INNOVATIONMAP EMAILS ARE AWESOME

The Ion has fresh funds to commit to its accelerator programs. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion — a rising hub for innovation being developed in Midtown by Rice Management Company — has received a $1.5 million grant to go toward supporting its startup accelerator programs.

The grant from the Economic Development Administration is a part of the organization's Build to Scale (B2S) program and will also benefit three accelerators: the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, and DivInc Accelerator.

"Receiving this grant is a big win for our city — furthering the Ion's opportunity to bring together leading minds to solve some of our toughest challenges," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, in a news release from Rice. "We believe that it's a fully collaborative approach that will lead to accelerating energy innovation and sustainable solutions."

All three of these accelerators will be represented in The Ion's Accelerator Hub and will work in collaboration, according to the release, in The Ion, which is expected to open in 2021 with cohorts set to open applications in early 2021.

"We are really excited about working together with DivInc and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship to realize the full potential of the opportunities that these funds will help unleash," says Jan Odegard, interim executive director of the Ion, in the release.

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has cycled through two rounds of cohorts — first focusing on resilience and mobility in Cohort 1 then air quality, water purification, and other cleantech in Cohort 2.

The 12-week Clean Energy Accelerator was only recently announced by The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship at the annual Energy Tech Venture Forum earlier this month. The program is established to support Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner's Climate Action Plan.

Meanwhile, DivInc's accelerator comes out of a partnership with the Austin-based nonprofit and The Ion, which was announced in spring of this year. The goal with this program is to increase access to minority entrepreneurs.

"DivInc embodies the mindset that this generation and all the generations of innovators to follow must be inclusive of people of color and women entrepreneurs – who will build successful scalable growth companies to address tomorrow's challenges and opportunities," says Preston James, chief executive officer at DivInc, in the release.

"By removing the barriers that currently exist, we unleash this untapped potential and lift Houston to new economic heights. To do this we must establish strong collaboration with partners like The Ion, Rice University, the EDA and many others."

From new tech jobs in Houston to an entrepreneurship minor at Rice University, here are some short stories in Houston innovation. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

Rice creates entrepreneurship minor, Houston tech jobs grow, and more innovation news

Short stories

While much of the city's news — along with the rest of the country — has been focused on COVID-19, headlines are starting to resemble some sense of normalcy again.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, there's a mix of news items pertaining to the coronavirus, as well as news items outside of the pandemic — from a new minor program at Rice University to Baylor College of Medicine testing for a COVID treatment.

Rice University introduces entrepreneurship minor

Rice University plans to offer undergraduate students an opportunity to minor in entrepreneurship. Courtesy of Rice University

Three of Rice University's programs — the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Jones Graduate School of Business, and Brown School of Engineering — are teaming up to provide undergraduate students an opportunity to minor in entrepreneurship.

"Entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses and industries are critical to Houston and Texas' future prosperity and quality of life," says Yael Hochberg, Rice finance professor who leads Lilie, in a release. "Rice students continuously seek to lead change and build organizations that can have real impact on our world. In today's new and uncertain world, the skills and frameworks taught in the new minor are particularly important."

According to a news release, the minor's curriculum will provide students with professional skills within entrepreneurship, such as problem solving, understanding customers and staff, communication, and more. The program will be housed in Lilie, which features a coworking space, graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship courses, the annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, and other courses.

Houston named No. 12 for tech jobs

Houston's tech jobs are growing — just not at an impressive rate, according to a new report. Christina Morillo/Pexels

CompTIA has released its Cyberstates 2020 report that identifies Houston as No. 12 in the country for tech jobs. However, the Bayou City was ranked No. 38 for job percent growth. Austin and Dallas appear in the top 10 of each of the Cybercities rankings.

According to the report, Houston has a net total of 235,802 tech jobs, an increase of 826 jobs between 2018 and 2019. This figure means a growth of 25,904 jobs between 2019 and 2010. The full report is available online.

While Houston misses the top 10 metros, Texas ranks No. 2 for net tech employment and net tech employment growth. The Lone Star State came in at No. 4 for projected percent change in the next decade. The state was also recognized as No. 2 for number of tech businesses.

Baylor College of Medicine tests existing drug for COVID-19 cure

A Houston institution is looking into an existing vaccine for coronavirus treatment. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Baylor College of Medicine researchers — along with colleagues at four other institutions — are testing to see if the bacille Calmette-Guerin vaccine, known as BCG, can work against COVID-19.

