In an interview with InnovationMap, Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners. Photo courtesy of Hello Alice

Last month, Hello Alice — now with 1 million members in its community — announced a new program with MasterCard that provides small business owners a simpler way to unlock access to capital.

The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard offers users expert business advice, business insights, cash back, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

"As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had," Carolyn Rodz, CEO and founder of Hello Alice, tells InnovationMap. "We really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access."

In an interview with InnovationMap, Rodz explains how the partnership came about and how the program will significantly move the needle on equitable access to capital for small business owners.

InnovationMap: How did this partnership come about to provide this this unique credit card for small business owners?

Carolyn Rodz: We have been looking at ways to support business owners along their capital journeys for a long time. Since we started Hello Alice access to capital has been the number one barrier for small business owners, and that's only magnified when we look at business owners of color and our new majority business owners that we focus on. And so it made natural sense as we went down a path of conversations with MasterCard initially around how do we create something, particularly in a world where accessing capital, which would be daunting for business owners.

There's a lot of talk around venture capital and getting loans and what that growth journey looks like. But the reality is most business owners understand a credit card — they understand how it works. So, that was a great starting point for us. Then we looked at what are some of the issues with cards — all business cards particularly or commodities. They're typically an afterthought from a lot of the financial institutions that offer them. We're seeing a lot of these emerging fintech companies that are rolling out cards, but even for them, the small business audience is typically an afterthought. They're really focused on tech companies and very rapid growth businesses.

It felt like mainstream small businesses were really getting lost in this conversation, so that was where we really wanted to tackle. How do we solve some of these problems — how do we create benefits that are actually meaningful to small business owners? Things like one-on-one coaching and helping them get access to workshops that will help them along their growth journey. Things that they can redeem points for experiences and opportunities that that may not otherwise be accessible through a lot of these business owners.

The other piece that we wanted to support is the large group of businesses that don't qualify for a traditional credit card. And so we, in tandem with our unsecured credit card, also launched a secured card. And the idea for that was that we could actually roll out a credit quality tool. So, in conjunction with all the education and wraparound services that we're offering, there's a six- to nine-month process that a business owner — if they have poor credit history — can go through to build up that credit with a secured credit card and then seamlessly transition into an unsecured card. It's an opportunity to take that first step toward building and growing their business and accessing the capital that they need to grow.

IM: How does this initiative target the inequality in access to capital for small business owners?

CR: Well, nine out of 10 of business owners are relying on their personal credit card when they're applying for financing. When we look at entrepreneurs of color, the rate of low credit score for them is two to three times higher for Black and LatinX entrepreneurs specifically. So for us, this is the importance of building in conjunction with our creating equitable access to credit program that is much broader, frankly, than the card itself, but offering the wraparound services around it, making sure that we are providing the secured to unsecured seamless transition plan.

We're also working with the First National Bank of Omaha, and the reason we selected them at the bank, they're the largest privately held bank in the country. This also gave us the flexibility to really look at alternative underwriting models and the the opportunity to learn through all of the insights that we're gaining around these small business owners. We're trying to figure out how do we start to look at some of these alternative data points and identify not just the financial history of a business owner.

There are a lot of circumstances that lead to poor credit scores, whether it was for a health circumstance that they endured or veteran business owners who may have no credit history because they've been overseas for a long period of time. We're looking at what are some of the data points that are indicating that a business owner is more likely to succeed and more likely to repay the credit that they've taken on. We know already through a lot of research and data points that having a business plan automatically makes you more likely to repay your your debt. Or the fact that you are getting positive feedback from mentors is a strong indicator that you're going to be more likely to pay off some of those debts. And so we're really looking at what are some of these things that may be overlooked but are frankly more indicative of who the business owner is and the potential for their for their business and their opportunities to be able to repay credit that they take off.

IM: What type of small business owners do you feel like this is a really good solution for? What all can they expect from the program?

CR: As a small business owner myself, I've created a card that I wish I would have had. When I started this company, I really looked at what was available to the market. This credit card, like many cards, offers benefits that are pretty standard in the market right now. Things like cash back, extra points, and kickers for certain spends that are relevant to small business owners. But again, we really looked at where are the gaps for these business owners and the things they don't already have or are unable to access.

