3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Chris Howard of Softeq, Stephanie Hertzog of Sodexo, and Moody Heard of Buildforce. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — oil and gas, tech development, and construction staffing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Chris Howard, CEO of Softeq

On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Softeq Founder and CEO Chris Howard shares how he's focusing on supporting the Houston innovation ecosystem. Photo courtesy of Softeq

A sign of a blossoming innovation ecosystem is when experienced and successful founders turn their focus to supporting emerging startups. That's what Chris Howard, who founded his tech company over 20 years ago, is looking to do with a new innovation lab and more in the works.

"I want to give back as an entrepreneur and a Houstonian," Howard says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I really want to leverage Softeq's expertise in order to help these companies grow in the same way that we've been doing for a couple of decades now."

Howard shares more about the Softeq Innovation Lab and how COVID-19 has affected his business and technology in general on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Stephanie Hertzog, CEO of Sodexo

Stephanie Hertzog is hoping the future workforce of her company and others within the energy industry better reflects the city's diverse populations. Photo courtesy of Sodexo

Ever since taking the helm at Houston-based Sodexo Energy Resources North America, CEO Stephanie Hertzog has been intentional with prioritizing diversifying the workforce of the company. In a Q&A with InnovationMap, she notes on how the energy industry has been known as pretty homogeneous, especially within the gender divide. But things are changing.

"And we need to all be focusing on getting more of not only diversity, but inclusion as well," she says. "It's not just about hiring a diverse group, it's about making those people feel included when they get here and having them want to stay and be a part of our industry." Read more.

Additionally this week, Hertzog expands on her call for the energy industry to diversify in a guest column for InnovationMap. Click here to read it.

Moody Heard, CEO of BuildForce

Houston-based Buildforce is developing a technology to better connect contractors and the trade professionals they employ. Photo courtesy of Buildforce

A Houston innovator is tapping into tech to disrupt a booming industry in Houston, Texas, and beyond .Buildforce is a construction staffing app that aims to more efficiently connect contractors to skilled workers in trades ranging from electrical, mechanical, and plumbing to flooring, concrete, painting, and more.

The company raised a $1.5 million pre-seed round led by Houston-based Mercury Fund and is led by CEO Moody Heard.

"Our key insight is that providing a superior service to construction employers starts with providing a superior experience for tradesmen and women," Heard says in a news release. "Talent is the greatest finite resource in construction in Texas. In order to deliver talent to our contractor partners, we've created a job placement experience that is simple, friendly, and transparent. That's something people in the construction trades aren't used to, and has helped us grow incredibly quickly over the past several months." Click here to read more.

Stephanie Hertzog, CEO of Hosuton-based Sodexo, shares how she's embracing diversity and innovation within the energy industry. Photo courtesy of Sodexo

Houston CEO talks augmented reality, diversity, how it will all play a role in the energy transition

Q&A

When Stephanie Hertzog first started her role as CEO of Houston-based Sodexo Energy & Resources North America in the fall of 2019, she was on the road every week visiting some of the facility management company's 100 million customers.

"I actually had a conversation with my assistant in early March, and said, 'Okay, our goal is that by April, I not be on the road every week. Let's try to get this to at least every other week,'" she recalls. Shortly after, the world changed, and by March 10 she halted all travel and was forced to lead her company to innovate in more ways than one.

"When we think about innovation, we often think about technology, but we've had to innovate so much in the last 12 months, in how we do everything," she says. "We've really asked a lot of our teams over the last year in regard to having to rethink how they do things and be innovative and adapt."

To Hertzog, it's this adaptation and innovation she's seen in the last year that will allow her industry to support an energy transition and, as she says, "preserve" beyond the pandemic and inevitable future downturns.

InnovationMap talked with Hertzog about the importance of adaptation in the energy industry, new technologies that Sodexo has implemented in that effort, and how a diverse workforce plays a role in all of it.

InnovationMap: Why is it important for the energy industry to continue to adapt and be innovative?

Stephanie Hertzog: Oftentimes, the energy industry gets viewed a bit as being old school. We, as an industry, have really embraced technology for decades now. And I really think that it's what's allowed us to continue to survive during all of the down cycles.

In today's age, where we have renewables growing their percentage of the market, and there's a lot of enhanced enthusiasm around carbon reduction efforts. And technology will be at the forefront of that energy transition. Technology is going to be a big part of how we continue to provide affordable energy for the foreseeable future.

IM: You're originally from the Houston area. How has it changed and what makes you excited for Houston's future?

SH: I'm most excited about Houston and most proud of Houston in that we've always been a very diverse and international city. I think a lot of that has been driven over the years by energy business, bringing in people from all over, but we also have a high immigrant population. And I think that diversity has really led us to be entrepreneurial. Thinking about innovation and technology, having that diversity of thought and opinion has helped us to continue to be a leader in that space over time. We've always been a large city ever since I was young, but we're continuing to grow. And we're seeing more and more people transplanting here from other parts of the country. And I think that's exciting to see us getting more diversity in our economy as well.

