A team of students from Rice University won Accenture’s 2023 Innovation Challenge with extended reality project. Photo via accenture.com

A team of students from Rice University may see their award-winning idea incorporated into programming from the nonprofit Smithsonian Institution — the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.

Rice’s Team Night Owls, made up of four undergraduates, recently won Accenture’s 2023 Innovation Challenge. The team’s winning concept: a three-month, six-town mobile bus exhibit designed to expose the Smithsonian to residents of rural areas in the U.S. One of the highlights of the exhibit would be an augmented reality/virtual reality feature.

The Rice team competed against more than 1,100 applicants. Participants were asked to “envision ways to deliver the spirit and wonder of in-person visits” at the Smithsonian to rural communities nationwide.

“Our biggest takeaway from the challenge was learning how to generate innovative ideas and then combine the best aspects from each one to include into one coherent solution,” says one of the team members, Sean Bishop.

Accenture is providing pro bono support to the Smithsonian to help turn the Rice team’s “Rural Routes” concept into reality. Ideally, the Smithsonian hopes to incorporate the team’s idea into its 2026 celebration of the country’s 250th birthday.

Officials say they liked the Rice team’s proposal because it would be a way for the organization to familiarize rural America with the Smithsonian while also collecting and displaying the stories of rural residents.

“We hope to amplify the voices of rural Americans and raise the visibility of their cultural stories,” the Smithsonian says in a statement provided to InnovationMap.

Nico Motta, a rising junior studying business and data science at Rice, says his team’s idea was born out of a desire to bring the Smithsonian to people and bring people to the Smithsonian.

“From there, two different ideas emerged that we eventually brought together. First, we connected the idea of campaign buses that allow political candidates to travel to smaller communities,” Motta tells InnovationMap. “Second, we researched existing Smithsonian initiatives and were intrigued by the Crossroads program, a stationary exhibit shipped out to community centers.”

The team then brainstormed ways to marry the two ideas. The result: the Rural Routes project.

Aside from Motta and Bishop, members of the Rice team are Eva Moughan, a rising junior studying math and operations research at Rice, and Austin Tran, a rising junior studying business and statistics.

Bishop, a rising senior studying chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice, says the Rural Routes entry stood out partly because the team:

  • Dug into how to finance the exhibit.
  • Supplied examples of similar projects that have achieved success.
  • Folded augmented reality/virtual reality into the project.

Organizers believe the Rice team’s winning entry embodies the competition’s goal this year to generate “bold ideas and innovative thinking” about introducing more Americans to the Smithsonian.

“The Accenture Innovation Challenge invites students seeking to do well and do good to collaborate on solving real and real-time business challenges for leading nonprofits. The students’ innovative ideas make the nonprofit better able to achieve its mission, and together we work to implement the winning solution,” says Marty Rodgers, senior managing director of Accenture’s U.S. south region and executive sponsor of the Accenture Innovation Challenge.

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Innovative Houston nonprofit partners with county organization to provide maternal health services

TEAM WORK

PUSH Birth Partners, a Houston-based maternal health nonprofit, is teaming up with the Harris County Public Health Department to provide doula services for over 200 pregnant people free of cost.

Jacqueline McLeeland, CEO and founder of PUSH, says the program will begin in August and aims to improve maternal health and birth outcomes for vulnerable populations. McLeeland says the organization has built up a strong doula training program through their collective in partnership with March of Dimes and several local doula organizations.

McLeeland says PUSH aims to address poor maternal health outcomes for women of color in part by training more doulas of color who can help reduce racial disparities in care. A 2021 study by Harris County Public Health found Precinct 1, which is predominantly composed of people of color, had the highest maternal mortality rate of the county.

Through their collective, PUSH has trained two cohorts of doulas through an integrated care model, focused on providing collaborative care with medical providers in the healthcare system.

“Our programs are designed to advance health equity, we see the numbers, we see that women of color, specifically Black women in that group are disproportionately impacted,” McLeeland tells InnovationMap.

After receiving a $100,000 grant from the Episcopal Health Foundation in 2023, PUSH began their doula expansion program in Houston and they have since received an additional grant from EHF for the next fiscal year. McLeeland shares PUSH has also launched a pilot program called Blossoming Beyond Birth, sponsored by the Rockwell Fund, targeted towards improving maternal mental health through weekly support groups in Houston.

“It’s very exciting to know that we have come this far from where we started and to see how everything is coming together,” McLeeland shares.

Jacqueline McLeeland serves as chief executive and founder of non-profit PUSH Birth Partners who has trained and collaborated with a network of doulas for the partnership. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline McLeeland

For McLeeland, improving maternal health outcomes and providing support to people experiencing high-risk pregnancies are deeply personal goals. McLeeland has sickle cell anemia, a condition that can cause serious complications during pregnancy. During her first pregnancy in 2015, McLeeland was placed on bed rest two months before her due date at which point she had been working in clinical research within the pharmaceutical industry for over 12 years.

“People don’t realize the magnitude of what women go through, during pregnancy and after,” McLeeland says. “There’s a lot of emotional, psychological, and physical tolls depending on how the pregnancy and delivery went.”

