3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Stephanie Tsuru of SheSpace, Fareed Zein of Unytag, and Libby Covington of The Craig Group. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from smart city tech to startup marketing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Stephanie Tsuru, founder of SheSpace

Stephanie Tsuru joins this week's Houston Innovators Podcast to share her growth plans for 2023. Photo via LinkedIn

SheSpace opened with a splash, Founder Stephanie Tsure tells InnovationMap on last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. After surviving through the pandemic, the female-focused coworking hub expanded — with a new type of membership as well as physically.

"We had so many people who wanted to be a part of the community — so we started a social networking group," she says.

Now, the entrepreneur is looking to expand this year to open satellite locations. She shares more on the show. Read more.

Fareed Zein, founder of Unytag

Unytag celebrated a big win at the Ion recently — and has taking its prizes into the new year. Photo via LinkedIn

As the father of four competitive-tennis-playing daughters, Fareed Zein spent years driving “from California to Florida,” he says. Throughout those years, he and his wife racked up toll violation after toll violation. “I thought, there’s got to be an easier way,” he recalls.

Fortunately, Zein wasn’t just any sports dad with thousands of miles on his car. The University of Texas grad put in 26 years developing IT systems at Shell. He retired from that role in 2015, which allowed him to spend more time on the road with his youngest daughter, now playing for UT Austin. In 2019, he used his technology expertise to start Unytag, a company focused on making it easier to drive around the country as the Zein family had so many times.

Unytag is a system that allows users to trash their multiple toll tags in favor of just one RFID (radio-frequency identification) sticker and an app. The app, which Zein says is currently in its testing phase, will be available on both IOS and Android phones in the second half of the year.

“A phone is a device everyone has nowadays, right?” says Zein. “Just like you use your phone to pay for a latte at Starbucks, we are going to simplify how you pay tolls.” Read more.

Libby Covington, partner at The Craig Group

It's undeniable that businesses are facing economic uncertainty in 2023. Here's what marketing tools to tap into to navigate the challenges ahead. Photo via LinkedIn

Make 2023 the year of optimized marketing for your startup — that's Libby Covington's advice. Partner at The Craig Group, she outlined her tips in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Continued growth starts with goal setting and coming up with a marketing and business development strategy that fits the unique needs of a business," she writes. "This works most effectively when a company’s management team ensures that marketing and sales are working in lockstep. They are two sides of the same coin and need to see themselves that way to maximize results and therefore profit." Read more.

Unytag celebrated a big win at the Ion recently — and has taking its prizes into the new year. Photo via Ion/Facebook

Houston startup with innovative transportation app gets boost from pitch competition

tag, you're it

How many times have you accidentally taken a toll road without a tag? Or traveled to a part of the country where the toll system is different than the one for which you already paid up?

As the father of four competitive-tennis-playing daughters, Fareed Zein spent years driving “from California to Florida,” he says. Throughout those years, he and his wife racked up toll violation after toll violation. “I thought, there’s got to be an easier way,” he recalls.

Fortunately, Zein wasn’t just any sports dad with thousands of miles on his car. The University of Texas grad put in 26 years developing IT systems at Shell. He retired from that role in 2015, which allowed him to spend more time on the road with his youngest daughter, now playing for UT Austin. In 2019, he used his technology expertise to start Unytag, a company focused on making it easier to drive around the country as the Zein family had so many times.

Unytag is a system that allows users to trash their multiple toll tags in favor of just one RFID (radio-frequency identification) sticker and an app. The app, which Zein says is currently in its testing phase, will be available on both IOS and Android phones in the second half of the year.

“A phone is a device everyone has nowadays, right?” says Zein. “Just like you use your phone to pay for a latte at Starbucks, we are going to simplify how you pay tolls.”

Another beauty of the Unytag system is that — rather than depositing a set amount as users do for most toll systems — it’s pay-as-you-go. Funds are withdrawn by Unytag just as they are needed. And it works for every toll tag in the country, with plans to expand globally.

Though Zein brought technical chops to Unytag, he still had to learn to be a founder. He credits his time participating in the Founder Institute’s pre-seed accelerator with helping him to launch from the ground up.

“From there, I decided I needed to start building the infrastructure that I needed,” Zein recalls.

Next, he worked with the Texas Venture Labs accelerator and was named a finalist at the 2022 Houston Innovation Awards Gala. Most recently, Unytag won last November’s Houston Startup Showcase, with a prize of $10,000 from The Ion and $20,000 in legal services from Ion partner Baker Botts.

“That was a pretty big confidence builder that we are going in the right direction as well as a great way to start the year for us,” Zein says.

Opportunities like those are a just some of what Zein says makes him proud to be a “Houston born and raised” company. With his extended network built over 32 years living in the Houston area, Zein says, he’s had many opportunities for growth that he might not have found elsewhere. Two of his current team members were colleagues at Shell.