IM: Why is it important — from a business perspective — to have a diverse workforce?

SH: There's a lot of research on this topic. It's very clear that businesses that have more diverse leadership teams outperform those that don't, and so having diversity in the room leads people to ask different questions, to have more discussion and to have more questioning of the status quo.

IM: What has been the most impactful adaptation in your industry in recent years?

SH: It's really been embracing software technology. The mobile aspects of being able to get data on your phone has really allowed us to put in a lot of systems that have allowed us to, for example, better track tasks and make sure that things get done to optimize janitorial cleaning schedule. There's a lot of stuff that we used to do on paper at a site that we now do electronically, which allows us to compare site versus site and see not just how well can that site do, but how well is that site doing versus other sites. It's all about doing what we do really well and as efficiently as possible.

We have a recent innovation that we've been working on: augmented reality glasses that allow someone on an offshore platform, for example, to wear the glasses and someone back in Houston in an office tower to see what that person is seeing almost through their own eyes. That is an example being able to get things done faster. I don't have to physically travel someone to the platform, I can just be able to get them in real time. And so there are a lot of things like that. It opens up all new worlds.

IM: Why is augmented reality an especially useful tool in the energy industry? 

SH: We already discussed from an efficiency standpoint of being able to get the expertise on site without physically having to get out there. But another aspect of that is the safety element. We always try to keep as few people on site as possible, just because these environments inherently have some amount of safety precautions that we have to take. Some of the things are as simple as to be able to actually get out to an offshore platform, you have to have been helicopter trained. But also, Heaven forbid, something should happen on that platform you want the least amount of people out there as possible.

IM: Did the pandemic play any role in terms of expediting the adaptation of these technologies?

SH: Yes. We were looking for better ways to do anything remotely that we could. That was everything from these glasses to just straight up video conferencing. We normally do a safety walk in-person, but how can you do a safety walk remotely? So I think any opportunity, we had to try to enhance the experience of being there, but not being there — everything got escalated.

IM: In light of Women's History month, why is it important for the energy industry to focus on inclusion of women as it moves forward?

SH: I think the business case is the same as we discussed earlier: better outcomes, more success if we have diversity at all levels in the energy space. And it's really important in energy, because we've been bad at this. Particularly around the gender dynamic, if we look at the highest levels in the energy space, there's just not historically been a lot of representation of women there. We're starting to make some inroads, but we still have a long way to go. Part of it's been a pipeline issue. A lot of the leaders of energy businesses are engineers. Women are now coming out of undergraduate around 40 percent of chemical engineers, so we're getting we're getting close to having parity there – but overall engineering is still only 20 percent female. And from that first manager position and on up, there are big gaps where we lose women along the way.

We're not keeping up with the pace that we've been putting women into the business for a long time. Companies have got to make some real effort here. Certainly the year that the United States had around some of the racial divide, I think that's an important topic for us to be talking about. And we need to all be focusing on getting more of not only diversity, but inclusion as well. It's not just about hiring a diverse group, it's about making those people feel included when they get here and having them want to stay and be a part of our industry. From a Houston perspective, we continue to be a big part of the economy here. And so if we're not getting it right, then Houston's going to struggle.

As Women's History Month wraps up, it's time to reflect on the enabling diversity and inclusion in the workplace as a driver of innovation. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Now is the time to diversify your workforce in the name of innovation

Guest column

Pop quiz: What's the best way to introduce and nurture a culture of innovation in your organization?

  1. Give all employees a VR headset
  2. Mandate every team leader offer one new idea per quarter
  3. Add the word "innovate" to the organization's mission statement
  4. Actively recruit, hire and support a more diverse workforce

If you didn't answer D, you have some research to do. A trove of recent research shows an undeniable link between workforce diversity and innovation, not to mention better overall results. From McKinsey to the Boston Consulting Group to HBR the data keeps coming.

For instance, Deloitte found organizations with more inclusive cultures are both significantly more innovative and twice as likely to meet or exceed financial targets than their counterparts. My own company, Sodexo, commissioned a study that found gender-balanced teams contribute to better outcomes across the board, including innovation.

Beyond the hard evidence, pure common sense tells us when we open our doors to people with different perspectives and life experiences, we also welcome new ideas. Diverse teams encourage diverse thinking, new solutions and agile implementation. There's a reason that Great Place to Work calls diverse and inclusive teams "the engines of innovation."

At the same time, innovation has become essential in our current economic climate. If this past year has taught us anything, it's that we need to be nimble and ready to think differently at a moment's notice.

