Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. Photo via Getty Images

Four startups from across the country won over $160,000 in cash prizes from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions earlier this month, and a Houston-area company claimed the top prize.

Hertha Metals, based in Conroe, won first place at the 2024 Summer Energy Program for Innovation Clusters (EPIC) Startup Pitch Competition. The program honors and supports clean energy innovators nominated by clean technology business incubators.

“The EPIC Pitch Competition is a unique opportunity for start ups to highlight their technology, get on the main stage, and receive direct funding,” DOE Chief Commercialization Officer and Director of OTT Vanessa Chan says in a news release. “The startup pitch winners have honed their entrepreneurial skills and demonstrated a critical understanding of their technological impacts, targeted markets, and scalable strategies.”

Focused on environmentally responsible steel, Hertha Metals won the $100,000 prize. The company's steelmaking process reduces emissions by 95 percent, per the news release, while remaining financially accessible. Hertha Metals was nominated by Greentown Labs, which won $25,000 for its nomination.

The program's other 2024 winners included:

Hertha Metals was founded by Laureen Meroueh, a mechanical engineer and materials scientist, in 2022. A Greentown Houston member, the company is also currently in the inaugural cohort of the Breakthrough Energy Innovator Fellows.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Despite the inevitability of bad hires, recruiters equipped with proper tools and training can identify red flags and take preventive measures. Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

How to avoid bad hiring decisions when it matters most, according to this Houston expert

guest column

Hiring the right people for the right roles is ideal and can make an organization reach new heights. The reality is every business has made a bad hire.

Finding the wrong fit for a team or organization is not uncommon, but it is important to know what it costs the organization, which can be detrimental to company finances and its workplace culture, especially small businesses and startups where the impact is magnified.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports a bad hire can cost up to 30 percent of the employee’s wage, which would be approximately $18,000 since the average American wage is $60,000. In addition, there are soft costs of managers and leadership time during the hiring and training process, which adds up quickly.

Bad hires explained

A bad hire can simply be someone who is not the best fit for the position or the company. The quality of work may not meet expectations; however, there are behaviors that can point to a bad hiring decision. New hires who were recruited due to specific knowledge or a skillset, but they do not deliver, have a negative attitude, or are disengaged, are all signs of a bad hire.

Even though hiring the best people for the job should be every recruiter’s goal, they are sometimes pressured to quickly fill the role. Once a new hire starts, it does not take long to find out if they are a bad hire. Recruitment is vital to a company’s success, so it is important to know how to identify a bad hire before they join the organization, the red flags, and the lasting impacts to the workplace culture.

Right turns, wrong fit

Business leaders most certainly think they are bringing in the right person for the job, but the wrong fit can significantly impact the organization.

Suffering morale and reduced teamwork: Incompetent employees force team members to cover their work, negatively impacting morale. If these issues persist, it signals to existing employees that suboptimal work is acceptable, which adds stress, distraction and reduced engagement.

Unmet expectations: When a new employee exaggerates their qualifications, they may struggle to meet expectations, resulting in slow or inadequate work product, which can be especially detrimental in a small business setting. This not only impacts the company financially but also demands managers’ time for oversight and performance issue resolution.

Weakened employer reputation: Startups and small businesses depend heavily on their hard-earned reputation and brand. Employees represent a company’s values, and when they fail to embody them, it can negatively influence sales, vendor relationships and recruitment efforts. Actions of employees, both in-person and online, significantly shape public perception.

Client attrition: Poor performance or unprofessional behavior can damage client relationships, leading to business losses. These client experiences may lead to lasting consequences for the company’s reputation, affecting potential clients and key partnerships, and its bottom line.

Recruiting and training challenges: The recruiting process usually spans four to six weeks, involving tasks such as drafting the job description, obtaining approvals, posting ads, resume screening, candidate communication, interviews and offer negotiations. After accepting an offer, new employees, regardless of experience, require time to familiarize themselves with the organization, its processes and job responsibilities. If a poor hiring decision is made, the recruitment process may persist, leading to extended periods of onboarding.

Preventing bad hires

Experienced recruiters can still make bad hires, but certain measures can help mitigate risks:

  • Fine-tune job descriptions. Clear and concise job descriptions aid in identifying suitable candidates and provide a better understanding of position expectations.
  • Take sufficient time. Resist the pressure to fill the role; prioritize finding the right candidate to avoid subsequent costs.
  • Standardize the interview process. Employ set questions for consistency and involve team members in behavioral and peer-to-peer interviews to assess cultural fit.
  • Check references. Verify candidates’ honesty, skills, attitude toward work, and work ethic through thorough reference checks.