What we discovered was there are lots of accelerators, programs, and workshops and things — but they're expensive. So, there's an opportunity here. We work with our network of partners that we have for Hello Alice that are traditionally paid or have a cost to roll them out and offer business owners points and earnings that can be spent toward that.

Mentorship, as you know, is a huge, huge barrier, particularly when we look at our new majority entrepreneurs, so all of our cardholders get access to one-on-one coaching for this card. And we've really focused on areas that are primary interest to them, things like business strategy, operations, and financing for their businesses.

And then the other important piece of this is leveraging our partner network. We have so many partners that we work with at Hello Alice, companies that are offering products and tools and services to small business owners. With this card, we're opening up additional discounts beyond what we've already negotiated standards for all of our community, whether it's an extra discount on things like QuickBooks, Salesforce, or different tools that they might be using. We have over 70 affiliate partners that we've already brought into the program working with more every week right now, which is really exciting.

We're also trying to find new opportunities — where can we bring the most benefit these business owners in a way that grows with their company and that, as they're spending and creating traction with their company, our team is working behind the scenes to unlock more and more opportunities every stage of that journey.

IM: Do you feel like this program is a response to the growing challenges small businesses have been facing over the past few years?

CR: I mean, our business certainly had a hell of a couple of years, and 89 percent of small business owners in our community, which is now over a million business owners strong, claim the access to capital is limiting their growth potential. Where we focus a majority of our energy as a company is unlocking those barriers.

As we dig into that, what we're seeing is access to capital — whether that's early days as a credit card or a grant funding, or later stage with loans or even venture capital — is that we need to address this by helping to unlock that journey for business owners, but also making sure that we're supporting them with the opportunities that are relevant to their own stage of growth.

The other piece is revenue generation. We always want to focus on the core and sustainable business health of a company and making sure that they're bringing in revenue and that they've created a business model that actually works and is scalable. We're working a lot on providing them not just money into their business or outside capital, but how do we actually help them generate revenue and clear capital in all the stages unless they have that capital? How do we actually help them deploy that capital in meaningful ways will help them grow their business?

All of the wraparound services that come with the core of what Hello Alice offers — and certainly with this credit card we're getting a deeper layer of insight, because we know more about the businesses, we know how they're spending, what they're doing. We're really learning about how do we additionally support this cohort of business owners with the right wraparound services, making sure that they're getting the right thing at the right time.

What's interesting is that and the reason we really started with the credit card is that 50 percent of small business owners have a personal credit score of 680 or better, and that's strong enough to apply for most business credit cards. However, that score locks them out of getting a business loan, which typically requires a score of 720 or better to qualify. So we're able to tap into a cohort and help them grow this pool of capital in the earliest stages. But really making sure that we're giving them the growth tools that ultimately free them up to go get that loan, to go walk into a main street bank and have that power of choice along their capital journey.

In general, we focus a lot on access to capital. We deployed over $37 million in small business grants to date, and we're continuing to grow that pool. We're actually working right now on an equitable access to capital fund, which will allow us to utilize those grants to actually pay the security deposit for select business owners who may not qualify for additional credit.

Ultimately, this is a really tangible way to work with financial institutions, MasterCard, and our broader partner ecosystem. We haven't seen the statistics move in decades. How do we actually open up more capital to business owners that otherwise wouldn't qualify for it? And this is our our first of many steps toward towards putting a really tangible stake in the ground.

IM: What about the challenges of the pandemic — how do you see COVID-19 and its shutdown affect small businesses?

CR: For us, like many businesses, I think the pandemic was it shook everything up. I think we had a plan and a path forward that always entailed unlocking access to capital and unlocking opportunity — that has never changed for us. But it accelerated a lot of things. We had planned to deploy grant funding in 2020 independent of the pandemic. When COVID hit and we saw these businesses struggling, we quickly pivoted. We accelerated that plan significantly. We started deploying grants within weeks of shelter in place — even before PPP had been announced and before businesses were accessing any government support. We were among the first to offer emergency grants and put us in a really strong position to grow that program and again to accelerate the rollout of that, which is now turned into a much larger program.

