A local church deploying handwashing stations across town was one of this year's top social impact stories on InnovationMap. Photo by Nijalon Dunn

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. InnovationMap's most read articles regarding social impact innovation include a new incubator program from impactful startups, a church providing handwashing stations for Houston's homeless, and more.

Local organization creates handwashing stations for Houston's homeless communities

A local church is deploying handwashing stations across town. Photo by Nijalon Dunn

When the coronavirus forced the closure of restaurants, stores, and community centers, it disproportionally affected the health of a population of people: The homeless.

Homeless individuals are acutely vulnerable amid the public health and hygiene concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic, says Houstonian Nijalon Dunn. These communities of people have been left without immediate access to soap and clean water, especially with the closure of local businesses whose restrooms sometimes served as individuals' only sources of clean water.

"[Local businesses are] where people were able to use the restroom, wash their hands and have access to soap and water," Dunn says. "Take public restrooms away, now you have an increase in public urination and people using the restroom outside. Not only that, but people aren't washing their hands because of a lack of education and awareness about social distancing and hygiene practices."

Observing this effect of the virus, a group of Houstonians pulled together their skills and resources to provide handwashing stations across the city for Houston's homeless population.

Rise Houston Church, a local organization servicing inner-city Houston, is behind the initiative. Eager to help the community during the coronavirus pandemic, Rise Houston's pastor Stan DePue proposed the idea of building and distributing handwashing stations that would provide clean water and soap to homeless communities. Click here to continue reading.

Houston area high school students develop innovations to help  in coronavirus crisis response

Teens at a local school took initiative to create entrepreneurial solutions amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photo courtesy of The Village School

Some Houston-area high school students have stepped up to help their community during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The students have worked on two separate teams to create an intubation box to reduce the spread of COVID-19 from patients to healthcare workers and SpeeDelivery, an app that delivers food for at-risk individuals.

The students from The Village School in the Energy Corridor, known for its unique and enriching IB diploma, are getting support from school educators. The two projects grew naturally from the interests of the high school juniors, who wanted to do anything that could help others during this crisis.

"Our teachers have been very supportive have really enjoyed having the opportunity to see the students," says TeKedra Pierre, director of experiential learning at The Village School. "It's hard enough to teach virtually but with platforms like Zoom, Google classroom, and other platforms that they have been using to communicate and make sure that our students are still doing well."

The students created the intubation box out of clear plastic with two areas of access so that doctors can put their hands through it and intubate a patient who needs a ventilator. The box prevents exposure to the virus which can be passed in microdroplets from patients to healthcare workers. Click here to continue reading.

Houston nonprofit introduces new startup incubator ahead of impact-focused innovation week

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, introduced a new program for startups. Courtesy of Grace Rodriguez

Impact Hub Houston — the local chapter of a nonprofit focused on supporting startups in the social impact space — has a lot on its plate this month.

Not only is next week The Houston Innovation Summit — the fourth annual week of entrepreneurship programming — as well as the second annual Climathon, but the organization has also just launched a new business incubator program.

Accelerate is a program that Impact Hub has offered across 17 international markets. Houston's new chapter already has a few Houston startups involved — including Potentia Workforce and McMac CX. Structured as an ongoing accelerator with mentorship, education, and support, the program is currently accepting new members.

"We actually sit down with each new Accelerate member and then go through a diagnostic interview to help them understand what stage they're at," says Grace Rodriquez, CEO and executive director of Houston Impact Hub. "And then we create a development strategy with them."

Whether the Accelerate member needs one-on-one mentorship, specialized education, or more, the program match makes each member's needs. EY is a network partner and — since everything is virtual — member companies have access to international experts through Impact Hub and its partners' networks.

"The ideal entrepreneur for the Accelerate membership is somebody who has already developed a solution — at least an MVP — for their social venture, whether it's a product or a service," Rodriguez says. Click here to continue reading.

Growing Houston thrift startup aims to impact the unsustainability of the fashion industry

Houston-based Goodfair takes clothing that would otherwise end up in landfills and turns it into a "mystery shopping" thrift experience. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

A Houston-based online retailer for second-hand clothing is quickly growing, aiming to make "No New Things" the mantra of the fashion world.

As the popularity of "Fast Fashion," or cheap clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers, begins to decline, brands are refocusing on upcycled, recycled, and sustainable clothing — and Goodfair has bet its business plan on this movement.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild."

The fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics according to a report from Business Insider in October 2019. Additionally, the outlet reports that 85 percent of all textiles go to the dump every year.

