The technology is already getting smarter. The cities won't be far behind. Photo courtesy of AT&T

A firefighter stands in front of a burning building in Sunnyside. A drone buzzes overhead to capture video of the parts of the structure they can't get eyes on. Infrared technology helps them see "through" the building to where people may be trapped. Robotic cameras are sent in to provide live video from inside, while a tablet shows blinking dots in real time of where the other firefighters are as they move through the different floors of the building.

An injured civilian is pulled out of the flames. A drone delivers potentially life-saving medication while the paramedics assess the damage. The victim's medical records are shared instantaneously with the hospital, and paramedics are connected live to the emergency room while in-transit. As they make their way to the hospital, traffic signals are a step ahead – lights are green at just the right time on Reed and Almeda, clearing the way for an expedited ride and keeping traffic safe for all until the ambulance arrives at the hospital where medical personnel already know what's needed and are ready to jump into action.

It may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but much of this is already happening. And the parts that aren't commonplace yet may be a reality very soon. We've heard about smart cities technology for some time, and different cities will adopt technology at different paces, but the pieces are finally coming into place.

What has changed to bring this futuristic world into the present? 5G.

There's a lot of noise out there about 5G, and from a consumer standpoint most of the chatter is about speed. Yes, 5G is faster, but here at AT&T we're quick to point out that speed is only the beginning: The capacity and responsiveness of 5G technology is what makes it revolutionary for use cases like these.

According to analyst research reported by CIO Magazine, 4G technology allows around 2,000 devices all connecting at the same time in a 1-kilometer area (0.386 miles). It's the reason that you might have trouble getting a call or a text to go through when you're at a crowded stadium. The network is ready and willing, but too much demand on one location slows things down.

Think about all the connections necessary in the above scenario. The drones, each firefighter, the robotic camera, the tablets, the ambulance and its equipment, sensors in the building, the hospital and all the people waiting there, the traffic signals… the list goes on. Well, 5G technology enables something called Massive IoT and can mean as many as 1 million devices can be connected in that same kilometer range, according to analyst research reported by CIO Magazine. That's game changing. AT&T has already installed its fastest 5G+ technology at the Toyota Center. Hopefully the next time you're there you'll feel the difference for yourself.

But having all those things talk to each other only makes a real difference if the connection is uninterrupted and in as real time as possible. 5G gives us that, as well. Ultra-low latency reduces response times to milliseconds. And when you add near-zero lag time to all those connections, the future becomes the present.

At AT&T we're passionate about public safety. That's why we created FirstNet, the first dedicated network exclusively for first responders, which ensures that the lines of communication stay open when they're needed the most. Harris Health System and Harris County Juvenile Probation are among the agencies already using the network. Going forward, FirstNet could be a crucial part of smart cities technology as capabilities increase.

There are plenty of use cases that 5G will continue to enhance: Think live feeds of police body cameras and locations when in a pursuit, helping increase efficiency and accountability. Think about the first responders themselves. Did you know that heart attack is the leading cause of death among firefighters? Vital signs could be monitored allowing alerts to a fire company of an elevated heart rate in their crew, potentially saving the life of a lifesaver.

5G could be the catalyst that leads to the true adoption of autonomous cars, as millions of sensors allow not only vehicle to vehicle communication, but could also integrate pedestrian traffic, making it safer for everyone as we move towards assisted and eventually self-driving vehicles.

Utility grid sensors could allow power companies to plan more effectively for use, pinpoint outages quickly, and use AI to divert energy and heal itself.

And we all know about Houston traffic. What if there's a world coming soon where we could alleviate just 20 percent of the congestion through smart city technology? In an hour commute, you just got 12 minutes back to spend with your family.

The technology is already getting smarter. The cities won't be far behind.

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Luis Silva is vice president and general manager at AT&T.

The city of Houston and METRO announced a pilot program that's getting passengers online. Photo via ridemetro.org

METRO announces free Wi-Fi program for select Houston routes

Digital upgrade

METRO is test driving a new feature for its passengers. Select vehicles on a few routes will come with free Wi-Fi on board.

