This week's Houston innovators to know includes Lenny Saizan of Urban Capital Network, Katie Eick of Rollin' Vets, and Tony Loyd of AECOM. Courtesy photos

Editor'snote: This year has made for some pivotal moments for various Houston companies across industries. For some, the pandemic has meant reevaluating their business plans or increased a need for their product or service. For others, social unrest has called for systemic change. Technology emerges for these needs. This week's Houston innovators are addressing these needs with their innovative efforts.

Lenny Saizan, co-founder and managing partner

Lenny Saizan — along with three other Houston innovation leaders — founded Urban Capital Network to increase diversity and inclusion within the venture capital space. Photo via urbancapitalnetwork.com

While venture capital firms usually operate in a similar structure, Lenny Saizan and his co-founders wanted to set up Urban Capital Network differently in order to "democratize access to premium VC-backed investments," Saizan says. UCN invests into VCs that meet their diversity and inclusion requirements as a limited partner, but then also invests directly into startups as a sort of hybrid investor.

"We take a portion of our proceeds and invest in entrepreneurs of color, and we also donate to nonprofits that provide support resources for those entrepreneurs," Saizan says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're completing the cycle. We find that it's easier to go to a VC and offer to give them money and also help them diversify their investor portfolio."

Saizan shares more about the group in the podcast episode and discusses what they've already accomplished in just a few months. Read more.

Katie Eick, founder of Rollin' Vets

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

Katie Eick founded her mobile vet company in 2016 after years of wanting to be able to provide the type and level of service she has now at Rollin' Vets. While convenience technologies like delivery apps buoyed her company's steady growth, the pandemic really established market need for her business model.

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

Now, she plans to adopt a franchising model and is planning an expansion into San Antonio and Dallas before going national. Read more.

Tony Loyd, vice president at AECOM

Just like Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 is causing Houstonians to rethink how they operate — and that tech and innovation inversion is opening the door to new opportunities. CourtesyPhoto

COVID-19 is affecting the evolution of technology — it's as simple as that, according to Tony Loyd. And it's not the first time — nor the last — that consumer needs affect tech innovation.

"Could COVID-19 be triggering an inversion paradigm? An inversion paradigm puts needs first rather than product first," writes Loyd in a guest column for InnovationMap. "We have experienced many historic technology inversions. Remember when our televisions were air-wave dependent and telephones were tethered to the wall? Because the need evolved for a phone that was mobile, today our TV's are wired, and our telephones are untethered." Read more.

Just like Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 is causing Houstonians to rethink how they operate — and that tech and innovation inversion is opening the door to new opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Houston primed for opportunity within the tech inversion caused by the pandemic

Guest column

For has long as I can remember, I had to live near water. That's why I moved to Houston. Recently, new neighbors moved next door from the downtown Galleria area. They loved it there until coronavirus turned shopping habits into stay-at-home habits. The experience led them to recognize they could do just fine without the Galleria-area routine, pivoting instead to a maritime lifestyle.

Could COVID-19 be triggering an inversion paradigm? An inversion paradigm puts needs first rather than product first. We have experienced many historic technology inversions. Remember when our televisions were air-wave dependent and telephones were tethered to the wall? Because the need evolved for a phone that was mobile, today our TV's are wired, and our telephones are untethered.

This technology inversion fundamentally found its way to the individual consumer and transformed entire industries. Houston businesses are responding to a rare COVID-19-induced disruption. Inversions are rare, but when they occur, opportunity follows.

Large infrastructure challenges are normally led by bureaucratic funding processes that result in productized solutions. Hurricane Harvey was a wake-up call to take decisive action to protect decades of private and public investment against future flood events. It was an analogue to removing the board with the nail in it from the driveway to avoid endless tire repairs.

Now, Houston's resilience infrastructure is going through a Hurricane Harvey-induced inversion. The fundamental approach to water management is experiencing a historic reversal which focuses on need rather than a response cycle. Largely dependent on surface run-off systems, Houston experienced a river running through it during Hurricane Harvey. In response, studies and projects are underway to consider a major underground storm drainage system. Water management is fundamentally changing to move stormwater from above ground to below grade, while domestic water is moving away from underground sources to surface supplies, such as lakes. These programs reduce threats to downtown, allowing urbanism and businesses to flourish, simply by addressing a human need in lieu of building another drainage product.

Fortunately for the Houston economy, pre-COVID, quasi-inversion programs already in place to address mobility needs, such as the $7.5 billion METRONext program and $4.8 billion for flood control essentials, are injecting billions of dollars into the local economy. At the federal level, future stimulus funding designed to address infrastructure needs and the economic impact of Coronavirus are likely to follow next year. Consequently, the current Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 inversion could position Houston to rebound from a time of trial reimagining what a next generation city in the modern age should look like.