As we close out another Women's History Month, we are rounding out a year that has been a collective setback for women in the workplace, in particular. Millions of women have left the labor market during the global pandemic and it's unclear how many will return and what professional repercussions they will face.

This comes as our industry was already woefully lacking gender parity. According to a 2019 Catalyst study, there were fewer women in oil and gas than almost any other major industry. The group found women accounted for only 22 percent of employees, 17 percent of senior level roles and one percent of top leadership.

In other words, the pandemic has given us even more work to do — both in recruiting women and a more diverse employee base in general. We need to do so if we are to transform into the future-oriented industry our customers need us to be.

The news is not all doom and gloom, however. An eye-opening McKinsey report about our industry, "Oil and gas after COVID-19" argues that the global pandemic "will be a catalytic moment and accelerate permanent shifts in the industry's ecosystem, with new future opportunities." The authors lay out several potential avenues for successful organizations, including the ability to "create the organization of the future," by recruiting a new blend of talent that will bring innovative ideas.

This is a watershed moment to rethink how we recruit and hire. We can look more broadly at what we look for and from which fields we recruit. We can consider how different ideas and perspectives can help us forge paths toward our future.

We have the data to fuel the changes we need. We also have the data to offer us the cautionary tale of not changing. As the McKinsey report put it: "The opportunity to lead has never been better—separation between market leaders and laggards will be increasingly sharp."

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Stephanie Hertzog is the CEO of Houston-based Sodexo Energy & Resources North America.

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ExxonMobil announces $100B carbon-capture hub for Houston area

greener thinking

In a move that would be a gamechanger for Houston, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil envisions creating a $100 billion carbon-capture hub along the Houston Ship Channel.

ExxonMobil foresees the Houston Ship Channel being the site of an "innovation zone" for carbon capture and storage. In a blog post on the ExxonMobil website, Joe Blommaert, the Houston-based president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, says Houston would be "the perfect place" for the project because:

  • The ship channel is home to dozens of refineries and petrochemical plants.
  • The geological formations in the Gulf of Mexico could "safely, securely, and permanently" store tons of carbon emissions under the sea floor, according to the blog post. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the storage capacity along the U.S. Gulf Coast could handle 500 million metric tons of CO2.

Irving-based ExxonMobil, which employs more than 12,000 people in the Houston area, says the project could capture and store about 50 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030. By 2040, that number could rise to 100 million metric tons.

"We could create an economy of scale where we can reduce the cost of the carbon dioxide mitigation, create jobs, and reduce the emissions," Blommaert tells the Reuters news service.

In a news release, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner applauds the ExxonMobil plan.

"This proposal by ExxonMobil is the type of bold ambition and investment we will need to meet our climate goals and protect our communities from climate change," Turner says. "ExxonMobil's proposal represents a significant step forward for the energy industry, and I hope it brings more companies to the table to help Houston lead a global energy transition."

Turner notes that the Houston area is home to some of the largest emitters of carbon in the U.S., adding that everyone has "a responsibility and role to play in decarbonization."

Blommaert says the project would require public and private funding, along with "enhanced regulatory and legal frameworks that enable investment and innovation." According to Politico, ExxonMobil wants the federal government to kick in tax breaks or to set carbon-pricing policies to help get the project off the ground.

Politico reports that the Biden administration isn't considering ExxonMobil's idea as it prepares a climate-change package.

"Meanwhile, environmental groups and many Democrats have slammed carbon-capture proposals as a climate strategy, saying the only way to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution is a wholesale switch away from fossil fuels," Politico says.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency maintains that carbon capture and storage "are critical for putting energy systems around the world on a sustainable path." Achieving net-zero goals "will be virtually impossible" without carbon capture and storage, the group says.

ExxonMobil announced creation of its Low Carbon Solutions business unit in February as part of its push to invest $3 billion in lower-emission energy initiatives through 2025. Low Carbon Solutions initially will focus on technology for carbon capture and storage. The business unit is exploring opportunities along the Gulf Coast, as well as in Wyoming, Belgium, the Netherlands, Qatar, Scotland, and Singapore.

Last year, ExxonMobil hit the pause button on a $260 million carbon-capture project in Wyoming due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Bloomberg news service.

In a December report, the Global CCS Institute, a think tank, said 65 commercial carbon-capture projects were in various stages of development around the world.

"Climate ambition, including efforts to decarbonize industry, has not been curtailed despite the adversities faced in 2020," Brad Page, CEO of the institute, says in a news release about the report. "We're continuing to see an upward trajectory in the amount of CO2 capture and storage infrastructure that is being developed. One of the largest factors driving this growth is recognition that achieving net-zero emissions is urgent yet unattainable without CO2 reductions from energy-intensive sectors."