“Having an ecosystem that supports innovation is exactly what we needed,” he adds. “We are very proud of the future of tech startups in Houston with The Ion and the Innovation District, where we continue to grow. We’re ready to create the next success story.”

Fareed Zein has racked up his fair share of toll bills — and he designed a better way. Photo courtesy of Unytag

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Houston university's online MBA program rises in the ranks of newly released report

A for improvement

Rice University's online MBA program has something to brag about. According to a new report, the program has risen through the ranks of other online MBA curriculums.

MBA@Rice, the online program at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice, has ranked higher in four categories in the latest edition of U.S. News & World Report’s Best Online Programs. The report evaluated schools based on data specifically related to their distance education MBA programs, and U.S. News has a separate ranking for non-MBA graduate business degrees in areas such as finance, marketing and management. The MBA list focused on engagement, peer assessment, faculty credentials and training, student excellence, and services and technologies.

“We use the same professors to deliver the same rigorous, high-touch MBA in our online MBA as we do in all our campus-based programs,” said Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez. “The strong national rankings recognize our success in reaching highly talented working professionals who don’t live near enough to our campus or for whom an online program is the best option.”

Rice's virtual MBA program ranked No. 12 (tied) in the 2023 list, which was up several spots from its 2022 ranking, which was No. 20. Additionally, Rice stood out in these other three categories:

  • Best Online MBA Programs for Veterans: tied for No. 10 (No. 14 last year).
  • Best Online Business Analytics MBA Programs: tied for No. 10 (tied for No. 12 last year).
  • Best Online General Management MBA Programs: tied for No. 7 (tied for No. 11 last year).

Rice recently announced a hybrid MBA program that combines online instruction with in-person engagement. The first cohort is slated to start this summer.

The MBA@Rice program is the top-ranked Texas-based program on the virtual MBA list. Several other programs from the Lone Star State make the list of 366 schools, including:

  • University of Texas at Dallas at No. 17
  • Texas Tech University at No. 33
  • Baylor University, University of North Texas, and West Texas A&M University tied for No, 65

U.S News & World Report ranked other online programs. Here's how Houston schools placed on the other lists:

  • The University of Houston tied for No. 10 in Best Online Master's in Education Programs and tied for No. 75 in Best Online Master's in Business Programs
  • Rice University, in addition to its MBA ranking, tied for No. 27 on the Online Master’s in Computer Information Technology Programs ranking after being tied for No. 49 last year
  • University of Houston-Downtown ranked No. 26 in Best Online Master's in Criminal Justice Programs and tied for No. 55 in Best Online Bachelor's Programs

The full list of best online higher education programs ranked by U.S. News & World Report is available online.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from sustainable fashion to tech manufacturing — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Hannah Le, founder of RE.STATEMENT

Hannah Le founded RE.STATEMENT to provide a much-needed platform for sustainable fashion finds. Photo courtesy of RE.STATEMENT

It's tough out there for a sustainable fashion designer with upcycled statement pieces on the market. First of all, there historically hasn't been a platform for designers or shoppers either, as Hannah Le explains on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Most designers give up if they haven't sold an item within three months," Le says. "That's something RE.STATEMENT has dedicated its business model to — making sure that items sell faster and at a higher value than any other marketplace."

RE.STATEMENT won one of the city of Houston's startup competition, Liftoff Houston's categories last year. Le shares what's next for the early-stage company on the show. Read more and listen to the episode.

Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab

MacroFab has secured fresh investment to the tune of $42 million. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

MacroFab, a Houston-based electronics manufacturing platform, has announced $42 million in new growth capital. The company was founded by Misha Govshteyn and Chris Church, who built a platform that manage electronics manufacturing and enables real-time supply chain and inventory data. The platform can help customers go from prototype to high-scale production with its network of more than 100 factories across the continent.

“Electronics manufacturing is moving toward resilience and flexibility to reduce supply chain disruptions,” says Govshteyn, MacroFab’s CEO, in a news release. “We are in the earliest stages of repositioning the supply chain to be more localized and focused on what matters to customers most — the ability to deliver products on time, meet changing requirements, and achieve a more sustainable ecological footprint. MacroFab is fundamental to building this new operating model.”

The company has seen significant growth amid the evolution of global supply chain that's taken place over the past few years. According to the company, shipments were up 275 percent year-over-year. To keep up with growth, MacroFab doubled its workforce, per the release, and opened a new facility in Mexico. Read more.

Kelli Newman, president of Newman & Newman Inc.

In her guest column, Kelli Newman explains how to leverage communications at any stage your company is in. Photo courtesy of Newman & Newman

Kelli Newman took actionable recommendations from investors, customers, advisers, and founders within Houston to compose a guest column with key observations and advice on leveraging communications.

"The significance of effective communication and its contribution to a company’s success are points regularly stressed by conference panelists and forum speakers," she writes. "Yet for many founders it’s advice that fuels frustration for how to make communications a priority with a lack of understanding of the practice." Read more.

Growing Houston-based drone software company snags government contract

ready for liftoff

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx