The Texas Medical Center is buzzing with recent innovation news, from Texas A&M University naming its buildings, Houston Methodist is introducing a new technology, and more. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, Deloitte is looking for tech companies to honor, a few Houston innovators have fresh funds, buildings rising in the Texas Medical Center now have names, and more.

Texas A&M names buildings in Innovation Plaza

Texas A&M University has named the buildings that will be a part of its Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

The Texas A&M University System has revealed the names of the three buildings in the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza rising near the Texas Medical Center: Discovery Tower, Life Tower, and Horizon Tower.

Discovery Tower is the future home of A&M's EnMed program and is currently being renovated from an 18-story office building. Life Tower, which is expected to deliver in June 2022, is a 19-story, 714-bed student housing tower for Texas A&M medical students and Prairie View A&M University nursing students. Lastly, the Horizon Tower will be a 17-story, 485,000 square-foot integrated building that will feature a 13-story parking structure at the bottom.

SecurityGate closes series A

Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate, announced the closing of his company's series A. Courtesy of Security Gate

SecurityGate.io, a software-as-a-service cybersecurity startup based in Houston, has closed its series A fundraising round. Houston Ventures led the capital raise. The amount raised has not been disclosed.

"It was very attractive to us how tightly tuned SecurityGate.io is to the needs of their customers," says Chip Davis, managing partner at Houston Ventures, in a news release. "Successful enterprise software companies generally know they are instruments of change for their customers."

Davis says the feedback from SecurityGate's customers was what sealed the deal.

"Digital transformation is no easy task in highly dynamic environments, especially when the risk of cyberattacks keeps rising daily. We're excited to partner with Houston Ventures who sees this market growing, and our clients that see our vision of the future," says Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate, in the release.

Well Health launches at Houston Methodist

Thanks to tech from the West Coast, a Houston hospital has optimized virtual visits. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

Through a partnership with California-based WELL Health Houston Methodist was able up the ante on virtual visits during the pandemic. According to a news release, WELL enabled Houston Methodist to deliver over 260,000 text messages to patients Houston Methodist. The messages educated them about virtual care, schedule visits, and more.

"The ability to communicate back and forth, assuring patients that we are here for them both virtually and in-person is crucial as we continue to safely provide care in the midst of this pandemic," says Tesha Montgomery, vice president of operations and patient access at Houston Methodist, in the release.

Houston podcast network raises over $1 million

A podcast network with Houston ties has raised a seed round. Pexels

Lemonada Media, a podcast network with Houston roots that launched in September, has raised $1.38 million in a seed funding round led by Blue Collective, an early-stage venture capital firm. The fresh funds will allow for strategic growth for the two co-founders, Jessica Cordova Kramer, CEO, and Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs, chief creative officer. Lemonada also plans to hire several positions including vice presidents across finance, production, and marketing.

"We are slated to be a content and talent incubator, spinning out new audio concepts and hit series that present humanity, unfiltered," says Wittels Wachs in a news release. "Now more than ever, people are hungry for content that addresses their lived experience, those that are mundane, and those that may be painful and isolating. Because our company was built off a mountain of personal grief and loss, Lemonada is well-situated to cut through the noise, create beautiful works of art, and make people laugh and feel less alone along the way."

Deloitte is looking for tech companies for annual competition

For the 26th year, Deloitte is looking for cutting edge tech companies. Photo courtesy of Deloitte

Deloitte has opened applications for its 2020 Technology Fast 500. The application is available online and closes July 17. To be eligible for the award, the startup must be in business for a minimum of four years, have its headquarters in North America, have fiscal year 2016 operating revenues of at least $50,000, a fiscal year 2019 operating revenues of at least $5 million USD with a growth rate of 75 percent or greater, and own proprietary intellectual property or proprietary technology which must be sold to customers in products or services that contribute to a majority of the company's operating revenues, according to the contest's rules.

Companies should also fall within one of the following industry categories: biotechnology/pharmaceutical, communications/networking, digital content/media/entertainment, electronic devices/hardware, energy tech, medical devices, semiconductor, or software/SaaS.