Graphic courtesy of AECOM

In fact, infrastructure programs have a long history of creating sustainable jobs and transforming cities. Did you know the River Walk in San Antonio, a downtown centerpiece that thrives today and contributes to thousands of job opportunities, was a construction project born during the Great Depression to address a disastrous flood occurring in the early 1920s? San Antonio architect Robert H. H. Hugman was elected to address a need to save lives and reimagine San Antonio's downtown. The city was altered forever by creating a flood resilience infrastructure that also transformed its city center into a civic gathering place that made San Antonio one of the largest destination cities in Texas.

While technology inversions are occurring more often than before, they are still rare, and each one is very important. Infrastructure inversions that transform cites are even more exceptional. In a COVID-19-induced inversion period, the possibilities are limitless, and the time is now. With programs underway and potential stimulus funding to support additional investment to address city needs, Houston is positioned for something amazing.

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Tony Loyd is based in Houston and vice president at AECOM.

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Texas ranks as top state for interest in AI-related job postings

eye on AI

If internet search volume is an accurate barometer, Texas is a hotbed for interest in artificial intelligence jobs.

An analysis by Agility Writer, whose technology helps users produce AI-generated content, shows Texas ranks second among the states with the highest monthly search volume for AI-related jobs. The analysis puts Texas’ monthly search volume at 1,300, with California sitting in first place at 1,900 monthly searches.

“As the AI revolution continues to gain momentum, the geographic distribution of interest in AI careers is likely to evolve further, with states investing in AI education and fostering supportive ecosystems poised to reap the benefits of this transformative technology,” says Adam Yong, CEO of Agility Writer.

The analysis cites Amazon, Apple, and Tesla as three of the major employers in Texas pursuing AI initiatives.

Dice.com, a search engine for tech jobs, says AI roles that are in high demand include machine learning engineer, data scientist, AI research scientist, and robotics engineer.

“Looking forward, the demand for AI professionals is expected to intensify as technologies continue to advance and integrate into everyday business processes and consumer products. AI is not just creating jobs but also transforming them, requiring workers to adapt by gaining new skills,” says Dice.com.

A January 2024 report from career platform LinkedIn found that AI consultant and AI engineer are two of the 25 fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. this year. Most of these roles are concentrated in San Francisco, New York City, Washington, D.C.-Baltimore, and Boston, according to the report.

On the flip side, some analysts predict millions of jobs will be affected by or even lost to AI. For example, research from investment banking giant Goldman Sachs indicates roughly two-thirds of U.S. occupations “are exposed to some degree of automation by AI.”

A study released in 2023 by Chamber of Commerce, a business research company, anticipates as many as 12 percent of Houston-area workers could lose their jobs by 2027 due to AI.

"AI and technology in general may be taking certain jobs away, and yet we also see how it is changing the nature of jobs and even organizations and professions. In the ever-changing arena of AI, employees, job-seekers, and students will continue to adapt and learn new job skills that align with and anticipate workforce needs,” AI expert Fred Oswald, the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice University and a professor of psychological sciences, said in a 2023 news release.

Here's what it's like using new connection-focused app that just launched in Houston

Branching out

Editor's note: CultureMap Austin editor Brianna Caleri recently attended a dinner arranged by Timeleft, an app that helps people meet each other. The app just launched in Houston — read about Brianna's experience using the app below.

Conventional wisdom — if I may be so bold as to define it — would suggest that people who want to make friends should: select a genuine interest, join a group centered around it, and keep attending meetings. I have not quite been sold on the generic women's group meetups I see on Facebook; and even the most passionate conversations about my ramen bar neighbor's favorite noodle dishes at have never led us to hang out a second time.

I tend to look for friends who will suggest ethical shopping alternatives, make impassioned, over-intellectualized art recommendations, and stay up late workshopping existential dread. But I recognize that's a lot to ask after one dinner.

Thus, I was both surprised and not surprised at all to really enjoy Austin's second-ever Timeleft dinner, a lightly match-made night out for strangers. I don't think I've discovered a new portal to jump into and skip all the awkward early stages of making adult friends, but I had an energizing night with people who impressed me with their social ease and willingness.

The setup
When someone signs up for the French app Timeleft, they are greeted with a pleasantly detailed, yet broad personality test. First, a this-or-that rapid fire: things like, "Do you consider yourself more of a smart person or funny person?" (Smart.) "Would you rather listen to rock or rap?" (Rock.) "Are your opinions usually guided by logic and facts, or emotions and feelings?" (Tough, but I chose logic.) Next is a 1-10 rating scale in areas like intro/extroversion, stress, spirituality, loneliness, creativity, and habits.