"Still, we have an enormous demand for these clothes that are being thrown away and that demand is just being filled by more cheap new clothes at malls and things like that, instead of reintroducing second-hand clothes," says Luciani. "I've been working really hard on creating a way to make a frictionless process for reintroducing those clothes." Click here to continue reading.

New program at Rice University to educate corporate leaders on innovation

A new program within Rice University's Executive Education school will foster education for corporate innovation. Photo courtesy of Rice

As important as it is to foster innovation among startups, there's another side of the equation that needs to be addressed, and a new program at Rice University plans to do exactly that.

Executive Education at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, which creates peer-based learning and professional programs for business leaders, has created a new program called Corporate Innovation. The program came about as Executive Education, which has existed since the '70s, has evolved over the past few years to create courses and programs that equip business leaders with key management tools in a holistic way.

"We realized we need to open the innovation box," says Zoran Perunovic, director of Executive Education and is also a member of the Innovation Corridor committee and a mentor at TMCx.

The program, which is open for registration and will take place September 28-30, will flip the script on how innovation is normally discussed and observed and instead take a holistic approach to innovation in a corporate setting.

"In the innovation space, you have two lines — one is the entrepreneurial and the other is happening in large, established organizations," Perunovic tells InnovationMap. "The mechanisms of innovation within in those companies are different than the entrepreneurial." Click here to continue reading.

Investor Jason Calacanis lent his time and expertise to seven Houston startups. Photo via twitter.com/houex

7 Houston entrepreneurs pitch their companies to famed Silicon Valley investor

#HTXTechRodeo

Imagine having to pitch your company to a famed investor who has made investments in over 200 companies — seven of which achieved unicorn status. Now, imagine having to do that onstage in front of an audience — in person and virtually viewing.

That was seven Houston entrepreneurs' morning on March 4 during Houston Tech Rodeo. Jason Calacanis heard from the founders and gave his feedback on their business models, as well as general pitch advice. While some of his notes were in the realm of constructive criticism, he stayed pretty positive — for the most part.

"If you're a founder, you're signing up for a 70 percent failure. It's basically a suicide mission, except you don't actually die. You just hit the reset button and go again," Calacanis says to the crowd.

Calacanis also has a great deal of optimism for the region itself, noting on the potential of the innovation ecosystem, and, as an aside, the local basketball team.

"There's no reason Houston as big as a center as Austin has become," Calacanis says. "All it takes is for some of the rich people to say, 'instead of investing in some bond or Wall Street somewhere where they don't know what's going on and to take it and pay it forward with an entrepreneur."

Here are the seven Houston companies that pitched fir Calacanis, as well as some of his feedback.

Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair

goodfair

Houston-based Goodfair sells bundles of used clothing at a low cost. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

Kicking things off was Topper Luciani, CEO and founder of Goodfair, CEO and founder of Goodfair. On a mission to counteract the pollution of fast fashion, the company, which launched in 2018, sells second-hand clothing using "mystery shopping," shipping all of their clothing in variety packs chosen according to a customer's size and taste. This eliminates the cost of photographing, measuring, lowering the price for both the customer and the company.

"Climate chance is Gen Z's crisis, and they are our customers," Luciani tells Calacanis and the crowd.

Goodfair expects to do $5 million in revenue this year, as well as raise its seed round. Calacanis give Luciani advice to make sure he answers the question of, in a world with recycled clothing stores and a growing need for environmentalism, why now?

Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio

Balancing is important throughout your life, and Zibrio has the tools and tips for you to use to stay centered. Pexels

From NASA to your bathroom floor — Katharine Forth, CEO and founder of Zibrio, has found a new way to track balance. With her company, people can have the everyday ability to figure out how balanced they are on scale of 1 to 10. The scale gathers data from your weight, your postural control, your muscles and other factors to calculate the rating.

But Forth's business is split between two products — a consumer-focused scale and a scale made for medical professionals to use. Calacanis says it's one scale too many and to focus on just one for now. He compared the company to if Uber tried to launch its upgrades its made over the years all at once.

"You're coming out of the gate with UberPool and UberBlack. Big mistake," he says.

Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc

vinesleuth

Houston-based VineSleuth created a custom algorithm to match you with new wines based on wines you've had in the past. Courtesy of VineSleuth

Picking wine out isn't rocket science, and yet, "confusion is costing the industry billions," says Amy Gross, founder and CEO, VineSleuth Inc. The company's custom algorithm is backed by research from sensory scientists at Cornell University, and relies on both data collection and machine learning to determine specific wines that will match an individual customer's tastes.

