The Woodlands is the U.S. city with the No. 10 biggest holiday spending budget in 2023, and a few other Texas neighborhoods rank highly as well. The Woodlands Mall/Facebook

Santa and his elves get busier with every passing year, but sometimes even Kris Kringle has to use his black card to get the job done. And according to a new study by Wallethub, Santa's gonna be working overtime to fulfill the orders for residents of The Woodlands this holiday season.

The personal finance experts have determined The Woodlands is the U.S. city with the No. 10 biggest holiday spending budget in 2023. Shoppers in the affluent Houston suburb are expected to spend $3,316 this festive season.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, The Woodlands' estimated population of 114,436 had a median household income of $130,011.

This is The Woodlands' first time in the holiday shopping spotlight. The Houston suburb ranked a much lower – No. 71 – in last year's report with an average spending budget of $1,733. Way to step it up.

The nearby city of Sugar Land is a returnee, and moved up one place from No. 15 last year into No. 14 this year. The average holiday budget for a Sugar Land household is $3,210.

Houston fell into No. 209 this year with an average household holiday budget of $1,296. Houston skyrocketed away from its previous rank as No. 366 in 2022 with an average spending budget of $890.

Six other East Texas cities landed in this year's report on the heftiest holiday budgets:

  • No. 31 – Pearland ($2,566)
  • No. 34 – Missouri City ($2,517)
  • No. 234 – Beaumont ($1,244)
  • No. 238 – Pasadena ($1,237)
  • No. 407 – Conroe ($935)
  • No. 438 – Baytown ($872)

Each year, WalletHub calculates the maximum holiday budget for over 550 U.S. cities "to help consumers avoid post-holiday regret," the website says. The study factors in income, age of the population, and other financial indicators such as debt-to-income ratio, monthly-income-to monthly-expenses ratio, and savings-to-monthly-expenses ratio.

Shoppers will have to keep a closer eye on their bank accounts this year while they search for the best gifts for their loved ones. Many consumers are running out of savings accumulated during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Yao Jin, an associate professor of supply chain management at Miami University.

To combat overspending, Jin suggests setting hard budgets based on personal financial circumstances and develop a list of "must haves" rather than "nice to haves."

"Holiday times are festive, and retailers know that festivities can boost mood and lead to a propensity to overspend," he said in the Wallethub report. "In fact, that is also why retailers tend to have more generous return policies to both alleviate concerns of unwanted gifts and buyer’s remorse. The key to avoiding holiday overspending is for consumers to take the emotions out of the decision, to the extent possible."

Other Texas cities that made it in the top 100 include:
  • No. 3 – Frisco ($3,546)
  • No. 5 – Flower Mound ($3,485)
  • No. 22 – Allen ($2,964)
  • No. 30 – Plano ($2,566)
  • No. 44 – Cedar Park ($2,354)
  • No. 56 – McKinney ($2,165)
  • No. 67 – Carrollton ($1,928)
  • No. 71 – Austin ($1,877)
  • No. 77 – Richardson ($1,809)
  • No. 95 – League City ($1,733)
  • No. 99 – North Richland Hills ($1,706)

The report and its methodology can be found on wallethub.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The 75,000-square-foot building is slated to feature wet and dry labs, classrooms, computer labs, conference spaces, lounge areas and student advising spaces. Photo courtesy of UH

University of Houston doubles down on Sugar Land tech campus with $65M building

coming soon

The University of Houston broke ground earlier this month on a new $65 million instructional building that will allow the college to move its entire Technology Division to Sugar Land.

The 75,000-square-foot building, known as Technology Building-Sugar Land Academic Building 2, is slated to feature wet and dry labs, classrooms, computer labs, conference spaces, lounge areas and student advising spaces, according to an announcement from UH. It will be situated next door to the current Technology Building on UH at Sugar Land's campus, which opened in 2019.

The new building, nicknamed SAB2, was designed by SmithGroup and built by Vaughn Construction.

"We are grateful for the collaboration of supporters in the region and state whose investment in UH will result in a new generation of engineering and technology professionals," Renu Khator, president UH, said in a statement. "The growth of our Technology Division and our Sugar Land instructional site supports our vision of building a top 50 public university that provides a top tier educational experience and creates impactful research.”

Photo courtesy of UH

According to UH, the college will move its Technology Division to UH Sugar Land by 2025. The transition of the division has been ongoing since 2022.

