A native Houstonian, Groen went to the West Coast for her education. Despite loving her hometown, she says she returned kicking and screaming because she wanted to do something entrepreneurial, and Houston didn't yet have much to speak of in terms of a startup ecosystem.

So, like any good entrepreneur who sees a need in the market, she did it herself and co-founded Surge, an energy-focused accelerator. But it was a struggle to get momentum.

"But at that time, we couldn't even get the mayor to pay attention to us. We had people applying to our program and moving their companies from other cities and countries in some cases," Groen says. "But I think Surge starting was a big turning point."

Surge — which was co-founded by Kirk Coburn, who now is the investment director for Shell Ventures — officially shut down in 2016.

But things have changed within the Houston innovation ecosystem, and Groen discusses the transformation as she's observed it on the show. She also gives some strategic advice for founders — like trusting your gut and reading the signs when it comes to product-market fit — on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Rice University rises to No. 1 spot in new ranking of best college investments

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By one measure, earning a degree at Rice University is the smartest move in the Lone Star State.

In its eighth annual ranking of colleges and university that give students the best return on their educational investment, personal finance website SmartAsset places Rice at No. 1 in Texas and No. 10 in the U.S. It’s the only Texas school to break into the national top 10.

To determine the best-value colleges and universities in each state, SmartAsset crunched data in these categories: scholarships and grants, starting salary for new graduates, tuition, living costs, and retention rate.

While the tuition ($47,350) and student living costs ($17,800) at Rice are the highest among the top 10 Texas schools on the list, the average amount of scholarships and grants ($43,615), average starting salary ($77,900), and retention rate (97 percent) also are among the highest.

According to Rice, tuition, fees, on-campus room and board, books, and personal expenses for the 2022-23 academic year add up to $74,110. That figure, which excludes financial aid, applies to a full-time, degree-seeking student living on campus.

“Rice University is consistently ranked as a best value in higher education and is one of America’s leading teaching and research universities,” the school’s Office of Financial Aid says. “By attending Rice, you will not only receive a superior education at a reasonable cost, you also will benefit from having a Rice degree long after graduation.”

Three other schools in or near the Houston metro area appear on SmartAsset’s list of the biggest-bang-for-your-buck schools in Texas:

  • Prairie View A&M University, No. 4. The university posted the lowest retention rate (74 percent) among the 10 schools. The remaining figures sit roughly in the middle of the pack.
  • University of Houston, No. 5. The university’s tuition ($8,913) was the lowest in the top 10, as was the average amount of scholarships and grants ($6,544).
  • Texas A&M University-College Station, No. 6. The university’s living costs are the second highest among the top 10 ($17,636), while its average starting salary for new grads lands at No. 3 ($64,400).

Other schools in the state’s top 10 are:

  • University of Texas at Austin, No. 2.
  • University of Texas at Dallas (Richardson), No. 3.
  • Texas Tech University in Lubbock, No. 7.
  • LeTourneau University in Longview, No. 8.
  • University of North Texas in Denton, No. 9.
  • Texas State University in San Marcos, No. 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert addresses the growing labor shortage within health care

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Long before COVID-19 became a part of our new normal, the concerns around shortages in health care staffing were present.

To put this in real terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the latest projection of employment through the end of this decade is an increase of nearly 12 million jobs. A fourth of those — 3.3 million to be exact — are expected to go towards health care and social assistance roles.

Before the pandemic, the concerns centered around managing a growing retired population and a slowing in higher education nurse enrollment. Then amid the growing shortage concerns surrounding the support for aging baby boomers, we were all thrusted into a pandemic.

The stressors on health care professional staffing have doubled down and what the increased shortage has shown us is the need to intervene and change the traditional hiring practices. Speed to place a nurse on assignment doesn’t just ensure productivity — it is a matter of life or death.

Over the past several years, the evolution of technology has drastically changed how health care facilities operate and interact with their employees as well as patients. There was a point in time where the structure in health care staffing was rigid without flexibility or varieties of employment type. Conversations around travel positions, per diem, and permanent are all now commonplace as the recent shortages caused us to normalize the discussion around role type and use of technology to influence speed to hire.

This whole evolution was put to test when April 2020 came, and the initial brunt of the pandemic was in full swing. The entire world was in panic mode. During these quarantine times, we were in a state of a health care emergency with thousands of patients seeking health care. Unfortunately, hospitals could not keep up with this demand with their existing nurse professionals, and became severely overloaded and dangerous. Due to this the United States saw unprecedented labor shortages, impacting a large number of nurses and health care workers as it pertains to both their physical and mental health.

What we are seeing now is a period classified as the “The Great Rethinking,” where nurses and health care workers alike are speaking up for what they believe in and deserve. Salary transparency and flexibility are just the tip of the iceberg for this movement.

SkillGigs is unique in that we are giving the power back to registered nurses and health care professionals, while meeting the demand created by the pandemic. Our team has been fortunate to be a catalyst to direct the change in the future of work, and we look forward to continuing to innovate.

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Bryan Groom is the division president of health care at Houston-based SkillGigs.

Houston energy giant expands implementation of Canadian startup's tech

big, big energy

CruxOCM, a startup with a significant Houston presence that specializes in robotic industrial process automation for energy companies, has secured even more business from energy giant Phillips 66.

The value of the deal wasn’t disclosed.

Houston-based Phillips 66 has agreed to expand it use of CruxOCM’s pipeBOT technology to cover even more pipelines. The pipeBOT technology is designed to improve the safety and efficiency of control room operations for pipelines and reduce control room costs.

CruxOCM and Phillips 66 launched a test of pipeBOT in 2020.

CruxOCM, based in Calgary, Canada, says pipeBOT is engineered to decrease manual controls through intelligent automation. With this technology in place, the fatigue of control room operators declines, because as many as 85 percent fewer manual commands must be entered, according to CruxOCM. Therefore, control room operators can focus on higher-level tasks.

“At CruxOCM, we empower control room operators with modern software that enables the autonomous control rooms of tomorrow, within the safety constraints of today. We look forward to continuing to strengthen our relationship with Phillips 66 for many years to come,” Adam Marsden, chief revenue officer at CruxOCM, says in a news release.

Founded in 2017, Crux OCM (Crux Operations Control Management) established its Houston presence last year. Also in 2021, the startup raised $6 million in venture capital in a “seed extension” funding round. Bullpen Capital led the round, with participation from Angular Ventures, Root Ventures, Golden Ventures, Cendana Capital, and Industry Ventures.

In 2019, Angular Ventures and Root Ventures co-led a $2.6 million funding round.