Lazarus 3D delivers PPE to Haiti

A few Houston innovators have helped get Haitians critical PPE. Photo courtesy of Orolait

A few Houston innovators have helped connect health care workers in Haiti to some PPE. Ana Rojas Bastidas, founder of Orolait, and Jacques and Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld of Lazarus 3D, teamed up to ship over 1,000 pieces of PPE to United States Foundation for the Children of Haiti which supported orphanages, schools, and a hospital called Hopital Espoir.

In the middle of April, Bastidas saw the organization's need for PPE and saw how Lazarus 3D was creating materials. The group in Haiti received the supplies by the beginning of June.

"I'm really proud of the collaboration between myself and the Lazarus 3D team," Bastidas says. "Smriti and Jacques are absolute gems and while our businesses are completely separate, we found a common problem we both had the resources to tackle."

CryptoEQ begins offering consulting packages

Need custom cryptocurrency support? CryptoEQ is here to help. Courtesy of CryptoEQ

A cryptocurrency startup based in Houston has expanded its service to include custom-consulting packages.

"With our personalized packages, gain the market insights you need to refine your cryptocurrency investing and trading strategies," writes Spencer Randall, co-founder and principal of CryptoEQ.

The packages come at three levels: the enthusiast, the professional, and the expert. The individualized support begins at $499, and more information can be requested from the startup by emailing team@cryptoeq.io.

This week's innovators to know include University of Houston business school Dean Paul Pavlou, the PR Boutique's Karen Henry, and SecurityGate Founder Ted Gutierrez. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

As another week begins, there's a few people you should know within the business and innovation world of Houston.

This week's Houston innovators to know includes a quick-thinking business school dean leading a college virtually, a public relations expert with the reasons you need to focus on social media for your business, and an entrepreneur who's providing key resources for business owners looking to safely get workers back in the office.

Paul Pavlou, dean of the C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston

Courtesy of The University of Houston

The University of Houston's C.T. Bauer College of Business is going to remain completely online only through the summer. And, while that might present some challenges for students and staff, Dean Paul Pavlou says he's actually seeing an increase in enrollment. Plus, the virtual platforms allow faculty to support more classes.

"One advantage of online learning is it's very flexible — we aren't confined to the classroom," Pavlou says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've opened up more sections and seats to make it easier for students to sign up." Read more and stream the episode.

Karen Henry, founding partner of The PR Boutique

Photo courtesy of the PR Boutique

Public relations expert Karen Henry, who founded the PR Boutique based in Houston, shared in a guest column for InnovationMap how key — especially in times like these — your company's online pressence is.

"We cannot work in silos; instead, we need to have a comprehensive approach, including tactics such as media relations, community partnerships, unique events, influencer collaborations, digital and traditional advertising, email marketing and social media," Henry writes.

Social media, she argues, can be a powerful, cost-effective tool. Read more.

Ted Gutierrez, CEO and founder of SecurityGate

Courtesy of Security Gate

Houston-based software startup SecurityGate Inc. specializes in cyber-risk management for companies, but this spring, SecurityGate shifted to a different type of risk management — keeping workplaces healthy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The company launched a cloud-based wellness technology, available through an online platform and a mobile app.

"The biggest thing that I want people to know is you don't have to come up with your own workflow and you don't have to spend tons of money to get your people back to work," says Ted Gutierrez, co-founder and CEO of the three-year-old startup. "There's a company out there that is already doing this for a living, so this is the least we could do to help out." Read more.

Cybersecurity startup, SecurityGate, has developed a new feature in its technology to help support companies safely bring back employees into the office. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Houston startup releases new tool to help companies get employees safely back into work

tech tool

Houston-based software startup SecurityGate Inc. focuses on cyber-risk management for major energy, chemical, transportation, and defense companies. But this spring, SecurityGate shifted to a different type of risk management — keeping workplaces healthy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

When SecurityGate recently started reopening the gates, so to speak, for its 15 employees to go back to the office after working remotely, the company wanted to track their health. So SecurityGate turned to Excel spreadsheets for employees to fill out a 10-point questionnaire aimed at gauging their health. It didn't take long, though, for the company to realize it could ditch the spreadsheets and layer the wellness questionnaire on top of its cyber-risk management software.

