A Houston vet has seen growth in business for her mobile vet company due to the pandemic. Now, she's planning major growth. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

It's safe to say that the real winners of work-from-home trends that sparked due to the pandemic are our pets. Dogs and cats that were used to not seeing their owners for eight hours every work day now have 24-hour access to attention, treats, and ear scratches.

This increased attention pets are getting from their owners has also meant an increased awareness of pet health, says Katie Eick, founder of Houston-based Rollin' Vets, a startup that has mobilized veterinary services.

"People are home and observing their animals more. They're seeing and recognizing things they might not have if they were at work all day," Eick says.

Each of the four mobile units can do most everything a brick-and-mortar clinic can. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

That's, of course, not the only way the pandemic has affected business for Eick. She founded her company in 2016 and was seeing steady growth as delivery and on-demand services like Uber, DoorDash, etc. increased in use and awareness.

"We were continuously growing slowly — then COVID hit. It really cemented that … all the convenience services are in the forefront of people's minds." Eick tells InnovationMap. "COVID made it clear that this was a necessary service."

Like a lot of businesses, vet clinics closed to the public and only accept drop-off patients. This new way of seeing pets coupled with the fact that most people are working remotely from home also played to the advantage Rollin' Vets — why drive your pet to drop off at a clinic when the vet can come to your driveway?

COVID-19 closures and social distancing practices also called for a rise in veterinary telemedicine — something that Eick says has been challenging for her to utilize both due to the board of medicine having strict regulations in place as well as the challenges trying to provide virtual animal care poses.

Katie Eick always wanted to be able to offer mobile services. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

"Humans can get on and tell you their symptoms, where they hurt, and how they are feeling. Animals can't do that," Eick says.

Earlier in the pandemic, she did provide some telemedicine visits. The board, which bans telemedicine care for pets not previously seen by a vet or pets that haven't been seen in over a year, loosened the regulations to allow for virtual care of pets if the vet has ever seen the animal. This was helpful for providing refill medications, for instance.

Then, Eick had an appointment with a four-year-old French bulldog that changed her mindset on telemedicine. The dog had some stomach issues when his owner made an appointment with Eick. By the time she got to the dog, he had more or less seemed fine — he was eating again and didn't seem despondent in any way. But when Eick performed his exam, she found a mass.

"If I would have just looked at that dog over a video chat, he would have died," Eick says, adding that she got the dog right into surgery at a nearby facility.

In this case, telemedicine wouldn't have provided a solution for the animal, but Eick hasn't ruled virtual care out in general.

"I do think there's place for it, but we have to be really careful," she says.

At this point, Eick has more than proven her value proposition for her company. She has four mobile units with a team of four vets, six technicians, and four receptionists. As far as funding goes, she's pitched to the Houston Angel Network and is looking for angel investors. She's also planning on looking into crowdfunding as an option.

She's planning for growth — starting with Dallas and San Antonio — and sees the company adopting a franchise model that will eventually take Rollin' Vets out of state.

"We're aiming to be a nationwide brand," Eick says.

Rollin' Vets is planning to fundraise on NextSeed next month. Photo courtesy of Rollin' Vets

Planned Parenthood has made several of its services — including gender-affirming hormone therapy — available virtually. Getty Images

Nonprofit pivots to telemedical treatments and therapies amid pandemic

telehealth

Naomi West has been homebound since COVID-19 became a threat in February. Sitting in front of her computer screen, much of her time is spent pursuing her graduate degree in physics from Rice University and teaching courses through Zoom. Most of her virtual meetings are the same except for one recurring appointment. Every 90 days, West logs on her computer to sit with a Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast (PPGC) nurse practitioner and check-in on her gender-affirming hormone therapy.

West, a Houston trans woman, made her first appointment to receive hormone therapy in October, prior to the pandemic. As she embarked on her transition, she saw an immediate change within herself.

"There was absolutely no going back...it was a night and day difference within 24 hours," she explains.

West has been receiving treatment for ten months at Planned Parenthood. After being hospitalized for depression and drowning in hundred-hour work weeks, West was feeling hopeless. Inspired by her best friend's journey with hormone therapy at Planned Parenthood, West felt motivated to change her life.