The transportation organization selected the 54 Scott and 204 Spring Park & Ride bus routes and the Green and Purple METRORail lines for the pilot program — in part because of their vicinity to universities and schools, according to a news release from METRO.

"I'm excited we can bring this service to some of our riders. Be it for work, entertainment or personal business, Wi-Fi allows them to stay connected while in transit and improves the overall customer experience," says METRO Board Chair Carrin Patman in the release.

The pilot program, which will run through mid-January, is being funded by $110,220 from the Microsoft Digital Alliance that includes installation and service for over 40 routers. The public-private partnership is also supported by Synnex Corporation, Sierra Wireless, Tracking for Less and AT&T.

"Bringing connectivity to Houston METRO riders is a step forward in the smart city journey, and Microsoft is proud to partner with the city to bring the pilot program to life," says Cameron Carr, director of internet of things strategy, scale and smart city, from Microsoft Corp, in the release.

The announcement is another piece of Mayor Sylvester Turner's Smart City initiative to bring innovation across the city.

"When we first sat down with Microsoft and METRO as part of the Smart City discussions, the first thing we discussed was how can we make the Smart City initiatives inclusive for all residents," says Mayor Turner in the release. "That is why connectivity for everyone, and more efficient public transit was our priority."

Photo via rideMETRO.org

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator — named for its to-be home, The Ion — announced the 10 companies selected for the first cohort. Courtesy of Rice University

Exclusive: New Houston accelerator reveals its inaugural cohort and announces strategic partner

Smart Cities

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator launched earlier this year with a goal of engaging startups from around the world to solve some of Houston's most prevalent challenges. Backed by Intel and Microsoft and partnered with the city of Houston and Station Houston, the program has developed a curriculum and selected its first cohort.

Ten startups from around the world — half of which from right here in Houston — were selected to be a part of the program. And narrowing down to 10 was tough for the program's judges, says Christine Galib, director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator.

"Selecting the participants for our first cohort was difficult, due to this amazing pool of talent — that's always the problem you want to have," she tells InnovationMap.

The program will be a 10-month process, beginning Wednesday, September 4. The accelerator's Demo Day is scheduled for December 4, and then the participants will complete a pilot program with the city from January to June, Galib says.

Based on the issues the cohort aims to solve — resilience and mobility — the program and the city of Houston decided on Near Northside as a focus for the companies.

"We focused on aligning to the needs of the city of Houston and our spotlight community, Near Northside," Galib says. "We really considered the focus areas that we have identified that were needs or challenges in the area, like aging infrastructure or health and safety."

The entrepreneurs will attend local meetings, connect with the community, and zero in on the neighborhood for solutions. This provides a more accessible avenue of integration for each of the companies' technologies and allows for the entrepreneurs to receive feedback in real time from the community.

"One of my biggest things with the accelerator is technology will be for the people, and not the other way around. We're really hoping that we can build relationships with community members in Near Northside such that they'll be able to have access to our startups and their technology in a very integrated way."

Along with this new neighborhood focus, the program also announced a partnership with the University of Houston.

"We're collaborating with the UH Technology Bridge such that professors, researchers, and startups associated with UH can have a pipeline from the world of academia and research to industry and urban planning," says Galib.

Here are 10 selected startups for the inaugural cohort.

Aatonomy

Houston-based Aatonomy has developed a device that allows for Houston drivers to instal self-driving technology in their own vehicles.

"They're basically Tesla's autopilot — but for cars we already own," Galib says.

The technology makes for safer, smarter driving around town.

AeoShape

Another homegrown company, AeoShape is in the business of compiling data and making it easier to use — from facial analysis to location-based services, the company is taking data and organizing it to more easily use it for finding solutions or strategies.

"Imagine having all the big data served up anywhere at any time in a comprehensive, visual way," Galib says.

BlocPower

Based in New York, BlocPower is connecting the dots in the consumer energy world. The startup links up with government entities, utilities contractors and more to engage IoT, machine learning, and structured finance technology to better provide clean energy in American cities.

