This new service helps customers get simple, fast answers for travel questions at the airport. Photo courtesy of United Airlines

Houston travelers on United Airlines now have access to a new, virtual, on-demand customer service aimed at simple, contact-free, real-time information and support. The new feature is available at George Bush International Airport, as well as Chicago O'Hare, and will roll out to other hubs by the end of the year, according to a press release.

Dubbed Agent on Demand, the new United service is available on any mobile device to call, text, or video chat live with an agent. Customers can scan a QR code displayed on signage throughout United's hub airports, or access the platform through self-service kiosks. From there, customers will be connected to an agent by phone, chat or video, based on their preference, according to the airline.

Travelers can get answers on seat assignments, boarding times, upgrades, standby list, flight status, rebooking, and more. Agent on Demand is aimed at convenience; customers cab go virtual as opposed to standing in line for answers.

For international travelers, more than 100 languages will be available via chat. (Customers type in their preferred language and the messages will be automatically transcribed in English for the agents — and in the selected language for the customer.)

United is the first airline to debut this technology, which is aimed at safety during the pandemic and convenience, United notes in a press release.

"We know how important it is for our customers to have more options for a contactless travel experience and this tool makes it easy to quickly receive personalized support directly from a live agent at the airport while maintaining social distancing," said Linda Jojo, United's executive vice president for technology and chief digital officer, in a statement. "Agent on Demand allows customers to bypass waiting in line at the gate and seamlessly connect with customer service agents from their mobile device, ensuring they continue to receive the highest levels of service while also prioritizing their health and safety."

In late November, United announced the expansion of its customer COVID-19 testing efforts to include flights departing Houston to select destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based FlightAware, a software company that tracks flights, is growing. Cameron Casey/Pexels

Houston flight-tracking software company grows its local and international presence

taking flight

FlightAware LLC's business success has, for the most part, flown under the radar in Houston.

Many travelers know about the B2C flight-tracking functionality of FlightAware. "That's a very, very competitive space. We play in that space, but it's not our core business," founder and CEO Daniel Baker says.

These days, the privately held Houston company earns most its revenue from the B2B data it provides to airlines and other aviation clients, according to Baker. He declines to reveal revenue figures, but notes that the company — which bills itself as the world's largest flight-tracking and flight data platform — hasn't taken a penny of outside funding since it started in 2005.

Today, FlightAware employs about 110 people, with the majority of them located in Houston, Baker says. The company also maintains offices in Austin, New York City, London, and Singapore.

By the end of 2020, the companywide workforce should exceed 135, as FlightAware aims to add three new hires per month this year in areas such as Internet of Things, data science, sales, and administration, Baker says. Most of the new employees will work in Houston.

Baker says FlightAware takes an aggressive approach to hiring, with the goal of bringing aboard "really awesome people" who share levels of talent, collaboration, and "culture fit" similar to those of current employees.

By the end of 2021, FlightAware likely will run out of room in its 24,000-square-foot office at 11 Greenway Plaza in the Greenway/Upper Kirby area, Baker says. That means FlightAware will need to take about 15,000 additional square feet at 11 Greenway Plaza or relocate to a different building, he says. The company moved into its current home in 2017 from a 14,000-square-foot office at 8 Greenway Plaza.

Baker, who's a private pilot and a board member of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, launched the company 15 years ago as a way to combine two passions: software development and aviation.

"It was originally a hobby, and it became a business," Baker says. "It's an unlikely story. We're really, really fortunate that the timing was right."

Although FlightAware started off tracking flights in the general aviation space, it has since expanded to supply aviation data to both travelers and businesses. Each month, about 15 million passengers use the FlightAware app, which earns praise from a slew of travel critics.

Among flight-tracking apps, FlightAware "is a bit of a Swiss army knife," Condé Nast Traveler magazine observes. The FlightAware app lets you follow flights in real time, including where an incoming plane is coming from, how close it is to arriving, and what kind of weather it's encountering en route, the magazine notes. In addition, the app can send push notifications about arrivals, departures, gate changes, flight delays, and flight cancellations.

Now, FlightAware relies on the consumer-facing technology "as a stepping stone to have a bigger impact," Baker says. "Every project that we undertake is larger than the last one."

That "bigger impact" involves cranking out data that enables commercial airlines, cargo carriers, business aviation companies, and air traffic controllers to be proactive instead of reactive regarding flight activity, he says.

FlightAware's corporate customers include United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, business-jet operator NetJets and GPS technology provider Garmin. Baker says a North American airline that he declines to name will soon roll out FlightAware technology to its airport gate agents.