The B2B approach has launched in a few restaurants around town and, as of this week, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's Wine Garden. But how Gross is currently approaching business isn't exactly attractive to investors.

"The business comes across as a small niche business, which is going to cause investors to run," Calacanis explains.

His advice is to use the technology to prove to restaurants and bars that they are overpaying for their wines.

Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder, Zenus Biometrics

Zenus Biometrics uses its facial recognition software to provide seamless check in at events around the world. Courtesy of Zenus Biometrics

What started as a convenient way to check into events is now a facial recognition solution to event data. Zenus Biometrics can scan faces of event attendees for security — but also for data analytics, says Panos Moutafis, CEO and co-founder.

While the tech company has already evolved, Calacanis saw even more potential for the software, comparing it to the iPhone. The device is used more for a camera and app usage than an actual phone.

"As technologists we build something," Calacanis says. "Then we find out what people actually use it for."

While based in Houston now, Moutafis mentions that he will soon be relocated to Austin.

Safir Ali, co-founder and CEO of Hamper

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Safir Ali grew up in his parents' dry cleaning store, and he observed that the biggest inconvenience for customers was them trying to make it to the cleaners to get their clothes before it closed. His company, Hamper, aims to provide a solution as "the Red Box of dry cleaning." Customers can deposit their dry cleaning in a kiosk in their office building, and it will be delivered to pick-up locations.

Calacanis liked that Ali has a background in the dry cleaning business."It takes somebody who is so obsessed that they aren't going to give up," he says, adding that he liked Ali's story.

"When you have something new – something that's novel, you could get a lot of attention," Calacanis says. "For things that are not novel, you have to use performance. You have to use the metrics."

Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, Trumbull Unmanned

Trumbull Unmanned equips energy companies with data-retrieving drones. Photo via trumbullunmanned.com

Trumbull Unmanned has created an enterprise software company to analyze data collected from drones flying over oil and gas sites. The technology allows workers to maintain a safe distance and still collect the information needed. Dyan Gibbens, founder and CEO, has secured some impressive contracts with companies, including Exxon.

Calacanis asked Gibbens about those contracts and how much they were usually for, but didn't like her first answer.

"Every answer we get as investors is, 'It depends,'" Calacanis says, explaining a "pro tip" for entrepreneurs. " You want to lead with some examples and get some ground truth. Sell us that ground truth."

Calacanis' next piece of advice for Gibbens was to add a second set of data collecting technology, such as a moisture sensor or heat sensor, creating two sets of data for clients.

"Being agnostic to how you solve the problem is [a big opportunity]. Also, that becomes an upsell," Calacanis says.

Ksenia Yudina, founder and CEO, UNest

UNest is a tax-free way to save money for your children's education. Photo via unestapp.com

UNest is using user-friendly app technology to set up college funds for millennial parents. And Founder Ksenia Yudina has gotten some great reception, which has caused financial advisers to take note and even reach out. But Calacanis says they are, in a way, the enemy for her product and she needs to not spread out her resources trying to partner with financial advisers.

"Part of being a successful founder is knowing what you need more and what to stay focused on," Calacanis says. "If you remain a product that people like, everyone is going to drown you in opportunities. And as CEO you have to know when to say no."

Yael Katz, Topper Luciani, and Dorit Donoviel are this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston is full of innovative people looking to make an impact — whether it's in the health tech, fashion, or science industries.

This week's innovators to know represent different industries within Houston, but they are all looking to leave a legacy in making a difference.

Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck

Photo courtesy of BrainCheck

Yael Katz has seen the company she co-founded grow tenfold in its almost five years, and now she's watching that growth from a corner office with a great view of Houston.

BrainCheck, a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health, has moved into a new office space in the West University area following a series A round of fundraising.

"It's pretty exciting to have reached this milestone where we need more space," Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, tells InnovationMap. "We were pretty much bursting at the seams in our old office." Read more.

Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair

Photo courtesy of Goodfair

With the rise of fast fashion — in which huge clothing lines rapidly produce cheap clothing for consumers, humans are cycling through clothing at a detrimental rate.

According to a report from Business Insider, the fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Houston-based Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild." Read more.

Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

Libby Neder Photography

On the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Dorit Donoviel speaks of space health needs in ways that sound like futuristic science fiction. However, the director of the Translational Research Institute of Space Health is actively seeking solutions for issues and needs for living in space.

TRISH works hand in hand with NASA's Human Research Program to identify the program's biggest concerns, and then tap into professors, researchers, and scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, and other partners in order to innovate solutions.