“We are excited to usher in this next chapter of growth and impact for the University and for our Fort Bend County region,” Jay Neal, associate vice president of academic affairs and chief operating officer for UH at Sugar Land, said in a statement. “The addition of this new building will allow us to accommodate all Technology Division classes and programs that have been transitioning from the main campus to Sugar Land for the last several months.”

UH at Sugar Land is already home to two innovative labs.

The first, dubbed the Artificial Intelligence Industry Incubator and Digital Oilfield Lab, launched in 2020. It aims to help faculty, students, and energy professionals to develop technologies and solutions to increase efficiency and boost oil field safety through machine learning.

About a year later, the campus also welcomed its new AI Retail Innovation Lab. The cloud-based lab allows students, faculty, and industry professionals from across the U.S. to sift through in-store and online shopper data and then come up with new technology for the retail sector.

In other UH news, the

university announced last week that a new $5 million grant will expand opportunities for entrepreneurship for all students.

Photo courtesy of UH

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

After catching a deal on Shark Tank, these Houston-area fish foodies swim toward more funding

reeling in cash

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."

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Early-stage accelerator returns to Houston, announces finalists

prepare for take-off

CodeLaunch, a traveling seed-stage accelerator, is returning to Houston for its latest cohort.

The startup competition sponsored by software development company Improving will have its ultimate showdown on February 28. The final competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies.

Jason W. Taylor, CodeLaunch president and founder, says CodeLaunch isn’t your typical startup showcase, as it incorporates music acts, comedy, and crowd networking. Mirroring the set-up of a TV show, the six finalists all present their working products in front of an audience amid these performances.

“I would describe CodeLaunch as the next generation of venture-tainment in North America and the greatest startup show on earth,” Taylor explains.

The 2024 Houston CodeLaunch participant startups — and their mentor partners — are as follows:

Prior to pitch day, all six teams will receive hands-on instruction from CodeLaunch mentors on how to construct their pitches and free professional software development from their partners. Taylor says the strong relationships between CodeLaunch and these developers played a major role in setting the competition in Houston.

“We love Houston and we’re back for a third year in a row because the Houston startup ecosystem works together better than other major startup ecosystems I’ve seen,” Taylor says. “We have some great software development partners in Houston that are building code for those startups.”

Last year, Houston-based startup Energy360, with the mentorship and help of Honeycomb Software, took home the Championship belt and a $100,000 investment offer from Cyrannus VC fund for their energy management system Matt Bonasera, Energy360’s enterprise architect, says he is grateful for the entrepreneurial community CodeLaunch provides, in particular the team’s mentor Oleg Lysiak, Honeycomb VP of Partnerships and Business Development.

“I happened along this great community of people who are really passionate about supporting each other,” Bonasera says.

Lysiak agrees that CodeLaunch is an ideal opportunity for young entrepreneurs looking to hone their skills and expand their product capabilities. Lysiak says he is looking forward to defending Honeycomb’s title as top consultant development team.

“My whole philosophy is to connect people and have different collisions and collaborations,” Lysiak says.

Houston startup completes testing, prepares biosimilar insulin drug for clinical trials

next steps

A Houston biotech startup is one step closer to releasing its marquee drug for the global insulin market, which is projected to break the $90 billion threshold by 2029.

rBIO says it recently completed testing of the properties of R-biolin, an insulin drug that’s biologically identical to Novo Nordisk’s Novolin drug. The patent for Novolin about two decades ago. In March 2023, the Dutch drugmaker announced it was slashing the list price of Novolin by 65 percent to $48.20 per vial and $91.09 per FlexPen.

Executives at rBIO are now pursuing a partnership with a contract research organization to manage clinical trials of R-biolin. If those trials go well, R-biolin will seek approval to supply its insulin therapy to diabetes patients around the world.

Washington University in St. Louis is rBIO’s academic partner for the R-biolin project.

The rBIO platform produces insulin at greater yields that traditional manufacturing techniques do. The company is striving to drive down the cost of insulin by 30 percent.

About 38 million Americans have diabetes, with the vast majority being treated for type 2 diabetes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Many people with diabetes must take insulin to control their blood sugar levels.

Research company iHealthcareAnalyst predicts the global market for insulin will surpass the $90 billion mark in 2029.