That really was, I would say, the acceleration of our entire early stage access to capital continuum. And what we learned from that was how much capital these business owners actually need. The process gave us a lot of information that that has really helped roll out the broader continuum of capital for us. We launched our lending marketplace with over 92 small business lenders all focused on fair and equitable funding, which is available over all as well. And so these credit cards round out that early stage access to capital.

But when we look at our new majority cohort — and even many white male businesses — we have to get business owners of all types that are struggling with access to capital. Everybody's willing to give money to business owners that have traction, that are doing well with their business, that are on a growth path. But it's very hard to get the traction that big investors need, and that's always really struggle.

The pandemic accelerated a lot in this space. It made us realize that the opportunity here is actually much greater to support these businesses and also got a lot of attention from partners. We've been having these conversations for years, frankly, prior to the pandemic. And everybody recognized there was an issue, but I don't think they realized the impact of the issue until COVID hit, and small businesses were the ones that kept operating and made sure that we were getting the resources that we needed to continue to live in a time when everything was a little bit uncertain.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The donation comes from Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund, a roughly $420 million initiative focusing on racially and ethnically diverse small business owners disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

Wells Fargo donates $20M to Houston small businesses in underserved communities

pay day

More than 500 businesses in the Houston area will benefit from a $20 million donation made by Wells Fargo to the Houston Fund for Social Justice and Economic Equity.

The equity fund will distribute the money in the form of grants for the purchase of property, equipment, and other assets to support economic development in underserved communities throughout the region.

“Small businesses play an important role in the Houston economy, and it is a benefit for our city to provide every tool needed to help them succeed,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a Wells Fargo news release. “This Wells Fargo grant program will allow small business owners to innovate, expand, and evolve in a way that improves their investments while also maintaining our reputation as a great place for economic development and company growth.”

For more information about the Houston Equity Fund grants, visit houstonequityfund.com.

The $20 million donation comes from Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund, a roughly $420 million initiative focusing on racially and ethnically diverse small business owners who’ve been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fostering an inclusive economic recovery and helping small businesses sustain themselves and grow in the wake of COVID-19 is a priority for us,” says Charlie Scharf, CEO of Wells Fargo. “As a company, we have a commitment to make the communities where we operate stronger, and to do it at a very local level.”

In the past, Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund has supported Houston small businesses through grants to LiftFund and the Houston Community College Foundation, and other local grants enabled nonprofits such as the University of Houston Foundation, Texas Black Expo, Impact Hub Houston, and the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans to serve entrepreneurs.

Money from the Open for Business Fund primarily benefits small businesses owned by Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American entrepreneurs.

Following Winter Storm Uri, the United States Small Business Association has launched recovery resources for Texas small businesses. Photo via Getty Images

SBA launches Virtual Business Recovery Center to assist Texas loan applicants after winter storm

funds for small biz

Texas small businesses impacted by Winter Storm Uri are now eligible for up to $2 million in low-interest loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration as a result of President Joe Biden's major disaster declaration last week.

"Getting our businesses and communities up and running after a disaster is our highest priority at SBA," says SBA's acting Administrator Tami Perriello.

According to a release from the SBA, businesses in 77 counties are covered under the declaration for damages incurred during the storm, starting February 11. Loans can be used to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate, machinery and equipment, inventory and other business assets. The funds can also be used to make improvements that will protect, prevent, or minimize damage from any future freezes.

Interest rates for businesses start at 3 percent. Loans to private nonprofit organizations will start at 2 percent and homeowners and renters will incur interest at 1.25. All loans are set with 30 years terms.

Loan amounts and terms are determined by the SBA based on each applicant's financial condition.

The SBA will also launch a Virtual Business Recovery Center on February 23 — similar to the Women Business Centers it launched across the country in 2020, but all virtual due to COVID-related health concerns.

Applicants can call or email the virtual center to receive personalized assistance in their online loan applications at 800-659-2955 or FOCWAssistance@sba.gov, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Assistance will also be provided to help homeowners and renters through a similar Virtual Disaster Loan Outreach Center, which applicants can reach through the same number and email address.