Now, SecurityGate is inviting companies inside and outside its core sectors to sign up for its cloud-based wellness technology, available through an online platform and a mobile app. The goal: Help employers incorporate health screenings into their return-to-work initiatives. Employers in North America and Europe can install the technology.

"The biggest thing that I want people to know is you don't have to come up with your own workflow and you don't have to spend tons of money to get your people back to work," says Ted Gutierrez, co-founder and CEO of the three-year-old startup. "There's a company out there that is already doing this for a living, so this is the least we could do to help out."

The wellness technology is a free add-on for customers of SecurityGate's existing products, a software-as-a-service platform and a mobile app for managing cybersecurity risks that threaten critical infrastructure. Gutierrez says those products help protect nearly 30 global facilities valued at $300 billion.

Companies that aren't customers of SecurityGate can take advantage of the wellness platform and app at no cost through at least July 31, Gutierrez says. Among the soon-to-be users of the coronavirus-inspired technology is a residential real estate firm in Houston with nearly 100 employees. While SecurityGate's current customers are big companies, the wellness technology should appeal to small, midsize, and large employers, he says.

"This is going to be opened up to any company that needs help. We believe that the majority of users that are going to sign up are companies ranging between 50 and 500 employees and in any industry," Gutierrez says.

By May 15, about 15 to 20 companies are expected to have signed up for the wellness technology, Gutierrez says. He envisions that number rising to 200 to 300 by June 1. The online platform should be ready in late May, while the mobile app should be available by June 1.

Each user of the wellness tool will receive a COVID-19 care package that includes items like face masks, gloves, and sanitizers.

Gutierrez says the technology can help monitor the health of not only on-site and off-site employees, but also contractors and office visitors. Any user of the technology can submit a coronavirus assessment without being directed to complete one, he says. It takes less than 90 seconds to fill out the wellness assessment.

"Traditionally with SecurityGate, the 'owner' of the SecurityGate platform has to assign [cyber-risk] assessments to facility owners," Gutierrez says. "This app is going to be able to get used at any given time by any user."

All of this data is funneled into a central database so that an employer can, for instance, order in-house coronavirus testing or ask employees to stay at home if they're exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, Gutierrez says. The data isn't automatically supplied to public health agencies, he says, although an employer could decide on its own to publicly report the data.

"This is purely a workforce management option," Gutierrez says. "It's still to be determined whether this turns into a revenue generator for us. The most important thing that we can do is to help whatever ecosystem needs help right now and get them back to work."

Gutierrez credits Cherise Esparza, co-founder and chief technology officer of SecurityGate, with being the primary driver of the return-to-work wellness effort.

"We are the risk management folks," Gutierrez explains, "and getting back to work safely is just as important as making sure that all your critical systems are working from a cyber perspective."

The Digital Fight Club made its Houston debut on November 20 at White Oak Music Hall. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Photos: Houston innovation leaders weigh in on cybersecurity, tech, and more at inaugural event

total knock out

What do you get when you cross the information of an innovation panel with the ferocity of a boxing match? A verbal sprawling among innovation leaders that can only be known as the Digital Fight Club.

Houston's DFC came about with the help of Accenture, which had been a partner at the Dallas events, and InnovationMap, who teamed up as presenting sponsors for the event. DFC's founder, Michael Pratt, came up with the idea for Digital Fight Club as a way to liven up technology-focused events and networking opportunities.

The setup of the event is five fights, 10 fighters, and five judges. Each fighter has just a couple minutes to take their stand before the event moves on.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

The hour of fighting is coupled with a VIP event ahead of the showdown and an after party where further networking can continue on. At Houston's VIP event, InnovationMap got to check in with partners, fighters, and referees about how they thought the event was going to pan out. Check out the VIP event video here.