After giving birth to her first child, McLeeland took maternity leave, during which she began to research maternal morbidity and mortality trends, information which she says was not widely discussed at the time.

McLeeland says entering the maternal healthcare field felt like a necessity following her second pregnancy. Several months after giving birth to her second child, McLeeland says she received a bill for a surgical procedure that was performed during her cesarean section without her or her husband’s consent. McLeeland says that was the first time she was made aware of the surgery.

“The procedure that was claimed to have been performed could have put my life in jeopardy by hemorrhaging based off of additional research I did once, I came across that information,” McLeeland explains. “These are some of the things that happen in the healthcare system that make people skeptical of trusting in the healthcare system, trusting in doctors.”

McLeeland says the key to improving maternal and birth outcomes for vulnerable populations is to encourage the partnership between doulas, community healthcare workers, and physicians and hopes to further this collaboration through future programming.

Houston-based clean energy site developer raises $300M to decarbonize big tech projects

fresh funding

Houston energy executives have started a new company dedicated to developing clean-powered infrastructure for the large electric loads.

Cloverleaf Infrastructure, dually headquartered in Houston and Seattle, Washington, announced its launch and $300 million raised from NGP and Sandbrook Capital, two private equity firms. The company's management team also invested in the company.

As emerging technology continues to grow electricity load demand, Cloverleaf has identified an opportunity to develop large-scale digital infrastructure sites powered by low-carbon electricity.

"The rapid growth in demand for electricity to power cloud computing and artificial intelligence poses a major climate risk if fueled by high-emission fossil fuels," David Berry, Cloverleaf's CEO, says in a news release. "However, it's also a major opportunity to catalyze the modernization of the US grid and the transition to a smarter and more sustainable electricity system through a novel approach to development.

"Cloverleaf is committed to making this vision a reality with the support of leading climate investors like Sandbrook and NGP."

Berry, who's based in Houston, previously co-founded and served as CFO at ConnectGen and Clean Line Energy Partners, clean energy and transmission developers. Last year, he co-founded Cloverleaf with Seattle-based Brian Janous and CTO Jonathan Abebe, who most recently held a senior role at the United States Department of Energy. Nur Bernhardt, director of Energy Strategy at Microsoft who's also based in Seattle, rounds out the executive team as vice president.

"The large tech companies have become dominant players in the electricity sector, and they are genuinely determined to power their growth with the lowest possible emissions," Janous, who serves as chief commercial officer, says in the release. "Achieving this objective doesn't depend on disruptive new technologies as much as it does on dedicated teams working hand in hand with utility partners to maximize the use of the clean generation, storage, and other technologies we already have."

Cloverleaf will work with regional U.S. utilities and data center operators to provide clean electricity at scale through strategic investments in transmission, grid interconnection, land, onsite power generation, and electricity storage, per the release.

"The sustainable development of digital infrastructure at scale is fundamentally a technical power problem," Alfredo Marti, partner at Sandbrook, adds. "We have witnessed members of the Cloverleaf team effectively address this challenge for many years through a blend of creativity, specialized engineering, a partnership mindset, and astute capital deployment."

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston resilience tech innovator proves out platform amid Hurricane Beryl

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 245

Earlier this month, Ali Mostafavi got an unexpected chance to pilot his company's data-backed and artificial intelligence-powered platform — all while weathering one of Houston's most impactful storms.

Mostafavi, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Texas A&M University, founded Resilitix.AI two years ago, and with the help of his lab at A&M, has created a platform that brings publicly available data into AI algorithms to provide its partners near-real time information in storm settings.

As Hurricane Beryl came ashore with Houston on its path, Mostafavi says he had the opportunity to both test his technology and provide valuable information to his community during the storm.

"We were in the process of fine tuning some of our methods and algorithms behind our technology," Mostafavi says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "When disasters happen, you go to activation mode. We put our technology development and R&D efforts on hold and try to test our technology in an operational setting."

The platform provides its partners — right now, those include local and state organizations and emergency response teams — information on evacuation reports, street flooding, and even damage sustained based on satellite imagery. Mostafavi says that during Beryl, users were wondering how citizens were faring amid rising temperatures and power outages. The Resilitix team quickly pivoted to apply algorithms to hospital data to see which neighborhoods were experiencing high volumes of patients.

"We had the ability to innovate on the spot," Mostafavi says, adding that his own lack of power and internet was an additional challenge for the company. "When an event happens, we start receiving requests and questions. ... We had to be agile and adapt our methods to be responsive. Then at the same time, because we haven't tested it, we have to verify that we are confident (in the information we provide)."

On the episode, Mostafavi shares how Hurricane Harvey — which occurred shortly after Mostafavi moved to Houston — inspired the foundation of Resilitix and how Houston is the ideal spot to grow the company.

"We are very excited that our company is Houston based," he says. "We should not be just ground zero of disasters. We have to also be ground zero for solutions as well. I believe Houston should be the hub for resilience tech innovation as it is for energy transition.

"I think energy transition, climatetech, energy tech, and disaster tech go hand in hand," Mostafavi continues. "I feel that we are in the right place."