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 Houston-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?

StephanieHertzog: 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.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

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 a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.