The panel of referees included Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston; Denise Hamilton, CEO of Watch Her Work; Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital; Lance Black, Director at TMCx; and Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

The refs asked two questions per fight, and were able to vote on the winners of each round — as was the audience through an interactive web-based application. The break down of the fights, topics, and winners are as follows:

Fight #1: Future Workforce of Robotics/AI. Matt Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems, vs Pablo Marin, senior AI Leader, Microsoft. Hager took the win with 77 percent of the vote.
Fight #2: Whose responsibility is cybersecurity. Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate vs Tara Khanna, managing director and Security Lead at Accenture. Khanna won this round, snagging 66 percent of the votes.
Fight #3: Oil & Gas Industry and the Environment. Michael Szafron - commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, vs Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone. Szafron received 76 percent of the voites, securing the win.
Fight #4: Digital in our personal lives. Grace Rodriguez, CEO of ImpactHub, vs Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs. Rodriguez won with the largest margin of the night — 85 percent.
Fight #5: Future of Primary Care Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, vs Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist. Goyal received 72 percent of the votes to take home the win.

The fights were heated, and some of the fighters had knockout quotes, from Hager's "AI is mostly bullshit" to Khanna's "Compliance doesn't mean you're secure." For more of the knockout quotes, click here.

The fight is on

Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Mike Pratt, who hosted the event, founded the Digital Fight Club in 2016.

Ten Houston innovators took the stage for five fights on the role technology plays in the future of industry. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Overheard: Local fighters land knockout statements at Houston's first Digital Fight Club

Eavesdropping in houston

On Wednesday, Houston's innovation ecosystem hosted the rowdiest crowd at a professional business event that the city has ever seen.

Digital Fight Club, a Dallas-based event company, had its first Houston event at White Oak Music Hall on November 20 thanks to presenting sponsors Accenture and InnovationMap. The event featured 10 fighters and five referees across five fights that discussed cybersecurity, the future of primary care, and more.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Michael Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

If you missed the showdown, here are some of the nights zingers made by the entrepreneurs and subject matter experts that were the fighters of the evening.

"I believe that computers can get a lot of information to create [something new]. That's my job, that's what I do, and I see it done."

Pablo Marin, senior AI leader at Microsoft, during the fight on robotics and AI in the workforce. Marin's argument was that artificial intelligence and robotics can and will replace all repetitive jobs. However, he also believes that computers have the ability to create, as well, based on their ability to see the whole world and have access to all the world's information.

"AI is mostly bullshit."

Matthew Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems. Hager, who won the first fight of the night, responded to Marin that, while businesses like to believe that AI is actually able to deliver results so that they can sell more, the technology hasn't actually arrived yet. Plus, Hager says AI will never be creative without the human element. "Creativity is about who created it. It's about the photographer, not the camera," he says.

"What if the seatbelt laws and the speed limits were defined by Dodge, Ford, or Chrysler?"

Ted Gutierrez, CEO and co-founder of Security Gate, who argued for government to take the reigns of cybersecurity. He adds that companies are never going to be able to agree to one set of rules. "We gotta get one group to set the standard, and it's up to everyone else to refine that and innovate for it," he says.

"Compliance doesn't mean you're secure."

Tara Khanna, managing director and security lead at Accenture, who won the fight on cybersecurity needing to be figured out by the business industry. She argues that the private sector wins the war on talent and recruiting, so it has the money and resources to dedicate to the issue in more ways than the government ever will.

"I was born, I'm going to die, and there is nothing like earth in the universe as we know it. It is worth preserving and protecting."

Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone, in the fight over the oil and gas industry's responsibility to the environment. He argued that it's going to be a mix of policy and corporate initiatives that changes the industry.

"I think the free market is going to get there if the consumer has the choice to pick what they want to do."

Michael Szafron, commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, who took home the win for the oil and gas and the environment fight. Szafron's argument was that corporations are going to do what their consumers want, so that's who would drive them to action. "Let's look at California —very regulated environmentalists, and a million of those people get moved to Texas," he says.

"Disconnecting our personal lives from technology would not only limit ourselves, but it would also limit our capacity to adopt those tools to the needs of our society." 

Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs, during the fight on digital in our personal lives. Fadul argues that not only does technology allow us to connect worldwide, but disconnecting would prevent that technology from developing further.

"I love tech, but now that it's on all the time everywhere, we need to make time to unplug."

Grace Rodriguez, CEO of Impact Hub Houston, who won the fight on personal technology. She says that yes, technology can help international connectivity, but it does more harm than good as people use personal tech as a default or distraction from humans right in front of them. "When your with people, be present," she says.