Homeowners are eligible for up to $200,000 to repair or replace damaged or destroyed real estate.Renters and homeowners are also eligible for up to $40,000 for destroyed personal property.

To get started, applicants must contact FEMA at disasterassistance.gov. To download an application visit disasterloanassistance.sba.gov. Individuals who are deaf or hard‑of‑hearing can call 800-877-8339.

Two seasoned public relations experts are providing resources for startups and small businesses. Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

Two female founders create a PR solution for startups and small businesses in Houston and beyond

all you need

Public relations can feel elusive and overwhelming to small business owners. Carla Nikitaidis and Kathryn Worsham Humphries, two seasoned communications consultants, are used to hearing clients ask if they need PR — and more often than not, "what does PR even mean?"

The two women are lifting integrated marketing's curtain to help early-stage businesses and entrepreneurs understand and implement their own communication plans. Houston-based Humphries and California-based Nikitaidis launched All You Need Method, an online course and consulting business designed for small business owners, to help provide agency-level strategy without the expensive price tag.

All You Need Method compiles Nikitaidis and Humphries years of communications experience into an accessible course, The PR Starter Kit.

"We packaged it together in a way where if you're the founder of a small business, you can take our course and get started down the right path of telling your story, being strategic, setting goals, and growing your brand," explains Humphries.

The $249 course is a small sum compared to the often costly prices of hiring on a PR agency, which Humphries explains have monthly retainers ranging from $3,000 to $20,000. The price point is much more manageable for a small company, she explains.

The partners first crossed paths in New York City, sharing a mutual love for PR. Nikitaidis worked for a string of large agencies, representing popular brands like Target, CVS, and Shiseido. Humphries, a University of Texas graduate, landed in Manhattan to fulfill internships at Ralph Lauren, Teen Vogue, and Lonny magazine.

When Nikitaidis left her agency role to start CMN PR, a firm focused on early-stage businesses, and brought Humphries on as her first employee. "She was so smart and strategic — such a partner from day one," says Nikitaidis.

After five years of CMN PR, the two joined a client's in-house team and, eventually, departed to their own adventures. Humphries joined the global social media team for Gap Inc. and eventually returned to Houston to start her consultancy, KWH Creative. Nikitaidis became director of communications at Nextdoor, in the early days of the app, and vice president at The OutCast Agency in San Francisco before relaunching her company as CMN PR & Consulting in 2020.

Nikitaidis and Humphries met in New York years ago and have worked together in the past. Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

When the coronavirus started, the two women realized that small businesses were struggling more than ever. They set out to create tools for the early-stage entrepreneur and even business owners reassessing their plans in the wake of 2020's hardships.

"There are so many businesses that are pre-PR agency or even pre-consulting services that just need a little bit of help. They don't need a $5,000 or $10,000 monthly retainer — what they need is some strategic guidance," says Nikitaidis.

All You Need Method seeks to democratize access to media for solopreneurs on a budget.

"We're not anti-PR agency," Nikitaidis stressed. "We just think that the system and how it's kind of set up right now is broken."

Traditionally, publicists have been the conduit between brands and the media. Through press releases and pitches, communications professionals build relationships with reporters to help the brands they represent get media coverage. The Public Relations Journal even sought to investigate the role of PR gatekeepers in a 2011 study.

"If you think about how agency life has evolved, you used to have to go through an agency to have access to media. Now that the conversation is completely broken down — you don't need a third-party to have that conversation," continues Nikitaidis.

Before reaching out to the media or unveiling a product, Humphries believes you should have "core foundational pillars in place." The PR Starter Kit course guides our seven-step formula the two founders have used with their clients to help them stand out in a crowded media landscape. The course provides customized templates, a competitive analysis, content creation tips, and clarity on how to use integrated marketing to reach your business goals.

The PR Starter Kit includes approximately one hour of video training and worksheets that could take an estimated five hours to complete. The videos are broken up into segments so "you can go at your own pace" overtime, suggests Nikitaidis.

For a personalized approach, All You Need Method also offers one-hour strategy sessions via Zoom for $250. The consultation process answers PR and marketing questions pertaining to the brand's business, addresses individual pain points, and focuses on bonus goals.

