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 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?

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.

------

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."

------

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

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

How this Houston innovator's tech is gearing up to impact EV charging, energy transition

houston innovators podcast episode 172

With more and more electric vehicles on the road, existing electrical grid infrastructure needs to be able to keep up. Houston-based Revterra has the technology to help.

"One of the challenges with electric vehicle adoption is we're going to need a lot of charging stations to quickly charge electric cars," Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "People are familiar with filling their gas tank in a few minutes, so an experience similar to that is what people are looking for."

To charge an EV in ten minutes is about 350 kilowatts of power, and, as Jawdat explains, if several of these charges are happening at the same time, it puts a tremendous strain on the electric grid. Building the infrastructure needed to support this type of charging would be a huge project, but Jawdat says he thought of a more turnkey solution.

Revterra created a kinetic energy storage system that enables rapid EV charging. The technology pulls from the grid, but at a slower, more manageable pace. Revterra's battery acts as an intermediary to store that energy until the consumer is ready to charge.

"It's an energy accumulator and a high-power energy discharger," Jawdat says, explaining that compared to an electrical chemical battery, which could be used to store energy for EVs, kinetic energy can be used more frequently and for faster charging.

Jawdat, who is a trained physicist with a PhD from the University of Houston and worked as a researcher at Rice University, says some of his challenges were receiving early funding and identifying customers willing to deploy his technology.

Last year, Revterra raised $6 million in a series A funding round. Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

The funding has gone toward growing Revterra's team, including onboarding three new engineers with some jobs still open, Jawdat says. Additionally, Revterra is building out its new lab space and launching new pilot programs.

Ultimately, Revterra, an inaugural member of Greentown Houston, hopes to be a major player within the energy transition.

"We really want to be an enabling technology in the renewable energy transition," Jawdat says. "One part of that is facilitating the development of large-scale, high-power, fast-charging networks. But, beyond that, we see this technology as a potential solution in other areas related to the clean energy transition."

He shares more about what's next for Revterra on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Report: Houston's hot medical office market might be on track to cool

by the numbers

Houston’s medical office market is on a roll.

A report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows net absorption and transaction volume saw healthy gains in 2022:

  • The annual absorption total of 289,215 square feet was 50.5 percent higher than the five-year average.
  • Transaction volume notched a 31.7 percent year-over-year increase.

Meanwhile, net rents held steady at $26.92 per square foot, up 1.3 percent from the previous year. The fourth-quarter 2022 vacancy rate stood at 15.9 percent.

Despite those numbers, the report suggests a slowdown in medical office rentals may be underway.

“Tenants who may have previously considered building out or expanding their lease agreements are now in a holding pattern due to increased construction costs and higher interest rates,” the report says. “These factors are having a direct impact on financial decisions when it comes to lease renewals, making it more likely that tenants will remain in their existing location for the foreseeable future.”

Still, the report notes “a number of bright spots for the future of healthcare in Houston.” Aside from last year’s record-high jump in sales volume, the report indicates an aging population coupled with a growing preference for community-based treatment “will lift demand even higher in coming years.”

The report shows that in last year’s fourth quarter, 527,083 square of medical office space was under construction in the Houston area, including:

  • 152,871 square feet in the Clear Lake area.
  • 104,665 square feet in the South submarket.
  • 103,647 square feet in Sugar Land.
Last fall, JLL recognized Houston as a top city for life sciences. According to that report, the Bayou City lands at No. 13 in JLL’s 2022 ranking of the country’s top 15 metro areas for life sciences. JLL says Houston “is poised for further growth” in life sciences.

Houston financial services firm announces acquisition, plans to grow

M&A radar

A Houston-based financial services company has made a recent strategic acquisition that gives it a new banking status.

LevelField Financial, which is creating a platform that combines traditional banking and digital asset products and services, announced this week that it is acquiring Burling Bank, an FDIC-insured, Illinois state-chartered bank. According to the company, once it receives regulatory approval, "LevelField will be the first full-service bank to offer fully compliant traditional banking and digital asset services."

The financial terms of the deal's transaction, which is expected to close later this year, were not disclosed.

The combined company will be able to provide traditional banking services, as well as LevelField's digital asset management. Burling Bank's senior management team will join LevelField's leadership, per a press release. They will focus on serving the bank's existing clients and growing the banking business nationwide.

"We conducted a broad review of banks in the U.S. to find the ideal institution with both an existing business and a management team who are aligned with our vision; we exceeded our expectations with Burling Bank. With this acquisition, LevelField will become a traditional bank, albeit one serving customers interested in the digital asset class," says Gene A. Grant II, CEO of LevelField Financial, in the release.

"We are thrilled to have the Burling executives join our leadership team, and together we intend to deliver fantastic customer service and well-designed products to customers who have an interest in accessing the digital asset class through a traditional bank," he continues.

Founded in 2018 by former banking executives, LevelField's leadership believes "the future of money is digital and that banks will continue to be a trusted provider of financial services," according to the website. This acquisition comes ahead of the company's plans to expand nationally.

"LevelField's strategic approach presented a tremendous opportunity for the bank to expand beyond our local footprint and serve customers with shared interests across the nation," says Michael J. Busch, Burling Bank president and CEO. "Together, we will continue to provide superior service and demonstrate that we truly understand the expanding and unique needs of our customers. Additionally, through the carefully developed suite of products we can address our customers' interests in digital assets and introduce them to LevelField's safe, simple, and secure platform."