Ghazal Qureshi wanted to engage her own kids in educational activities. Now, her programing has expanded worldwide. Courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

Ghazal Qureshi was looking for a way to engage her children in after school education. After failing to find anything that existed, she started brainstorming a new, engaging education model.

"From the beginning, we were never restricted by trying to make money. It was a passion project only," Qureshi says.

Qureshi turned her passion project into IDEA Lab Kids, an education program focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. She opened 18 locations in Houston, and, two years ago, she expanded the brand into a franchise business — the Idea Lab International Franchise Company. Now the company has locations across the United States and around the world.

The passion she had at Idea Lab's start has become an essential part of each franchise location, and Qureshi is seeking out franchise partners just as passionate to "take our idea far and wide," she says

"We are educating the future innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow," Qureshi says.

Front of class
Idea Lab locations around the country are engaging children from pre-k through high school in hands-on projects that reflect their own interests. Qureshi's goal is to take learning beyond the classroom.

"Anytime kids are out of school, Idea Lab is in session," says Qureshi.

Qureshi recalls that when fidget spinners were dubbed a distraction in traditional schools, children in Idea Labs were studying how the toy's motor operates, and were actually creating their own spinners using 3-D printers.

"Idea Lab picks up the slack in areas that traditional schools are unequipped to excel," explains Qureshi.

Small class sizes, and an array of technology and materials give children attending their after-school programs, weekend workshops, summer camps, or birthday parties the opportunity to use technologies that they may not otherwise be exposed to.

"You'll never see our kids just listening to lectures; it's all project-based," she says. "We are training them for the skills they will need for their jobs in the next 5, 10, 15 years."

Getting the ball rolling
Qureshi began Idea Lab in Houston seven years ago, inspired by the challenge of raising her own children with quality STEAM education.

"My background is in IT," she explains, "but I felt like I was really missing out on being part of my children's lives, so I decided to leave corporate life. I put my energy into my kids and finding the best educational opportunities for them. But I realized there was a void."

With the need to build and create inherent in her personality, Qureshi quickly saw her new company begin to grow.

Qureshi's oldest son, now headed for college, is a big part of her personal success story with her Idea Lab program. She saw his creativity and motivation for learning blossom throughout his years of Idea Lab classes such as coding movie production, or robotics. Qureshi is excited that Idea Lab still provides the same educational boost to thousands of children that she saw so profoundly impact her son.

Especially after her experience in starting her own business, Qureshi wants to encourage future entrepreneurs through Idea Lab's entrepreneurship program. Projects that children develop within this program embody all aspects of the blended learning STEAM model, plus a good measure of critical thinking and creativity. Children may build their own restaurant, and as founders, managers, and chefs, they must create menus and pricing, recipes with units of measure, 3-D printed objects such as spoons, and navigate other realities of owning a small business. Equally as important, children must learn to collaborate toward common goals, and utilize each other's strengths.

Ready for graduation
The company is actively looking for expansion opportunities and prospective franchisees.

"The ideal franchisee," Qureshi says, "is someone who 'gets' the void in the education, understands the education industry, or has kids for whom they haven't been able to find great programs for."

Thus far, Idea Lab has 52 assigned territories in the United States, six in Canada, one opening soon in Ecuador, and talks are beginning with other country partners. Although for Qureshi, founding Idea Lab from the ground up required countless hours of dedication.,

"When you buy a franchise, everything is all worked out for you, all the hardship has been taken out of it, as someone has already done the trial and error," Qureshi says.

Idea Lab provides materials and models for everything from tested and vetted curriculum to implementation of their programs, making it as easy as possible to hit the ground running.

As Idea Lab keeps its finger on the pulse of the next wave of innovation to motivate children, and grow their business, they are looking for partners who are interested in helping to provide a creative education to the community.

As Qureshi always tells parents, "with a little bit of a push, you'll be surprised by how many new things kids can learn through their own exploration, if given the opportunity."

According to a report, Texas residents are among the least educated. It's up to the current Texas legislative session to implement a funding policy to improve state education. Pexels

Texas ranks among the least educated states, according to a new study

Needs improvement

When it comes to a population's education, Texans fall in the back of the pack compared to the rest of the country. A recent WalletHub report found that the state was the 12th least educated in America.

The study factored in a total of 20 metrics surrounding educational attainment, quality of schools, and achievement gaps between minorities and genders.

Texas ranked No. 39 overall, however the state managed to rank No. 19 regarding the quality of education. In fact, the state was right in the middle of the pack at No. 26 in the ranking of average university quality. The Lone Star State's downfall might have been coming in at No. 43 in the educational attainment rank.

The top five most educated states according to WalletHub were Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, Connecticut, and Colorado, respectively. Earning the titles of least educated states were Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama, in that order.

When WalletHub compared the states' annual median household income rankings to the overall education ranking, the results seemed to be pretty proportional for the states. However, Texas was a bit of an outlier with a better ranking of No. 21 on the income report compared to its No. 39 spot in education.

Last fall, WalletHub found that the state's teaching environment wasn't anything to write home about either. That study factored in teacher salaries, classroom size, and per-student funding from the state, among other aspects.

The 86th Texas Legislature started earlier this month, and at the top of the agenda for the governor is school finance, according to the Texas Tribune, but legislators will be demanding results for whatever funding plan is put in place. As of Friday, however, the Tribune reports that there haven't been very many bills addressing education — and none had outcomes-based incentives.

