Get a sneak peek into the inaugural InnovationMap Awards presented by Techwave. Photo by Queen's Photoworks

Last week, the inaugural InnovationMap Awards presented by Techwave honored 28 companies across eight categories.

The hybrid event, which took place on September 8, was hosted at The Cannon West Houston as well as streamed online. The in-person attendees included finalists, judges, partners, and sponsors as well as their guests. Missed the event? We rounded up some moments in an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast as well as the slideshow below.

Click here to read more articles about the InnovationMap Awards.

Scenes from the 2021 InnovationMap Awards

Photo by Queen's Photoworks

The crowd of startup founders, corporate innovators, and more attended the event at The Cannon West Houston.

Want more from the awards?

And the finalists for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards are... Graphic via Gow Media

InnovationMap names 28 Houston startup finalists for inaugural awards

who will take home the win?

Who are Houston's rising stars across energy transition, sports tech, health, and more? InnovationMap set out on a quest to discover that for its inaugural awards. Ahead of the September 8 event, we're revealing the finalists across all categories.

Eight judges evaluated over 100 applications across eight categories for the 2021 InnovationMap Awards presented by Techwave. This year's judges included: Juliana Garaizar, head of the Houston incubator and vice president of innovation at Greentown Labs; Alex Gras, managing director at The Cannon; Rajasekhar Gummadapu, co-founder and CEO of Techwave; Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap; Serafina Lalany, interim president at Houston Exponential; Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge; Emily Reiser, senior manager of innovation community engagement at the Texas Medical Center; and Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston.

The winners will be announced and celebrated — along with this year's previously announced Trailblazer Award recipient, Barbara Burger of Chevron Technology Ventures — at the September 8 event at The Cannon - West Houston. Honorees, sponsors, judges, and their guests will celebrate in person, and the rest of the innovation community is invited to tune in to the livestream. Click here to RSVP.

Sponsorships are still available! If you are interested in partnering with InnovationMap as a sponsor of this event, send an email to awards@innovationmap.com.

Without further adieu, here are this year's finalists:

BIPOC-Founded Business Finalists

The finalists for the BIPOC-Founded Business Award category, honoring innovative tech companies founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation, are:

  • Allotrope Medical — creator of StimSite, a device that improves surgical safety and efficiency in millions of operations performed every year.
  • Hello Alice — a small business owner's passport through entrepreneurship that helps with networking, raising capital, and accessing growth tools.
  • LAMIK Beauty — a tech-enabled clean color cosmetics company focusing on women of all diverse backgrounds
  • Molecule Software — creator of a leading cloud-native energy trading software.

Female-Founded Business Finalists

The finalists for the Female-Founded Business Award category presented by Veritex Community Bank, honoring innovative tech companies founded or co-founded by women, include:

  • DonateStock — simplifying the process of donating stock and helping nonprofits solicit, process, and manage stock donations.
  • Hello Alice — a small business owner's passport through entrepreneurship that helps with networking, raising capital, and accessing growth tools.
  • re:3D Inc. — producer of large, affordable industrial 3D printers, and services that can print with new or recycled filament, pellets, or flake.
  • RingOn — wearable GPS tracker that is also a panic button that's designed for school kids and with an impact-driven mission of ending child trafficking.
  • Topl — impact monetization engine that enables digital and sustainable transformation across value chains and empowers the monetization of impact verified on the Topl Blockchain.
  • Zibrio Inc. — a fall prevention solution that empowers both clinicians and patients for better outcomes.

Health Care Business Finalists

The finalists for the Health Care Business Award category presented by Gray Reed, which honors health care businesses with an innovative solution within life sciences, include:

  • Allotrope Medical — creator of StimSite, a device that improves surgical safety and efficiency in millions of operations performed every year.
  • Medical Informatics Corp. — creator of Sickbay, which features web-based applications that transform data into actionable information to help care teams make better, faster decisions.
  • Saranas — creator of the Early Bird, the first and only FDA-approved bleed detection system for endovascular procedures.
  • Starling Medical — using AI and telehealth enabled medical devices to enable millions with bladder dysfunctions to be able to urinate safely and conveniently again.