"Epidemiological studies show that if you're BCG vaccinated, you have a decreased rate of other infections," says Dr. Andrew DiNardo, assistant professor of medicine – infectious diseases at Baylor, in a news release.

The vaccine has been found to help protect against yellow fever and influenza, and, according to DiNardo, the vaccine could show 30 to 50 percent improvement in immune response in patients with the coronavirus. The team is currently looking for subjects to participate in a clinical trial to test the vaccine.

While research is preliminary, the theory is that BCG changes the way the body responds to a pathogen, according to the release.

"Think of DNA like a ball of yarn," DiNardo explains in the release. "Some pieces of the ball of yarn are open and able to be expressed. Other pieces are wrapped up tight and hidden away, and those genes are repressed. It's a normal way for cells to turn certain genes on and off. BCG opens up certain parts of this ball of yarn and allows the immune system to act quicker."

Plug and Play announces physical space in Houston

Plug and Play Tech Center's local team will work out of the Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Since entering the Houston market last year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play Tech Center has hosted numerous events, named its first cohort, and hired Payal Patel to lead the local operations. However, the local operations still, until recently, lacked a plan for a physical space in town.

"Plug and Play intends to set up its permanent office in Houston in Rice's Ion development," says Patel in a statement. "We have engaged in preliminary discussions with Rice Management Company to secure office space for the building's expected Q1 2021 opening."

Until then, says Patel, who is director of corporate partnerships for Plug and Play in Houston, the Plug and Play team will have its base at Station Houston, which recently merged with Austin-based Capital Factory. At present, the local team is hiring to build up its team and has five open jobs on HTX Talent, a job portal for Houston tech.

UH professor named a Guggenheim fellow

A University of Houston professor has been honored with a prestigious award. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

A University of Houston mechanical engineer has been selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Pradeep Sharma is the only recipient in the engineering category.

The M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of mechanical engineering and chairman of the department, Sharma uses mathematics and technology to breakdown physical phenomena across a number of disciplines.

The Guggeinheim Foundation has funded more than $375 million in fellowships to over 18,000 individuals since its inception in 1925. This year, the organization selected 173 individuals.

"It's exceptionally encouraging to be able to share such positive news at this terribly challenging time," Sharma says in a news release from UH. "The artists, writers, scholars and scientific researchers supported by the fellowship will help us understand and learn from what we are enduring individually and collectively."

Houston health system to participate in coronavirus plasma study

HCA Houston Healthcare is participating in a plasma treatment program. Getty Images

HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division has announced that it will be participating in a national study to see if plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can help current COVID patients in severe conditions.

"We are proud to take part in this important study. We are asking for the help of our community to spread awareness about plasma donation for patients facing COVID-19 not only in Houston, South Texas and Corpus Christi, but also around the world," says Mujtaba Ali-Khan, chief medical officer at HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division, in a news release.

Per the study, the following HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division Hospitals will be participating:

  • HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Conroe
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Kingwood
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Southeast
  • HCA Houston Healthcare West
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball
  • HCA Houston Healthcare North Cypress
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Northwest
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Mainland
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Medical Center
  • Corpus Christi Medical Center
  • Rio Grande Regional Hospital
  • Valley Regional Medical Center

"This trial is just the first step, but hopefully it will help us determine if plasma transfusions can be a treatment for critically ill patients with COVID-19," says Carlos Araujo-Preza, MD, critical care medical director at HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball, in the release.

Dr. Araujo-Preza safely discharged his first plasma patient last week. The patient is recovering from home following their treatment.

The hospital system is looking for eligible volunteers to donate plasma via the American Red Cross to help treat current patients.

Early stage energy venture firm calls for startups

Industrial software

BBL Ventures is looking for energy companies to pitch. Getty Images

Houston-based BBL Ventures, which looks to connect tech startups to industrial and energy corporations, is seeking energy tech startups to pitch.

"Digital transformation, automation, emerging technologies and sustainability have never been more important to these industries than in this challenging macro environment," says Patrick Lewis, founding managing partner of BBL Ventures, in an email. "We are launching a 6-week challenge campaign to find BEST in class solutions to BIG pain points in the energy and industrial sectors."

In the email, Lewis lists over a dozen challenges or pain points from the organization's corporate partners. The goal would be to find startups with to solutions to any of these identified pain points. Winners of the pitch competition are eligible for POCs, pilots, and funding.

For more information and to submit a pitch, visit BBL's website. BBL is also introducing the program with a virtual kick-off panel on May 21 at 2 pm. Registration is available online.

