Two Houston companies will be pitching at SXSW in March hoping to win their categories and take home "Best of Show." Marie Ketring/via sxsw.org

In two months, a couple Houston companies will be packing their bags and headed for Austin, where they will pitch their startups at the 11th annual SXSW Pitch event. SXSW announced the 50 finalists on Wednesday.

A total of six Texas companies — two from Houston and four from Austin — will be presenting to a live audience and panel of judges at the March 9 to 10 competition. There are 10 categories, each with one winner, as well as an overall "Best of Show" winner.

Houston-based Fluidity Technologies will be presenting as its drone controller, FT Aviator, has been named a finalist in the Hyper-Connected Communities category. Fluidity is lead by CEO Scott Parazynski, a former NASA astronaut, pilot, and physician. The FT Aviator has the potential to revolutionize drone technology. The joystick-like controller is based off movement in space, Parazynski says, and is less prone to user error by someone not as well trained in drone operation.

"I've flown aircraft and spacecraft," Parazynski says in an InnovationMap article about the company. "But none allowed for the precision of motion I was looking for. None prevented unintended motion."

The other Houston company selected as a finalist is Zibrio SmartScale, which is in the Health and Wearable category. The company is all about balance. Its product, a smart scale that tracks balance, aims to reduce dangers that come with poor balance — injuries, deaths, and costs from falls. Katharine Forth leads the company as CEO and founder. The company was a member of TMCx's 2015 medical devices cohort.

SXSW's competition this year has expanded to include new categories and has seen an increase in startups.

"We have seen a 42 percent rise in applicants coming out of last year's event, and we couldn't be more thrilled to see such an impressive increase in the value of SXSW Pitch among the tech industry's most innovative startups," says SXSW Pitch Event Producer Chris Valentine in the release. "In addition to the creation of the new AI and blockchain categories, we've also expanded our advisory board to highlight geographic, gender, and racial inclusion – accelerating our desire to represent the world's most innovative and successful leaders in all areas of technology."

It's not just in the finalists that Houston is represented — two advisers are from the Bayou City. Mariam Jacob, of Allergy and Asthma Clinics of Houston, will be a pre-event coach, and Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, will be an on-site coach.

These three entrepreneurs have a lot up their sleeves for 2019. Courtesy images

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's Who

This week starts in one year and ends in the next, and InnovationMap has three inspiring entrepreneurs to lead you into 2019. All three are behind Houston startups that are planning for big growth in the upcoming year. So, read their stories and get familiar with their names and faces — they aren't going anywhere.

Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Apartment Butler

Ben Johnson's business idea turned into a growing company making the lives of apartment dwellers easier. Courtesy of Apartment Butler

Ben Johnson has his own master plan. He'd work as an oil and gas banker for a bit, establish himself, get his MBA, and then, when he was in his 40s, would start his own company. He wasn't wrong about his future as an entrepreneur, but he was off by the timeline.

Johnson started Apartment Butler a few years ago when he saw how apartment communities had the potential to provide streamlined access to resident elected services — such as cleaning or pet care. At the same time, apartment communities across the U.S. were looking to beef up their amenities. Now, Apartment Butler is expanding to its third and fourth markets early next year and is looking to provide more services to its users.

Scott Parazynski, CEO of Fluidity Technologies

Scott Parazynski is a accomplished astronaut and surgeon, but he has a new career focus on drone operation. Courtesy of Fluidity

There are Renaissance men and then there's Scott Parazynski. He's has spent 57 days in space, trained as a trauma surgeon, and climbed Mount Everest as a team physician for the Discovery Channel. His latest conquest is designing a drone controller based on movement in space. The device, called the FT Aviator, allows for one-handed piloting of drones and has the potential to affect the way unmanned vehicles are piloted across industries. As the CEO of Fluidity Technologies, he has big plans for what one-handed drone operation can do.