Some of these, like "I enjoy going out with friends" and "How important is family to you?", felt neat and inspired concise answers. Others, like "I enjoy politically incorrect humor" and "I enjoy discussing politics/news," felt like minefields. I do enjoy a wicked joke, but are we talking politically incorrect like The Office, or politically incorrect like I got kicked out of my bookclub and believe no one can take a joke anymore? I selected 3 for political incorrectness, and 8 for discussing news and politics, angling hard toward sensitivity and away from potential, if unlikely belligerence.

According to Timeleft, its algorithm considers these answers and a few other logistics to pair users with a restaurant and with each other, resulting in two medium-size tables at each. Our group of seven met at 68 Degrees Kitchen in East Austin; It would have been eight, but one didn't show up. A Timeleft representative says the app overbooked from the intended five, expecting that some people would not show.

Quoted from Timeleft's algorithm explanation, it focuses on these "main ingredients":

  • "Language: Select yours for fluid dialogue[...]"
  • "Balance: A balanced mix of men and women. Note that Timeleft is favored by women, who often make up over 60 percent of participants (thus 4 per table). [Note: Although Timeleft only mentions men and women on this list, it also offered a nonbinary gender marker)"
  • "Temperament: A mix of introverts and extroverts for a balanced rhythm."
  • "Generation: An age gap of five to seven years for common life echoes."

Before we met, we got to see a basic rundown of who would be joining, detailing profession, nationality, and zodiac signs. (Not my ideal trifecta, considering that six-sevenths of us were American, and I'm fairly confident in my ability to interact with people born on any day.) I don't think it's incredibly open-minded of me, but I did feel slightly nervous that half the group worked in tech; I like tech workers, but can't say I really relate.

The dinner
An unexpected point of beauty in the often overwrought world of app-coordinated socializing: Beyond matching us and making our reservation, Timeleft left us to a normal dinner. We ordered from the regular menu, sat among the regular clientele, and handled the payment ourselves, opting to get in a group chat and Venmo one person for one clean bill. It offered a "game," which was really just a list of conversation topics; We only got through two before the topic changing ran cheerfully rampant.

A group of seven — although it did increase the likelihood that we would all like at least one of our companions — was perhaps a bit too large to get to know anyone especially well. We talked as a large group about as much as we split into side conversations. That was perfectly doable, but it made me wish a few times that we had a quiet table of three or four, where we didn't have to raise our voices past each other or inelegantly shift our attention from one conversation to the next.

We discovered a fair amount in common: places lived, schools attended, foods loved, places traveled, parties and underground scenes frequented. Although some of it dipped very lightly into taboos (Who has been to sex clubs? Who has been kicked out of restaurants?), most of these were surface-level parallels.

I learned that one of my dinner mates shared my lack of enthusiasm for school spirit as a concept, but couldn't say whether it was simply noncommittal or deep-rooted antiestablishmentarianism. I learned that at least one of my dinner mates likes to do yoga, but I don't know if they prefer to work up a sweat to EDM or study the Yoga Sutras.

It would be hard to suss out many of the deeper values behind these things, since seven people sitting at a dinner table together are generally trying to be agreeable — or at least entertaining. We're playing to the lowest common denominator, and we don't really know what our denominators are. We never found the gold thread running through — for instance, if we all rated our passion for working out similarly. But if we could narrow it down that much, it might be time to cut out the middle man and join a CrossFit gym.

The after-dinner drinks, and social patterns
After the small group dinners, all the diners from the various Timeleft tables in South and Central Austin were invited to meet up at Hold Out Brewing. Our group (less one person with a morning appointment) decided to head over. It was already 9:45 pm by the time we left the restaurant, having spent nearly 3 hours together already. We were surprised to see the dense crowd that gathered among the picnic tables.

In reporter mode, I started popping by different groups to find out how their night had gone. I talked to more than a dozen people, all of whom had entirely positive feedback about their evenings. The only criticism I heard was that one person felt the $16 "ticket" to the dinner (which was then priced à la carte) was a bit pricy.

Other groups went to Fresa's Chicken al Carbon, North Italia, and what I have to assume was QI Austin: Modern Asian Kitchen, although diners kept pronouncing it "key." Most groups had met members of the other table at the same restaurant, and some even wandered over during the dinner to see how the other half lived. Our group never found its counterpart.