"This is pairing the different segments in the building and infrastructure world in a way that makes sense so that they can build in an integrated way," Galib says.

GoKid

Another New York company, GoKid has a solution for carpooling. In a world so conveniently filled with ridesharing technology, busy parents still struggle to find safe rides home for their kids. The free app allows for parents to connect with one another in a way never before been optimized for school pick-up and drop-off.

"We see GoKid really working with our schools here to make ridesharing safer," Galib says. "We really like them because they were a solution for the ridesharing challenge — a lot of parents who might need carpooling services don't necessarily trust an Uber driving that they don't know."

Kriterion

Artificial intelligence company Kriterion is based in South Africa, but will soon call Houston home. The company takes AI a step further in its industry and infrastructure approach.

"We see their platform shaping three areas of Houston: waste management, power system management, and pothole detection and maintenance management," says Galib.

Sensytec

Sensytec comes out of the University of Houston and uses is technology to monitor, analyze, and quantify cement and concrete conditions.

"We thought this was pretty cool to have in our cohort because Houston is quite the concrete jungle," says Galib.

The company was also recently named a top startup in MassChallenge Texas' inaugural Houston cohort.

SlideX

Houston-based SlideX has solutions for everyone's daily struggle: Parking. The company's technology has applications for finding parking in the city — including a 3D map to help direct you — and even for paying for parking.

"They call themselves 'the next generation of intelligent parking,'" Galib says.

Umanity

San Francisco-based Umanity has created a philanthropic supply chain tool. The technology can match and map local nonprofit needs to volunteers and donations, plus provide real-time analytics.

"This is kind of the epitome of doing good and adds a very strong social enterprise and community base component to our startups," says Galib.

Wyzerr

Kentucky startup Wyzerr specializes in easy-to-use surveys.

"We think Wyzerr can provide a good feedback platform where the city of Houston, businesses, and nonprofits can easily engage with people all over the city to find out how satisfied they are with the businesses and services the city provides," Galib says.

The company's technology can be crucial for tracking KPIs and progress.

"When you're creating a Smart City, there are obviously objectives you set for what you consider to be a Smart City, but also there are ways to measure how well you're meeting those objectives," she adds.

Reality IMT

Houston-based Reality IMT is engaging the latest technology tools to digitize infrastructure.

"This really speaks to understanding our infrastructure and ways to make it safer and more efficient, and also understanding the data associated with that," says Galib.

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Rice names inaugural recipients of new grant program that's doling out $360,000

Four Houston research projects are splitting hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding from Rice University.

After announcing the One Small Step Grant program in September to support Rice-developed, lab-stage innovations, the university has named its inaugural recipients. After receiving nearly 30 applicants, four research projects were selected to share $360,000 in grant funding.

“Being able to fund near-commercial projects represents a leap forward in our mission of supporting the cutting-edge work of our faculty and students and helping bring those to market,” Adrian Trömel, assistant vice president for strategy and investments, says in a news release. “Feedback from industry and investors show that they’re excited on how the One Small Step grants help derisk these technologies, getting them ready to launch. Watch this space for the next generation of leading deeptech companies.”

The selected projects include:

  • PerisBio, developed by Samira Aglhara Fotovat and Samantha Fleury from Rice Professor Omid Veiseh's Lab, focuses on novel, hydrogel-encapsulated engineered "cell factories" for the minimally invasive treatment of endometriosis. The project received a $100,000 award.
  • Solidec, founded by Ryan Duchanois and Yang Xia from Rice Professor Haotian Wang's Lab, is a room temperature, solid-state direct air capture technology. The project received a $100,000 award.
  • HornetX, led by Rice Professor Aditya Mohite's Lab, aims to produce highly stable green hydrogen using a perovskite-based photoelectrochemical cell with leading efficiency. The project received a $80,000 award.
  • Coflux, developed by Jeremy Daum and Alec Ajnsztajn from the labs of Rice Professors Rafael Verduzco and Pulickel Ajayan, focuses on covalent organic framework-based photocatalysts for instream remediation of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) from water. The project received a $80,000 award.