Energy Transition Business Finalists

The finalists for the Energy Transition Business category, which honors energy business with innovative solutions within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, and beyond, are:

  • Cemvita Factory — engineering microbes that eat CO2 and produce valuable chemicals.
  • Data Gumbo — creator of an interconnected industrial smart contract network secured and powered by blockchain.
  • Enercross LLC — automation software for the energy industry.
  • Nanotech — a material science company with a mission to fireproof the world and reduce energy consumption.
  • re:3D Inc. — producer of large, affordable industrial 3D printers, and services that can print with new or recycled filament, pellets, or flake.
  • Renewell Energy — converting idle oil and gas wells into flexible energy storage.

Sports Tech Business Finalists

The finalists for the Sports Tech Business category, which is honoring a sports tech business with an innovative solution within sports are:

  • FitLift — a wearable device and mobile platform that tracks motion and gives real-time feedback on lifting technique, allowing trainers, and athletes to drive results.
  • Mainline — an esports tournament management system, tournament organizer, and event production company.
  • sEATz — a mobile ordering and delivery platform for food, drinks, and merchandise at large events.

Space Tech Business Finalists

The finalists for the Space Tech Business category, which is honoring an aerospace business with an innovative solution within space exploration. are:

  • Cemvita Factory — engineering microbes that eat CO2 and produce valuable chemicals.
  • Cognitive Space — providing a scalable satellite constellation management solution to the space industry.
  • NANCO Aero — developing package- and person-carrying air vehicles.

Top Founder Under 40 Finalists

The finalists for the Top Founder Under 40 category, which honors an innovative founder younger than 40 by Sept. 8, 2021, are:

  • Pamela Singh of CaseCTRL — using artificial intelligence and automation to streamline surgical scheduling.
  • Timothy Neal of GoExpedi — an e-commerce, supply chain, and analytics company that is streamlining procurement for industrial and energy MRO (maintenance, repair and operations).
  • Kim Roxie of LAMIK Beauty — a tech-enabled clean color cosmetics company focusing on women of all diverse backgrounds.
  • Emma Fauss of Medical Informatics Corp. — creator of Sickbay, which features web-based applications that transform data into actionable information to help care teams make better, faster decisions.
  • Emily Cisek of The Postage — a legacy planning platform using tech to make afterlife decision making easier.

People’s Choice: Startup of the Year Finalists

The finalists for the People's Choice: Startup of the Year category, which will each present a 60-second live elevator pitch at the event on September 8, are:

    • Cheers Health — creating products that are designed to support your liver and help you feel better after consuming alcohol.
    • GoCo — all-in-one employee management platform.
    • Hello Alice — a small business owner's passport through entrepreneurship that helps with networking, raising capital, and accessing growth tools.
    • Liongard — a platform that helps Information Technology companies automatically discover, document, and audit their customers' IT systems.
    • Nanotech — a material science company with a mission to fireproof the world and reduce energy consumption.
    • re:3D Inc. — producer of large, affordable industrial 3D printers, and services that can print with new or recycled filament, pellets, or flake.
    • Topl — impact monetization engine that enables digital and sustainable transformation across value chains and empowers the monetization of impact verified on the Topl Blockchain.

    Raj Gummadapu, CEO and co-founder of Techwave, is excited to be working among the tech scene in Houston. Photo courtesy of Techwave

    Software co. leader shares why he bet on Houston's tech talent with HQ move

    houston innovators podcast episode 96

    A couple years ago, Raj Gummadapu and his executive team moved the Techwave headquarters to Houston from the Northeast in order to access a diverse workforce in a city with a developing tech scene. He's never looked back.