"We're always trying to map back or help small business owners approach PR and marketing as something that's going to move their business goals forward," Nikitaidis added.

Building customer relationships and servicing your clients may sound like "Business 101," but Humphries finds that 2020 has shifted the needs of brand audiences and their lifestyles.

"I feel like a lot of small business owners have a vague idea of who their target audience is, but they haven't actually sat down and drilled down on all the details," explains Humphries.

Especially in light of the coronavirus pandemic, consumer behavior has changed. She recommends understanding what they could most use from you right now based on your areas of expertise and your product or service.

The coronavirus isn't the only nationwide hardship that's forcing brands to reevaluate their content and values. Last May, the Black Lives Matter movement held protests across the country in the wake of George Floyd's murder. Conversations on racial justice and police brutality took place on the ground, in news outlets, and across social media platforms. While the movement was amplified on social platforms, some brands fumbled responses and social media statements that critics felt were inauthentic.

"There was just this total lack of awareness in terms of the different industries, specifically fashion and beauty. I hope that it was a big wake up call," says Nikitaidis, who emphasized All You Need Method's commitment to inclusivity. The company recently interviewed thought leader and marketer, Sonia Thompson, for tips on building an inclusive brand.

Inclusivity, and the messaging surrounding it, was a problem that existed long-before last summer and has continued on. From the Dallas-based mahjong brand that sparked a debate on cultural appropriation to the racial missteps of fashion brands, embracing inclusivity with half-hearted gestures has led brands to come under fire.

"I think a big part of being an inclusive brand and having it be authentic is relationship building and making sure that you're building relationships with a diverse audience and customers that don't look just like you," explains Humphries. She challenges people to make "a conscious effort to expand your circle and to make other people feel welcome."

From a global pandemic, political divisiveness, racial justice revolutions, the growing climate crisis, and an insurrection at the nation's Capitol, there's, well, a lot of events to consider when creating social media content.

To Nikitaidis, authenticity and consistency go a long way.

"Reevaluate your core values, and then make sure that you show up with intention in every single solitary thing that you post, that you put out there, and that it's consistent," she says. "If there is a cause that you really care about, and that really is a natural fit with your core values, then you become a thought leader in that space and it's not contrived."

While 2020 might have been a shock to the system for some, it also ushered in new platforms that the two believe could shape marketing's future.

Nikitaidis is excited about what Clubhouse, an audio-chat social networking app, could mean for the future of social platforms. She describes the app as a vibrant dinner party with your 10 coolest, most interesting contacts... except everyone can listen in.

The invitation-only app, which launched last April, features a variety of virtual rooms with conversations on topics like music, social media marketing, business, politics, dating, and more. The Verge likens it to "Medium for podcasts," while reporting on Elon Musk's debut on the chat platform.

"I think the podcast market is awesome but I think that's becoming a little oversaturated. I'm interested and excited to see where these other digital platforms are popping up and how people will be socializing or communicating or connecting in new ways," says Nikitaidis.

She also predicts a resurgence in the power of LinkedIn, the favored platform for business networking. After pitching an op-ed to The Cut and Huffington Post Women, her consulting client posted her piece to LinkedIn and amassed one million views in a two weeks span.

"There's such a huge opportunity and LinkedIn, especially for small business owners, where you're looking at who you know, and who wants to help, and you want to get out in front of your network first," says Nikitaidis.

Similarly, Humphries predicts the future of integrated marketing lies in storytelling.

"I think that brands will continue focusing on telling their own story and communicating with their audience directly through all of the channels that are relevant to them," she explained.

Regardless of what the future holds, communications can't be ignored in the present. " It's not a nice-to-have anymore — it's a must-have," explains Nikitaidis.

"Getting smart about PR, marketing, influencer marketing, influencer partnerships is one of the best business tools," says Nikitaidis. "It's just truly one of the best things you can do to grow your business as a small business owner."

Studio Pod — founded by Joseph West and Chris Bailey — is helping professionals and small businesses easily and affordably capture headshots. Photo courtesy Melissa Fitzgerald/Studio Pod

Houston-based startup shoots for affordability and convenience with new photo biz

take a pic

Houston-based photographers Chris Bailey and Joseph West have brought automated technology and innovative efficiencies to the often cumbersome task of taking professional headshots.