Newly appointed innovation leader calls for more health care collaboration in Houston

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 80

Allison Post is a professional dot connector for the Texas Heart Institute. Located in the Texas Medical Center and founded in 1962, THI has long had a history of innovation — from Denton Cooley, THI's founder, performing the first artificial heart implementation in 1970.

Now, Post — who was appointed to a newly created position of manager of innovation partnerships — is focused on working with THI's latest generation of cardiac health innovators. She works internally to foster and support THI's brightest inventors as well as externally to make sure the institute is bringing in the best new technologies out there to its patients.

"The whole mission of the Texas Heart Institute is to help our patients. If that means that someone else has an incredible idea we want to jump onboard and bring it to people," Post says in this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Post, who has a bioengineering background and has worked on both sides of the table as an entrepreneur and a startup mentor, is looking to support breakthrough cardiac innovations within stem cells, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and more. And unfortunately, the cardiac health space has an increasing need to develop new health care solutions.

"Because of the growing burden of heart disease, heart failure, coronary artery disease, the unfortunately long list of things that can go wrong with someone's heart means the pressing need for therapies is just growing," she says on the show. "We're trying to keep up and break into things that people haven't done a lot of work on, such as women's heart health."

Another factor in Post's role, which she's had since last fall, is to bring THI further into both the TMC's innovation efforts as well as the greater Houston innovation ecosystem — as well as beyond. To her, Houston has a huge opportunity to lead health care innovation.

"It makes no sense that we aren't the health care leaders yet in med tech development. It should not be Boston, San Francisco, or Minneapolis. It should be Houston," Post says. "We have everything we need to do it. We just need to bring it all together."

The key to getting there, she says, is further collaboration. If there's one thing the world has learned about health care innovation from COVID-19, it's that when experts are rallying behind and collaborating on solutions, the speed of development is much faster.

"The more minds we have the better the solutions I going to be," she says.

Post says that she hopes her work at THI can inspire other institutions to collaborate ‚ since everyone has the same goal of helping patients.

"I only see just phenomenal things for Houston, and what I really want is for the Texas Medical Center to become even more interconnected. We've got to be able to transfer ideas and thoughts and intentions seamlessly between these institutions and right now there are a lot of barriers," Post says. "And I really think Texas Heart is hopefully going to serve as an example of how to take down those barriers."

Post shares more about what she's focused on and where THI is headed on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

New Houston accelerator supporting BIPOC in aerospace announces inaugural cohort

out of this world

A new accelerator program that is focused on aerospace innovation and supporting entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color has announced its first cohort.

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises, or AIA for MBEs, has named the four companies that well be a part of its inaugural cohort. The 12-week program will guide the entrepreneurs through the development of their innovations, the growth of their businesses, and the development of relationships with mentors, corporate partners, and stakeholder networks.

"Aerospace contains a myriad of dimensions and by demystifying the industry in the form of the AIA for MBEs, we are able to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at The Ion, in a news release. "It's our goal to not only support participants to be successful, but to open the playing field for other minority business enterprises hoping to enter the space."

The program's existence was possible through a partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center, DivInc, and The Ion — as well as a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency.

Here are the four companies to take part in the cohort, according to the release:

  • Axialnics Systems Inc., led by Vincent Mbuvi, is an aerospace technology platform developing a Disc-wing Rotor Aircraft Concept, which takes-off as a helicopter, carries as much payload as an airplane and flies just as fast beyond the range of typical helicopters. The innovation solves runway inefficiencies and enhances military efficiency.
  • Boozed Beverages LLC, led by Damyanna Cooke and Jim Luu, specializes in intelligent vending in the liquor industry. The company provides a contactless, AI-driven cocktail making and dispensing vending machine, for locations such as weddings and events, sporting venues, festivals, restaurants, and nightclubs and lounges.
  • NANCo Aero, led by Shern Peters, provides urban air vehicles and drones to commercial, small business, government, and nonprofit organizations. It is working to develop the first Hybrid Personal Air Vehicle capable of transporting a family over the city of Houston.
  • Stratos Perception LLC, led by Rube Williams, develops artificial intelligence solutions for space systems to benefit human productivity, safety, and enterprise. It is also developing an intelligent transducer, a tool that can monitor and control multiphase flow, for use in space such as lunar water extraction and waste processing.

The hub and its associated accelerator will be housed at The Ion when it opens up later this year — along with the organizations other accelerators — but the program is being launched virtually on Wednesday, April 21, at noon.

"The Aerospace Innovation Hub came from the idea that the aerospace industry is well-known in Houston but for many people, particularly underrepresented communities, there have been barriers in entering the aerospace industry," says Jan E. Odegard, executive director of The Ion, in the release. "By offering mentorship, introduction to capital and training opportunities, with significant backing from Microsoft, The Ion is working to remove the barriers."