Aatonomy sees autonomous vehicles as inefficient and unsafe. That's why the Houston startup is doing something differently. Sean Pavone/Getty Images

This tech startup envisions Houston as a self-driving city

smart cities

When there isn't a global pandemic, nearly 7 million people drive around Houston, and an estimated 77,000 people commute for more than an hour and a half to work. Drivers spend $1,376 and waste 31 gallons of fuel a year — to sit in traffic for what adds up to 75 hours each year.

When Wilson Pulling moved to the city two summers ago, he set out to fix all that traffic-sitting using autonomously driven cars, but not the high-priced ones that Uber and Tesla have designed. These are your regular, three- or four-year-old Honda Civics and Kia Sorentos — the cars you already own.

In 2016, Pulling founded had Aatonomy with his partner, Yang Hu, based on their thesis work from Cornell's Computer Science program. Moving the company south after two years operating out of San Francisco, they aimed not to build the self-driving car of the future, but to make the cars that Houstonians are wading through congested freeways in today drive themselves.

"Everyone doesn't get to buy a Tesla. They're driving their Corollas," Pulling says. "The way autonomy is going right now, that person is never going to benefit. We are the only way."

The company's technology attaches a wireless receiver to the car, which has to be from at least 2016 to work with them. Then, Aatonomy places sensors all along the roads and streetlights. The sensors and receiver communicate with each other, and enable autonomous driving.

Imagine, Pulling says, a 30-mile of I-45 with Aatonomy's sensors. You'd roar up the freeway, handling the controls. Then, the car's computer, under guidance from Aatonomy's network of sensors, would take over. You'd sit back, the car will navigate the traffic along with the other cars — and if all the cars are autonomous, Pulling says, the algorithm could slash congestion. When your car exits the freeway, you'd take back control.

That stretch of freeway would cost $26 million for 200,000 commuters across Houston, Pulling says, but other self-driving cars cost around $250,000 per vehicle — summing up to $50 billion for those same commuters. And Pulling says the Aatonomy system is a safer bet than the way Uber's autonomous driving. Uber's car once killed a pedestrian because, somehow, the company didn't program it to avoid people jaywalking. But because Aatonomy will manage sensors all over the street, the company will be able to monitor potential accidents more quickly than an Uber car would.

"This is a really radically different approach to a technology that, frankly, a lot of people have lost a lot of faith in," Pulling says.

Aatonomy's approach requires a smart city commitment — but the city of Houston is already buying in. First, Aatonomy, a member of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities accelerator's inaugural cohort, got a short-term project with Aatonomy and Verizon to mount intersection cameras for studying how to prevent collisions with pedestrians on the Northside.

Additionally, the city has also greenlit a two-year pilot with Aatonomy to automate a bus route in downtown Houston. The aim, Pulling says, is making a "proof-of-concept" before rolling out sensors across I-45 — but it's also to use Houston as proof that autonomous driving can be achieved, but from a different angle than Uber.

"Self driving cars don't work. That's our thesis," Pulling says. "That's why we're building self-driving cities."

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has selected its next cohort. Courtesy of The Ion

Houston accelerator announces newest cohort to tackle cleantech

Smart cities

As the world celebrated the 50th annual Earth Day on April 22, a Houston innovation organization announced a new group of startups for its accelerator program that will focus on cleantech solutions within the city of Houston and beyond.

The Ion's accelerator, which recently renewed its focus on resiliency, announced its second cohort with six startups that will create solutions for Houston's air quality, water purification, and other cleantech needs.

"Through leveraging the power of our local Ion community, The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator is committed to solving challenges Houstonians face every day," says Christine Galib, senior director of accelerator programs at The Ion and the director of the accelerator, in a news release. "We connect participating startups with mentors, partners, and stakeholders, so they gain access to the resources they need to build, validate, and scale their technologies. Together, we are building a safer, smarter, and more accessible city for all Houstonians."

The program is supported by Intel, Microsoft, and TX/RX and has began its programming for the new cohort. The six startups selected for the program are:

  • Houston-based Eigen Control uses machine learning and chemical engineering models to combat rising CO2 emissions. Distillation process plants emit so much CO2 — and Eigen Control's processes are working to change that.
  • Houston-based Annapurna Solutions has cloud-based solutions for hazardous and solid waste management.
  • Mexico City-based S2G Energy focuses on sustainable and optimized solutions for businesses and governments with its energy-management-as-a-service technology.
  • Houston-based re:3D is a 3D-printing nonprofit that is democratizing small-scale manufacturing. Its Gigabot can use recycled and reclaimed materials for more sustainable and affordable production. The company, which has offices in Puerto Rico and Austin, donates a printer to someone making a difference with every 100 printers it sells.
  • Austin-based LifePod Corps is a nonprofit that provides disaster relief through renewable and sustainable technologies built and delivered by military veterans.
  • Houston-based Water Lens has created a real-time water data analytics platform for industries that use a lot of water — like oil and gas, agriculture, power generation, coal mining, and food processing. The technology allows for quicker, more reliable results.