"Everyone tosses the word 'innovation' around, but that means, to us, taking risks in science. Health care, in particular, is very risk averse, but the space industry is taking risks every single day when they put people in a rocket and hurl them into space," Donoviel says on the podcast. "If we're going to mars, for example, we are going to put people at risk." Read more.

Houston-based Goodfair takes clothing that would otherwise end up in landfills and turns it into a "mystery shopping" thrift experience. Photo courtesy of Goodfair

Growing Houston thrift startup aims to impact the unsustainability of the fashion industry

do goodfair

A Houston-based online retailer for second-hand clothing is quickly growing, aiming to make "No New Things" the mantra of the fashion world.

As the popularity of "Fast Fashion," or cheap clothing produced rapidly by mass-market retailers, begins to decline, brands are refocusing on upcycled, recycled, and sustainable clothing — and Goodfair has bet its business plan on this movement.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild."

The fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics according to a report from Business Insider in October 2019. Additionally, the outlet reports that 85 percent of all textiles go to the dump every year.

"Still, we have an enormous demand for these clothes that are being thrown away and that demand is just being filled by more cheap new clothes at malls and things like that, instead of reintroducing second-hand clothes," says Luciani. "I've been working really hard on creating a way to make a frictionless process for reintroducing those clothes."

Luciani, tells InnovationMap that he predicts the size of the recycled clothing industry will grow to $51 billion by 2023. Following in the footsteps of second-hand online retail giants such as thredUP and Poshmark, Luciani takes things to the next level by focusing on adding ease to the online shopping experience, telling InnovationMap that it should be as easy as clicking one button.

The idea of Goodfair was surprisingly not inspired by the apparel industry at all. Luciani tells InnovationMap that he was influenced by the founder of Uber, Garret Camp, and Camp's idea for a one-click car service.

"Their whole concept was to just hit a button and a taxi comes, says Luciani. "I wanted to look at a thrift store through that lens."

Goodfair, which launched in 2018, adds to the trend of second-hand clothing with the introduction of "mystery shopping," shipping all of their clothing in variety packs chosen according to a customer's size and taste. This eliminates the cost of photographing, measuring, lowering the price for both the customer and the company.

"I had this idea that not only would mystery shopping eliminate the paradox of choice, but everyone loves a surprise," he tells InnovationMap.

Luciani tells InnovationMap that he sees a trend among Gen Z, individuals born between 1995–2009, for buying second-hand, noting that about 90 percent of Goodfair customers are between the ages of 18 and 25. thredUP also reports that Gen Z and Millennials are driving the growth of used clothing retailers, noting that "18–37 year-olds are adopting second-hand clothing 2.5 times faster than other age groups" in the company's 2019 Resale Report.

"This was the generation that was forged in the Great Recession and they saw the ills of decadence," says Luciani. "They saw the ills of not having financial literacy. Ultimately, these woke kids are aware that branding is kind of a heist."

Goodfair taps into this market, leaning into social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat to promote the company. The company recently kicked off an Instagram series called "In the racks, in the rags" where followers can win a random item from their warehouse, located in Houston's East End.

Goodfair joins the growing roster of local companies focused on sustainable fashion. For example, Magpies & Peacocks, the nation's only nonprofit design house, opened a new store in the East End last year. Houston is home to a number of brick-and-mortar stores which line Westheimer Boulevard in the heart of the city, including Buffalo Exchange, Leopard Lounge, Pavement, and LO-FI.

Luciani, who moved to Houston from Brooklyn, New York, leads Goodfair with Emily Keeton, COO. Keeton joined the company in October 2019, leaving her previous leadership role at WeWork. The company announced in January 2020 that they will be adding a vice president of marketing to the team.

In the coming years, Luciani tells InnovationMap that he hopes to launch an app for the brand, and also expand into offering other goods.

"I have a vision of essentially creating a used Amazon," says Luciani, "Everything that gets donated to thrift stores can get donated in this mystery mechanic."

Luciani has a long history in the textile industry. In 2004 while in college, he launched a men's polo shirt brand, Sir Drake.

"When I reflected on the experience and as I educated myself about the clothing industry, this was right when fast fashion was taking off, I realized that if I launched another fashion brand that I would just be contributing to industrial pollution problem," he says.

He tells InnovationMap that he then started selling used neckties on eBay, launching his mission with sustainable fashion.

"We expect that a year from now we will be generating five times the sales we did in 2019 and become a multi-million dollar business," Luciani says.

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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.