3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's batch of innovators have had to be pretty creative in their industries. Courtesy photos

The ability to innovate lives in one's ability to think outside of the box — no matter the industry. This week's Houston innovators to know have had to get creative and think of new ways of doing things, from retailing to creating greeting cards.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Harvin Moore, who has a 20-year career in tech and innovation, has been named as president of Houston Exponential. Courtesy of HX

Harvin Moore has been a banker, an educator, an elected official, and more — but his newest title is president of Houston Exponential, which suits him just fine.

Now, under his new role, he's leading the nonprofit that's focused on connecting, promoting, and attracting within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"There's no question that five years from now, or 10 years from now, Houston will be a very large and continually rapidly growing tech economy," Moore tells InnovationMap. "The question is just how fast it is going to get here." Read more.

Alex Kurkowski, founder of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski wanted to tell a better story. Courtesy of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski has a problem with traditional greeting cards.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

The Rice University MBA grad decided he would do something about it. He created his business, Tellinga — short for "telling a story" — to create a new avenue for people to communicate a message to their loved ones. Kurkowski has big plans for his company and the platform he's creating. Read more.

Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development for DiCentral

Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

Something's brewing in retail — and it's scaring the industry. Steve Scala writes in a guest column for InnovationMap that dropshipping — the process of shipping products direct from vendors to customers, cutting out warehouses and storage facilities — is only going to gain traction in the industry.

"The study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success," Scala writes. "According to 87 percent of those retailers surveyed also experienced an increase in revenue as a result of dropshipping. Customer service also benefitted from dropship, with 84 percent of retailers noting improvements to customer service after adopting the dropshipping fulfillment model." Read more.

Tellinga creates artistic and personal cards for every occasion. Courtesy of Tellinga

Houston entrepreneur has big plans for his art-driven, storytelling card company

bringing snail mail back

Alex Kurkowski can't count how many times he's gone looking for a greeting card — before some holiday, birthday, or special occasion — and found nothing that suited his recipient. He doesn't remember when he started editing them, either. For a few years now, he's been taking markers and pens to the greeting cards, blacking out words and scribbling new ones to say what he wanted to.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

But he can remember a few moments that changed that for him — and for Houston. When he started sending his family cards he'd sketched that depicted scenes from their lives, his classmates in the Rice University MBA program told him that, despite his pharmaceuticals background, this might actually be the right business for him.

Tellinga is hardly just a maker of greeting cards; it's in the business of storytelling, and customers can have personalized artworks delivered right to their mailboxes — a site for reclaiming, Kurkowski says, from the dread of bills and marketing materials.

"I'm trying to tap back into the tangible, physical and real side of life," Kurkowski says.

A year ago, Kurkowski sent his first Tellingas — short for "Telling a Story" — as an official business. He made the initial cards himself, but soon couldn't meet the demand on his own. Today, Tellingas are crafted from a cohort of more than 20 artists who are mostly Houston-based and, as Kurkowski says, make his work look like garbage.

Customers can select a few purchase options for customers, ranging from a one-panel story to 12 scenes. They upload a photo of the people they want drawn and submit their idea for the artwork on the website — they can create renderings of real-life events they want to remember or they might tell a wacky, fantasy story. For Kurkowski, the most important part is receiving the art over time — for example, the 12-panel pieces are sent over a one-month period.

Currently, Tellinga's only full-time staff is Kurkowski, but he's looking to hire a CTO to manage the growing demands of the website, where orders are placed. He also wants Tellinga to grow into the Airbnb model, with artists posting their works on his site and setting the price of their commissions themselves. Kurkoswki will be raising funds in the next investment round.

Until then, he's hoping to grow Tellinga's ability to turn stories into keepsakes — by offering ways to frame and preserve them, and by introducing a subscription model, so that customers can select days from of an entire calendar year to send their personalized artworks—constantly tapping back into that physical side of life like Kurkowsi wants.

"It's just cool because it's different," Kurkowski says. "It's getting away from the digital media world."

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These Houston entrepreneurs and startups are searching for flooding solutions

Flood tech

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston.

Self-deploying flood protection for buildings

FloodFrame's technology can protect a home or commercial building from flood water damage. Photo via floodframe.com

A self-deploying flood damage prevention device caught Tasha Nielsen's eye on a trip to Denmark, and then launched the U.S. iteration of FloodFrame to bring the technology here.

FloodFrame works by using buoyancy. A lightweight cloth is wrapped around a tube is installed underground outside the perimeter of your home or business. One end of that cloth is attached to a box that is also installed underground. As flooding begins, an automatic system will release the lids to deploy the inflation of the tube that will protect the structure. When the flood comes in, the system will float on top of the flood — kind of like a pool noodle — and protect the structure from the water.

FloodFrame adds a level of security during flooding events and can be considered more cost-effective when compared to the high cost of renovating or rebuilding after flooding.

"Right now we are focused on residential but I think there's a huge potential for it to go commercial. A lot of commercial buildings are self insured, and commercial developers, industrial developers, this would be a drop in the bucket for the overall cost of the entire project," Nielsen tells InnovationMap. "For homeowners, it's kind of a bigger expense, but I think there is the potential for homebuilders to include it as an option in the entire package of a new house because when you put it in to a mortgage, it's only another like $0.50 a month."

