3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Allie Danziger of Ampersand Professionals, Jane Stricker of the Greater Houston Partnership, and Summer Reeves of Accenture's Houston Fjord Studio. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from energy to design innovation — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Allie Danziger, co-founder and CEO of Ampersand Professionals

The ongoing trend of businesses struggling to onboard new employees is likely going to continue through the new year. Allie Danziger shares what you need to know. Photo courtesy of Ampersand

The Great Resignation is among us, and companies need to respond accordingly, Allie Danziger, CEO and co-founder of Ampersand Professionals, writes in her guest column for InnovationMap.

"It has been particularly difficult to hire and retain Gen Z employees, the newest generation in the workforce, as we navigate the expectations of these employees, as compared to past generations," she writes. "Fortunately, businesses can bounce back from 'The Great Resignation' or protect themselves before they experience a similar mass exodus by taking the time to understand employees' preferences and motivations, and make a few small changes accordingly."

Danziger shares four tips with hiring and retaining talent in this challenging time. Click here to read more.

Jane Stricker, executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative at the GHP

The former BP executive will lead Houston's role in the energy transition as the executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative, a brand new position at the Greater Houston Partnership. Photo courtesy of GHP

Jane Stricker, a longtime Houston-based executive at oil and gas giant BP, has been tapped to be the executive director of the Houston Energy Transition Initiative and senior vice president of energy transition.

The Greater Houston Partnership unveiled HETI in June. As the partnership explained then, HETI "aims to drive sustainable and equitable economic growth in the Greater Houston region through a portfolio of technology, policy, and market initiatives that scale and export solutions for realizing a low-carbon energy world."

"This is an exciting time for Houston and our energy ecosystem as we focus our efforts on leading the global energy transition," Stricker says. "The challenge of our lifetime is addressing this dual challenge of meeting increased global energy demand while confronting global climate change. Houston is known for solving problems that matter. I believe through innovation, collaboration, and focus, our region can lead the way and deliver solutions that change the world." Click here to read more.

Summer Reeves, director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio

Summer Reeves says Houston is changing for the better when it comes to attracting design talent. Photo courtesy of Accenture

The winds have changed in Houston when it comes to attracting design talent, Summer Reeves — the director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio — says on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Reeves is currently responsible for growing the team of Accenture's new Houston Fjord studio. She say she's excited for the way the design industry in Houston has developed. It's been second chair to Austin on the Texas landscape, but that's changing.

"There's a reason why Accenture is building a Fjord studio here in Houston — and now, versus in the past," Reeves says.

She describes Austin employers overly competitive for designers — making it hard to attract and retain design talent. This has caused a wave of designers coming to Houston. She's also seeing Houston employers — mostly in the energy industry — shift their thinking in hiring these types of positions. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Summer Reeves, the director of Accenture's Houston Fjord studio, says Houston is changing for the better when it comes to attracting design talent. Photo courtesy of Accenture

This expert shares why Houston has a bright future as a design-led innovation city

Houston innovators podcast episode 110

When you think of design in terms of the role it plays in innovation and technology, you might picture a graphic designer or maybe one step in a product's path to market. But for Summer Reeves, design is an integral part of the entire innovation process.

"When people think about design, they think about visual design — UX/UI digital products," Reeves says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "But what we do from a service design or, what I like to say, a holistic design approach is very different."

Reeves is the director of the Houston Fjord studio — which operates under Accenture Interactive. She's currently standing up the new studio in Houston, which has iterations across the world from Austin and New York to Barcelona and Singapore. The new studio in Houston will help Accenture clients think through the design of their solutions, rather than jump the gun on deploying a technology.

"We want to be a design-led company," Reeves says. "Fjord is what I call the tip of the spear of what we do."

Fjord's design team focus on understanding the root cause of the problem, who's impacted, and what the scale of the solution should be. On the podcast, she gives the example of a coffee shop that wants a mobile app to engage with customers. Reeves says rather than just creating the app, Fjord would look at what the customer wants via surveys and observations.

"It's human nature to jump to solutioning," she says, "but we need to do research to make sure that's the right call."

Reeves is currently responsible for growing the team of the studio — something not too unfamiliar to her. She was instrumental in setting up Accenture's Houston Innovation Center. She say she's excited for the way the design industry in Houston has developed. It's been second chair to Austin on the Texas landscape, but that's changing.

"There's a reason why Accenture is building a Fjord studio here in Houston — and now, versus in the past," Reeves says.

She describes Austin employers overly competitive for designers — making it hard to attract and retain design talent. This has caused a wave of designers coming to Houston. She's also seeing Houston employers — mostly in the energy industry — shift their thinking in hiring these types of positions.

Reeves shares more on the intersection between design and innovation — as well as how COVID-19 affected consulting — on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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Houston sustainability-focused company raises $50 million to plant new indoor farming facility

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Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Exclusive: Houston logistics SaaS startup raises $2.5M seed round

money moves

A Houston company that's providing software solutions for middle-mile logistics challenges has raised fresh funding.

Velostics Inc., which has an enterprise software-as-a-service model that specializes in automating inbound logistics at industrial facilities — like terminals and warehouses — announced it has raised $2.5 million. The seed round was led by Kansas-based Flyover Capital with participation from Small Ventures USA, Cultivation Capital, Starboard Star, Congress Avenue Ventures and BioUrja Ventures.

Founded by Gaurav Khandewal, Velostics targets the $37 billion inbound logistics management market, a so-called "log jam" for businesses that the company's software strives to make flow a lot more optimally.

“Flyover is incredibly excited to support the Velostics team in their mission to transform inbound logistics,” says Keith Molzer, managing partner at Flyover Capital. “This segment of the supply chain is ripe for better technology to address challenges of congestion, driver labor shortages, and the growing demands of ecommerce. Gaurav and team are an exceptional group of entrepreneurs ready to drive efficiency and a better customer experience at industrial facilities.”

The fresh funding will go toward recruiting top talent for Velostics's team, particularly in its account management, inside sales, and marketing departments, as well as continuing to develop the AI-driven product, which has an impact for both its users and the environment.

“Idling trucks waiting outside facilities emit over 42 million tons of CO2 annually — eight times the US national average. By orchestrating the movement of trucks in and out of facilities, not only do we provide tremendous supply chain benefits, we also help the environment," Khandewal says in the release. "We’re excited to partner with our customers and our investors to solve global congestion.”

Flyover Capital was founded in 2014 and has a keen interest in the Houston market, Dan Kerr, principal at the firm, previously told InnovationMap.

Houston is "one of the cities among those that fall in our region where we plan to spend a significant amount of time," Kerr said in May of last year. "We cover a lot of ground, but there are certain cities were we try to get there quarterly. Houston is definitely one of those places."

In September, Khandewal joined the Houston Innovators Podcast and discussed how he has been a champion of Houston innovation since he started ChaiOne in 2009. He shared how he thinks the city has a great opportunity to be a leader in logistics technology.

"I think that there are some trends in Houston that I'm seeing as a founder, and one of them is logistics," Khandewal says on the show.

Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO and founder of ChaiOne and Velostics Gaurav Khandelwal is the CEO and founder of Velostics. Photo courtesy

Houston VC-backed tech founder on reinventing a sales team and supporting financial independence

Houston innovators podcast episode 112

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.