Sugar Land-based Fish Fixe floated their seafood delivery service on Shark Tank last year. Photo via Shark Tank

The benefits of working more fish into your diet are as endless as the vast ocean itself, but going about buying and cooking fish is an expensive and daunting process.

Houstonians Melissa Harrington and Emily Castro thought they could help and launched Fish Fixe in 2017 to tackle these challenges and bring high quality seafood direct to consumers. Fish Fixe delivers seafood with easy-to-access instructions on storage and thawing — plus cooking recipes that take around 20 minutes.

The duo launched the company in 2017 and appeared on the 13th season of Shark Tank last year. In 2020, with more people avoiding grocery stores and restaurants, they saw a 400-percent increase in sales. They pitched asking for $200,000 in investment. Lori Greiner, the "queen of QVC," took the bait — and 25 percent equity.

“COVID-19, which forced more people to eat at home and adopt direct-to-consumer services, and Shark Tank were both spring boards for our sales, and through these events we've been able to retain many customers,” says Harrington.

In order to sustain this growth and provide more opportunities to scale, Harrington and Castro put the Shark Tank investment into their distribution line and moved everything into a centralized distribution center which replenishes distribution centers in other parts of the country.

“By late Q2, we will have four distribution centers that can hit 99 percent of the US in less than two days,” says Harrington.

Up next, Harrington and Castro have their sights set on the customer experience and the content space, which they hope to support with some outside funding.

“We are going to go raise some money because we truly feel that with the right resources we can scale and serve more people and spread the message,” says Harrington. “The hard work, we kind of feel like, has already been done in the setup and now it’s time to go have fun and go market, which is really fun.”

Prior to Fish Fixe, Harrington and Castro both worked in food and beverage. Harrington worked in the live lobster business and sold lobsters to high-end Houston restaurants and HEB. Castro worked in wine and spirits and managed a team of 50 sales professionals. Leveraging that depth of experience, they were able to bring Fish Fixe from concept to market in 90 days.

Grab a lantern and enter an epic journey. Photo courtesy of Department of Wonder

Immersive mixed-reality exhibit lights up Houston-area suburb

new tech-enabled experience

Immersive experiences are all the rage; Houston already boasts two Van Gogh experiences (including yoga) and a Frida Kahlo event on the way.

Now, a new entertainment concept offering up exploration and discovery will open its first Houston location in Sugar Land in early 2022. But rather than passive viewing, this immersive activity sets the visitors on a quest in both physical and digital worlds.

Department of Wonder is a new, 10,000-square-foot venue that stages an immersive, mixed-reality fantasy in Sugar Land’s Town Square (2180 Lone Star Dr.). Guests wield a light-gathering lantern and are charged with unraveling stories and solving puzzles amidst a universe of interactive experiences and colorful characters, per a release.

This totally lit experience was forged by an acclaimed creative team of storytellers; recognizable names include Academy Award-winning director Brandon Oldenburg and Emmy Award-winning director Limbert Fabian.

“It’s like stepping inside a film as the main character and being bestowed an epic quest,” said Oldenburg in a statement. “We think it’s the next evolution of location-based entertainment.”

The introduction of the Department of Wonder will coincide with the completion of significant streetscape improvements to the 32-acre Sugar Land Town Square. The bustling shopping, dining, and community hub is in the midst of a major set of upgrades to retail tenancy, event programming, and the physical environment.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Folks in The Woodlands spend big bucks on the holidays. Visit Houston Texas

3 Houston suburbs lead sleigh full of cities with biggest holiday budgets

shopping spree

If you live in The Woodlands, Sugar Land, or League City, you may be making a holiday shopping list as long as a stocking and checking it more than twice.

These three Houston suburbs rank among the 10 U.S. cities with the fattest holiday budgets, according to a new study from personal finance website WalletHub.

The Woodlands ranks third nationally, at $3,073, while Sugar Land comes in fourth ($3,023) and League City lands at No. 10 ($2,778). Pearland ranks 13th ($2,669) and Missouri City appears at No. 80 ($1,499), while Houston ranks 372nd ($783).

