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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Houston energy tech investment group rebrands to address sustainability

Seeing green

As the pandemic took its hold on the economy and the energy industry's commodity crisis did its damage, Patrick Lewis understandably assumed that maybe sustainability initiatives might be on the back burner for his network of energy companies.

"We thought we would hear that sustainability in this environment may have slipped down the priority list, but it was the exact opposite," Lewis says. "Pretty consistently across all the operators, sustainability, reducing emissions, and greenhouse gases — those are all even more important today."

This confirmation that the energy industry is committed to innovative sustainability projects led Lewis to rebrand his energy tech investment group from BBL Ventures to Sustainability Ventures Group, or SVG. The investment team focuses on reverse engineering the startup innovation process by sourcing the concerns and goals of the energy companies, then finding solutions from the startup world through reverse pitch competitions and challenges.

"We're not fundamentally changing our business model or investment strategy, but we just wanted to make sure our messaging was crystal clear," Lewis tells InnovationMap.

Lewis says he and his team really thought through the definition of sustainability, and he specifies that, "we're not doing this to go chase solar or wind power — those are on the table — but we think there are two primary opportunities: Digital transformation and emerging technologies in the existing fossil fuel industry," Lewis says.

He adds that oil and gas is going to be around for a long time still, and he cites that by 2040, it's predicted that 40 percent of energy will still come from fossil fuels. It's the big energy companies and providers — which he's working with — that have the power to move the needle on these changes.

"We think there's a real opportunity to pursue efficiencies and reduce emissions and footprint in that existing traditional oil and gas sector," he says.

Earlier this year, Lewis was addressing these concerns by working on standing up a group of industry experts for regular meetings to discuss innovation needs. What started as a call with a handful of people, now hosts 40 people across 14 energy operator and major tech platforms.

"The whole purpose of this group is to share best practices, collaborate on common pain points, risk manage pilots," Lewis says. "We continue to build that group — it's going to be a nonprofit governed by a steering committee."

While SVG has held off on its reverse pitch events, the organization along with the University of Houston Center for Carbon Management submitted a proposal to host the National Science Foundation's Convergence Acceleratoronvergence Accelerator virtual conference at the end of September.

"The goal is to bring together multidisciplinary stakeholders — industry, nonprofit, academics, NGOs, public policy experts — to solve big problems," Lewis says. "Sustainability is a problem they really want to address."

Rice University's data-focused lab presents unique opportunity for startups and small businesses

data to knowlege

A data-focused lab a Rice University is training the next generation of data scientists. However, the students at the Rice D2K Lab are doing more than just learning about the significance of data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence — they're working as data scientists now.

Businesses — large and small — can come into the lab and have Rice students and staff work on data projects in both short-term and long-term capacity. One semester, a group of students worked with 311 call data for the city of Houston so that officials can figure out what parts of town were in the most need of support, says Jennifer Sanders, program administrator at the Rice D2K lab.

"They were able to show on a Houston map the areas where most of these 311 calls were coming from," Sanders tells InnovationMap. "That allowed the city to focus on those areas."

Lately, the lab has been focused on a several COVID-19 Houston Response Projects, which addressed issues ranging from homelessness in the time of a pandemic, ventilator distribution, and more. One team even made a recommendation to the city after a data project determined that adding five ambulances to southwest neighborhoods served by the Houston Fire Department Emergency Medical Services program would optimize response times.

The lab has two avenues to help businesses: a semester-long capstone course and a clinic for one-time sessions. This upcoming semester, the capstone course has 60 students signed up to work on 10 to 12 projects from corporate sponsors. These lab members — which support the program monetarily — are selected based on their fit within the program.

The D2K Consulting Clinic also offers free one-hour sessions on campus. At the clinic, students look at the data and assess the possibilities and advise on how to use that data for business gain or growth.

"The consulting clinic can be a starting point if a business is not sure what to do with their data," says Shanna Jin, communications and marketing specialist at the D2K Lab.

The clinic also presents a special opportunity for small businesses and startups, a niche Sanders says they haven't tapped into enough yet. She says most of the companies they've worked with are larger organizations, usually in the energy industry.

"We really want to broaden the scope to smaller startups, tech companies, and nonprofits," Sanders says. "We really don't have to limit ourselves. I would really love to expand our reach."

Membership dues for companies, which provides a more structured, long-term access to data consulting, range from $25,000 to $75,000 a year. However, Sanders says the lab is willing to work with startups on a cost that's more accessible.

Ultimately, the goal of the program is to connect the dots for businesses that have data and don't know how to use it.

"To realize the potential of big data, we need people — people who can transform data to knowledge," says the lab's founder, Genevera Allen, in a promotional video. "That's what we're doing with the Rice D2K Lab."