It seemed to me that our group was objectively the most outgoing. Not only were we the last to arrive after our long dinner (as far as I noticed), but we were also (definitely) the last to leave the brewery. One duo from another group said theirs was a little awkward, in a pleasant way, so the two of them kept up most of the talking. One group said conversation flowed fairly easily, but when there was a lull, they returned to the provided conversation topics. It seemed about equally common to share meals or order for yourself, but our gang all shared everything.

Every group noticed their close ages beyond any other unifying factor. No one offered up any common threads, yet people responded in conversation as if they knew each other, with affectionate interjections like, "Of course he would say that!"

Brianna's gang at the Timeleft dinner in Austin. Photo by Brianna Caleri

Final impression
Most interesting to me was that nearly every single person I talked to all night, including in our own group, first heard about the dinner series on Instagram and just thought it sounded worth trying. Only one person specifically told me that they wanted to make new friends because theirs were mostly from work.

My biggest prejudice before the dinner was that the majority of attendees would either be new to Austin or in need of some outside help in making friends. I was right about the first thing; It seemed like most people had only been here a year or less.

But I was wrong about the second thing. In retrospect, it makes sense that a huge group of people who got together just to get together are deeply friendly. And while I still wouldn't expect long-lasting connections to come out of this Friendly People Convention, I can see that's not exactly what most people are aiming for, either.

The app has direct messaging, but I don't feel inclined to use it. Our group is already on an SMS thread, and I got so many new Instagram followers at the after-event that the next morning, I was not even sure who one of them was. We have started rating our compatibility on the app, and indicating who we would be open to seeing at future events, and who we wouldn't.

If I can have a silly dinner with someone who is investing in the world I want to see, I'll happily get silly. I'm sure some of the people I met yesterday are doing that, but I would have little way of knowing — or at least, a much harder time than if we had started on shared ground.

It's tempting, then, to see this as a way to meet people who are very different from you and expand your worldview. I do think it holds some promise for people who want to legitimately invest in becoming friends with each other and learning what's underneath the amiable surface, but I'm curious about where that sense of initiative will come from. Perhaps more regular dinners hold the answer.

I would be happy to see anyone I met yesterday again, if we end up in the same place at the same time. But I think my days of connecting with strangers over no common objective at all are limited.

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More information about Timeleft is available at timeleft.com, and the app is available via Apple's App Store and Google Play. Houston's next dinner happens Wednesday, June 19. Dinners happen weekly, and RSVPs must be made no later than Tuesday evening.

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston energy data software platform expands into Europe, hires new execs

making transatlantic moves

It's official. Houston-based, AI-powered electricity forecasting and analytics services company Amperon Holdings is live in Europe.

The expansion, which Co-Founder and CEO Sean Kelly previously told InnovationMap about, is official, the company announced this month. In addition to the expansion, Amperon announced Jon Ecker as general manager, Europe, and Kelsey Hultberg as executive vice president, communications, and chief of staff.

Now, European companies that buy and sell energy in the renewable energy producers, financial institutions, and utilities markets can leverage Amperon's platform of AI and machine learning technologies to access short- and long-term forecasts for their individual meters and generation assets.

“As a warmer-than-expected June ushers in a hot summer, and increasing uncertainty looms for the calmer fall months due to the influx of wind and solar generation, we are eager to assist our European customers in navigating the power market volatility caused by heat waves, extreme weather events, and shifts in power usage across the region,” Kelly says in a news release.

“Our cutting-edge AI models are enabling our North American customers to benefit from data and asset optimization, on-site solar to commercial load management, and backup generation and we’re excited to bring these tools to our European customers,” he continues.

Leading the new initiative for Amperon is Ecker , who previously served as an executive at energy market simulation software company Energy Exemplar and as CEO of real-time energy data provider Genscape, which is now owned by Wood Mackenzie. He also co-founded at Energy Velocity, an energy data and software company now owned by Hitachi Energy.

“Amperon is providing North American, and now European renewable energy markets, with the critical tools they need to optimize their clean energy operations and support grid reliability,” Ecker says in the release. “As Europe faces high temperatures and rising power demand this summer, power market participants will need precise energy forecasting, and Amperon is looking forward to delivering these critical tools to help participants succeed.”

Hultberg joins Amperon from Houston-based Sunnova Energy International, where she was executive vice president of corporate communications and sustainability.

Founded in 2018, Amperon closed its series B round at $20 million last fall. This year, the company Amperon announced that it replatformed its AI-powered energy analytics technology onto Microsoft Azure. The partnership with the tech giant allows Amperon's energy sector clients to use Microsoft's analytics stack with Amperon data.

"For Amperon, 2024 is the year of partnerships," Kelly shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I think you'll see partnership announcements here in the next couple of quarters."