Despite the inevitability of bad hires, recruiters equipped with proper tools and training can identify red flags and take preventive measures. This proactive approach ensures better preparation for attracting top talent and minimizes the impact of suboptimal hiring decisions on the company.

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Karen Leal is performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.

How to navigate your hiring process with transparency amid the flexible workforce trend. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Cultivate transparency when recruiting flexible workplace positions

guest column

How the workplace operates, especially flexible work arrangements, captivate job seekers, prompting many job listings to spotlight remote or hybrid work options. Interestingly, a significant portion of hybrid and remote workers say they would explore new job opportunities should their current employer opt out of offering remote work possibilities. These insights from Gallup underscore the paramount importance of flexible work options.

Regrettably, not every role that promotes flexible work arrangements delivers. While the labor market is fiercely competitive, especially for startups and small businesses wishing to attract top talent, some organizations are enticing potential candidates with the prospect of flexible schedules, only for these newly hired individuals to realize the actual job flexibility falls short of the initial representation.

As remote work and flexible schedules have evolved, many organizations have established sensible guidelines concerning office presence and work frequency. However, the degree of flexibility varies, and not all recruiters are forthright about these nuances during job interviews.

Candidates who find recruiters and hiring managers omitting specific details about flexible work policies often feel misled. Maintaining honesty in job descriptions – and throughout the recruitment process – is imperative to ensure a good match is found for the organization. Employers should cultivate transparency, prioritize organizational culture, and exercise thoughtful consideration of their policies.

Clarity is Key

Many prospective candidates yearn for flexible work opportunities, recognizing that some constraints may apply. A recent McKinsey survey revealed that 58 percent of Americans engage in remote work at least once a week, with 35 percent enjoying the possibility of remote work for the entire workweek. Given the wide spectrum of policies, astute job seekers acknowledge that their next employer's stance on remote work might differ from their current one.

As startups compete with larger employers for the same talent, they may be apprehensive about outlining their remote or hybrid work policies, especially if their flexibility is less generous than that of competitors. Yet, this strategy ultimately squanders time and resources, as candidates who place high value on flexibility are unlikely to take an offer that falls short of their expectations, and these perceived deceptions could tarnish the employer’s brand.

The optimal approach is to communicate policies unequivocally in the job description and address them during interviews. While excessive detail isn't necessary, job postings can concisely indicate the number of mandatory office days.

Cultivating a Cohesive Culture

Skill set and experience might align perfectly with a role, but without a compatible cultural fit, candidates might struggle. When businesses withhold key information about their flexible work policies, they undermine the trust pivotal to fostering a strong organizational culture. This approach also misrepresents the culture, which is intricately shaped by the "how" and "when" of employee work arrangements.

While it's true that candidly sharing flexible work policies could lead some candidates to self-select out of the application process due to their desire for more flexibility, the converse is equally valid. Certain candidates might prefer spending more time in a collaborative office environment and might not pursue a job that seems excessively remote-focused.

Incorporating explicit communication about flexible work policies during recruitment not only fosters understanding of these policies but also provides insight into how these policies contribute to the organizational culture. This approach aids in identifying candidates who align well with the culture, which is paramount in all stages of a company’s growth.

Evaluating the Approach

There is likely a reason why businesses withhold information about their flexible work policies. Recruiters may feel that adhering to their employer's policies could hinder their ability to attract top-tier candidates, especially if the industry standard embraces extensive flexibility. However, misrepresenting the extent of flexible work arrangements is not a viable solution. Instead, businesses should reevaluate their standards.

Each business has unique requirements, some of which necessitate a greater in-office presence. Collaborative teams or departments might benefit from face-to-face brainstorming sessions more than teams operating more independently. However, if research indicates that competing organizations offer more flexibility, businesses need to be prepared to articulate their rationale – if they have one. If they do not have a sound business reason for their position, it might be worth reevaluating their stance on it.

The crux of reevaluating flexible work policies lies in comprehending the underlying reasons for these policies and effectively communicating them to new hires and existing employees. Candidates are more likely to accept limitations on flexible work arrangements when they perceive a sound justification from their potential employer.

Embracing transparency, nurturing a strong corporate culture, and critically assessing existing policies will help organizations manage expectations surrounding flexible work arrangements, thereby attracting the right candidates for the business.

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Karen Leal is performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.

DivInc has announced a new program that will support BIPOC and women founders of social enterprise startups working on Web3 technology. Photo via divinc.org

Texas nonprofit introduces newest accelerator to be hosted in Houston this fall

apply now

A Texas accelerator that's focused on supporting traditionally marginalized entrepreneurs has announced its newest program.