The accelerator's leaders chose its theme for the cohort based on the City of Houston's Resilient Houston Strategy and Climate Action Plan. The program has identified these six startups as movers and shakers within these Smart Cities challenges.

"We are thrilled to collaborate with these startups to further develop Houston as one of America's smartest and most resilient cities," says Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, in the release. "By leveraging our resources and networks, the accelerator and Cohort 2 improve living conditions for all Houstonians. In this way, we stimulate our local economy with new jobs and economic opportunities."

Last year's inaugural cohort was announced in August and focused on resilience and mobility. After a demo day in December, the cohort continued its work in Houston through 15 pilot programs the startups had with the city. The third cohort is expected to launch toward the end of 2020, but the next theme has not yet been decided.

In a guest column, Jan E. Odegard of The Ion Houston, discusses the ways COVID-19 has affected the workforce permanently. Getty Images

Houston innovation expert on life after COVID-19: 'we may never work and learn the same again'

Guest column

When the Houston-area was faced with the COVID-19 pandemic and instituting a shelter-in-place to keep residents safe, The Ion's mission to build a world-leading innovation hub didn't change, but the way we advocate and engage with learners has.

At a programmatic level, we're bringing our networking events to a virtual platform, convening our high school STEAM Innovation Challenge program via online meetings, and moving the Ion Smart and Resilient City Accelerator, which incubates technology to support the City, coursework, counseling, and mentoring online.

At a philosophical level, we're exploring and evaluating how current sociological and economic conditions will change and drive the way we'll provide programming and resources. We're not entirely sure what changes we'll institute, what programming we'll need to tweak, since this is a global "experiment" that has not yet played out, but ideas, technology, and offerings are being explored and developed. It's in the Ion's name to keep the ever-forward motion of discovery.

As senior director of Academic Programming, my job will be to implement those ideas and move new programs forward. To do this, the team is developing and pivoting programs we had on the drawing board and are engaging in conversations with academic stakeholders, workforce development programs and executives with innovation-driven hiring needs.

Through the course of the conversations and self-observations, one thing is very clear: we may never work and learn the same again. This is why.

The digital transformation has accelerated exponentially

Universities moved thousands of courses online in a matter of a week, if not a few days. In an era where consumers can order goods or purchase a book with the tap of a button, this may not seem to be a big deal, but for campus centric academic institutions and employers, it is.

To put the technological infrastructure in place and equip students and employees with the tools necessary is momentous. While many organizations were well equipped, some never needed to, and others just had a handful of offerings online, they are now 100 percent online. This rocks the core of their operation and many of the lessons learned during COVID-19 will transcend past COVID-19 and transform these institutions.

What we do not know yet is what the impact of this will be on the student, delivering education and training material online is only half the problem, how students access and learn remains to be seen.

Soft skills matter

Soft skills, or interpersonal (people) skills, are not only harder to define but to evaluate and build, especially from home. Soft skills include communication skills, listening skills, and empathy. When you're alone with three screens up, you're inherently more distracted and maybe more concerned with what's going on there than with the outside world. Working from home not only requires discipline, but also requires you create boundaries.

While Slack channels, video meetings, and online mentorship are critical avenues during a time like this, we must make an extra effort to feel the dynamics of a mentor, mentee or teammate, and to ask the right questions. Probing deeper where needed and recognizing when backing off is the better path forward.

As we look at performance and work habits, changing or tweaking online behavior is different from modifying in person behavior. Critical thinking skills and clear communication and expectations are imperative (most of us have sent what we thought was the "perfect" email, that was not only misunderstood but misinterpreted), as is not losing sight of the person. Refining soft skills can do this, and now we need to do that online.

While developing and practicing soft skills one-on-one or in small groups can be done, the question is how to scale this to larger groups and courses. One way we're seeing this done more successfully is in the format of flipped classrooms. While instruction is often based on completing assigned reading before live class lecture; online recording gives new opportunities. Instead, the time allotted for live lectures, students will watch pre-recorded lectures followed by instructor supported small group Q&A and problem-working sessions.