“To help consumers avoid post-holiday regret, WalletHub calculated the maximum holiday budget for each of 570 U.S. cities using five key characteristics of the population, such as income, age, and savings-to-monthly expenses ratio,” the website says.

A suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth wraps up the No. 1 spot on the national list. Flower Mound, according to WalletHub, boasts the most Santa-friendly budget among all the cities: $3,427. Flower Mound ranked second last year ($2,973) and third in 2019 ($2,937).

Seven other DFW cities unwrap rankings in the top 100:

  • Allen, No. 12, $2,688.
  • Frisco, No. 30, $2,133.
  • Plano, No. 33, $2,044.
  • Richardson, No. 43, $1,857.
  • Carrollton, No. 56, $1,698.
  • North Richland Hills, No. 76, $1,544.
  • Irving, No. 89, $1,439.

The two biggest cities in North Texas are on the Scrooge-y side: Fort Worth appears at No. 257 ($920), and Dallas ranks 365th ($787).

In the Austin area, the holiday budgets are more on the lean side, like Santa on a diet:

  • Cedar Park, No. 48, $1,770.
  • Round Rock, No. 134, $1,200.
  • Austin, No. 188, $1,049.

Meanwhile, the San Antonio area’s two entrants on the list feel like they’ve earned lumps of coal:

  • New Braunfels, No. 196, $1,034.
  • San Antonio, No. 371, $783.

“In general, consumers are ready to spend and to have social experiences both within and outside the home. This spurs consumption in multiple categories, including food, décor, apparel, and gifts. This trend toward increased spending is mitigated by lingering COVID health concerns, including reticence to shop in physical stores, gather in groups, and travel,” Barbara Stewart, interim chair of the University of Houston’s Department of Human Development and Consumer Sciences, tells WalletHub.

The National Retail Federation predicts a record-shattering holiday season for retail sales, growing between 8.5 percent and 10.5 percent over 2020 to between $843.4 billion and $859 billion. Meanwhile, professional services firm Deloitte envisions a 7 percent to 9 percent spike in holiday spending this year versus last year. Commercial estate services provider pegs the projected increase at 8.4 percent.

“The outlook for the holiday season looks very bright,” says Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation. “The unusual and beneficial position we find ourselves in is that households have increased spending vigorously throughout most of 2021 and remain with plenty of holiday purchasing power.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The city of Sugar Land has been named a business-savvy city. Photo by Matthew T. Carroll/Getty Images

Houston-area suburb claims top spot for business-savvy cities list from Verizon

We're no. 1

Sugar Land has landed some sweet recognition for its business-friendly atmosphere.

A new ranking from Go.Verizon.com puts Sugar Land first among what it calls "the most business-savvy cities in America." The study looked only at cities with at least 100,000 residents.

"Landing the coveted top position on our list, business owners in this suburb outside of Houston know a thing or two about doing it bigger," Go.Verizon.com says. "With a mean household income of $157,923 and an unemployment rate of only 3 percent, Sugar Land lives up to its statue of the strong-willed Stephen Austin, the 'Father of Texas.'"

Six factors went into the ranking:

  1. Average household income.
  2. Unemployment rate.
  3. Percentage of people with at least a bachelor's degree.
  4. Number of applications to start a business.
  5. Percentage of population that starts a business.
  6. Homeownership rate.

"Doing business in Sugar Land might be the best decision you make. As a welcoming and inclusive city, Sugar Land provides a business-friendly environment," says Keri Schmidt, president and CEO of the Fort Bend Chamber of Commerce. "The Fort Bend Chamber works collaboratively with the city to support to our businesses in both good times and challenging times."

Key sectors of the economy in Sugar Land, home to roughly 118,500 residents, include manufacturing, biotech, financial services, and energy. Among the major employers are Accredo Packaging, Champion X, Fluor, and Schlumberger.

Sugar Land-based Accredo, which makes packaging mostly for food and consumer products, set up shop in Sugar Land in 2009. Following a 200,000-square-foot, $50 million expansion last year at the Sugar Land Business Park, the company now occupies nearly 550,000 square feet at its 32-acre warehouse and manufacturing site. When the expansion was completed last year, Accredo said it would be adding 100 jobs through 2021.