A waterproof container for your car.

After the floods from Hurricane Harvey totaled her car, Rahel Abraham wanted to find a solution. ClimaGuard/Facebook

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey seriously damaged about 600,000 vehicles in the Houston area, which included Rahel Abraham's 2008 Infiniti G35. Now, Abraham's brainchild forms the backbone of her Houston-based startup, ClimaGuard LLC. The company's waterproof, temperature-resistant, portable Temporary Protective Enclosure (TPE) can entirely cover a compact car, sedan, or midsize SUV. It comes in three sizes; the cost ranges from $349 to $499.

To protect a vehicle, someone sets a TPE on the ground, a driveway, or another flat surface, then drives the vehicle onto the bottom part of the product, and connects the bottom and top parts with the zipper. Abraham likens it to a clamshell preserving a pearl.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham tells InnovationMap.

A network to find shelter.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks tells InnovationMap. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Now Hicks is growing GotSpot in hopes that short-term rental space and emergency housing can be smooth sailing no matter the circumstances. Recently, the company was named a finalist for MassChallenge Texas in Austin.

A water-absorbing tower. 

Fil Trat would be able to absorb water, filter it, and release it into the body of water when the time comes. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many Houstonians began to think of solutions for the next time Mother Nature struck with her full-force of flooding. Gensler designers Chelsea Bryant, Jordan Gomez, Luisa Melendez, Barbara Novoa, Benjamin Nanson, Maria Qi, and Melinda Ubera created a solution as a part of Gensler's By Design program called Fil Trat. The tower can absorb, filter, and store flood waters until the bayou is ready for the water to be released — cleaner than it was before.

During Harvey, thousands of people were displaced, but Fil Trat has a solution for that too. The tower's floors would alternate between filtration floors and shelters, which could house up to 24 families per floor.

While the suggested Houston locale would be by Buffalo Bayou, the group suggests putting the tower in other coastal cities at risk of devastating flooding.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks that can track weather developments.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl, tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

Restored native wetland coastal prairies.

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water. Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership, has been taking every opportunity to raise awareness on the importance of prairie restoration.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Memorial Park Conservancy's its master plan redevelopment project includes a lot of prairie restoration plans is expected to deliver by 2028.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. An ongoing part of the transformation will be stormwater management upgrades. MPC has budgeted $3 million to this asset of the renovation. While a part of the plan is tributaries for run-off water, bringing back prairie and wetlands will do a great deal to help abate stormwater.

"We're taking ball fields, parking lots, and roads and converting them back to what was here — native wetland coastal prairie," MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold tells InnovationMap. "This serves important stormwater purposes."

Houston startup creates device to keep loved ones in touch with each other

Caring is sharing

When Charley Donaldson's mother-in-law was battling cancer, he and his wife had great support from their friends and family. But they also knew there were a lot of people who cared about them who didn't know what to say or do during such a challenging time.

"It's like, you want to show people that you care about them, but you don't want to interrupt their day, or you don't want to be a burden to them if they aren't up to company," Donaldson says about the common reactions he heard from others – and often felt himself when he had friends going through similar struggles. "There had to be a way to share the idea of, 'Hey, I'm thinking about you.'"

It took three years of rattling around that idea before CaringBand came to life. The light-up bracelet is Bluetooth enabled, and connects to a mobile app. A person gives the bracelet to a loved one, who then pairs it with his or her smartphone. App users can send and receive pre-set messages of encouragement to and from other app users.

Those wearing a CaringBand bracelet get alerted by a blinking light or vibration that lets them know someone is thinking about them. The wearer then reads these encouraging messages on the CaringBand app when convenient and with no need to respond.

"When we pilot tested it, we were super excited to find out what we thought was validated," says Donaldson. "People really loved knowing that others were keeping them in their thoughts, and those who sent messages liked that they didn't have to worry about saying or doing the wrong thing."

Donaldson says he wanted The CaringBand to be as easy as possible for people to use, and also ensure that it was a solid support system. When someone is going through medical treatments, he knows that can be exhausting, and he also realizes that friends and family want to be able to do something, anything, to express their love and support.

"If you're a normal, compassionate person, you want to show you care about someone," he says. "This lets you do that in your own way."

And while it might sound like The CaringBand is designed to make the senders of messages feel better about offering a good thought for someone, Donaldson says those going through treatments have really loved seeing their bracelets light to up to tell them they're on someone's mind. That small show of support has made a big difference, they told Donaldson in surveys.

"She is sitting on the couch having so much fun reading her messages," says one user in a testimonial. "The smile on her face is priceless." "People tell you they think of you and pray for you all the time," read another. "The bracelet gives you a reminder that they really are."

"We made it super easy," he says. "It's a hardware to software solution and we wanted to erase as many friction points as possible in its creation. This is two touches of a smart phone."

Currently, the CaringBand app is live and functional. The bracelet is still in developmental stages, and Donaldson says the team is working with individuals and groups such as the Tyler Robinson Foundation to further test it. The bracelet should be a go for full distribution and sale by the first quarter of 2020.

"Obviously, this doesn't replace driving over to see someone or having a cup of coffee with a friend," says Donaldson. "But it is a great supplemental tool to show your love and care when you might not know what else to do."