David Grimes, CEO and co-founder of Snap Diligence

David Grimes thought he was creating a useful tool to vet colleagues. Turns out, he made a way for warm connections better than LinkedIn. Courtesy of Snap Diligence

Hell hath no fury like a businessman scorned. When a business partner ended up being a shady miscreant, David Grimes realized there wasn't a digital vetting tool where you can evaluate a potential associate. After thinking on the idea for a while, Grimes found a co-founder and a way to create an algorithm that can take public information and run it against a person. The company he created is called Snap Diligence.

Now, the tool has morphed into something else that's been unexpectedly in demand. Snap Diligence can find business connections through your already-established network of associates. It's this new feature the company is looking to expand in 2019.

Fluidity Technologies' joystick-like device is designed based on movement in space. Courtesy of Fluidity

Houston-based company's device is revolutionizing drone technology across industries

Unmanned with one hand

It's not enough that Scott Parazynski has spent 57 days, 15 hours and 34 minutes in space. Nor is the fact that he's trained as a trauma surgeon. Not even climbing Mount Everest as a team physician for the Discovery Channel could satisfy one of Earth's most talent-blessed residents. Now Parazynski is on course to change multiple industries with his latest invention.

Not surprisingly, the member of the US Astronaut Hall of Fame based his design on movement in space. He wanted to approximate the movement of simultaneously shifting from one place to another, but also changing the body's orientation. In zero gravity, it takes precision and planning, Parazynski says, to do that in the most efficient way possible.

As a member of the Houston Methodist Research Institute, his goal was to create a joystick-like device "that would revolutionize surgical robotics." That is still a target for the technology, but with his own Houston-based company, Fluidity Technologies, Parazynski is first releasing the device as a drone controller known as FT Aviator.

"Mostly because it's an enormously growing marketplace and the barriers are a lot less," he admits.

That's not to say Parazynski is anything less than a world-class expert on the subject of flight.

"I've flown aircraft and spacecraft," says Parazynski. "But none allowed for the precision of motion I was looking for. None prevented unintended motion."

Lifelong passion
He himself has had toy drones for as long as they've been available and purchased his first "serious drones" three or four years ago, around the same time he conceived of FT Aviator.

When he started to research other drone controllers, he realized that most current models aren't too different from relics from the 1930s on display at the Smithsonian.

"There has been zero innovation in flight control," he says.

As opposed to the two-handed controllers that recall 1990s video game systems, FT Aviator only requires the attention of the pilot's dominant hand. This is especially useful to those using drone cameras. Instead of complex machinations that often require multiple launches, the user can simply make adjustments to the camera with his or her other hand.

"It does this incredibly intuitive motion with a drone or computer game or virtual augmented reality," Parazynski says, listing other potential uses for the technology.

It's FT Aviator's natural movement that will one day make Fluidity's core technology a groundbreaker in surgical robotics. Since the da Vinci surgical robot's 2000 FDA approval, the machine has created controversy. In the hands of a well-trained surgeon, it substantially reduces healing time. But there is no approval process for doctors to use it, so disasters in the hands of untrained practitioners have made the news.

By using the simpler mechanism of Parazynski's technology, the learning curve for robotic surgery is far less steep.

"What we want to do is make it so someone with less training can enjoy the same outcomes," Parazynski explains.

Cross-industry innovation
Ideally, one day a doctor in Houston will be able to operate remotely on a patient across the globe. Thanks to the device's tactile feedback, it's a realistic goal.

But Parazynski foresees "dozens of applications" for his invention, which will begin shipping in February. Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico has already engaged Fluidity, just one on a list of about 50 businesses and government institutions interested to work with the company when it comes onto the marketplace.

"But any good startup will tell you it's about focus," the entrepreneur admits.

That means that for now, he and his team have his eye specifically on controlling drones. Within two weeks of launching a Kickstarter this fall for the business, Fluidity doubled its goal. The FT Aviator has been named a 2019 Innovation Award Honoree at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show. But Parazynski says he owes much of his success to Houston, his home of a quarter century.