Learners of all age groups can spend time problem solving or presenting an assignment rather than the material itself (practice and teach what you learned). This format not only offers opportunities for more personalized engagement, but also opens opportunities for more senior students to participate and practice leadership and mentorship by supporting these sessions.

The death of the 9-to-5 work schedule

It's very clear. We're all scrambling. Scrambling to get fresh air when there aren't too many people out. Scrambling to procure food. And for many, scrambling to watch our kids, manage their education, and get our job done.

Work is shifted to the early morning or bleeding into the evening. Without the confinement of going into the office and leaving at a certain time, personal bookends are further moved. In some countries it's frowned upon to send emails outside of work hours — in the U.S. it is a lifeblood.

COVID-19 forced us to work from a home model, and corporations and employees are now co-creating rules of meaningful engagement for accountability and developing the right framework for success and trust to get the job done. Daily video/call check-ins with staff members, as many are doing right now, is suddenly not abnormal (or intrusive) but now an integral part of working together and, helps create a shared purpose. While the job might just be done after the kids fall asleep, or that afternoon stroll, these calls ensure we are connected.

At the Ion, these daily check-ins are not just about what work you did and will be doing, but about building and supporting the individual, the team, and a shared purpose. The lessons learned from COVID-19 will make corporations and organizations more open to working from home moving forward, because we learned how to do it, and lessons learned will survive COVID-19.

Physical connections will be back

I am an introvert that must act as an extravert to do my job. Well, after 4 weeks working from home, I do miss the social engagement offered by the office.

While I can work with the team, and schedule virtual coffee and cocktail hours, it is not conducive to impromptu water-cooler talk. So, while I believe we now have the skills and methods to work from home, we have reinforced the importance of a physical space to convene.

There has been a long discussion about roles of traditional, work and school campuses, and whether or not it is outdated. I disagree, and if there is one thing that stands out it is that physical campuses serve a critical role, even if we tweak how learning will be delivered and work will be performed. Going back to a collaborative setting such as an office, lab or classroom will give us an opportunity to see, create, and build to scale. Physical connection is also imperative for building the soft skills we mention.

Engaging in a conversation on a video call from your bedroom isn't the same or as meaningful as reacting to a question or conflict in-person. If you are a student in an aeronautical engineering course you can simulate something until the wrong button is pushed. But you need to see and feel it "blow up" to react and internalize. Online reaction is still different than in-person reaction.

Holistically, it's also imperative for our health. Loneliness, which can be brought on by the isolation we're experiencing, is associated with physical isolation. Together, in a workplace setting we're sharper mentally, and simply better together.

As a career academic, now in my second act, and deeply embedded in operations and strategic partnerships, these observations give me great excitement. With a city keen on innovation, and partners willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with learners and entrepreneurs, I know Houston will play a part in changing how we learn. I hope the next time you're reading something from me it's about just that.

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Jan E. Odegard is the senior director of Academic and Industry Partnerships at The Ion.

The Ion has tapped DivInc. as a partner. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion announces partnership with nonprofit to serve Houston's diverse entrepreneurs

diving into diversity

Houston is ranked the No. 1 diverse city in the nation, and a local organization has forged a new partnership to make sure that diversity is represented within the city's innovation ecosystem.

The Ion, an innovation hub currently rising in Midtown Sears Building, and DivInc, a Texas nonprofit, have agreed to partner to advance diversity among Houston entrepreneurs. It's Austin-based DivInc's first Houston initiative, according to a news release.

"Our experience equipping diverse entrepreneurs with strategies to create exceptional companies, coupled with the Ion's enthusiasm and thoughtful approach to building an inclusive space where entrepreneurs from all walks of life can thrive is a winning combination," says Preston L. James, founder and CEO of DivInc, in the release.

"No matter where they are in their entrepreneur journey, we want all Houstonians to know DivInc is here to help you achieve your biggest dreams."

Since its founding in 2016, DivInc has worked to provide over 60 founders and more than 50 tech companies with resources and support for growth. Locally, DivInc is already working on programming to extend its reach to Houston entrepreneurs, including a kick-off event at The Ion on Tuesday, March 3, at 5:30 pm.

"As The Ion looked for a partner to provide best practices and resources to our local business communities and leaders that have historically been overlooked, we knew our partner needed to be ambitious, thoughtful and encouraging, but also have a record of success and experience working shoulder-to-shoulder with entrepreneurs," says Deanea LeFlore, senior director of The Ion, in the release.