"Accredo has continued to grow and expand as a thriving global company," Sunny Sharma, president of the Sugar Land Legacy Foundation, said in 2019. "Their products cross international borders, and we are fortunate that they choose Sugar Land to connect the world."

One other Texas city appears on the Go.Verizon.com list: eighth-ranked Frisco, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth.

"Frisco residents can spend confidently: The mean household income is $153,704," Go.Verizon.com says. "Business owners in the city provide plenty of places for citizens to spend all that cash — Frisco has video game museums, vintage automobile collections, and outdoor concert venues."

It's 2020 and Santa is coming to town via technology, kids. Photo via MAGI·SPHERE

Santa Claus is coming to a Houston-area town in an innovative way

ho ho ho

Christmas may look a little different this year, but that doesn't mean Santa isn't coming to town. While a family picture with Santa is a seasonal staple for your mantel, the CDC guidelines aren't exactly conducive to a photo on Kriss Kringle's lap. The recently debuted MAGI·SPHERE installation at Sugar Land Town Square is helping patrons interact with Santa in a safe way.

Mall Santas have long been the stars of holiday cards and Christmas movies. As shopping centers across America grappled with how to safely create holiday experiences, a slew of options and ideas were deployed to assuage shoppers. Some Santas have donned face shields, others wave to children from behind plexiglass, few are booking online experiences with retailers like Macy's, and many are taking this Christmas season off for health concerns.

Like many destinations around the U.S., Sugar Land Town Square pivoted to an untraditional holiday experience. The MAGI·SPHERE, located on the plaza deck, is a holographic snow globe that allows visitors to interact and share their holiday wishes with a 3D projection of Santa Claus in real-time. The installation was created by Flight School Studio, a Dallas-based creative team that specializes in interactive activations, and uses proprietary technology.

Santa's MAGI·SPHERE in Sugar Land Texas www.youtube.com

"That's what we challenged them with. On a tough year when kids have been stuck at home, can you create a little bit of magic?" said Matt Ragan, a Sugar Land Town Square representative, of the partnership with Flight School Studio in an interview on "Houston Life."

The MAGI·SPHERE's Santa isn't just a scripted hologram—the Santa can interact and have a two-way dialogue similar to an in-person meet-and-greet. Flight School Studio deployed facial recognition software to create an animated holograph of Santa that captures the nuances and movements of a nearby actor's face. As the actor playing Santa watches a video feed of guests and communicates from a separate room, the animated avatar reflects his gestures.

"The use of emerging technology allows us to make storytelling and experiences much more extraordinary. This is especially impactful when re-inventing such a longstanding holiday tradition," says Brandon Oldenburg, chief creative officer of Flight School Studio, in a statement.

The MAGI·SPHERE is just a taste of the activations Flight School Studio plans on bringing to the center. The studio's forthcoming brick and mortar location is slated to open at Sugar Land Town Square in early 2021. The 9,000-square-foot space will blend physical sets with technologies, including projection mapping, augmented reality, 3D animation, haptics, motion tracking, lighting, and sound.

"We can't wait to show the world more of what we have in store, while also putting our home state of Texas and the Houston area at the forefront of both mixed reality and how the retail environment is being reimagined for the future," Oldenburg says in a press release.

Families can visit the MAGI·SPHERE through Dec. 24 by making an appointment online or using the on-site queuing system. Social distancing and face masks in common areas will be enforced throughout the experience.
Hey, big spenders of The Woodlands and Sugar Land. Photo courtesy of Holiday Shopping Card

Shoppers in these Houston suburbs are among biggest holiday spenders in U.S.

big spenders

It appears that delivery drivers (and Santa) will be hauling sleighs full of gifts to homes in The Woodlands and Sugar Land this holiday season.

A new study from personal finance website WalletHub ranks The Woodlands and Sugar Land sixth and seventh, respectively, in the country for cities with the biggest holiday budgets. WalletHub estimates that consumers in The Woodlands will ring up an average of $2,729 in holiday spending; Sugar Land residents will spend $2,728.

