As the Houston innovation ecosystem prepares for 2020, InnovationMap's editor looks back on her favorite interviews of this year. Courtesy photos

Ever since the launch of InnovationMap, the site has featured an innovator weekly. That's over 50 interviews and more than a dozen episodes of the Houston Innovators Podcast, which launched this fall.

As editor of InnovationMap and the host of the Houston Innovators Podcast, I've conducted nearly all of these interviews. And, while parents aren't allowed to pick favorites between their children, I definitely have my favorite interviews. Looking back on this year, I've had the fortune of talking to innovators from all corners of Houston and across industries.

Looking back on 2019, I've plucked out my five favorites, and I thought I'd share why they stood out to me. I'm excited to continue these conversations in 2020 as Houston's innovation ecosystem grows — and as InnovationMap grows with it.

Samantha Lewis, director of The GOOSE Society of Texas

Samantha Lewis

Courtesy of Samantha Lewis

When I think of my favorite conversations I've had this year, Samantha Lewis immediately comes to my mind. If you've ever had the fortune of meeting Sam, you know her as high energy, kind, and full of opinions — all of these qualities make for a great interview, and, in this case, podcast episode.

Samantha's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast was only the second to be released, but, just due to scheduling, was actually the first episode I ever recorded. And, despite it's early release, is still the most listened to of the 13 that now are available. I credit Sam's candor, poise, and insight for that.

In the episode, Samantha and I discuss GOOSE's recent investments, her advice for startups looking for funding, the state of venture capital in Houston — and how it compares to the two coasts, and more. To read more or stream the episode, click here.

Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA

Courtesy of NASA

This past summer, the Space City celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — 50 years since "Houston" was uttered from the surface of the moon. July brought many space celebrations as the city, state, and even country looked back on the legacy of the aerospace industry.

I took this anniversary as a chance to dive into the innovation of the industry on InnovationMap with a series of interviews with various space professionals. I spoke with the general manager of Houston's Spaceport, the founder of a Houston-based space startup, and Rice University's Space Institute director, but my favorite discussion I had about space was with Steven Gonzalez, technology transfer strategist at NASA.

Steven was so interesting to talk to because his job really represents the future of space exploration. As space travel shifts into the commercial space rather than just within the government-backed NASA operations, the need for the sharing of technology, research, and ideas is crucial. Through NASA's technology transfer, Steven is helping that effort. To read our full conversation, click here.

Ody De La Paz, founder of Sensytec

Courtesy of Sensytec

Throughout my now near 15 months at InnovationMap, I've had a growing appreciation of the guts and gumption it takes to take the leap and start a company. I love interviewing entrepreneurs — they all have such different perspectives on similar startup challenges. One of my favorite entrepreneur interviews I had this year was with Ody De La Paz, who founded Sensytec.

Ody started his company when he was an undergrad student at the University of Houston. Most college students just trying to get an entry-level job somewhere — anywhere, but Ody would go on to travel the world pitching — and winning — in competitions for Sensytec's technology, which is smart cement that can communicate risks for potential life-threatening damage.

Ody was my first startup founder guest on the Houston Innovators Podcast, and, if we're keeping track, still is the second most listened to episode behind Sam's episode. To read more or stream the episode, click here.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Courtesy of HX

This year, Houston Exponential — the city's nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting innovation in Houston — hired a new president. Harvin Moore joined the team to take HX into its next stage of attracting tech companies into the ecosystem.

Several months into his position, we sat down to discuss how he was doing and what some of his goals were for the organization. I admire Harvin's passion for the city. A serial entrepreneur and investor, he has a great frame of reference for startups, and his first point of action was to listen — to the ecosystem and its members — for what the city really wants and needs from its innovation leadership.

Our conversation was over an hour and bounced from HX and Houston startups to New York's real estate and the profitability of local journalism. Of course, not all that ended up in the article, but I look forward to seeing what all Harvin has up his sleeves for 2020. To read our full conversation, click here.

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

Courtesy of Houston Methodist

It's rare that I interview someone for the Featured Innovator section twice. In fact, I've only doubled up three times. Though, I'm sure it will continue to happen as InnovationMap and the Houston Innovators Podcast grows. Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist Hospital, was one of my interviews I've doubled up on this year — once for a Q&A and once for the Houston Innovators Podcast.

It's pretty easy to find new things to discuss with Roberta. Houston Methodist seems to constantly be launching new technology pilots within the system — from virtual reality in cancer treatment to telemedicine. Plus, just personally, Roberta is extremely interesting. At 27, she was diagnosed with a vicious strand of breast cancer — despite having no family history of the disease.