    Gummadapu joined this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss why he placed his bets on Houston and took his global IT services and solutions company from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the Bayou City — a move that happened as Techwave became more globally focused.

    "When we started looking at various cities, Houston presented itself as a great opportunity," Gummadapu says on the episode. "Houston is home to large Fortune 500 companies, and the talent pool we get here has really attracted us to make this as our home."

    The company, which employs 1,800 people, provides end-to-end software solutions for companies from scaling startups to massive corporations.

    "We are widely spread in terms of our service offerings," Gummadapu says. "Our unique positioning on Techwave is it's the right sized organization for companies that are looking for services partners with strong domain knowledge and great expertise with the technology, but has a quality of being a good transition partner."

    Gummadapu says Techwave has several startups in its portfolio of clients across industries, including health tech, education tech, and blockchain.

    "We service a lot of technology companies in startup stage," Gummadapu says. "We bring that core knowledge to the table and help startups think from a different angle, as well as bring our services from the domain knowledge standpoint to work collaboratively to deliver a solution to startups. We're the perfect fit for startups and bring a 360-degree view."

    Techwave is again betting on Houston and its startup ecosystem as the presenting sponsor for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards. Nominations for the awards have closed, but online registration for the hybrid event is open.

    Gummadapu shares more on how he's seen the software services industry evolve over his 20-plus years in the industry, as well as the challenges he's facing today on the episode. Stream the show below or wherever you get your podcasts.


    You have an extra week to submit your nominations. Graphic via Gow Media

    Deadline extended for inaugural InnovationMap Awards nominations

    nominate now

    If you didn't get a chance to submit your nomination for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards presented by Techwave by the July 23 deadline — you're in luck. The nomination period has been extended, and you now have an extra week to submit.

    The new — and final — deadline for nominations is July 30 by midnight. Submissions can be made online at InnovationMapAwards.com.

    Following nominations, the nominated companies will receive an application to submit by August 13. The already nominated companies will receive their applications today. So, if you're interested in being a part of the awards and you haven't received an application from InnovationMap by the end of Monday, July 26, your company has not already been nominated.

    The categories for the awards are:

    • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
    • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by a woman
    • Health Care Business honoring a health care business with an innovative solution within life sciences
    • Energy Transition Business honoring an energy business with an innovative solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, and beyond
    • Space Tech Business honoring an aerospace business with an innovative solution within space exploration
    • Sports Tech Business honoring a tech business with an innovative solution within sports
    • Top Founder Under 40 honoring an innovative founder younger than 40 by Sept. 8, 2021
    • Lifetime Achievement Award honoring an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community
    • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an internet voting portal ahead of the event
    • Techwave's Texas Advocate Awards honoring two non-Houston based companies selected by our presenting sponsor, Techwave

    Earlier this month, InnovationMap named the eight judges for this year's awards. Click here to see who will be selecting the award finalists and winners.

    Follow along on InnovationMap as we learn more about the program's inaugural nominees. Then, on September 8, we will host the finalists and a group of special guests at The Cannon for a celebration of the city's top innovators. A livestream of the event will be open to everyone on the night of the awards — tune in to find out who takes home the big win across all 10 categories.

    Click here to RSVP for what will surely be a can't-miss event in Houston innovation.

    Here's who's making the call for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards. Photos courtesy

    InnovationMap names judges for inaugural awards program

    in the hot seat

    It's been two weeks since InnovationMap announced its inaugural awards program presented by Techwave — and the ecosystem is already buzzing with excitement to find out the top innovative companies in town.

    The InnovationMap Awards will honor Houston's innovators and their breakthrough technologies across industries. The program and hybrid event — which will take place September 8 — will shine a spotlight on the movers and shakers within Houston's burgeoning innovation community. Nominations are open for the awards now — and the deadline to submit your nomination is July 23.

    Click here to nominate a deserving company.