Fluidity is based out of a WeWork coworking space.

"I think it's a really exciting place to have a tech startup" Parazynski says. "It's not yet to the scale of Silicon Valley or even Austin but certainly the innovation that's taking place here warrants a major tech hub."

And thanks to Parazynski's work, that day may be coming sooner rather than later.

Drone on

Courtesy of Fluidity

From surgeries to flying drones, Fluidity's technology will affect several industries.

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University of Houston rolls out food delivery robots

on the move

For a small delivery fee of $1.99, students, faculty, and staff across the University of Houston campus can now get their lunch delivered by self-driving robots.

Thirty of San Francisco-based Starship Technologies' autonomous delivery robots now roam the campus thanks to a partnership with New York-based Chartwells Higher Education. The Houston campus is the first to roll out robotic food deliveries.

"This revolutionary delivery method will make it more convenient for the campus community to take advantage of our diverse dining program from anywhere on campus while expanding the hours of operation," says Emily Messa, associate vice president for administration, in a news release. "By opening our campus to this innovative service, which is paid for by the customers, the university didn't have to spend any money purchasing the technology, yet we're enhancing our food delivery capabilities."

Through the Starship Deliveries app, which is available on iOS and Android, users can select from 11 dining institutions and then identify where they are on campus. The platform allows the user to track the progress, and the device can hold up to 20 lbs of food and has the space for about three shopping bags of groceries.

"This increases our capacity to reach more customers, and I expect the robots will quickly become part of campus life," says David Riddle, Chartwells resident district manager, in a news release. (Chartwells manages UH Dining). "Robot delivery will also grow opportunities for UH Dining employees by increasing service hours and growing sales. It has also created additional jobs for students dedicated specifically to servicing the autonomous robots. It's an important advancement for foodservice at UH."

Using machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors, the company's robots have driven over 350,000 miles and completed over 150,000 deliveries. The Starship robots "can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in both rain and snow," per the release.

"Robotic delivery is affordable, convenient and environmentally friendly," says Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development for Starship, in the release. "We're excited to start offering students, staff and faculty at Houston delivery within minutes when they need it most."

Lawyers specializing in startups are hard to comeby in Houston — but here's what you need to know

Guest column

One of the worst, and most expensive, mistakes that we see startup founders make in the very early days of their company is not realizing that hiring lawyers is a lot like hiring doctors: when the stakes are high, you need a highly experienced specialist.

Law has numerous specialties and sub-specialties, and hiring legal counsel with the wrong specialty can mean paying to reinvent the wheel, or simply getting advice that is out of sync with the norms of your industry and the expectations of your seasoned investors.

This challenge can be particularly acute for founders of startups located in Houston. The legal market in any particular city tends to mirror the dominant industries of that city. Houston has some of the world's most prominent energy and healthcare lawyers in the country, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about Houston's economy.

Startup lawyers, or more formally —corporate/securities lawyers who are sub-specialized in "emerging companies" — are a different story entirely. Given the nascent status of Houston's startup ecosystem, finding local lawyers who work with emerging technology companies and early-stage funding day in and day out, and know all the norms and nuances, is a challenge.

Very often we see founders get referred to a local lawyer who is a broad generalist that dabbles lightly in many practice areas. Their lack of depth in startup or venture capital work usually leads to clients paying for things that a more specialized lawyer, with a deeper set of precedent forms and institutional knowledge, could simply pull off the shelf. In other cases, founders get referred to very expensive senior corporate lawyers from firms designed for billion-dollar public company representation; totally overkill (and overpriced) for an early-stage startup.