After getting through some of her early treatments, she co-founded an organization that helps to connect young women who were similarly diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. I'm 28, and cannot fathom the cancer battle Roberta survived and the foresight she had to create an organization like she did. To read more on our most recent conversation or stream the episode, click here.

Get to know this week's Houston innovators to know — and the companies they've founded. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's innovators to know are all Houston startup founders who have identified a need in their industries and created companies to provide solutions.

From blockchain and data to real estate and smart materials, these Houston entrepreneurs are making an impact across industries as well as the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo Corp.

andrew bruce

Andrew Bruce had the idea for Data Gumbo when he realized how difficult it was to share data in upstream oil and gas. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

The oil and gas industry was sitting on a gold mine without any idea of how to harvest it before Andrew Bruce and his company Data Gumbo came around. If energy companies were ever going to be able to set up autonomous drilling, they needed to integrate data and challenge the commercial model.

"Data Gumbo was originally founded to solve that integration problem. Take data from different sources, standardize it, clean it up, and make sure only the people who have the authority to get access to the data, can get access to the data," Bruce says on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "That's why we're called Data Gumbo — take a bunch of data, put it in the pot, stir it up, and make it taste good."

Now, years after founding the company, Bruce has raised millions and has expanded to new industries, and he has more up his sleeves. Listen to the episode and read more here.

Reda Hicks, CEO and founder of GotSpot Inc.

reda hicks

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

Every company, once a year, has to face the annoying and challenging tasks associated with the planning the holiday party — including identifying the point person for planning, which is usually someone who has an entire other job to focus on in addition to their new party planning tasks.

"I've worked at a law firm for over a decade, and I remember the giant hassle it was at the last minute to figure out who was responsible for the holiday party," says Reda Hicks founder and CEO of GotSpot Inc., a platform that connects people with short-term commercial space.

GotSpot's new seasonal tool — Holiday SOS — aims to be companies' one-stop shop for planning corporate holiday celebrations, from luncheons to happy hours and no matter the size of the event. The opportunity allows for the burden to be taken off that person within the company — who has a real, non party-planning job — while also allowing for new avenues of daytime business for party service providers. Click here to read more.

Ody De La Paz, CEO and founder of Sensytec

ody de la paz

Ody De La Paz's company, Sensytec, started as a class project and turned into a growing startup. Courtesy of Sensytec

Some people find and accept a post-graduation job while in college, but Ody De La Paz actually created his job and his company while in school. Sensytec, a smart concrete developer, may have began as just a class project at the University of Houston's Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship within the C. T. Bauer College of Business, but De La Paz and his team have proven the market need of his product over and over again.

De La Paz saw the need to really grow and develop his company after competing in a series of pitch competitions. He and his cofounder, Anudeep Maddi, competed in eight across the world, and took hope first place prizes in five.

"That kind of gave us the hint that this should be a company, and we need to make it happen as quick as possible," De La Paz, CEO of Sensytec says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more here.

The University of Houston's food delivery robots making their debut is among this week's top stories. Photo via uh.edu

5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

What's trending

Editor's note: As The Houston Innovation Summit comes to a close this weekend, so does a busy week of Houston innovation. Trending stories on InnovationMap included campus robots, innovators to know, venture capital advice, and more.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's Houston innovators come from industries across the spectrum. Courtesy photos

This week in Houston is chock full of events from The Houston Innovation Summit, but before you get too swept away, check out these three innovators to know this week. We have a life-long innovator whose passion has taken him from industry to industry, a construction specialist joining a growing Houston startup, and a man who let his personal struggles motivate him to find solutions. Continue reading.

University of Houston rolls out food delivery robots

The University of Houston campus has 30 new members — self-driving, food-delivering robots. Photo courtesy of UH

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. Continue reading.

City council approves $24M for East End hub, TMCx opens apps, and more Houston innovation news

The East End Maker Hub receives a huge grant, Chevron commits to two tech companies, and more in this Houston innovation news roundup. Courtesy of The East End Maker Hub

Houston is busting at the seams with innovation news as the ecosystem prepares to wrap up its year of growth. From grants and M&A activity to expansions and awards, there's a lot of news you may have missed. In this latest news roundup, millions of federal funds are doled out, a female networking app commits to Houston, an accelerator launches applications, and more. Continue reading.

3 reasons venture capitalists say no, according to University of Houston research

Most venture capital rejection is because of one or more of these three reasons. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

One of the most common questions that pops up in startup circles is, "Why did they turn me down?" There are myriad reasons why a venture capitalist might turn down pitches and decline funding. Here, I'll present the three most common. Continue reading.

Houston entrepreneur plans to revolutionize the construction industry using a tech-enabled material

Ody De La Paz's company, Sensytec, started as a class project and turned into a growing startup. Courtesy of Sensytec

Ody De La Paz wasn't sure if his class project could be turned into a company, but he decided to test the waters through a series of pitch competitions. He and his cofounder, Anudeep Maddi, competed in eight across the world, and took hope first place prizes in five.