"Part of our innovation to redesign primary care is really to deploy technology out there to seamlessly provide care."

Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist, who argued that the future of primary care is new innovations within traditional medicine. He adds that virtual care, which is something Methodist is working on, can help improve accessibility.

"The future of primary care is here. It's called direct primary care." 

Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, who won the fight on the future of primary care with his argument for a new, free market approach to medicine. Direct primary care opens up treatment and access to physicians with a monthly fee for patients to work outside of health care plans.

From closing a million-dollar raise to being tapped by Google to serve on a council, Houston entrepreneurs have been busy. Courtesy of Security Gate

Company closes $1M round, new nonprofit startup hub launches, and more Houston innovation news

Short Stories

Wrapping up March, there's been a lot of innovator and startup news that's slipped through the cracks. From funds closing and incubator applications opening, here's all the news bits you need to know.

SecurityGate closes $1 million fund

Photo via securitygate.io

Houston-based SecurityGate closed its $1 million seed round on March 22. The lead investor was a private investment group in Houston. The startup, a B-to-B, software-as-a-service cybersecurity company, will use the funds to further refine its business and grow its team.

"We're excited our investment team understands the need for digital transformation in the critical infrastructure security space," CEO and co-founder, Ted Gutierrez says.

In February, SecurityGate traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to accept the Game Changers award. Gutierrez said being able to bring home that award really spurred the last leg of the raise.

Impact Hub Houston launches with fundraising campaign

Photo via LinkedIn

Houston's Impact Hub, a nonprofit organization focused on impacting change within the world through startups and technologies, has officially launched. The organization also launched its fundraising campaign called 321 Impact.

Led by Grace Rodriguez, Impact Hub Houston will set up shop in a few "pop-up" locations to truly serve all of the city. The first location will soon be announced, Rodriguez writes online.

Impact Hub Houston also announced a few other projects the organization has launched or is working on:

MassChallenge Texas will open Houston application at kick-off event

Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

MassChallenge Texas announced its first Houston cohort in January, indicating that applications will open sometime in April. Last week, the zero-equity incubator program revealed that applications will open following an April 10th launch party event. The networking event will be at the Four Seasons in downtown Houston and will take place from 6 to 9 pm. Guests can RSVP here, and startups can begin the application process at masschallenge.org/apply to start their application. The application deadline is May 8, 2019 at noon.

Google taps Houston innovator for AI-focused council

Dyan Gibbons

Courtesy of Alice

Google has selected Houston innovator and founder of Trumbull Unmanned, Dyan Gibbens, as a member of its inaugural Advanced Technology Executive Advisory Council focused on AI. The council will meet with Google's executive leadership quarterly throughout 2019, beginning in April. Kent Walker, senior vice president of Global Affairs at Google, introduced Gibbens, and the fellow council members, in a blog post.

"We hope this effort will inform both our own work and the broader technology sector," writes Walker in the post. "In addition to encouraging members to share generalizable learnings in their ongoing activities, we plan to publish a report summarizing the discussions. Council members represent their individual perspectives, and do not speak for their institutions."

Houston to host nationwide pitch competition finals

Photo via celebrasianconference.com

The country's largest Asian organization is concluding its pitch competition in Houston. The contest, called What's Your Pitch: Innovations Meets the Market, is put on by the United States Pan Asian Chamber of Commerce. Chaired by Diane Yoo, former director of the Rice Angel Network, the semifinal and final rounds will take place in Houston on June 4 and 5, respectively. $100,000 work of cash and prizes is on the line. For more info on the contest, click here.

FutureSight AR selected as the only Texas startup for an international program

future sight AR

Courtesy of Future Sight AR

Houston-based Future Sight AR was selected for Magic Leap's Independent Creators Program in the productivity category and was awarded a grant to continue development. The program, which had over 6,500 applicants, will take place through March and some of April. FutureSight AR, which uses artificial reality to make oil and gas construction workers more productive, is the only startup represented from Texas in the program, says co-founder of the company, Lori-Lee Emshey.

Lyft introduces new programs and opportunities in Houston

Courtesy of Lyft

Lyft will bring or expand three driver-focused programs to the Houston market, the company announced this week.