"Our efforts and relationship with DivInc will do just that. We can't wait to help our stakeholders take their businesses to new heights and further demonstrate Houston is the best city in America for diverse entrepreneurs to thrive."

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Houston coffee startup pivots to hand sanitizing product amid pandemic

Houstonians' workday routines look much different today than they did seven months ago. With a large percentage of people working from home, office rituals have come to a halt and few habits have been immune to change — including our coffee consumption.

In early March, Constantine Zotos and Mitchell Webber already knew this didn't mean good things for their local nitro coffee company, Recharge Brewing Co. Though the brand had grown steadily over the better course of two years, the duo had focused their business on installing and supplying their nitro coffee taps to two of the most taboo markets at the time: office spaces and restaurants.The duo aptly predicted that the demand for their product would soon dry up and quickly shifted their operations to focus on a product that was considered a necessity: hand sanitizer.

To get started, the young entrepreneurs and their small team of six began cold calling down a list of Purell distributors they found online. They soon found that many businesses could hardly keep the product in stock.

"They asked us if they could fly a jet down to pick up the hand sanitizer themselves," Zottos says of one distributor. "I told them not to get ahead of themselves, but it just speaks to the sense of urgency everyone had."

The team studied up on the basic ingredients of hand sanitizer to make the liquid, alcohol-based form that infiltrated the market in the first few weeks of the pandemic. At the time there was such a rush for the product, and such a low supply of the material needed to make it, that the team resorted to selling the product without traditional pump tops or plastic caps. Instead they used the slow release plastic pourers that are often used on liquor bottles.

Still, they were focused on doing it right. In addition to the long hours spend to get the product out the door, Zotos and Webber took special care to ensure that their sanitizer met all FDA and EPA requirements by working with consultants and lawyers, as well as reading up on all the pertinent documents and literature between sleeping shifts and time on the shop floor.

"We took the stance that we would rather rush toward compliance rather than run from it," Zotos says.

It didn't seem to slow down the demand. One week in they formed Modern Chemical, and by the middle of the month the company was fulfilling substantial orders with a team of 40 employees. By the summer, Modern Chemical released a gel-based, FDA-registered sanitizer that got them in with giant B2B clients, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, Jefferson Parish School District, and recently the City of Austin.

The pair agrees that their background with Recharge gave them a leg up in the beginning.

"Knowing the pumps and hoses and all the stuff you really need to run a bottle facility and a hand sanitizer facility, we already had," Webber says. "On top of that when all this started, there were some long days and long nights, but being in the nitro coffee business, we were used to long hours. It prepared us for this huge push for the drastic demand that needed to be filled."

Location and timing also played a huge role in their success, Zotos adds. "When the pandemic struck we were able to bring on a lot of people who are extraordinarily talented throughout the company. If we weren't hiring in the pandemic environment like this I think we would be hard pressed to find people as talented as we did as quickly as we did," he says. "And Houston really played a big part in that."

Today, the company of about 60 employees is producing about 15,000 gallons of hand sanitizer per day and is in the process of launching disinfectant wipes and spray. They recently moved all of the Modern Chemical operations into a new and improved facility off Air Tec and Interstate 45 that will allow for more efficient packaging and loading of products and — in another pivot — are even offering custom labeling, scenting and color dyes, plus specialty dispensing stands for their product.

"Neither of us have a chemical background and we are not ignorant to that. But we know how the equipment works from an operational side of things and if we can make the packaging look the best. If we can package the most for the best price then people are going to want to buy it," Zotos says. "Instead of taking the let's do everything route, we found our niche in the chemical supply chain, which is packaging."

And as Modern Chemical continues to settle into its new space and eventually a post-pandemic market, Zotos and Webber plan to revisit and revamp Recharge Brewing with the lessons they've learned. The duo plans to use their original facilities to help other small business owners launch and produce beverage brands of their own by early 2021.

UT system funds Houston researchers in new collaboration to cure cancer

collaborate for a cure

In a renewed effort to move the needle on finding a cure for cancer, the University of Texas system has launched a new collaboration in oncological data and computational science across three programs.

Houston-based University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center has teamed up with two UT Austin schools — the Oden Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences and the Texas Advanced Computing Center. The collaboration was announced this summer to tap into mathematical modeling and advanced computing along with oncology expertise to inspire new methods of cancer treatment.

"Integrating and learning from the massive amount of largely unstructured data in cancer care and research is a formidable challenge," says David Jaffray, Ph.D., chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, in a news release. "We need to bring together teams that can place quantitative data in context and inform state-of-the-art computational models of the disease and accelerate progress in our mission to end cancer."

