The company wants to make Texas "the home of self-driving trucks." PRNewsfoto/Kodiak Robotics

The Interstate 45 freight corridor between Houston and Dallas now serves as a testing ground for self-driving cargo trucks.

Silicon Valley startup Kodiak Robotics Inc. recently began sending its autonomous 18-wheel trucks on trips between Texas' two largest metro areas, co-founder and CEO Don Burnette says. The trucks are carrying paid cargo, but Kodiak won't identify the customer or customers. The company also won't say how many trips the trucks are making each day.

The Texas initiative represents Kodiak's first foray into commercial deliveries. Wired.com notes that pretty much every player in the autonomous truck sector has conducted tests in Texas or is carrying commercial loads in the Lone Star State, which boasts more than 2,300 miles of interstate highways.

For its part, Kodiak aims to make Texas "the home of self-driving trucks."

According to a 2016 report from the Texas Department of Transportation, nearly half of all truck freight in Texas goes through the I-45 corridor's 11 counties. In some spots, trucks make up more than one-fourth of the traffic in the corridor, which runs 276 miles from Galveston to where I-45 intersects with Interstate 20 in Dallas County, the TxDOT report says.

"The importance of the I‐45 freight corridor to the movement of goods extends beyond Texas because much of the freight originating or passing through the corridor is destined to other domestic and international markets," the report says.

For now, Burnette says, two people are aboard each Kodiak truck traveling between Houston and Dallas — a safety driver and a safety engineer.

"Dallas will be our home base for testing and operations for the foreseeable future," Burnette says. "Kodiak plans to continue refining and testing its trucks until the last truck-involved accident happens on public roads."

Kodiak's Dallas office, which opened in March, employs eight people. The company plans to relocate soon to new office space in the Dallas suburb of Lancaster, Burnette says.

At this time, Kodiak doesn't plan to hire any workers in Houston, he says.

From its base in the Dallas area, Kodiak envisions expanding its service to routes throughout Texas, but it's focusing solely on the Houston-to-Dallas route for the time being, Burnette says.

Kodiak picked Texas for its truck tests, in part, because of the "warm welcome" extended by Gov. Greg Abbott, TxDOT, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and other segments of the public sector, he says.

In addition, Burnette says, Kodiak chose Texas "because of its great people, freight-rich economy, reasonable regulatory structure, and robust infrastructure."

In 2017, Texas enacted laws enabling driverless vehicles, including long-haul trucks, to operate on the state's roads.

"Texas is a leader in the testing and implementation of connected and automated vehicles, and Kodiak's willingness to partner with academia and public agencies to ensure safe deployment of new technology will add significant value to our transportation system," Christopher Poe, assistant director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, says in a release.

Burnette, co-founder of Otto Trucking LLC, a self-driving truck startup purchased in 2016 by Uber Technologies Inc., and fellow entrepreneur Paz Eshel established Kodiak in 2018 to "redefine" long-haul trucking through self-driving technology.

Kodiak says its autonomous technology is designed to ease pressures facing the trucking industry, including a shortage of drivers and high turnover among drivers, while improving highway safety, fostering business efficiency, reducing traffic congestion, and cutting down on harmful emissions.

"Long-haul trucking is primed for autonomous technology," Kodiak says in a post on Medium. "Highway driving is more structured and predictable than urban driving. This means there are fewer decisions for drivers to make and [it's] a better fit for autonomous vehicles."

"As hard as it is to navigate city streets, autonomous vehicles are much closer to being able to drive on more structured interstate highways, which have no jaywalking pedestrians, no aggressive cyclists, and no runaway pets," Kodiak adds. "That's why we've focused on building technology specifically for long-haul trucks driving on highway routes, often referred to as the 'middle mile.'"

If you have an opinion about trains, here's your chance. Rendering courtesy of Texas Central

TxDOT asks Houstonians for input on rail projects

All aboard

The Texas Department of Transportation is updating a document called the Texas Rail Plan and is seeking input from the public.

The update is designed to reflect the latest rail project priorities and fulfill eligibility requirements for federal funding. Federal requirements say that states' rail plans must be updated every four years to establish policy, priorities, and implementation strategies for freight and passenger rail in the state.

The Texas Rail Plan includes a list of current and future rail projects, which are also depicted on a map. The plan keeps inventory of all rail lines; analyzes rail service goals and contributions to the economy; catalogs and assesses potential infrastructure projects; and examines finance strategies.

The update project began in summer 2018. Meetings of stakeholders were held, and now there's an opportunity for public input. (Stakeholders include citizens, neighboring states, public agencies, and the private rail industry.)

There'll be another round of meetings in the spring, and then the updated plan will be released in summer 2019.

TxDOT hosted a public meeting on December 11, when it presented the update and asked for public questions and input. After that meeting, they extended their deadline for comments to March 1, 2019.

As for now, the public can review and provide input on the plan via this website which explains the history of the Rail Plan and some of the reasons why an update is being done.

There's a survey and online form to submit public comments until January 8, 2019.

If you feel equipped to answer 10 questions such as, "What could be done in Texas to improve freight rail access, promote economic development, and enhance the state's competitiveness in national markets and the global marketplace?" — then this survey should be right up your alley. (Although it should be noted that the hardest questions are first and they get easier as you go along. Also, it's multiple choice.)

These options provide an opportunity for the public to comment on all rail-related issues in Texas, both freight and passenger, as well as existing and future projects and programs.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

innovation delivered

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — startup development, fintech, and health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston

Impact Hub Houston has two new initiatives for female founders. Photo courtesy of Impact Hub Houston

Two accelerator programs were recently announced and they both are aimed at supporting female founders — and one Houston organization is behind them both. Impact Hub Houston announced that it has partnered up with Frost Bank to sponsor eight female founders to participate in Impact Hub's new Accelerate Membership Program.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston has teamed up with MassChallenge for their own initiative supporting female founders in the Houston-Galveston region in partnership with Houston-based Workforce Solutions. The three organizations are collaborating to launch launch a bootcamp to support female founders in the greater Houston region.

"As a female founder myself, I'm incredibly excited about this opportunity to support and uplift more women entrepreneurs and women-led businesses in our region," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "By now, it's no secret that women, and especially women of color, are under-invested in; and this is our chance to change that by helping more women strengthen their businesses and prepare to seek funding." Click here to read more.

Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic

What does the future of investment look like? That's something Youngro Lee thinks about daily – and he shares his thoughts on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of NextSeed

The world of investing is changing — and the power shift is tilting from the rich elite to individuals. Youngro Lee, co-founder and CEO of NextSeed and COO of Republic, has seen the change starting several years ago.

"Investing is traditionally seen as something you can't do unless you're rich," Lee says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There was a certain understanding of what anyone (looking to invest) should do. … But now the world is so different."

Lee shares more about the future of investing and how he's watched the Houston innovation ecosystem develop over the years on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo courtesy

No industry has been unaffected by COVID-19, Liz Youngblood, president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health, observes in a guest column for InnovationMap. But hospitals — they've had a spotlight shown on them and their technology adoption since day one of the pandemic.

"The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time," she writes.

Hospitals, she says, look and feel completely different now than they did last year and the year before that. Click here to read more.

Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.