Other Greater Houston-area suburbs on the list include League City, No. 15 at $2,501, and Missouri City, No. 98 at $1,264.

Elsewhere in Texas, Flower Mound came in second for holiday spending; residents there will ring up an average of $2,973. Only Palo Alto, California, had a higher amount ($3,056) among the 570 U.S. cities included in the study, which was released November 17.

The five factors that WalletHub used to come up with budget estimates for each city are income, age, savings-to-expenses ratio, income-to-expenses ratio and debt-to-income ratio.

Flower Mound consistently ranks at the top of WalletHub's annual study on holiday spending. Last year, the Dallas suburb came in at No. 3 (budget: $2,937), and in 2018, it landed atop the list at No. 1 (budget: $2,761).

Aside from Flower Mound, five cities in Dallas-Fort Worth appear in WalletHub's top 100:

  • Richardson, No. 36, $2,002
  • Frisco, No. 53, $1,684
  • Plano, No. 59, $1,594
  • Carrollton, No. 71, $1,492
  • North Richland Hills, No. 95, $1,303

Two cities in the Austin area also make the top 100: Cedar Park at No. 73 ($1,472) and Austin at No. 99 ($1,259).

Austin's No. 99 ranking puts it in the top spot among Texas' five largest cities. It's followed by Fort Worth (No. 306, $718), San Antonio (No. 394, $600), Dallas (No. 399, $596), and Houston (No. 436, $565).

Harlingen is the most Scrooge-y Texas city: The estimated $385 holiday budget puts it at No. 560 nationwide.

Overall, Americans predict they'll spend an average of $805 on holiday gifts this year, down significantly from last year's estimate of $942, according to a recent Gallup poll.

Outlooks for U.S. holiday retail sales this year are muted due to the pandemic-produced recession. Consulting giant Deloitte forecasts a modest rise of 1 percent to 1.5 percent, with commercial real estate services provider CBRE guessing the figure will be less than 2 percent.

"The lower projected holiday growth this season is not surprising given the state of the economy. While high unemployment and economic anxiety will weigh on overall retail sales this holiday season, reduced spending on pandemic-sensitive services such as restaurants and travel may help bolster retail holiday sales somewhat," Daniel Bachman, Deloitte's U.S. economic forecaster, says in a release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston expert addresses the growing labor shortage within health care

guest column

Long before COVID-19 became a part of our new normal, the concerns around shortages in health care staffing were present.

To put this in real terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the latest projection of employment through the end of this decade is an increase of nearly 12 million jobs. A fourth of those — 3.3 million to be exact — are expected to go towards health care and social assistance roles.

Before the pandemic, the concerns centered around managing a growing retired population and a slowing in higher education nurse enrollment. Then amid the growing shortage concerns surrounding the support for aging baby boomers, we were all thrusted into a pandemic.

The stressors on health care professional staffing have doubled down and what the increased shortage has shown us is the need to intervene and change the traditional hiring practices. Speed to place a nurse on assignment doesn’t just ensure productivity — it is a matter of life or death.

Over the past several years, the evolution of technology has drastically changed how health care facilities operate and interact with their employees as well as patients. There was a point in time where the structure in health care staffing was rigid without flexibility or varieties of employment type. Conversations around travel positions, per diem, and permanent are all now commonplace as the recent shortages caused us to normalize the discussion around role type and use of technology to influence speed to hire.

This whole evolution was put to test when April 2020 came, and the initial brunt of the pandemic was in full swing. The entire world was in panic mode. During these quarantine times, we were in a state of a health care emergency with thousands of patients seeking health care. Unfortunately, hospitals could not keep up with this demand with their existing nurse professionals, and became severely overloaded and dangerous. Due to this the United States saw unprecedented labor shortages, impacting a large number of nurses and health care workers as it pertains to both their physical and mental health.

What we are seeing now is a period classified as the “The Great Rethinking,” where nurses and health care workers alike are speaking up for what they believe in and deserve. Salary transparency and flexibility are just the tip of the iceberg for this movement.

SkillGigs is unique in that we are giving the power back to registered nurses and health care professionals, while meeting the demand created by the pandemic. Our team has been fortunate to be a catalyst to direct the change in the future of work, and we look forward to continuing to innovate.