Last legislative session, a bill established the Texas Commission on Public School finance, according to the Texas Education Agency. The commission recommended a total of $800 million be spent on incentives for improving reading levels and keeping students on track for graduation.

Only time will tell whether legislators take into account the commission's results in the current legislative session, which is expected to conclude on May 27.

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5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

what's trending

Editor's note: Houston's innovation ecosystem spans across industries and institutions from hospital systems to college campuses — each play its role. In this week's roundup of top Houston innovation news, stories about startups pitching during an online demo day, a new ranking finds a Houston hospital to be the best at serving the local community, and more trended this week.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs, Derek Armstrong of Armstrong Innovations, and Megan Siliainoff of Med Meg Creative Services. Courtesy photos

It's a new month and Houston's innovation ecosystem is continuing to grow amid the coronavirus pandemic. This week's Houston innovators to know roundup reflects that growth with a new-to-town incubator's newly names leader — plus an entrepreneur creating an virtual reality app to escape and a communications expert's advice on navigating COVID-19. Continue reading.

4 startups pitch at virtual demo day for Houston accelerator program

The second cohort of The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator hosted a day full of thought leadership and startup pitches. Photo by Shobeir Ansari, Getty Images

In light of COVID-19, it is more relevant than ever to discuss and support startups with sustainability and resiliency in mind. At The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Cohort 2 Demo Day, a virtual audience was reminded of that.

"So, 2020 has certainly been a year of unprecedented uncertainty and change for Houston, for Texas, for our country, and for our world," says Christine Galib, director of the accelerator. "The past few months in particular have been especially difficult as the global pandemic and civil unrest continue to spotlight systemic and structural scars on the face of humanity."

The virtual event was streamed on July 1 and hosted several thought leaders and presenters before concluding with pitches from four of the cohort companies. Continue reading.

These 5 tools help increase productivity while working from home, says Houston expert

There are myriad productivity tools startups can explore while working remotely. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

While most of the country is still in quarantine mode, some states have started to open up. Even still, businesses have learned a lot about their operations during their shutdown. Some companies are opting to continue operations virtually; having employees working remotely. Many companies have come to the realization that remote work offers many benefits. In any case, remote work is something that startups are doing now more than ever.

There are myriad tools and apps at your disposal you might have never heard of. If you're just now discovering the benefits of remote work, you've probably never heard of these productivity tools. Here, you'll get a good run through of some great remote work apps that were designed to help you stay efficient. Continue reading.

University of Houston researchers studying COVID-19 prevention and treatment

The University of Houston, a Tier One research institution, has a few ongoing projects focusing on treating or preventing COVID-19. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

Researchers across the country are focusing on all things COVID-19 — from biotherapies and treatment to vaccines and prevention. A handful of researchers based out of the University of Houston are doing their best to move the needle on a cure or reliable vaccine. Continue reading.

Houston hospital ranks among the top health care institutions in the nation

Memorial Hermann has been recognized for its overall performance in serving both individuals and the community. Photo via memorialhermann.org

Houston hospitals have been evaluated by a new ranking to determine the institutions that are doing their best to serve their patients and the community as a whole.

Brookline, Massachusetts-based think tank, The Lown Institute, has revealed its national rankings on its Lown Institute Hospitals Index — which evaluated hospitals based on civic leadership (based on inclusion and access), value of care, and patient outcomes (which evaluates safety and satisfaction).

The Texas Medical Center's Memorial Hermann Hospital ranked as No. 9 on the list that evaluated over 3,000 hospitals in the country. The hospitals are also given a grade on each of the three categories. Memorial Hermann received an A for civic leadership, an A- for value of care, and an A+ for patient outcomes — for an overall A+ grade. Continue reading.

Overheard: Fintech company with Houston ties sees opportunity for growth in new work-from-home age

Eavesdropping in Houston

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

Houston startup teams up with Austin company on medical device amid COVID-19 crisis

texans teaming up

Two Texas companies with NASA roots are joining forces on a technology that can be used to monitor vital signs of seniors or others that are at-risk of contracting COVID-19.

Houston-based Galen Data Inc., which has developed a cloud platform for medical devices, and Austin-based Advanced TeleSensors Inc., the creator of the Cardi/o touchless monitor. Together, the two health tech companies are collaborating to take ATS's device and adding Galen Data's cloud technology.

"We wish we had found Galen Data sooner. We had been building our own cloud for six months, thinking a custom solution would best meet our needs," says Sajol Ghoshal, CEO and president of ATS, in a news release. "Getting up-and-running with them was very easy, and it allowed us to focus on our core competency — which is data-signal processing."

ATS's technology uses radio frequency in its remote, touchless monitoring. The company's founders developed the core technology at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. Initially, the technology was intended for assisted living facilities. Now, amid the COVID-19 crisis, monitoring isolated seniors or at-risk patients is even more relevant.

Galen Data, which launched in 2016, also has NASA roots as the founders met as software contractors working on NASA's safety systems. The company has developed and marketed its cloud-based platform for connecting medical devices to the internet, including pacemakers and glucose monitors.

Chris DuPont, co-founder and CEO, has led the company to meet compliance standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), cybersecurity organizations, and others.

"We knew that our platform would be a great fit for Cardi/o," Chris DuPont, CEO of Galen Data, says. "Speed was critical, accentuated by the COVID-19 crisis. We were well positioned to address ATS' needs, and help those at-risk in the process."

Sajol Ghoshal (left), CEO and president of ATS, and Chris Dupont, (CEO of Galen Data), are bringing together their technologies. Photos courtesy