From a supercomputer making its debut in West Houston to a behind-the-scenes look at Amazon's artificial intelligence-enabled fulfillment center, these were Houston's top stories in tech. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Editor's note: Houston had some big stories in technology this year, from a peek inside Amazon's artificial intelligence-enabled Houston facility and the opening of a new supercomputer to space-focused Houston startups and the future of virtual reality.

Massive data center officially opens just west of Houston

Matthew Lamont is managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions' which just opened its new, powerful data center west of Houston. Courtesy of DUG

DownUnder GeoSolutions has officially opened its new data centre in Skybox Houston in Katy, Texas. It's being billed as one of the most powerful supercomputers on earth.

The center, which houses DUG's geophysical cloud service, DUG McCloud, celebrated its grand opening on Thursday, May 16. The company's data hall has 15 megawatts of power and resides in a building designed to withstand hurricane-force winds up to 190 mph.

A second, identical hall is already planned to be built out later this year. Together, the two machines will have a capacity of 650 petaflop, which is a measurement of computing speed that's equal to one thousand million million floating-point operations per second. Continue reading.

5 startups keeping Houston known as the Space City

Houston celebrated 50 years since the Apollo moon landing on July 20. Here are some startups that are going to be a part of the next 50 years of space tech in Houston. Photo via NASA.gov

This month, for the most part, has been looking back on the history Houston has as the Space City in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. While it's great to recognize the men and women who made this city the major player in space exploration that it is, there are still entrepreneurs today with space applications and experience that represent the future of the Space City. Continue reading.

How Amazon's Houston fulfillment center uses AI technology and robotics to move millions of products

From robotics to artificial intelligence, here's how Amazon gets its products to Houstonians in record time. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Last summer, Amazon opened the doors to its North Houston distribution center — one of the company's 50 centers worldwide that uses automation and robotics to fulfill online orders.

The Pinto Business Park facility has millions of products in inventory across four floors. Products that are 25 pounds or less (nothing heavier is stocked at this location) pass through 20 miles of conveyor belts, 1,500 employees, and hundreds of robots.

The center also has daily tours open to the public. We recently visited to see for ourselves the process a product goes through at this Houston plant. From stowing to shipping, here's how packages go from your shopping cart to your front porch. Continue reading.

Developments in virtual reality technology are changing the workforce, say Houston experts

The solution to Houston's workforce problem might be right in front of our eyes. Getty Images

Everyone's job has training associated with it — from surgeons to construction crane operators — and there's a growing market need for faster, more thorough training of our workforce.

"The best way to learn how to do something, is to just get out and do it," says Eric Liga, co-founder of HoustonVR. "But there are a lot of reasons why you can't do that in certain types of training."

Augmented and virtual reality training programs are on the rise, and Liga cites safety, cost, and unpredictable work environments as some of these most obvious reasons reasons to pivot to training employees through extended reality. This type of training also provides portability and has proven higher retention, Liga says in his keynote speech at Station Houston's AR/VR discuss on April 25.

"You get a much higher retention rate when you actually go out and do something — physically going through the motions — than you do sitting in a classroom or reading a book," he says. Continue reading.

Recently renovated Downtown Houston office space snags leases from 2 tech companies

Main&Co's office space is now 100 percent leased. Courtesy of Main&Co

Two tech-focused companies moved into a newly developed office space in downtown Houston at the intersection of Main Street and Commerce Street. One company relocated its Houston office, and the other company has expanded to the city for the first time.

Oil and gas AI-enabled analytics platform, Ruths.ai relocated its downtown office to Main&Co, located at 114 Main St. The company has 8,457 square feet of office space in the recently renovated historic building.

Meanwhile, global robotics process automation company UiPath has expanded to build a Houston team. The computer software company is based in New York, but has a presence in 18 countries. The company's office has 5,187 square feet of Main&Co's office space. Continue reading.

Houston Methodist is researching the effect of virtual reality on cancer patients. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist is tapping into virtual reality technologies to ease the pain for cancer patients

VR to the rescue

Virtual reality goes far beyond playing games with titles like Arizona Sunshine, Moss, Robo Recall, and Tetris Effect. VR also is playing an ever-growing role in health care settings. The global market for VR in health care could reach $3.8 billion in 2020, according to one estimate.

VR is touching all corners of heath, including robotic surgeries, training, pain management, and behavior modification, according to InterbrandHealth, a health care branding agency. And these technologies are happening right here in Houston.

Researchers at Houston Methodist Cancer Center are exploring whether exposure to nature, through either a real garden or VR, can ease pain and distress in cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. This approach might decrease the need for prescription painkillers.

Houston Methodist and Texas A&M University are leading this test. Renee Stubbins, a clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist Cancer Center, and Ashley Verzwyvelt, an infusion oncology nurse at the cancer center, proposed the research after several years of studying ways that nature can boost the healing process.

"Anything that affects our patients' comfort — including easing pain and anxiety, and possibly reducing the need for pain medications — is important to their recovery," Stubbins says in a release. "People have an innate connection to nature, and we hope the patients will respond positively."

Three dozen cancer patients receiving chemotherapy infusions every two weeks during at least six cycles will be randomly assigned to one of three rooms: a live-garden-view room; a window-less room, and a room where nature can be experienced through a VR headset.