Now, the first five projects to be funded under this new initiative have been announced.

  • Angela Jarrett of the Oden Institute and Maia Rauch of MD Anderson will develop a patient-specific mathematical model for forecasting treatment response and designing optimal therapy strategies for patients with triple-negative breast cancer.
  • Caroline Chung of MD Anderson and David Hormuth of the Oden Institute are using computational models of the underlying biology to fundamentally change how radiotherapy and chemotherapy are personalized to improve survival rates for brain cancer patients.
  • Ken-Pin Hwang of MD Anderson and Jon Tamir of UT Austin's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Oden Institute will use mathematical modeling and massively parallel distributed computing to make prostate MR imaging faster and more accurate to reduce the incidence of unnecessary or inaccurate biopsies.
  • Xiaodong Zhang of MD Anderson and Hang Liu of TACC will advance both the planning and delivery of proton therapy via a platform that combines mathematical algorithms and high-performance computing to further personalize these already highly tailored treatments.
  • Tinsley Oden and Prashant Jha of the Oden Institute and David Fuentes of MD Anderson will integrate a new mechanistic model of tumor growth with an advanced form of MRI to reveal underlying metabolic alterations in tumors and lead to new treatments for patients.

"These five research teams, made up of a cross section of expertise from all three stakeholders, represent the beginning of something truly special," says Jaffray in a release. "Our experts are advancing cancer research and care, and we are committed to working with our colleagues at the Oden Institute and TACC to bring together their computational expertise with our data and insights."

Later this month, the five teams will log on to a virtual retreat along with academic and government thought leaders to further collaborate and intertwine their research and expertise.

"Texas is globally recognized for its excellence in computing and in cancer research. This collaboration forges a new path to international leadership through the combination of its strengths in both," says Karen Willcox, director of the Oden Institute. "We are thrilled that leaders in government, industry and academia see the potential of this unique Texan partnership. We're looking forward to a virtual retreat on October 29 to continue to build upon this realization."

To office or not to office? Heading toward post-pandemic, that is the question for Houston workplace strategy

guest column

Since the advent of the modern office over a century ago, its design has continually evolved, adapting to new needs driven by changes in the ways people work.

COVID-19 introduced massive disruption to this steady evolution, displacing millions of office workers to fulfill their job roles from their homes. The question everyone is asking now is what happens after the pandemic — if we can all work from home, is the office irrelevant?

A mass remote work experiment

While many companies had tried some degree of remote work before the pandemic, the mass relocation to home during COVID was new territory for most. And the experiment has offered up something of an epiphany: work-from-home worked. People were able to carry out their job responsibilities, saving thousands of companies from having to shut down and sparing millions of people from job loss.

Now, based on the perceived success of WFH, many organizations are planning to greatly expand remote work, even after the pandemic has passed. Twitter was at the front of the pack in announcing they would allow some employees to work from home forever, and the list has continued to grow well beyond the tech sector.

Success depends on criteria

The lens through which we view this work-from-home period is important. Looked at as an emergency response, WFH can be deemed successful: it helped to flatten the transmission curve of the virus and protected employee lives.

But as we enter one of the most complex and challenging business climates in a century, survival will be about being competitive. And that fundamentally changes the criteria to judge working from home during COVID-19 and whether it should be expanded as a post-pandemic strategy. It raises the bar from "did work-from-home work?" to "did it work better?"; will increasing remote work help to deliver competitive advantage better than having people together in the workplace? That requires a deeper exploration.

Digital breadcrumbs

Work-from-home during COVID is, at heart, a technology story — from the platforms that virtually connected employees to networks and each other, to the embrace of video conferencing and the overnight ubiquity of the Zoom call. While they all existed before COVID, the pandemic acted as a catalyst for their widespread adoption.

Technology use leaves trails of data, like digital breadcrumbs, and many of the collaborative platforms and software providers are generously sharing their data comparing use patterns before and during COVID. So while not too long ago our evaluative methods for this unprecedented period of remote work would have relied largely on subjective or anecdotal measures, today we're able to follow the breadcrumbs and arrive at a more objective understanding of how work changed in this shift from office to home.

What becomes abundantly clear is that it wasn't simply a location swap; we didn't just go about our jobs in the same way at home as we did in the office. There were fundamental and very impactful shifts in the way we worked, with significant implications for business performance.

For instance:

The number of meetings increased. While there is a wide range of percentage increases being reported, even just taking a more conservative estimate, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the number of meetings went up by 13 percent as compared to pre-COVID patterns.