  • Drivers can opt into Lyft Direct, a bank account with no fees that links to a debit card. Rather than cashing their check from Lyft, drivers can instantly access earnings and even receive points for cash back on specific purchases.
  • Lyft will open a Vehicle Service Center, which is a new and improved version of Lyft Hubs. The idea is to have mechanics work on the vehicles of Lyft drivers at cost, rather than the drivers having to pay full-price for their repairs. Also new to the program is the opportunity to provide mobile repair services for drivers on the go.
  • Lyft announced that Houston will have more locations of the Express Drive program, where Lyft drivers can use a rental car and receive subsidized earnings.

Blockchain entrepreneur profiled by Rice University publication

Courtesy of Topl

Houston-based Topl's co-founder, Kim Raath, was featured in a piece for Rice University as a part of the school's Spotlights on Diversity in Engineering. Her company, Topl, uses blockchain technology to connect the dots on industries — from food to oil and gas. To read the feature of how Raath went from backpacking through developing countries to startup founder, click here.

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Short stories will be a regular roundup on InnovationMap. If your company recently closed on a round, received recognition, or has any news, please email Natalie Harms at natalie@innovationmap.com with the information.

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Rice University physicists granted $1.3 million to continue study on dark matter

researching the universe

Two Rice University physicists and professors have received a federal grant to continue research on dark matter in the universe.

Paul Padley and Karl Ecklund, professors of physics and astronomy at Rice, have received a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Energy for their research to continue the university's ongoing research at the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, a particle accelerator consisting of a 17-mile ring of superconducting magnets buried beneath Switzerland and France.

"With this grant we will be able to continue our investigations into the nature of the matter that comprises the universe, what the dark matter that permeates the universe is, and if there is physics beyond what we already know," Padley says in a press release.

This grant is a part of the DOE's $132 million in funding for high-energy physics research. The LHC has received a total of $4.5 million to date to continue this research. Most recently, Ecklund and Padley received a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to go toward updates to the LHC.

"High-energy physics research improves our understanding of the universe and is an essential element for maintaining America's leadership in science," says Paul Dabbar, undersecretary for science at the DOE, in the release. "These projects at 53 different institutions across our nation will advance efforts both in theory and through experiments that explore the subatomic world and study the cosmos. They will also support American scientists serving key roles in important international collaborations at institutions across our nation."

In 2012, Padley and his team discovered the Higgs boson, a feat that was extremely key to the continuance of exploring the Standard Model of particle physics. Since then, the physicists have been working hard to answer the many questions involved in studying physics and the universe.

"Over many decades, the particle physics group at Rice has been making fundamental contributions to our understanding of the basic building blocks of the universe," Padley says in the release. "With this grant we will be able to continue this long tradition of important work."

Paul Padley and his team as made important dark matter findings at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. Photo via rice.ed

Startup aims for goal of connecting Houston sports community

game on

In virtually no time at all, Sportlo has built its reputation on the simplest of foundations: community.

Thilo Borgmann and Sebastian Henke founded the local hub for sports parents earlier this year as a tool for sports moms and dads to stay connected with local leagues, sports clubs, coaches, and other parents with children involved in youth sports in the greater Houston area.

"We make it easy for sports parents to keep up with what's happening in their local youth sports community," says Henke. "With our platform, they can discover tryouts, camps, and sports clubs. They can also join and create groups, find private coaches for their kids, and more."

Borgmann and Henke are both former NCAA Division 1 soccer players who starred while they were student athletes at Houston Baptist University, then went on to become well-known private coaches.

The sports-loving duo saw a dearth of useful information for sports parents on popular social media sites, so they created the platform to give users a central place to communicate with each other, join and create groups, discover tryouts and camps for their children and find private coaches across the city to help their young athletes reach their goals.

"We were both involved in sports for most of our lives and then got into private coaching," says Henke. "Overall, what we saw was that there is an entire ecosystem of youth sports and it was very much unorganized."

Henke says sports clubs weren't able to reach potential members and their parents. He says they envisioned a one-stop-shop approach to the sports ecosystem.