    But who will decide this year's finalists and winners for the event? A cohort of eight of the best innovation leaders in the Bayou City. Introducing: The 2021 InnovationMap Awards judges:

    Juliana Garaizar, head of Greentown Houston and vice president of Greentown Labs

    Courtesy photo

    A longtime angel investor and Houston innovation leader, Juliana Garaizar is no stranger to the local ecosystem. Prior to her current role leading Greentown Labs in Houston, she served as director of the Texas Medical Center's Venture Fund and managing director at the Houston Angel Network. She's also involved with Houston-based Business Angel Minority Association, or baMa, and has worked with Portfolia for over five years.

    Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge

    Photo courtesy of MassChallenge

    ​A leader in Houston innovation for several years now, Jon Nordby oversees Boston-based MassChallenge's entire Texas operation. MassChallenge's global accelerator program supports an annual cohort of startups across industries. Prior to his current role, he served as director of strategy at Houston Exponential and vice president of talent and innovation at the Greater Houston Partnership.

    Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

    Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

    Grace Rodriguez has dedicated herself to helping do-gooders do greater, as her LinkedIn page proudly boasts, and for the past three years, she's been doing that by leading Impact Hub Houston, a locally rooted, globally connected 501c3 nonprofit that champions inclusive, impact-driven innovation. She also co-founded Station Houston in 2016.

    Emily Reiser, senior manager of innovation community engagement at the Texas Medical Center

    Photo courtesy of TMC Innovation

    Emily Reiser is like a switchboard operator for TMC Innovation, where she's worked with health tech startups since 2019. She supports clinicians, innovators, corporate partners, and business advisers who are dedicated to advancing healthcare innovation all while providing a common ground for collaboration, connection, and innovation.

    Serafina Lalany, vice president of operations at Houston Exponential

    Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

    Serafina Lalany leads operations at Houston Exponential, the city's nonprofit focused on accelerating the development of Houston's innovation economy. She's also a board member of Diversity Fund Houston — a micro venture fund created to invest in minority tech founders during the "friends and family round."

    Alex Gras, managing director at The Cannon

    Photo via LinkedIn

    After spending eight years in oil and gas, Alex Gras took his management skills to The Cannon Houston — a network of entrepreneurial hubs across Houston. The Cannon is the InnovationMap Awards venue for the September 8 event.

    Rajasekhar Gummadapu, CEO of Techwave

    Photo courtesy

    Raj Gummadapu is the co-founder of Techwave, the award program's presenting sponsor. An accountant by trade, he has about 17 years of experience with combination of working with "big 5" consulting companies and various midsize to Fortune 100 companies across different industries on various strategic initiatives and global process and systems transformations.

    Natalie Harms, editor of InnovationMap

    Photo courtesy

    Natalie Harms has been at the helm of InnovationMap — Houston's voice for Innovation — since its inception in October 2018. She oversees all editorial operations of the site and hosts its weekly podcast, the Houston Innovators Podcast.

    Nominate today for the inaugural InnovationMap Awards. Graphic via Gow Media

    Nominate now: InnovationMap announces inaugural Houston innovation awards

    coming soon

    Calling all Houston innovators — now is your time to shine.

    InnovationMap and its partner, Houston-based Techwave, a global IT services and solutions provider, are pleased to present an inaugural set of awards honoring Houston's innovators and their breakthrough technologies across industries. The program and hybrid event — which will take place September 8 — will shine a spotlight on the movers and shakers within Houston's burgeoning innovation community.