Meetings turned inward. Since people weren't together physically, they needed to check-in a lot more often. Internal meetings—those with people within the same company — increased to over 60 percent of overall weekly meetings during work-from-home, while meetings with people external to the organization decreased to just below 40 percent, according to analysis by a leading meeting software platform.

Meeting purpose changed. Meetings can largely be grouped into three categories: evaluative — considering options, making decisions; generative — brainstorming, creating new ideas; or organizational — coordinating tasks, reporting. Organizational meetings increased by nearly a third during the peak COVID lockdown.Put another way, during WFH, people had more meetings to talk about doing work and fewer meetings to actually do work.

Meetings got larger. The number of meeting attendees during WFH increased by 14 percent. When people are physically together in the office, more meetings are impromptu, typically involving two to four people. But when you plan meetings in advance, which people have to do when remote, there's a tendency to invite more people. Increasing participants changes meeting dynamics — the more people, the more formal, the more likely it's one-way communication.

Emails to coworkers increased. With the loss of a centralized office and face-to-face interactions, people increased both the number of internal emails they sent by 5.2 percent, as well as the number of people they included in emails by 2.9 percent.

Employees felt less informed. A smartsheet survey showed that despite the increase in virtual meetings and email communication, 60 percent of the workforce reported having a decreased sense of what's going on within their companies, revealing the isolating effect of remote work.

Productive time decreased. With the increase in number of meetings, large swaths of productive time were harder to come by. Calendar analysis revealed that fragmented time—short periods of unscheduled time between meetings—increased by 11 percent during COVID-19.While not ideal for anyone, fragmented time is especially problematic for non-managerial staff, whose job roles tend to entail more individual focus work; it only takes a few poorly spread out meetings to render a day largely unproductive. The result? The work day increased by as much as 3 hours at the height of WFH per Bloomberg report.

Video was a boon…and then quickly a bane. Video conference platforms saw exponential increase in use during COVID, and seemed at first to offer a close substitute for face-to-face meetings. But the way video is synthesized introduces distortions and lags, and even an undetectable misalignment of video and audio confuses the brain, making it work harder, as outlined in the New York Times.People found themselves exhausted after a day of video calls and the scientifically-verified phenomenon "Zoom Fatigue" was born.

Social capital decreased. Socializing has never been something people regularly schedule into their workday; it's very much an ad hoc work mode: a conversation on the elevator or chatting before and after meetings. Those types of unplanned interactions weren't possible working-from-home, and despite admirable attempts to interact virtually, 63 percent of workers reported spending less time socializing with colleagues, and already by April, 75 percent of people reported feeling less connected to coworkers.

Companies became more siloed. According to research by Ben Waber at Humanyze, during WFH we increased communication with our closest work colleagues — team members or close friends at work — by 33 percent. Communication with coworkers outside our inner circle, so-called "weak ties", dropped by nearly the same amount. The problem with that is interactions with weak ties are one of the most effective ways new ideas spread through an organization. When we talk to people we have don't know well or don't see often, it's just much more likely something new is shared.

Innovation is at risk

Taken individually, the changes to work patterns that occurred with WFH might not seem dire — work got done, if not ideally so. But layered on top of each other, the picture is more grim; we had more meetings and our days got more fragmented; we met less with people outside our company; internally, we met less to generate new ideas and more to just coordinate and organize tasks; we became more siloed, we socialized less and felt less connected to each other, and less aware of what was happening within our companies.

What that combination puts most at risk is innovation, arguably the thing companies are going to need most to face the challenges ahead. Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford and internationally recognized scholar on innovation, posits that while we were able to remain productive working-from-home, there may be a steep opportunity cost paid down the line: "I fear this collapse in office face time will lead to a slump in innovation. The new ideas we are losing today could show up as fewer new products in 2021 and beyond, lowering long-run growth."

The workplace advantage

The ways work changed when we tried to do it from home reaffirms why the workplace is even more relevant now, at a time when organizations are going to need to be firing on all cylinders. And it shows that we haven't just been working at the office to bide our time until technology allowed us to ditch it and work from home; we work at the office because doing so delivers higher performance.

Far from irrelevant, today's workplace has evolved to support and foster precisely the behaviors and interactions that are missing in remote work: bringing people together to work side-by-side, to be immersed in the culture of the organization, to socialize, to build trust, and to learn from each other.

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Erik Lucken is strategy director at San Francisco-based IA Interior Architects, which has projects and clients based in Houston.