"The difference [trans care] makes is immeasurable to say the least," she says, "I couldn't imagine having it any other way. I couldn't imagine being without it."

Trans care is offered at two Houston-area Planned Parenthood locations—Prevention Park and Northville. Since the coronavirus, Planned Parenthood's services have gone virtual, allowing Texans outside of Houston to experience the service.

"COVID-19 has really changed the way we approach patient care," says Dr. Bhavik Kumar, medical director of Primary and Trans Care at PPGC.

The centers first rolled out virtual appointments on April 1, allowing them to safely serve 5,539 patients in four months.

"We've moved a lot of our care towards telehealth, which has allowed people to access care in a way that is safer for them and also protects our frontline workers," explains Dr. Kumar.

The healthcare provider has six centers in the Houston area, as well as two in Louisiana, that are providing virtual appointments with experts as well as access to curbside birth control. Trans care first became available at Planned Parenthood in 2019, and includes gender-affirming hormone therapy for patients over 18.

"We went into providing trans care knowing that a lot of folks have bad experiences accessing healthcare and perhaps bad experiences with providers," says Dr. Kumar. "There's a lot of fear and anxiety in accessing care for trans communities, whether it's being misgendered, having their dead name used, or having a number of different things that can lead to traumatic experiences," he explains.

To a transgender person, access to health isn't just a hot button political issue but a lifeline. Like West, many transgender Americans struggle with depression and feelings of hopelessness.

In a 2019 survey from The Trevor Project, 29 percent of trans and non-binary youth reported that they'd attempted suicide while 54 percent considered it. The striking statistics are a glimpse into the struggles trans and nonbinary people face daily as they experience discrimination, violence, and cohersion due to their gender identity.

West, like many in the trans community, shared the same fears prior to her first appointment.

"I've always come down with what I say is white coat syndrome, but within 10 minutes I realized it was all completely unfounded," she explains.

PPGC follows an informed consent treatment model, meaning patients are not required to receive an approval letter from a therapist to begin treatment. After speaking with a patient to explain the risks and benefits of hormone therapy, patients can make the decision to move forward.

"It was just a conversation," explained West, "I felt no judgement. It was just support for my decision to begin hormone therapy and suggestions for how to go about it, when to go about it—they were nothing if not accommodating.

Telehealth lends itself as a suitable substitution for in person care, according to West. Many of the appointments are spent discussing her psychological state and feelings regarding the treatment, and she goes for a blood test every 90 days. West, who has been very careful to prevent exposure to COVID-19, has felt at ease meeting virtually with her nurse practitioner.

Thanks to the ability telehealth has to connect us with people regardless of distance, transgender Texans have access to care at any distance. One of the core benefits of trans telehealth is that "folks who are further away from our health centers, perhaps in rural communities, don't have to make the several hour drive to the health center and then back," says Dr. Kumar.

The convenience has allowed PPGC to accommodate 240 gender-affirming hormone therapy appointments and serve 176 transgender patients.

More than cut travel time, the emergence of telemedicine also welcomes comfort. "They get to be in the safety and the comfort of their home or wherever they do feel safe," explains Dr. Kumar, "They can have other folks around them if they want, whether it's family or friends."

"We are constantly analyzing the way we provide care, but even more so in a different way during the pandemic," shares Dr. Kumar. Telehealth services include birth control consultation, emergency contraception, long-acting birth control implant consultations, PrEP follow-ups, primary care, STI treatment, and other healful visits to address problems like pelvic pain or bleeding.

Of the many services that are now remote, Depo birth control shots and oral contraceptives, are available curbside.

"Patients don't have to get out of the car; they don't have to worry about touching the door handle or anything else they have anxiety around," explains Dr. Kumar, "They're able to access the care they need without having to deal with potential exposure."

Will telehealth at PPGC become a permanent staple? Only time will tell, but Dr. Kumar has found that patients have found the service to be helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We always strive to provide as many options for our patients so that they can get the healthcare that's best for them," shares Dr. Kumar.