    Nominations for the InnovationMap Awards are open now online, and nominees will receive an application to submit in late July. A group of industry experts and Houston innovation leaders will review submissions and determine finalists and winners across 10 categories. The categories for the awards are:

    • BIPOC-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by BIPOC representation
    • Female-Owned Business honoring an innovative tech company founded or co-founded by a woman
    • Health Care Business honoring a health care business with an innovative solution within life sciences
    • Energy Transition Business honoring an energy business with an innovative solution within renewables, climatetech, clean energy, and beyond
    • Space Tech Business honoring an aerospace business with an innovative solution within space exploration
    • Sports Tech Business honoring a tech business with an innovative solution within sports
    • Top Founder Under 40 honoring an innovative founder younger than 40 by Sept. 8, 2021
    • Lifetime Achievement Award honoring an innovator who's made a lasting impact on the Houston innovation community
    • People's Choice: Startup of the Year selected via an internet voting portal ahead of the event
    • Techwave's Texas Advocate Awards honoring two non-Houston based companies selected by our presenting sponsor, Techwave

    Follow along on InnovationMap as we learn more about the program's inaugural nominees. Then, on September 8, we will host the finalists and a group of special guests at The Cannon for a celebration of the city's top innovators. A livestream of the event will be open to everyone on the night of the awards — tune in to find out who takes home the big win across all 10 categories.

    Click here to RSVP for what will surely be a can't-miss event in Houston innovation.

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    These elite Houston researchers were named among the most-cited in their fields

    MVPs

    Nearly 60 scientists and professors from Houston-area universities and institutions, working in fields from ecology to immunology, have been named among the most-cited researchers in the world.

    The Clarivate Highly Cited Researchers 2022 list considers a global pool of public academic papers that rank in the top 1 percent of citations for field and publication year in the Web of Science. It then ranks researchers by the number of times their work has been cited, or referenced, by other researchers, which, according to the University of Houston, helps their findings "become more impactful and gain further credibility."

    This year 6,938 researchers from 70 different countries were named to this list. About 38 percent of the researchers are based in the U.S.

    “Research fuels the race for knowledge and it is important that nations and institutions celebrate the individuals who drive the wheel of innovation. The Highly Cited Researchers list identifies and celebrates exceptional individual researchers who are having a significant impact on the research community as evidenced by the rate at which their work is being cited by their peers," says David Pendlebury, head of research analysis at the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate, in a statement. "These individuals are helping to transform human ingenuity into our world’s greatest breakthroughs.”

    Harvard University was home to the most researchers, with 233 researchers making the list, far outpacing Stanford University, which had the second highest total of 126 researchers.

    Texas universities and institutions had a strong showing, too. The University of Texas at Austin had 31 researchers on the list, tying UT with the University of Minnesota and Peking University in China for the No. 35 spot. MD Anderson had 30 researchers on the list, the most among organizations in Houston, earning it a 38th place ranking, tied with the University of Maryland and University of Michigan.

    Below is a list of the Houston-area highly cited researchers and their fields.

    From UT MD Anderson Cancer Center

    • Jaffer Ajani (Cross-Field)
    • James P. Allison (Immunology)
    • Jan A. Burger (Clinical Medicine)
    • George Calin (Cross-Field)
    • Jorge Cortes (Clinical Medicine)
    • Courtney DiNardo (Clinical Medicine)
    • John V. Heymach (Clinical Medicine)
    • David Hong (Cross-Field)
    • Gabriel N. Hortobagyi (Cross-Field)
    • Robert R. Jenq (Cross-Field)
    • Hagop M.Kantarjian (Clinical Medicine)
    • Marina Y. Konopleva (Clinical Medicine)
    • Dimitrios P. Kontoyiannis (Cross-Field)
    • Scott E. Kopetz (Clinical Medicine)
    • Alexander J. Lazar (Cross-Field)
    • J. Jack Lee (Cross-Field)
    • Anirban Maitra (Clinical Medicine)
    • Robert Z. Orlowski (Clinical Medicine)
    • Padmanee Sharma (Clinical Medicine and Molecular Biology and Genetics)
    • Anil K. Good (Cross-Field)
    • Jennifer A. Wargo (Molecular Biology and Genetics)
    • William G. Wierda (Clinical Medicine)