The Office of Innovation created an investment advisory committee — made up of entrepreneurs, investors and corporate executives across industries — to select these recipients. The grant program was funded by the Office of Innovation, with support from Breakthrough Energy Fellows for climate and energy projects

“The inaugural winners of the One Small Step Grant represent the innovative spirit and dedication to excellence that defines our students and faculty," Rice Chief Innovation Officer Paul Cherukuri says. "We are proud to support these groundbreaking projects on their journey from lab to market."

Innovative Texas hardtech startup secures award to test in space

ready for liftoff

A Houston-area startup and Greentown Houston member has secured a prestigious space prize.

College Station’s FluxWorks, which develops and commercializes non-contact magnetic gearboxes for use in extreme environments, was one of two startups to receive the Technology in Space Prize, which is funded by Boeing and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, manager of the International Space Station National Laboratory. Los Angeles-based Symphony Bio also received the honor.

Through the MassChallenge startup accelerator program, the two companies now get to utilize the research environment available through the ISS National Lab. CASIS and Boeing awarded Symphony Bio and FluxWorks more than $630,000 in total through the contest. Approximately $20 million has been awarded for more than 30 projects, which have already launched to the space station, since the event’s beginning.

"Boeing is excited to partner with CASIS to support the advancement of cutting-edge research using the unique environment of the orbiting laboratory,” says Scott Copeland, director for ISS research integration at Boeing, in a news release. “Enabling research that can help millions diagnosed with cancer and advancing mechanical innovations of non-contact magnetic gear technology will benefit human life in both the harsh environment of space and terrestrial environments.

"There are many smart people out there with great ideas who can leverage the space station to advance innovation, and these two companies serve as an inspiration to them all,” he continues.

FluxWorks, which won the 2023 Rice Business Plan Competition, will use the space station to test performance of a new gear. The magnetic gear will be tested to assess its startup behavior, dynamic operation, vibrational characteristics, and seal and bearing behavior in microgravity. Gearbox's goal is to reduce the mass of motors required in a variety of applications, but the lubricant needed to make them work is not designed for use in extreme environments, like space. Magnetic gears do not require lubricant, which makes them an alternative.

Symphony Bio will use the orbiting laboratory to develop a new cancer treatment that hopes to harness the immune system to fight tumors.

Houston innovator calls for collaboration from energy tech community

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 226

Scott Gale will be the first to admit that hosting a week of curated events targeted to a group of individuals within the tech and energy space isn't a novel idea — Climate Week NYC has been taking over Manhattan for over a decade. But Gale believes Houston deserves to have its own time to shine.

Earlier this month, Halliburton Labs, Rice Alliance, and Greentown Houston announced the inaugural Houston Energy and Climate Startup Week 2024 to take place in September, but Gale, executive director of Halliburton Labs, says he hopes this is just the beginning of Houston organizations coming together to collaborate on the initiative.

"I think we have a really awesome initial coalition. Whether your the fifth company or organization to raise its hand to do something that week or the 50th — it really doesn't matter," Gale says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It really is an open invitation — and I want to make that super clear."



Gale says that he's looked at some of the successful week-long events — like SXSW and others — and the key factors are calendar coordination and cross promotion. Now that Houston has the week set — September 9 to 13, 2024 — it's time for everyone to fill that week with a density of events anywhere around Houston to showcase the city's innovative energy community.

Those interested can learn more or submit their event information online.

The initiative falls in line with how Gale has led Halliburton Labs from its early days in 2020 to now with a focus on community. While the corporate world always needs eyes on its return on investment, supporting the innovation ecosystem has been a bit of a leap of faith – and it always will be.

"There's always this idea of having a line of sight to the outcomes (of your investment). And when you're interfacing with or investing in the startup community, you don't have the benefit of line of sight. A lot of the things that are being solved for are just too early stage. And that can be really hard for corporates to wrap their heads around," Gale says.

"One of the things that we got to was this idea that you can invest in the startup community, and you don't know where the returns will come from, but you know they will come," he continues.