Texans see need for telemedicine amid the pandemic, Liftoff Houston has launched applications, ChipMonk Bakery is growing, and more of the latest Houston innovation news. Getty Images

Startups raise funds, Houston biz contest opens apps, and more innovation news

Short stories

From health-conscious cookies reaching fundraising goals to a Houston-wide business competition, the Bayou City's innovation news is pretty diverse.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of startup and tech short stories, there's everything from telemedicine, fundraising, and more.

Houston baking startup raises money after finding its new home

ChipMonk Baking Company, a consumer packaged goods startup focused on healthy dessert options, has met its goal of $150,000. Photo courtesy of ChipMonk

Houston-based ChipMonk Baking Company, which recently found a new home in a new dedicated production facility, has reached its goal on its investment round on NextSeed.

ChipMonk, which was founded last year to create sweets that use sweeteners monk fruit and allulose for health-conscious consumers, will soon operate in a 2,300-square-foot space at 3042 Antoine Dr. The space is strictly for baking, storage, etc. and will not have a storefront.

Co-founders Jose Hernandez and David Downing have seen a spike in demand since the start of the pandemic, which increased the need to upgrade from shared kitchen space.

"The stay-at-home environment has encouraged many people to think more about their health and to start cooking and baking more at home. We've been able to offer a delicious option that fits perfectly in this growing trend," says Downing, who also serves as CEO.

ChipMonk's lease begins next month, and, to fund its growth plans, the company launched a its campaign on NextSeed. In just a couple weeks, the startup met its fundraising goal of $150,000.

Cancer nonprofit moves into new space

The Rose has a new facility to better serve patients. Photos courtesy of The Rose

The Rose, a Houston-based breast cancer nonprofit that provides medical services to 40,000 patients annually, has moved into its new space at 6575 West Loop South, suite 275, in May.

"We know this location will allow us to better serve our community," says Dorothy Gibbons, co-founder and CEO of The Rose, in a news release. "During this time of the pandemic, we've added so many safety precautions and will continue to space appointments to allow social distancing. Most of all we want our patients to feel safe and welcome from the moment they walk through our door."

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, data reports have shown a drop in routine health care, like cervical and breast cancer screenings. Gibbons says the drop in these appointments is concerning and those who postpone routine screening or diagnostic testing could be at risk for developing later stage breast cancer.

"Our message to our patients is breast cancer is not going to wait until this pandemic is over; neither should you. With the projected increase in uninsured women, due to so many job losses, The Rose has to be ready to serve. Now more than ever, we depend on our insured patients to help cover the care for uninsured patients," she says.

Houston business competition opens applications

Small businesses in Houston have until August 10 to apply for the annual Liftoff Houston competition. Photo via liftoffhouston.smapply.org

The city of houston's annual business plan competition, Liftoff Houston, has opened applications. The program, which is sponsored by Capital One Bank, is looking for companies and will award winners in three categories: Product, service, and innovation

Each business that wins will receive a $10,000 cash prize. The competition is focused on early stage startups with revenue less than $10,000 and must have only been in business for less than a year. The companies also must be based in Houston.

Applicants can submit their information online to be considered for the contest. The deadline to apply is August 10.

TMCx company closes $1.53 million seed round

Manatee

Manatee has raised funds for its digital therapy platform. Photo via getmanatee.com

Manatee, a health tech startup based in Denver that was a member of this year's TMCx cohort, has announced it closed its seed funding round at $1.53 million. The company, which provides digital solutions to therapy for children, closed the round at the end of June.

Michigan-based Grand Ventures led the raise and invested alongside The American Family Insurance Institute (AmFam), Telosity, SpringTime Ventures, and notable health care entrepreneurs, Danish Munir, Luke Leninger, and Johnathan Weiner, according to information emailed by Manatee representative.

"Manatee was the first solution we found that really understood kids and their unique needs," says Christopher Neuharth, executive director of digital health and experience at Children's Wisconsin. "They got the dynamics between the child, parent, and therapist – and how to influence behavior change."

Accenture study finds COVID-19 has been a gamechanger for telemedicine

Houston medical organizations pivot to telemedicine and remote care amid COVID-19 crisis

An Accenture study found that most Texans are seeking telehealth amid the pandemic. Getty Images

According to a recent study from Accenture, 89 percent of Texas consumers want telehealth options — and the COVID-19 pandemic deserves the credit for the increased interest.