“There has been a lot of talk in the media about reducing the cost of insulin for diabetic patients, but what is often overlooked is that the domestic demand for insulin will soon outpace the supply, leading to a new host of issues,” Cameron Owen, co-founder and CEO of rBIO, says in a news release.

“We’re dedicated to addressing the growing demand for accessible insulin therapies, and … we’re thrilled to announce the viability of our highly scalable manufacturing process.”

Professionals from the University of California San Diego and Johns Hopkins University established rBIO in 2020. The startup moved its headquarters from San Diego to Houston in 2022.

CEO Cameron Owen and Chief Scientific Officer Deenadayalan Bakthavatsalam work on insulin purification in the Houston lab. Photo courtesy

How AI is changing product management and what you need to know

guest column

For the past 14 months, everyone has been talking about ways artificial intelligence is changing the world, and product management is not an exception. The challenge, as with every new technology, is not only adopting it but understanding what old habits, workflows, and processes are affected by it.

Product managers — as well as startup founders leading a product function — more than any other role, face a challenge of bringing new life-changing products to market that may or may not be received well by their users. A product manager’s goal is complex — bring value, stay ahead of the competition, be innovative. Yet, the "behind the scenes" grind requires endless decision making and trade offs to inspire stakeholders to move forward and deliver.

As we dive into 2024, it is obvious that AI tools do not only transform the way we work but also help product managers create products that exceed customer expectation and drive businesses forward.

Market research and trends analysis

As product managers, we process enormous amounts of market data — from reviewing global and industry trend analysis, to social media posts, predictions, competition, and company goals. AI, however, can now replace hours, if not days, of analyzing massive amounts of data in an instant, revealing market trends, anticipating needs, and foreseeing what's coming next. As a result, it is easier to make effective product decisions and identify new market opportunities.

Competitive analysis

Constantly following competitors, reviewing their new releases, product updates, or monitoring reviews to identify competitor strengths and weaknesses is an overwhelming and time consuming task. With AI, you can quickly analyze competitors’ products, pricing, promotions, and feedback. You can easily compare multiple attributes, including metrics, and identify gaps and areas for improvement — all the insights that are otherwise much harder to reveal quickly and efficiently.

Customer and product discovery

Of course, the most intuitive use case that comes to mind is the adoption of AI in product and customer discovery. For example:

  • Use AI for customer segmentation and persona creation to help visualize personas, prioritize user motivations and expectations, and uncover hidden behavior and needs. You can then create and simplify customer questionnaires for interviews and user groups and target customers more accurately.
  • Analyze quantitative and qualitative data from surveys, support tickets, reviews, and in-person interviews to identify pain points and unmet user needs and help prioritize features for future updates and releases.

Roadmap and sprint management

AI provides value in simplifying roadmap planning and sprint management. Resource optimization is often a gruesome task and AI can help with feature prioritization and resource allocation. It helps teams focus on critical work and increase their productivity. You can even analyze and manage dependencies and improve results across multiple sprints months in advance.

Prototyping and mockup generation

There is no product manager’s routine without multiple mockups, wireframes, and prototypes that explain concepts and collect feedback among stakeholders. AI has become a critical tool in simplifying this process and bringing ideas to life from concept to visualization.

Today, you can use textual or voice descriptions to instantly create multiple visuals with slight variations, run A/B tests and gather valuable feedback at the earliest stage of a product life cycle.

Job search and job interviews

Consider it as a bonus but one of the less obvious but crucial advantages of AI is using it in job search. With the vulnerable and unstable job market, especially for product roles, AI is a valuable assistant. From getting the latest news and updates on a company you want to join, to summarizing insights on the executive team, or company goals, compiling lists of interview questions, and running mock interviews, AI has become a non-judgmental assistant in a distressing and often discouraging job search process.

Use AI to draft cold emails to recruiters and hiring managers, compare your skills to open positions’ requirements, identify gaps, and outline ideas for test assignments.

We already know that AI is not a hype; it is here to stay. However, remember that customers do not consume AI, they consume your product for its value. Customers care whether your product gets their need, solves their problem, and makes their lives easier. The goal of a product manager is to create magic combining human brain capabilities and latest technology. And the best result is with a human at the core of any product.

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Natasha Gorodetsky is the founder and CEO of Product Pursuits, a Houston company that helps early stage and venture-backed startups build products and create impact.