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Bryan Groom is the division president of health care at Houston-based SkillGigs.

Houston energy giant expands implementation of Canadian startup's tech

big, big energy

CruxOCM, a startup with a significant Houston presence that specializes in robotic industrial process automation for energy companies, has secured even more business from energy giant Phillips 66.

The value of the deal wasn’t disclosed.

Houston-based Phillips 66 has agreed to expand it use of CruxOCM’s pipeBOT technology to cover even more pipelines. The pipeBOT technology is designed to improve the safety and efficiency of control room operations for pipelines and reduce control room costs.

CruxOCM and Phillips 66 launched a test of pipeBOT in 2020.

CruxOCM, based in Calgary, Canada, says pipeBOT is engineered to decrease manual controls through intelligent automation. With this technology in place, the fatigue of control room operators declines, because as many as 85 percent fewer manual commands must be entered, according to CruxOCM. Therefore, control room operators can focus on higher-level tasks.

“At CruxOCM, we empower control room operators with modern software that enables the autonomous control rooms of tomorrow, within the safety constraints of today. We look forward to continuing to strengthen our relationship with Phillips 66 for many years to come,” Adam Marsden, chief revenue officer at CruxOCM, says in a news release.

Founded in 2017, Crux OCM (Crux Operations Control Management) established its Houston presence last year. Also in 2021, the startup raised $6 million in venture capital in a “seed extension” funding round. Bullpen Capital led the round, with participation from Angular Ventures, Root Ventures, Golden Ventures, Cendana Capital, and Industry Ventures.

In 2019, Angular Ventures and Root Ventures co-led a $2.6 million funding round.

Robotic device created at the University of Houston helps stroke patients to rehabilitate

next-gen recovery

Almost 800,000 people in the United States suffer from a stroke annually — and the affliction affects each patient differently. One University of Houston researcher has created a device that greatly improves the lives of patients whose stroke affected motor skills.

UH engineering professor Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal developed a next-generation robotic arm that can be controlled by the user's brainwaves. The portable device uses a brain-computer interface (BCI) developed by Contreras-Vidal. Stroke patient Oswald Reedus, 66, is the first person to use a device of this kind.

Reedus lost the use of his left arm following a stroke that also caused aphasia, or difficulty speaking. While he's been able to recover his ability to speak clearly, the new exoskeleton will help rehabilitate his arm.

When strapped into the noninvasive device, the user's brain activity is translated into motor commands to power upper-limb robotics. As patients like Reedus use the device, more data is collected to improve the experience.

“If I can pass along anything to help a stroke person’s life, I will do it. For me it’s my purpose in life now,” says Reedus in a news release from UH. His mother and younger brother both died of strokes, and Reedus is set on helping the device that can help other stroke patients recover.

Contreras-Vidal, a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen distinguished professor, has led his device from ideation to in-home use, like with Reedus, as well as clinical trials at TIRR Memorial Hermann. The project is funded in part from an $813,999 grant from the National Science Foundation’s newly created Division of Translational Impacts.

"Our project addresses a pressing need for accessible, safe, and effective stroke rehabilitation devices for in-clinic and at-home use for sustainable long-term therapy, a global market size expected to currently be $31 billion," Contreras-Vidal says in the release. "Unfortunately, current devices fail to engage the patients, are hard to match to their needs and capabilities, are costly to use and maintain, or are limited to clinical settings."

Dr. Gerard E. Francisco, chief medical officer and director of the Neuro Recovery Research Center at TIRR Memorial Hermann, is leading the clinical trials for the device. He's also chair and professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. He explains that TIRR's partnership with engineering schools such as the Cullen College of Engineering at UH and others around the nation is strategic.

“This is truly exciting because what we know now is there are so many ways we can induce neuroplasticity or how we can boost recovery,” says Francisco in the release. “That collaboration is going to give birth to many of these groundbreaking technologies and innovations we can offer our patients.”

Both parts of the device — a part that attaches to the patient's head and a part affixed to their arm — are noninvasive. Photo courtesy of UH