For airlines, FlightAware's software delivers data to cut down, among other issues, on problems with flight delays, gate assignments, and flight connections, Baker says. FlightAware pulls data from its network of more than 25,000 receivers on all seven continents.

While the consumer-oriented features of FlightAware's technology face competition from the likes of FlightStats, FlightView, and The Flight Tracker, the B2B landscape is less populated. Over the years, corporate giants like Airbus, Boeing, and IBM have tackled aviation data on their own but have wound up forging data partnerships with FlightAware, according to Baker.

"We see every potential competitor as a future customer," Baker says.

Mario Diaz, CEO of the Houston Airport System addresses the crowd gathered to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary this weekend. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Overheard: Aerospace and airport VIPs commemorate Space City Month at IAH

Out of this world

Houston, we have liftoff of a space-filled weekend. Saturday, July 20, marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the moon, and that calls for a celebration, as well as a commemoration.

Houston First, Space Center Houston, NASA, and United Airlines teamed up to host an international delegation at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Terminal C on July 17. Various space or Space City VIPs took the stage to discuss their memories of the lunar landing and the role Houston played in the monumental event.

“Our hope is to be an airport system that reflects Houston’s role as a leader on the global stage and to have our city standing as truly international business and cultural center. With both Bush and Hobby airports having earned four-star ratings, we are built to meet those expectations.”

— Mario Diaz, executive director at Houston Airport System. Bush Intercontinental Airport is also celebrating its 50th anniversary since opening in 1969.

“It is the innovative spirit of the people of this city that help give the world our new perspective. We are all neighbors, and we must all face the future as one. How wonderful that understanding is now with Houston having become the nation’s most diverse city in the country with one in four Houstonians being foreign born.”

— Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, referencing a ranking released earlier this year.

“This week, we are celebrating this anniversary and time when we did so much more than we thought we could. … [the Apollo mission] was an inspiration to us then, and I think continues to be an inspiration to all of us even now.”

Peggy Whitson, former NASA astronaut who holds the record for the United States for her 665 days in space.

“Houston is the Space City, because the Johnson Space Center is the home of human space flight. As you know, ‘Houston’ was the very first word spoken from the surface of the moon. And, it wasn’t a fluke. They knew who they needed to talk to, and it was Houston.”

— Mark Geyer, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.

“In roughly three years, we will have astronauts back in the region of the moon — this time women and men. And soon after that, back onto the surface of the moon again in our mission called Artemis.”

— Geyer continues to say of NASA's lunar exploration plans.

“Just a few weeks ago, [Space Center Houston] inaugurated the completely restored mission control operations room from the Apollo era. We’ve done a restoration and taken it back to the 1960s, and it appears as if the flight controllers just got up to take a break.”

— William Harris, CEO of Space Center Houston. The organization is NASA's official tourism arm and houses 250,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibition space.

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Houston expert: 5 things to consider when tackling DEI at your organization

guest column

Houston is often touted as the most diverse city in the country, but with that comes the responsibility of making sure we are creating inclusive and equitable opportunities that reflect the communities we serve.

With the current state of our country dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as social and political issues, employers across the city have searched for the right thing to say and do to help their employees and customers during this time when personal feelings and beliefs impact the workplace more now than ever. While there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing DEI across an organization, here are a few steps and considerations companies can take to ensure DEI is a priority moving forward.

Understand your audience

It's important to understand the perspectives of those you serve. Identifying your audience will help develop a DEI strategy that addresses concerns from multiple lenses. At Houston Methodist, we focus on our patients, employees and the communities we serve. Anyone building a DEI program needs to not only be cognizant of their audience, but also understand their needs in today's climate before spending time and resources to develop initiatives that will address those needs. Ultimately, this will help shape a more impactful approach to DEI within your organization.

Define success

When developing a DEI strategy, success may seem overwhelming or lofty. But, viewing success as progress will help your organization accomplish your goals in a way that employees and other stakeholders will benefit from in the long run.

Set strategic and measurable goals that clearly state what your organization wants to achieve through its DEI efforts. These goals need not be big at the onset; make sure they are attainable. Most importantly, it's critical to revisit your goals on a regular basis and identify gaps, and be willing to pivot, if needed, along the way so your organization eventually reaches its goals. At the hospital, we've developed a DEI dashboard for all departments in our hospitals to help us with setting those measurable goals. Once measurable goals are identified, a DEI scorecard will be used to identify progress for departments and our organization year over year. When people are able to easily track and see progress or gaps, it will make it easier to reach desired goals.