According to a press release from the company, the research found that:

  • One-fourth of Texans surveyed said they first learned about virtual health care following the outbreak of COVID-19.
  • The number of Texans who said they know a little or a lot about virtual health care increased 25 percent following the outbreak.
  • Approximately nine in 10 Texans surveyed after the pandemic began believe that virtual care options should be available to everyone.

The widespread stay-at-home orders exposed Texans to virtual health care and left a positive impression on receiving care remotely. For instance:

  • An estimated 4.5 million state residents began using virtual health care services since the onset of the pandemic.
  • Nearly half (45 percent) of Texans said they trust a virtual health visit as much as or more than an in-person visit—a 15 percent uptick from the pre-pandemic period.
  • Six out of seven remote-care patients (86 percent) who have continued to use virtual care options during the pandemic said their experience after the start of the COVID-19 outbreak was better or the same as before, and three-quarters (76 percent) said their wait time was shorter or the same.

"A lot of Texans got a taste for what it's like to see their physicians and specialists from the safety and comfort of their home," says Mark Olney, a managing director in Accenture's health practice and the study's lead author. "Now patients are eager to get more of that access, convenience and time savings."

Hospital systems and nonprofits are looking for ways to reach patients virtually as face-to-face interactions continue to be limited due to the coronavirus. Getty Images

Houston medical organizations pivot to telemedicine and remote care amid COVID-19 crisis

online care

Hospitals across the country are trying their best to limit the number of people coming in and out — but how does that affect patients in need of non-COVID-19 treatment? Hospital systems are implementing new technology and training so that physicians can use telemedicine to connect virtually.

In March following telemedicine training, Houston Methodist began seeing hundreds more daily telemedicine sessions across its system, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, previously told InnovationMap. And other hospital systems are following suit.

HCA Houston Healthcare's CareNow locations have implemented Virtual Care, a telehealth urgent care service. Patients can check in online during the urgent care center's operating hours to gain one-on-one access to care from a CareNow physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant. Providers, via video chat, will evaluate minor conditions and can prescribe non-narcotic medications when indicated.

If the situation calls for it, providers will tell the patient to come onsite to continue care.

"Virtual Care is an extension of our clinical urgent care services and fully supports our purpose to help people return to what they value in their lives, in an even more convenient way. We are proud to provide an easy solution for our patients' healthcare needs at their fingertips," says Dr. Mujtaba Ali-Khan, chief medical officer for HCA Houston Healthcare, in a news release.

Dallas-based CareNow was acquired by HCA in 2015 and has 16 locations in the greater Houston area.

Health care nonprofits are also taking advantage of remote ways to reach patients. Houston-based nonprofit CanCare is in the business of supporting cancer patients and their families and, despite a global pandemic, has not let up on its services to those in need. In fact, cancer patients with their weakened immune system are at greater risk of developing COVID-19 and are in need more than ever of CanCare's one-on-one matching emotional support service.

"The cancer community is in our thoughts and prayers during this time of uncertainty," says CanCare's President and CEO Cristina Vetrano in a news release. "Now more than ever, the community needs the help of our volunteers and support services. Our mission is not only to ensure the safety of clients, patients and caregivers but also to assure the community that they will continue to receive support throughout this challenging time."

Cancer patients can reach support via email at support@cancare.org or by calling the support line support line at 713-364-1652.

The Houston health care ecosystem will continue to see advances in telemedicine and remote care. One Houston startup, Medical Informatics, has created a virtual ICU program, called Sickbay, and the tech tool is being used to remotely monitor patients in Houston Methodist. The program works around the clock from a control hub to use artificial intelligence and algorithms to monitor patients.

"We designed our Sickbay platform to give lost data back to doctors, nurses and other members of the care team so they could save more lives," says Vincent Gagne, vice president of product for MIC, in a news release.

As the world emerges from COVID-19 — whenever and however that happens — telemedicine will have advanced as a viable option for physicians in a quicker way than it would have otherwise, Sol says.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," he says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

The new tech hub at Houston Methodist has trained hundreds of physicians in telemedicine practices. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist tech hub focuses on telemedicine training amid COVID-19 outbreak

virtual care

Houston Methodist's recently opened its new Center for Innovation's Technology Hub in January, and the new wing has already been challenged by a global pandemic — one that's validating a real need for telemedicine.

The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more. The hub was focused on giving tours to medical professionals and executives to get them excited about health tech, but in the middle of March, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, says they saw a greater need for the space.

"We turned the technology hub into a training center where physicians could come on site and learn telemedicine," Sol says. "We had some foresight from our leadership who thought that telemedicine was going to be heavily utilized in order to protect our patients who might go into isolation based on the outbreak."

The hub has trained over 500 physicians — both onsite and digitally. Sol says that at the start of March, there were 66 providers offering virtual care, and by March 25, there were over 900 providers operating virtually. On March 12, Houston Methodist had 167 virtual visits, Sol says, and on March 25, they had 2,421. This new 2,000-plus number is now the daily average.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," Sol says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

Another way new technology has affected doctors' day-to-day work has been through tele-rounding — especially when it comes to interacting with patients with COVID-19.

"We are putting iPads in those rooms with Vidyo as the video application, and our physicians can tele-visit into that room," Sol says.

It's all hands on deck for the tech hub so that physicians who need support have someone to turn to. Sol says the hub used to have a two-person support team and now there are eight people in that role.

Sol says the iPads are a key technology for tele-rounding and patient care — and they are working with Apple directly to secure inventory. But other tech tools, like an artificial intelligence-backed phone system, an online symptom checker, and chatbots are key to engaging with patients.

"We're looking at how we can get our patients in the right place at the right time," Sol says. "It's very confusing right now. We're hoping we can streamline that for our patients."

The hub was designed so that in case of emergency, the display hospital rooms could be transitioned to patient care rooms. Sol says that would be a call made by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist Hospital.

EverlyWell's online results will be available within 48 hours. EverlyWell/Facebook

Texas company first to launch at-home test for COVID-19

COVID-19 WATCH

As reports keep indicating a shortage of supply for COVID-19 tests around the country, a Texas startup has rolled out a new at-home test for consumers beginning today, March 23.

Everywell, which already offers an array of at-home lab tests, says 30,000 COVID-19 tests will be available in the initial batch. Free telehealth consultations will be provided for people who test positive for COVID-19, or the coronavirus.

As TIME first reported, this is the first U.S. company to offer at-home COVID-19 test kits directly to consumers.

"The extreme shortage of tests for COVID-19 puts millions of Americans at risk," Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of Everlywell, said in a March 18 release. "Everlywell is committed to helping stop the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. by making this test widely available. As the national leader in at-home lab testing, we want to use our resources and expertise to help as many people as we can. We are committed to this fight, and we're here to help."

Working with a number of diagnostic labs, Everlywell plans to create testing and diagnosis capacity for 250,000 people per week.

Everlywell recently launched a $1 million program aimed at encouraging labs to fast-track development of an at-home COVID-19 diagnostic test. Many labs stepped up to the task, enabling Everlywell to create a COVID-19 testing and diagnosis infrastructure in a matter of days.

"Our team has been working around the clock with top scientists and laboratories in the nation to develop a test that we will make available at the lowest price possible while covering our costs, at no profit to the company," Cheek says. "We have also reached out to government and public health officials to explore possibilities to provide it for free."

Each test costs $135, and is covered by participating providers of health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts.

The test can be requested online by consumers experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Samples can be collected at home, preventing further exposure for consumers and the public. All of Everlywell's lab partners conducting COVID-19 tests comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's emergency rules for COVID-19 testing.

"Given the high demand for testing, the company will work rapidly to make more tests available as the global supply shortage for COVID-19 diagnostic kits is addressed," the company says.

Like Everlywell's other tests, the COVID-19 test will be shipped to customers with everything needed to collect a test sample at home and safely send that sample to a certified lab. Samples will be shipped to labs overnight, secure online results will be available within 48 hours of the lab receiving a sample, and a free telehealth consultation with an independent board-certified physician will provided to anyone who tests positive.

Anyone seeking a test will be asked to fill out an online screening questionnaire.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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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.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.