DivInc has introduced DWeb for Social Impact Accelerator, a new program set to support BIPOC and women founders of social enterprise startups developing global solutions with DWeb and Web3 technologies — such as blockchain, crypto-asset, artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, and more.

The first cohort of the program, which is supported by the Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web, or FFDW, will run from September through November at the Ion. Applications are open now.

"Through the DWeb for Social Impact Accelerator we are marrying activism with the decentralized web in a way that builds these startups and puts them at the forefront of solving society's toughest challenges," says Preston James, CEO at DivInc, in a news release. "We want to see our creative tech economy founders playing a major role in building and benefiting from DWeb and Web3 for the greater good. This partnership with FFDW is a huge leap forward in that pursuit."

The 12-week accelerator will support up to 10 companies, and, at the end of the program, each selected company will receive $10,000 in non-dilutive seed funding. In addition to FFDW, the program is supported by Houston Premier Partners, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Verizon, The Ion, and Mercury.

"A core part of FFDW's mission is education about the decentralized web," says Marta Belcher, president and chair of Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web, in the release. "FFDW is absolutely thrilled to bring more diverse voices into the Web3 ecosystem."

No matter what stage your company is in, here's what you need to know about navigating a communications strategy. Photo via Getty Images

How to leverage communications at any stage, according to Houston expert

guest column

The significance of effective communication and its contribution to a company’s success are points regularly stressed by conference panelists and forum speakers. Yet for many founders it’s advice that fuels frustration for how to make communications a priority with a lack of understanding of the practice.

This article combines insights from investors, customers, advisers, and founders, with actionable recommendations that benefit both startups and growth stage leaders who are scaling the impact of their companies.

Why marketing communications is important

Marketing communications combines the use of messages and a broad spectrum of tools to communicate with target audiences in attracting customers, cultivating relationships, acquiring funding, increasing visibility, and growing influence.

To define marketing communications in singular terms limits its impact. “For some, communications is simply a pretty graphic,” says Adam Lipman, managing partner of Ecliptic Capital, “and they don’t think about the importance of communications that speak to the needs of their key audiences in language that will resonate with them.”

It can be tempting to jump straight to producing tools that you can touch, hear and see, but applying thoughtful strategies first has everything to do with how successful those tools will be.

A dangerous misconception

Regardless of how innovative your device, therapeutic or service, there is always competition, including the option of customers doing nothing. “We call it the good enough problem,” says Lipman. “If what’s currently being done is considered good enough, what is the incentive to improve or change it with your idea?”

Comparison is a common method for comprehending a disruptor’s unprecedented concept. Your wearable device that does something no one else’s does will, at the very least, be categorized and compared to other wearables. Your innovative concept for improving cardiovascular patient outcomes will be compared within the broad category of cardiovascular care. To believe there’s no competition to challenge your success, regardless of how unique, is a false sense of security that requires proactive messaging.

“If you don’t define your brand, someone else is going to do it for you, and it may not be what you want,” warns Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda Health.

The analogy we use when formulating messaging for our clients is to define their “seat at the table” so that no matter who or how many competitors are seated alongside them, the advantage their solution offers and the beneficial role they fill within the ecosystem is very clear.

Strategically connecting the dots

Distinguishing your company from its competition and motivating action on the part of investors or customers requires communication strategies that connect all the dots.

“Many entrepreneurs think their technology will sell itself,” says Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications for Houston Methodist. “But for me to understand what we gain by utilizing their product, I want to know what problem are they solving. Does their product increase efficiencies, improve patient satisfaction, or answer a financial problem? Answering these questions is fundamental.”

In addition to messaging that clearly defines how your company is uniquely capable of delivering valuable solutions, it’s important to apply strategies for speaking your audience’s language and identifying the pain points you are capable of relieving. It also requires considering the perspective and experience of an audience’s different members. For instance, if presenting to an investor who is also a neurologist, sharing scientific data will be appreciated. For others, the why and how of what you offer may be better told through story.

The homework you do to fully understand your audience’s needs will not only produce beneficial insights but also demonstrate a level of commitment that can impress influencers and potential funders.

“I’m drawn to founders who want to walk in their customer’s shoes. They are generally deeply empathetic because they've spent time literally walking the halls with them and sat in the chairs next to them,” says John “JR” Reale, venture lead for the Texas Medical Center Venture Fund. “It’s very endearing to see a founder who wants to understand and continue to learn from who they want to serve.”

Actionable advice

Just as marketing communications is defined by multiple components, there are several actionable strategies for getting past the understanding phase. Here are three key recommendations to implement, whether a startup with limited resources or a company experiencing accelerated growth.