    From Baylor College of Medicine

    • Erez Lieberman Aiden (Cross-Field)
    • Nadim J. Ajami (Cross-Field)
    • Christie M. Ballantyne (Clinical Medicine)
    • Malcolm K. Brenner (Cross-Field)
    • Hashem B. El-Serag (Clinical Medicine)
    • Richard Gibbs (Cross-Field)
    • Heslop, Helen Cross-Field
    • Joseph Jankovic (Cross-Field)
    • Sheldon L. Kaplan (Immunology)
    • Joseph F. Petrosino (Cross-Field)
    • Cliona Rooney (Cross-Field)
    • James Versalovic (Cross-Field)
    • Bing Zhang (Cross-Field)

    From Rice University

    • Plucker M. Ajayan (Materials Science)
    • Pedro J. J. Alvarez (Environment and Ecology)
    • Naomi Halas (Materials Science)
    • Jun Lou (Materials Science)
    • Antonios G. Nikos (Cross-Field)
    • Aditya D. Mohite (Cross-Field)
    • Peter Nordlander (Materials Science)
    • Ramamoorthy Ramesh (Physics)
    • James M. Tour (Materials Science)
    • Robert Vajtai (Materials Science)
    • Haotian Wang (Chemistry)
    • Zhen-Yu Wu (Cross-Field)
    • From University of Houston
    • Jiming Bao (Cross-Field)
    • Shuo Chen (Cross-Field)
    • Whiffing Ren (Cross-Field)
    • Zhu Han (Computer Science)

    From UTMB Galveston

    • Vineet D.Menachery (Microbiology)
    • Nikos Vasilakis (Cross-Field
    • Scott C. Weaver (Cross-Field)
    • From UT Health Science Center-Houston
    • Eric Boerwinkle (Cross-Field)

    Overheard: Houston experts call for more open innovation at industry-blending event

    eavesdropping at the Ion

    Open innovation, or the practice of sourcing new technologies and idea across institutions and industries, was top of mind at the annual Pumps & Pipes event earlier this week.

    The event, which is put on by an organization of the same name every year, focuses on the intersection of the energy, health care, and aerospace industries. The keynote discussion, with panelists representing each industry, covered several topics, including the importance of open innovation.

    If you missed the discussion, check out some key moments from the panel.

    “If we want to survive as a city, we need to make sure we can work together.”

    Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs. "From being competitive, we’ve become collaborative, because the challenges at hand in the world right now is too big to compete," she continues.

    “The pace of innovation has changed.”

    Steve Rader of NASA. He explains that 90 percent of all scientists who have ever lived are alive on earth today. “If you think you can do it all yourself — and just find all the latest technology yourself, you’re kidding yourself.”

    “You can’t close the door. If you do, you’re closing the door to potential opportunities.”

    — Michelle Stansbury, Houston Methodist. “If you think you can do it all yourself — and just find all the latest technology yourself, you’re kidding yourself.” She explains that there's an influx of technologies coming in, but what doesn't work now, might work later or for another collaborator. "I would say that health care as a whole hasn’t been very good at sharing all of the things we’ve been creating, but that’s not the case today," she explains.

    “The thing that makes Houston great is the same thing that makes open innovation great: diversity.”

    — Rader says, adding that this makes for a great opportunity for Houston.

    “Some of our greatest innovations that we’ve had come from other industries — not from health tech companies.”

    — Stansbury says. "I think that's the piece everyone needs to understand," she says. "Don't just look in your own industry to solve problems."

    “Nobody knows what is the best technology — the one that is going to be the new oil."

    — Garaizar says. “All of this is going to be a lot of trial and error," she continues. “We don’t have the luxury of time anymore.”

    University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

    order up

    The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

    Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

    These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

    Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

    “People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

    The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

    “Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

    Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

    Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

    Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

    But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

    Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

    Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

    “Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

    To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

    Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

    Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

    “To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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    This article originally ran on CultureMap.