"So, Sportlo is focused on sports parents, but within the community, we try to connect persons with coaches, with clubs, with colleges and so on," Henke says. "That's the vision behind it, so people will have a place to have a community, to get advice and tips and then they will have access to certain services and information."

The plan for Sportlo has already evolved in its short life. Originally the platform was going to support just private coaching.

"After we got more feedback from parents and first users, we started to adapt the product and rebuilt the product," Henke says. "Based on the surveys we collected online, parents wanted us to find ways how to connect them with each other, so that's why we started building it as a new page and that's how we realized where it needed to go."

The biggest lesson in listening to their users was understanding that any initial vision to help a community must also be focused on or include what's intrinsically valuable to the users.

"Too often, people get focused on their own ideas and forget that feedback offers surprising moments," says Henke. "Users gave us a whole new path, which kept us from going in the direction where users wouldn't want the product to go."

Feedback from users is key, Henke says, and he recommends startup founders prioritize user experience and constructive criticism.

"All of the ideas that we had in our head, at some point we had to stop and reevaluate them and then focus on the most important thing first and then go from there," he says.

Still, the launch of Sportlo was not without its own unique challenges. Its March go-live date coincided in point of time with the spread of COVID-19, which ultimately turned into a worldwide pandemic.

"We haven't had to make any major changes," says Henke. "But groups on the platform have focused on that topic because there are no sports happening at the moment and they are eager to get them back. But other than that, it's not something we've had to focus on. But for parents, they've focused on related topics, like how to keep their kids busy at home doing exercises, things like that, or when discussing when their kids' clubs are starting back up and how to keep kids safe."

In addition to forming groups and sharing a variety of sports-related topics, parents can post pictures and videos of their child's latest tournament or game, get access to useful articles shared by fellow parents and find recommended sports products for themselves or their child.

"The main reason we added that social component was because we wanted to have a user timeline so when they log in, all the users can see something sports related," says Borgmann. "There's so much noise, with politics and posts that are only about the coronavirus and all that, so we wanted to focus on sports and have parents be able to show how their kid is doing, see other kids in action and support each other with a focus on sports without seeing all the other distractions that might be on other platforms."

For now, Sportlo is focused solely on keeping Houston informed, but it will look to expand to other cities and states when the time comes.

"We are focused right now only on Houston, because we know Houston and Texas and we've experienced different levels of sports in this area, so we want to stay local," says Henke. "Then, the next step is we intend to take it to other cities within Texas. And at some point, our vision is to have the entire youth ecosystem of the United States."

Now is the time to expand machine learning, says Houston researcher

Houston voices

One might not expect the game of checkers to have anything to do with artificial intelligence, but the game really marked the beginning of machine learning in 1959. Pioneered by an MIT professor named Arthur Lee Samuel, it was discovered that teaching a simple strategy game to a computer is not so simple when every move needs to be anticipated.

Smart machines Additionally, in a Forbes article about the difference between artificial intelligence and machine learning, Bernard Marr comments, "Artificial Intelligence is the broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in a way that we would consider 'smart'. And, machine learning is a current application of AI based around the idea that we should really just be able to give machines access to data and let them learn for themselves."

That's the premise of many a movie involving computers which become sentient, but is it really science fiction anymore?

Meet the new boss

Teaching a computer to think like a human is advantageous and includes the added bonus of increased speed. Computers aren't biased, either — which is why huge corporations, such as Unilever, use computers to thin out their first wave of applicants. You actually interview with a bot when you begin the employment process there.

Cause and effect AI and ML are often used in cybersecurity efforts — at least one would suppose. But in Security magazine, Jordan Mauriello writes: "AI/ML cannot do causation." That means artificial intelligence cannot, at this point in time, tell you why something happened. The why? is best left to experts who deal with game theory and other ways of determining how to defend against hypothetical attacks.

Get in on the ground floor

The field is growing and students at colleges across the country are beginning to train for careers in it in droves.

"America's top colleges are ramping up their research efforts and developing concentrations for their computer science degree programs to accommodate this high-tech field," writes Great Value Colleges on their blog. It looks as though this discipline is on an upward trajectory and shows no sign of slowing down.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.