As a startup

  • Develop brand messaging that distinguishes your solutions from the competition and captures the compelling purpose and passion of your company’s mission.
  • Establish a working relationship with professional communicators. Though your budget is small, it’s a great way to develop trust and familiarity within the parameters of a single project for when greater resources allow expanded assistance in the future.
  • Identify each of your key audiences, including strategic partners, community influencers, and end users, as well as potential investors and other funding sources. The list may be daunting, so rank contacts in each category and unleash your entrepreneurial curiosity to research their needs and priorities.

The growth stage company

  • Invest in comprehensive communication consultation to elevate your startup marketing communications to the 2.0 level of expected sophistication. This is when the working relationship seeds you planted with a professional communicator really pays off. Trust has been established and there is a fundamental understanding for who you are and why it matters.
  • Just as your business plan provides vital direction, a strategic communications plan functions as an essential blueprint for achieving your goals, including connecting with target audiences, increasing visibility, marketing your company’s services or products, and strengthening your bottom line. Strategies should be tailored to your organization’s specific needs and identify the tools necessary for achieving success.
  • Prioritize and produce marketing tools identified in your plan that promote the company’s impact and build on the brand reputation it has achieved.

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Kelli Newman is president of the Houston-based communication strategies firm, Newman & Newman Inc., where she leads a talented team of marketing professionals advancing the success of their purpose-driven clients.

Texas, once again, has been named a top city for starting a business. Photo via Getty Images

Texas ranks among best states to start a business

We're no. 3

For years, Texas has been lauded for its business climate being welcoming for new businesses and startups. This year's study shows that the Lone Star State has yet again made the list.

Texas ranked as the third best state to start a business in personal finance website WalletHub's recent list, 2023's Best & Worst States to Start a Business, with a score of 56.85 points. Texas ranked behind Utah, No. 1, and Florida, No. 2, and just ahead of Colorado. Idaho, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, and California make up the rest of the top 10, respectively.

The study looked at 27 key indicators of startup success across all 50 states. Texas was recognized for these factors in particular:

  • No. 10 – average growth in number of small businesses
  • No. 30 – labor costs
  • No. 10 – availability of human capital
  • No. 4 – average length of work week (in hours)
  • No. 14 – cost of living
  • No. 13 – industry variety
  • No. 31 – percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19
Source: WalletHub


Richard Ryffel, professor of finance practice at Washington University in St. Louis, noted the importance of policy in making a state a good place to start a business..

"Established businesses looking to expand might expand or relocate entirely based on the relative favorability of the local business climate," Ryffel says. "Recently, Texas, for example, has been the beneficiary of some significant business relocations based on its business-friendly policies."

The methodology of the study focused on three key dimensions — business environment, access to resources, and business costs — and 27 relevant metrics. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale, and then each state’s average across all metrics was used to calculate its overall score.

In 2021, Texas ranked in the top position of WalletHub's study. Last year, the personal finance website looked at which cities were ideal spots for business launching. The report found that Georgetown as the best small city in Texas for starting a business.

Houston suburbs didn't manage to crack the top 200, but four were recognized amongst the rest of the best small business towns, according to the study:

  • Texas City , No. 202
  • Baytown, No. 267
  • Deer Park, No. 362
  • Conroe, No. 369
When it came to big cities, Houston ranked as No. 35.
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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes an e-commerce startup founder, an industrial biologist, and a cellular scientist.

Omair Tariq, co-founder and CEO of Cart.com

Omair Tariq of Cart.com joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share his confidence in Houston as the right place to scale his unicorn. Photo via Cart.com

Houston-based Cart.com, which operates a multichannel commerce platform, has secured $105 million in debt refinancing from investment manager BlackRock.

The debt refinancing follows a recent $25 million series C extension round, bringing Cart.com’s series C total to $85 million. The scaleup’s valuation now stands at $1.2 billion, making it one of the few $1 billion-plus “unicorns” in the Houston area.

Cart.com was co-founded by CEO Omair Tariq in October 2020. Read more.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin, vice president of industrial biotechnology at Cemvita

Nádia Skorupa Parachin joined Cemvita as vice president of industrial biotechnology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos. Read more.

Han Xiao, associate professor of chemistry at Rice University

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, a chemist at Rice University.

A Rice University chemist has landed a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health for his work that aims to reprogram the genetic code and explore the role certain cells play in causing diseases like cancer and neurological disorders.