What the smartest Houston founders discover, if they do their homework, is that leveraging the broader "Texas ecosystem" can help not just with sourcing talent for their employee roster or finding venture capital, but with sourcing specialized legal talent as well. In the case of Startup Lawyers, Austin's venture capital and startup ecosystem has produced numerous highly specialized lawyers whose depth of startup/vc experience easily compares with lawyers found in Silicon Valley, but who also regularly interact with investors in the Houston market; and therefore know their expectations. In the case of our firm, Egan Nelson (E/N), a significant number of our clients are located in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and other markets in the general regional area.

Historically, businesspeople have assumed that if they really want top-tier, highly specialized counsel, they had to find that counsel at large, multi-national law firms. That is no longer the case. The broader Texas ecosystem has produced a thriving group of specialized, high-end "boutique" law firms that are recruiting top-tier lawyers away from the traditional mega-firms, and leveraging technology to deliver "leaner" legal counsel; saving hundreds of dollars per hour for entrepreneurs.

It is not uncommon for us to see Houston startups utilizing an emerging companies corporate lawyer in Austin, a regulatory specialist lawyer in Houston, and a tax lawyer in Dallas; all from different firms. This is the future for how emerging companies will source their legal talent, without the constraints of geography or old-fashioned "all in one" law firm structures.

This trend really isn't that new. VCs from Austin and other Texas cities (and the coasts) have regularly been visiting Houston to fund companies, and Houston companies have regularly leveraged contacts in other markets to source specialized resources for their companies. The same dynamics have extended to finding legal counsel. "Localism," and an over-preoccupation with hiring everyone in the same city, isn't really just last year, it's more like last century. There is nothing about legal services for startups that requires any of your lawyers to be within your same city. Videoconferencing works great.

The growth of the Texas ecosystem, and the emergence of specialized boutique law firms, mean that Houston entrepreneurs have far more options to choose from for sourcing specialized legal counsel. Leverage those options to avoid engaging lawyers who are insufficiently experienced, or overkill, for the needs of your company. For more resources on finding and assessing the right lawyers for your Houston startup, see Startup Lawyers, Explained.

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Jose Ancer is an Emerging Companies Partner at Egan Nelson LLP. He also writes for Silicon Hills Lawyer, an internationally recognized startup/vc law blog focused on entrepreneurs located outside of Silicon Valley, including Texas.

Houston blockchain company taps into a new industry, hires new exec

diversifying

A Houston blockchain company that makes it easier and faster to process industry contracts, payment, and more has diversified its business again.

After expanding into the water services industry in August, Houston-based Data Gumbo Corp. has announced its next market: Construction. The startup, which works out of The Cannon Houston, has hired industry veteran Michael Matthews hired as industry principal to work directly on the company's efforts in the $9 trillion sector.

"Construction is one of the world's largest industries, but it has clearly fallen behind others in adopting technology and driving efficiency," says Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "Michael is a recognized leader in the industry and his vision and experience make him an excellent fit to scale Data Gumbo into the construction sector."

Matthews has over 30 years of experience in construction. He says in the release that some of the issues of current practices result in 30 to 40 percent of project costs to be hidden, and he wants to use the GumboNet platform to provide solutions.

"The construction industry lags far behind other industries in both productivity improvement and technology adoption, resulting in billions of lost value," Matthews says in a news release. "The way companies come together to execute projects remains essentially the same despite technology's improvement and we have to make fundamental, disruptive changes to deliver more value."

The growing blockchain-as-a-service company closed $6 million series A round earlier this year. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Originally built for upstream drilling and completions within the oil and gas industry, Data Gumbo has grown its clientbase over the past few years. The company provides its blockchain-as-a-service services as a subscription for its clients.

Recently, the company was announced to be one of the two Houston-based companies in Plug and Play Tech Center's inaugural Houston cohort, and, earlier this year, the company was named among Crunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companiesCrunchbase's top 50 hottest tech companies. The growing company also hired another executive this summer —the company's new chief commercial officer is Sergio A. Tuberquia — following the closing of a $6 million series A round.