Bailey and West first met as wedding and corporate photographers and bonded over the pain points of their jobs. Over the years they zeroed in on the particular challenges of scheduling photo sessions and achieving a consistent look for a corporate gigs, which can span months or years (depending on when new hires are brought on) and where settings can change based on the time of day, lighting in the room, and a variety of other factors. Still, there was a demand for their professional-grade work.

"In today's age and in the COVID era, people need LinkedIn photos, now a Zoom photo, a Facebook photo. You need all these different types of photos. And so we said, 'How can we solve that?'," Bailey says.

In 2020 the duo launched Studio Pod in an attempt to streamline and improve the process for photographers, businesses, and the individuals themselves. Through the use of their roomy, modern booth, users can snap high-quality, professionally lit headshots with the help of an automated platform. Too, users can see their photos in real time and make adjustments to their appearance, the lighting, and more throughout their reserved 15- to 30-minute window from the privacy of the pod.

"Most people now today know when they are when they look their best — we have selfies and you're sending photos — you can conclude for yourself what photo you like," says Bailey. "We're able to give them that instant gratification and instant response."

"The largest and most positive things we've heard is that it just allows people to feel a lot more comfortable while taking their head shots," he adds.

The current iteration of the pod was constructed by local metal worker Spencer Elliott and a prototype was tested by the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University and Intrepid Financial Partners in December 2019. Millipixels, based in India, was tapped for the development of the automation.

Bailey and West had originally planned to deploy the pod to places of work for weeks at a time to allow workers to efficiently snap their head shots when it worked best for their schedules. However, when the pandemic forced many Houstonians to work from home, the team pivoted to add a direct to consumer option based out of their studio in Rice Military.

Over the last few months they've seen everyone from students to attorneys turn out to make use of their tool. In 2021, they hope to partner with property management companies and other large organizations, like hospitals, universities, or co-working spaces, as well.

The team is also slated to begin production on a second iteration of the pod that will offer options for full enclosure and changes to tech with the help of TRX Labs in the first quarter of next year. They also released a series of presets or filters that help boost consistency for employers and allow more options for individual users. Sessions currently start at $40.

"Our feelings are everyone should have a headshot, and everyone should have a studio-quality headshot," West says. "Our goal is to make it so easy and also affordable."

Over 400 small businesses in the Houston area have been granted forgiveness for loans. Photo via Getty Images

Harris County forgives hundreds of small business loans for struggling locals

Granting a reprieve

The global pandemic has wreaked havoc on local small businesses; many have struggled without savings, credit, and capital to continue on during the downturn. For some immediate relief, Harris County and the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC) offered some 444 area small businesses interest-free loans of up to $25,000 earlier this year.

The loans would be forgiven in five years, per the initial Harris County COVID-19 Forgivable Loan Program agreement.

Now, in some feel-good, holiday news, the loans have been converted into grants, thanks to federal CARES Act funding received by the county, according to a statement by Harris County and Houston-Galveston Area Council.

"Many of the owners have already made use of the funds they received. Knowing that they don't have to pay it back, that it's all theirs, gives them one less thing to worry about at a time when so many have been impacted," said Omar Fortune, manager of the Houston-Galveston Area Local Development Corporation (H-GALDC), in a statement. (The organization handled the underwriting process and distribution of loans to small businesses.)

"We're pleased to be able to provide this gift to these small businesses that are so important to our region. That it's happening during the holiday season makes it even more special."

Originally launched on April 9, the Harris County COVID-19 Forgivable Loan program distributed $10 million to the 444 small businesses by the summer. On October 6, Harris County approved the loan conversion to grants, according to a press release. Small businesses that had already begun paying back their loans have had their payments reimbursed by the county, according to HGAC.

Local business owners are "ecstatic" upon hearing the news, according to H-GAC. " This whole experience has been an emotional roller coaster, but I'm extremely positive about the future," said Museum District-area dentist, Dr. Randy Mitchmore, in a statement.

"I'm proud to own a small business, and we have a direct impact on the local community. I'm also grateful for this program and that it was able to help small businesses as intended."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

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The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.