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, the Norman Hackerman-Welch Young Investigator, associate professor of chemistry, from the NIH's Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program, which supports medically focused laboratories. Xiao will use the five-year grant to advance his work on noncanonical amino acids.

“This innovative approach could revolutionize how we understand and control cellular functions,” Xiao said in the statement. Read more.

Houston chemist lands $2M NIH grant for cancer treatment research

future of cellular health

A Rice University chemist has landed a $2 million grant from the National Institute of Health for his work that aims to reprogram the genetic code and explore the role certain cells play in causing diseases like cancer and neurological disorders.

The funds were awarded to Han Xiao, the Norman Hackerman-Welch Young Investigator, associate professor of chemistry, from the NIH's Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) program, which supports medically focused laboratories.

Xiao will use the five-year grant to develop noncanonical amino acids (ncAAs) with diverse properties to help build proteins, according to a statement from Rice. He and his team will then use the ncAAs to explore the vivo sensors for enzymes involved in posttranslational modifications (PTMs), which play a role in the development of cancers and neurological disorders. Additionally, the team will look to develop a way to detect these enzymes in living organisms in real-time rather than in a lab.

“This innovative approach could revolutionize how we understand and control cellular functions,” Xiao said in the statement.

According to Rice, these developments could have major implications for the way diseases are treated, specifically for epigenetic inhibitors that are used to treat cancer.

Xiao helped lead the charge to launch Rice's new Synthesis X Center this spring. The center, which was born out of informal meetings between Xio's lab and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, aims to improve cancer outcomes by turning fundamental research into clinical applications.

They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

Houston neighbor ranks as one of America's most livable small cities

mo city

Some Houston suburbs stick out from the rest thanks to their affluent residents, and now Missouri City is getting time in the spotlight, thanks to its new ranking as the No. 77 most livable small city in the country.

The tiny but mighty Houston neighbor, located less than 20 miles southwest of Houston, was among six Texas cities that earned a top-100 ranking in SmartAsset's 2024 " Most Livable Small Cities" report. It compared 281 U.S. cities with populations between 65,000 and 100,000 residents across eight metrics, such as a resident's housing costs as a percentage of household income, the city's average commute times, and the proportions of entertainment, food service, and healthcare establishments.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Missouri City has an estimated population of over 76,000 residents, whose median household income comes out to $97,211. SmartAsset calculated that a Missouri City household's annual housing costs only take up 19.4 percent of that household's income. Additionally, the study found only six percent of the town's population live below the poverty level.

Here's how Missouri City performed in two other metrics in the study:

  • 1.4 percent – The proportion of arts, entertainment, and recreation businesses as a percentage of all businesses
  • 29.9 minutes – Worker's average commute time

But income and housing aren't the only things that make Missouri City one of the most livable small cities in Texas. Residents benefit from its proximity from central Houston, but the town mainly prides itself on its spacious park system, playgrounds, and other recreational activities.

Missouri City, Texas

Missouri City residents have plenty of parkland to enjoy. www.missouricitytx.gov

The Missouri City Parks and Recreation Departmen meticulously maintains 21 parks spanning just over 515 acres of land, an additional 500 acres of undeveloped parkland, and 14.4 miles of trails throughout the town, according to the city's website."Small cities may offer cost benefits for residents looking to stretch their income while enjoying a comfortable – and more spacious – lifestyle," the report's author wrote. "While livability is a subjective concept that may take on different definitions for different people, some elements of a community can come close to being universally beneficial."

Missouri City is also home to Fort Bend Town Square, a massive mixed-use development at the intersection of TX 6 and the Fort Bend Parkway. It offers apartments, shopping, and restaurants, including a rumored location of Trill Burgers.

Other Houston-area cities that earned a spot in the report include

Spring (No. 227) and Baytown (No. 254).The five remaining Texas cities that were among the top 100 most livable small cities in the U.S. include Flower Mound (No. 29), Leander (No. 60), Mansfield (No. 69), Pflugerville (No. 78), and Cedar Park (No. 85).

The top 10 most livable small cities in the U.S. are:

  • No. 1 – Troy, Michigan
  • No. 2 – Rochester Hills, Michigan
  • No. 3 – Eau Claire, Wisconsin
  • No. 4 – Franklin, Tennessee
  • No. 5 – Redmond, Washington
  • No. 6 – Appleton, Wisconsin
  • No. 7 – Apex, North Carolina
  • No. 8 – Plymouth, Minnesota
  • No. 9 – Livonia, Michigan
  • No. 10 – Oshkosh, Wisconsin

The report examined data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2022 1-year American Community Survey and the 2021 County Business Patterns Survey to determine its rankings.The report and its methodology can be found on

smartasset.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.