An organization can't be successful with any new type of program if everyone within the organization doesn't understand the importance of DEI in their department and within the company as a whole. Progress often starts with one person. Providing training to employees about the impact that DEI can have on their day-to-day work will help them champion that within the organization. For example, we've launched something at our hospital called "Together We Grow," a training program aimed at building a foundation for what DEI is by exploring everyday scenarios employees may encounter. This program first started with leadership and is now available to all employees within the hospital system.

Establish a timeline

Once measurable goals have been established, develop a timeline for accomplishing those goals. By selecting two or three goals that can be focused on over a particular time period (i.e., six months or one year), your organization can implement targeted programs and best practices to drive the success of DEI for a more long-term plan. It's ok if not every program is up and running within the year; creating milestones along the way will give your organization time to grow its DEI efforts and aspire to something meaningful for your employees, customers or community. The need for DEI doesn't go away, so it's important to continue efforts year-round with a growth mindset.

Evaluate how DEI holistically fits into your business

A DEI department, team or individual can't be successful if the work isn't aligned with the mission of the organization. It does not help if an organization has competing priorities, so DEI goals must be embedded in your organization's business goals.

Additionally, it's also important to have leadership set the tone for the rest of the organization to follow. Executive leaders that fully commit to the organization's DEI efforts and promote transparency, feedback and accountability for those programs will yield the most meaningful and lasting results.

Recognize your ‘why’

As a business, it's important to understand why DEI is important for your organization's success. You need to both be able to understand and articulate the business case for why diversity matters in your organization. Studies like this one from Boston Consulting Group continue to show a positive correlation between workforce diversity, innovation and overall company performance. The workforce is constantly changing and becoming more diverse, so making sure your organization is adapting to those different perspectives and taking into consideration why this work is vital to your employees, customers and your community will help turn DEI ideas into action.

For many health care organizations, health equity has shaped community engagement efforts and programs. Addressing health equity for racial, ethnic and social minorities in the Greater Houston area has been a priority for Houston Methodist for nearly 30 years, and this work has also informed and strengthened our DEI efforts in the communities we serve.

In conclusion, remember progress and feedback will help you reach your organization's DEI goals. For these initiatives to be effective, everyone within your organization must understand that each person plays a role in shaping the success of DEI efforts.

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Arianne Dowdell is vice president, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Houston Methodist.

Google grants Houston founders funds, The Ion looks for artists, and more local innovation news

short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem is bursting at the seams with news, and for this reason, local startup and tech updates may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, the Comcast RISE program expands to grant more funds, Google names Houston-area recipients from its Black Founder Fund, The Ion is looking for artists to participate in a new initiative, and more.

Google cohort awards Black founders $100,000 each

Google has granted funds to two Houston companies. Photo via Pexels

DOSS and SOTAOG, two Houston-based startups, have received $100,000 each as a part of the second cohort of the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund, a $10 million initiative for Black founders. Originally reported to be a part of Google's accelerator early this summer, DOSS is a digital brokerage that uses tech to make homeownership more affordable, and SOTAOG is an enterprise solutions provider within the oil and gas and heavy industrial industries.

"The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund embodies our mission of helping underrepresented founders grow their businesses. We are excited to continue the fund and contribute funding to Black founders, with no strings attached. Black founders currently receive less than 1 percent of total VC funding," says Jewel Burks Solomon, head of Google for Startups US, in a news release. "We heard loud and clear from the 2020 fund recipients that Google for Startups and Goodie Nation have been crucial to their success not only through funding, but through community, mentorship, network connections and technical expertise."

Last year, Google for Startups awarded 76 Black-led startups up to $100,000 in non-dilutive funding, as well as technical support from tools and teams across Google, including as much as $120,000 in donated search Ads from Google.org and up to $100,000 in Google Cloud credits, according to the release.

In addition to the two companies from Houston, eight companies from Austin and Dallas were also chosen for the second program.

The Ion calls for local artists

The Ion is looking for local artists to create innovative window displays. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, a Midtown innovation hub that's owned and operated by Rice Management Company, is looking for local artists to work on two prominent display windows at the front of the newly renovated historic Sears building.

"As a nexus for creativity of many different kinds, The Ion welcomes Houston's talented artists to tap into their unique skill sets and diverse backgrounds to submit inventive proposals that will ultimately comprise two different art installations. Each installation will contribute to Houston's innovation ecosystem by inspiring the growing community of creators who will see the building's display windows on a daily basis," says Artistic Consultant Piper Faust in a news release.