"That kind of gave us the hint that this should be a company, and we need to make it happen as quick as possible," De La Paz, CEO of Sensytec says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. Continue reading and stream online.

Ody De La Paz's company, Sensytec, started as a class project and turned into a growing startup. Courtesy of Sensytec

Houston entrepreneur plans to revolutionize the construction industry using a tech-enabled material

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 8

Ody De La Paz wasn't sure if his class project could be turned into a company, but he decided to test the waters through a series of pitch competitions. He and his cofounder, Anudeep Maddi, competed in eight across the world, and took hope first place prizes in five.

"That kind of gave us the hint that this should be a company, and we need to make it happen as quick as possible," De La Paz, CEO of Sensytec says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast.

De La Paz shares on the podcast how he got the idea for Sensytec through the University of Houston's Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship within the C. T. Bauer College of Business. The program, which was just ranked No. 1 on the 2020 Princeton Review's top 15 programs for undergraduate entrepreneurship studies, allows students access to emerging technologies.

"You have the opportunity to work with intellectual property from the University of Houston," De La Paz says. "This technology came about and I had the opportunity to see if there was a market potential for this technology we're working on called Smart Cement."

De La Paz shares his experience with pitch competitions and accelerator programs, including the most recent in the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, and discusses where Sensytec is headed in the podcast. Listen to the episode below and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


Houston-based Sensytec founder gives his advice for accelerating your startup. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

University of Houston-founded company shares its lessons learned from accelerator programs

Houston Voices

A startup accelerator provides promising companies with an opportunity to boost their chances of marketing their technologies. These programs help small companies pivot their technologies strategically, interface with industry sectors and engage with mentor network to better pitch their ideas to the market.

Unfortunately, most startups will never have the chance to participate in an accelerator. But the information gained from such an experience can be valuable knowledge for all entrepreneurs who wish to accelerate their business.

Sensytec – a UH startup that developed smart cement to monitor the health of structures – was recently accepted into the Techstars Energy Accelerator. Techstars Energy is a highly competitive accelerator in Norway that partners with Equinor, Kongsberg, and Mckinsey to find sustainable technologies for the energy industry. Sensytec's smart cement technology is being considered for use in new oil and gas wells and concrete structures.

Sensytec president Ody De La Paz learned quite a bit about what companies are looking for when it comes to new technology and what entrepreneurs can do to boost their startups.

Understand where your tech fits into the market

Though joining Techstars to better position their smart cement technology to energy companies, De La Paz has learned the many ways in which his company's tech could be positioned to other markets.

"Recognizing the way the market is moving is critical to successfully pitching your tech to customers," he says. "But you have to be honest with yourself – your target market may not be the one you need to pitch your tech to make money."

According to De La Paz, this is where many inventors may miss their opportunity to profit.

"It's understandable that many researchers and inventors are passionate about the one problem they are trying to solve," he says. "But the real trick is trying to discover the solution currently needed by industry sectors – and that is continually changing."

His recommendation? Be open to any opportunity.

"It's not so much about you or your technology," he says. "It's about how your technology fits within an industry's business strategy. It's always about what the company needs, so there may be different applications to consider."

Focus on company values

Every decision made by industry will be focused on the bottom line. It's business, after all. But in addition to providing a high-value, low-cost solution for companies, aligning your tech with company core values may win over a few more hearts.

"Because we know that Equinor has a 'safety first' approach and values sustainability, we put together a solid business case to reflect those values," says De La Paz.

Current technologies used to monitor cement are not as accurate as they should be, says De La Paz. This leads to very costly solutions. So Sensytec built a business case that outlines how their technology accurately reports when cement loses structural health, allowing companies to proactively fix problems before they become disasters.

"We know exploration and drilling will continue," he says. "But if we can show how our technology is not only cost effective, but a safer choice for oil and gas companies like Equinor, we will align with their values and that's very important to them."

Seek feedback — and lots of it

One of the things De La Paz has experienced while in the Techstars Energy accelerator is the value of feedback.

In fact, he says you can't get enough of it, that every piece of feedback, every perspective gained is another clue that helps you figure out if your technology is needed and, if so, how to pitch it.

Here's what he suggests:

1. Interview as many customers as possible

According to De La Paz, every person working in that industry has perspective. He and his team have interviewed hundreds of experts, from the architect to the concrete manufacturer to subcontractors. "It's important to understand your customer and how they think about our technology," he says.

2. Find mentors

In addition to interviewing customers, select a few as mentors. Business leaders, strategists, and even everyday users, can help you toss around ideas.

3. Be honest with yourself

When you receive the feedback, be honest with yourself, says De La Paz. You may be better suited for another market or you may need to pivot your technology, but this will not happen if the feedback is not used wisely.

De La Paz also stress the value of patience and persistence during this process.

"It's a very long process and there's a lot you have to consider," he says. "But if you stay on top of everything and follow through, it will help your startup get moving more quickly."


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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Lindsay Lewis is the director of strategic research communications at UH.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three female innovators across industries recently making headlines — all three focusing on investing in innovation from B2B software to energy tech.

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund

Samantha Lewis, principal at Mercury Fund, joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Mercury Fund

When Samantha Lewis started her new principal role at Houston-based Mercury Fund, she hit the ground running. Top priority for Lewis is building out procedure for the venture capital firm as well as finding and investing in game-changing fintech.

"(I'm focused on) the democratization of financial services," Lewis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth." Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures, spearheaded by Barbara Burger, has announced their latest fund. Courtesy of CTV

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's recently announced $300 million Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. Click here to read more.

Lauren Bahorich, CEO and founder of Cloudbreak Enterprises

Cloudbreak Enterprises, founded by Lauren Bahorich is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo courtesy of Cloudbreak

Lauren Bahorich wanted to stand up a venture studio that really focused on growing and scaling B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage technology. She founded Cloudbreak Enterprises last year and already has three growing portfolio companies.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

This year, Bahorich is focused on onboarding a few new disruptive Houston startups. Click here to read more.

Sustainable plastics manufacturing company expands in Houston and beyond

Growing green

An under-the-radar company in Houston has ramped up its manufacturing capacity as it seeks to seize upon rising interest in sustainable plastics.

Houston-based Inhance Technologies, a sustainable manufacturer that transforms conventional plastics into high-performance materials, has a new site in St. Louis that comprises 75,000 square feet — more than double the size of the company's old facility there. As a result of the expansion, Inhance Technologies' headcount in St. Louis will rise to about 40. The size of the company's entire workforce wasn't available.

"The expansion in St. Louis is a great moment for the company and a sign of the organization's ambition in sustainable solutions for plastics," Patricia van Ee, chief commercial officer at Inhance Technologies, says in a release. "We know consumers are favoring more recyclable plastics, especially in packaging … ."

In January, the company promoted van Ee to her current role. She joined Inhance Technologies in 2019 as senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Patricia van Ee was recently named chief commercial officer at Inhance Technologies. Photo via inhancetechnologies.com

The announcement of van Ee's elevation to chief commercial officer came on the heels of Inhance Technologies occupying its new global headquarters at 22008 N. Berwick Dr. in northwest Houston. The company was founded in 1983, and about 75 people work at the Houston headquarters, which includes a science and technology center. That location is adjacent to one of its Texas manufacturing plants.

Among other products, the new plant in St. Louis makes Enkase, which transforms conventional plastics into fully recyclable packaging, and DuraBloc, which prevents fuel from seeping through plastic tanks on gas-powered equipment like motorcycles and personal watercraft. Customers include original equipment manufacturers, molders, and retailers in sectors such as consumer packaged goods, health care, and transportation.

"With a large expansion of warehouse space, a doubling of our manufacturing capacity, and new rapid-response lead times, our expanded St. Louis operation is equipped to meet new levels of demand as product brands, retailers, and consumers make a conscious choice to [purchase] more sustainable plastics," Michael Koma, chief operating officer at Inhance Technologies, says in a release.

ResearchAndMarkets.com predicts the global market for sustainable plastic packaging will jump from $89 billion in 2020 to $117.3 billion by 2025.

"The sustainable plastic packaging industry has been growing as a result of stringent laws and regulations levied by governments and governing bodies, as well as a shift in consumer preference toward recyclable and eco-friendly packaging materials," the research firm says.

Inhance Technologies' global presence should put it in a good position to capitalize on that market. The Houston and St. Louis sites are among more than 20 Inhance Technologies locations around the world, including offices in Australia, Brazil, Germany, and Mexico.

Los Angeles-based private equity firm Aurora Capital Partners bought Inhance Technologies from New York City-based private equity firm Arsenal Capital Partners in 2018 for an undisclosed amount. Arsenal bought Inhance Technologies from founders Monty Ballard and Bill Brown in 2012.

"Inhance fits seamlessly into our strategy of partnering with a market leader to support their vision and accelerate both organic and acquisition-driven growth," Michael Marino, a partner at Aurora Capital Partners, said in 2018.

A year after its acquisition by Aurora, Inhance Technologies bought Germany's Fluor Technik System for an undisclosed amount.

"Over the course of its history, Inhance has continually sought to expand both its breadth of technical capabilities and its geographical reach," said Andy Thompson, the company's president and CEO.