The two art installations will reside for six months — from February to August of next year. The submissions will be evaluated by a team of experts identified by Rice Management Co. and Piper Faust. The budget for each project will be $20,000.

According to the release, the submissions are open to Houston-area artists and should be in line with The Ion's "vision and mission of accelerating innovation, connecting communities and facilitating partnerships to create growth and opportunity in Houston."

Artists can apply online until October 1 at 5 pm.

Comcast RISE announces additional $1 million for Houston founders

Comcast to dole out $1M in grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston

The Comcast RISE program will give out another batch of $10,000 grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which announced funding for 100 small businesses in Houston earlier this year, has expanded to provide an additional $1 million in support. The program is focused on BIPOC-owned small businesses in Harris and Fort Bend Counties that have been in business for three or more years with 1 to 25 employees.

Eligible businesses can apply online at ComcastRISE.com beginning October 1 through October 14 for one of the one hundred $10,000 grants.

Houston startup wins $25,000

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, won $25,000 for her company. Photo courtesy of Church Space

Dallas-based Impact Ventures, a nonprofit startup accelerator focused on empowering women and communities of color, hosted its bi-annual event, The Startup Showcase. A Houston-based company, Church Space, took the top prize of $25,000.

Billed as the "Netflix of churches," Church Space originally started as a way to allow groups to rent spaces for worship. But, in light of the pandemic, the company is pivoted to launch Church Space TV, a streaming program that allows churches and ministries to stream worship services for free.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, previously told InnovationMap. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time."

The company is also one of MassChallenge Texas's 2021 cohort.

Houston health care leader receives prestigious award

Dr. Peter Hotez, a leader in the development of Texas Children's and Baylor's COVID-19 vaccine construct, has been named the recipient of a prestigious award. ​Photo courtesy of TCH

Dr. Peter Hotez, Texas Children's Hospital Chair in Tropical Pediatrics, has been awarded the 2021 David E. Rogers Award. Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

The annual award, presented by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Association of American Medical Colleges, "honors a medical school faculty member who has made major contributions to improving the health and health care of the American people," according to a news release.

"I am thrilled to be honored with the David E. Rogers Award," Hotez says in the release. "As we continue this fight against COVID-19, having the additional support from the AAMC will amplify our efforts to improve public health nationally and globally."

The award will be presented to Dr. Hotez at the 2021 AAMC Awards Recognition Event on Wednesday, October 27.

Hotez is leading the development of Texas Children's and Baylor's COVID-19 vaccine construct, according to the release, and he has dedicated much of his time to vaccine advocacy efforts, countering rising antivaccine and anti-science sentiments in the United States while promoting vaccine diplomacy efforts globally.

Houston Exponential appoints new executive director and restructures its board

big news

Houston's nonprofit focused on accelerating the growth of the local innovation ecosystem has named its new leader.

Serafina Lalany has been named Houston Exponential's executive director. She has been serving in the position as interim since July when Harvin Moore stepped down. Prior to that, she served as vice president of operations and chief of staff at HX.

"I'm proud to be leading an organization that is focused on elevating Houston's startup strengths on a global scale while helping to make the world of entrepreneurship more accessible, less opaque, and easier to navigate for founders," Lalany says in a news release. "My team and I will be building upon the great deal of momentum that has already been established in this effort, and I look forward to collaborating closely with members of our community and convening board in this next chapter of HX."

According to the release, the organization is also "sharpening its focus and governing structure." HX's current board of directors will transition into a "convening board." In this new structure, Houston innovation leaders will come together to support one another and share advice and opportunities, as well as launch working groups to address emerging tech ecosystem challenges. An executive committee made up of five to seven members will oversee HX's operations and staff. These changes will be in effect on October 1.

"Houston's innovation ecosystem has been on an incredible run over the last four years as evidenced by the tripling of venture capital funding for local startups and the sharp increase in the number of startup development organizations supporting our emerging companies and founders," says HX Chair Barbara Burger, who is the vice president innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures. "Houston Exponential has been a key catalyst for building momentum, and it's important for the organization to adapt to best meet the needs of the maturing ecosystem."

Moving forward, HX will have a strengthened focus on key efforts, like convening a startup development organization roundtable, the VC Immersions program, monthly networking events, and the annual Houston Tech Rodeo.

Additionally, as the organization's new leader, Lalany will spearhead HX's goal for Houston-based startups raising $10 billion in venture capital annually by 2030, per the release.

"Serafina has been a steadfast leader of the HX team, and we believe she is the right person to take the organization through this next chapter in its evolution," Burger says. "I'm excited to see what's next for HX under her guidance."