Teaming up with Houston-based Skyline Art Services, local artist Gonzo247 produced a nature-inspired mural on a wall behind the live garden to create an immersive environment. The mural depicts a flowering garden, blue sky and sunset that enhance the live garden of Texas wildflowers in the foreground.

Researchers will measure pain, distress, blood pressure, heart rate, and saliva cortisol at the beginning and end of each infusion visit. Saliva cortisol, a hormone produced when the body is stressed, helps gauge a patient's condition.

"If this study proves that real or virtual elements of nature help the healing process, then it has potential to positively impact our patients," Verzwyvelt says. "Some of them are hesitant to take pain medication due to concerns of addiction and adverse side effects, so I'm excited to see the possibilities this kind of research could bring."

Houston Methodist Cancer Center says the VR experiment could have implications for treatment of an array of patients who are immobile or whose immune systems are compromised.

"We looked at multiple studies that showed exposure to nature can reduce stress levels and actually increase productivity and creativity," says Ann McNamara, associate professor in the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M. "We want to see if we can reproduce those effects in a natural environment in virtual reality."

The study is being financed by the Center for Health & Nature, a joint initiative of Houston Methodist, Texas A&M and Texan by Nature, a nonprofit conservation group founded by former first lady Laura Bush. The Center for Health & Nature, housed at Houston Methodist Hospital, debuted in 2018.

"There's a gap in research regarding what nature factors lead to increased health, what exposure to nature means, and how much exposure is needed," Bush said when the center was announced.
VR training startup, HTX Labs, recently brought on Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America as a client. Trainees can work on a digitized version of the plant that looks as real as could be. Courtesy of HTX Labs

This growing Houston startup is making training programs safer and cheaper with VR applications

VR verified

Many employers are doing reality checks when it comes to workplace training. They're wondering how they can better train their workers. But they're realizing that traditional training can be dull and even unproductive, so they're enlivening and enriching their training through virtual reality.

Houston-based startup HTX Labs LLC is one of the tech companies at the forefront of the VR-infused modernization of workplace training. Among its customers are the United States Air Force, Mastercard, Rackspace, and Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America, a maker of hydrogen peroxide.

For the Air Force, HTX Labs creates software that provides immersive training for pilots on how to deal with emergency procedures in the air and on the ground. This is something that traditionally has been carried out only with expensive simulators. Mastercard and Rackspace rely on HTX Labs' technology to teach employees — through VR-generated replicas of actual workspaces — how to handle active-shooter situations, workplace violence, and fires.

Solvay turned to the company for VR-propelled help with training workers about loading and unloading hazardous materials and other aspects of maintaining safety around potentially dangerous chemicals. HTX Labs and Solvay will jointly resell their VR-based courses to other companies, says Scott Schneider, founder and CEO of HTX Labs.

At its core, the company's VR training zeroes in on the trainee, providing engaging, interactive experiences that stress "learning by doing," Schneider says.

Training programs that have been around for decades are "designed for trainers, not necessarily for trainees," he says.

"A PowerPoint presentation, a YouTube video — it's all about the message the trainer wants to convey as opposed to 'Let's think about how people actually learn.' Studies show people learn by actively doing — active learning versus passive learning," Schneider continues. "We married that idea of active learning with virtual reality and immersive technology to deliver a learning experience that increases retention and the development of muscle memory."

In a VR-based training session, participants are equipped with VR headsets and are plunged into realistic environments where they're presented with scenarios in which they, for instance, pick up a fire extinguisher and put out a blaze, or they land or eject from a military jet that's experiencing a problem such as an engine fire.

Schneider says this type of interactive training helps participants boost the amount of information they remember. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, VR learners retain 75 percent of what they've been taught, compared with a 10 percent retention rate from reading or listening to a presentation.

"It's a much better way, a much more realistic way to learn," Schneider says.

Employers big and small are catching on to this kind of advanced training. According to Schneider, software produced by companies like HTX Labs allows employers to conduct training that:

  • Avoids unsafe real-life settings in favor of safe virtual settings.
  • Does not disrupt workplaces.
  • Reduces costs.

A CNBC article says the cost-saving aspect appeals to a number of employers like Boeing, UPS, and Walmart.

"Training facilities cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to build. Sending out-of-town employees to them racks up travel expenses. And the lost time for training is considerable," the article reads.

By comparison, a one-time investment in VR hardware and software — technology that can be used by many workers — might cost a couple of thousand dollars per employee.

"Most companies in the private sector are dipping their toes into it a bit, maybe doing some stuff internally," Schneider says of VR-based training. "But on a larger scale, there's not a lot of players doing exactly what we're doing."

Schneider envisions HTX Labs, which was founded in 2017, expanding into training centered on augmented reality and mixed reality.

For the uninitiated, VR refers to computer-generated 3D environments that you interact with and are immersed in, according to Live Science. AR superimposes sounds, images and text onto what you see in the real world, along the lines of "Minority Report" or "Iron Man," Live Science explains.

"Mixed reality is the result of blending the physical world with the digital world," according to Microsoft. "Mixed reality is the next evolution in human, computer, and environment interaction, and unlocks possibilities that before now were restricted to our imaginations."

No matter the type of technology, HTX Labs strives to "humanize training" by putting the student at the center of the learning experience, Schneider says.

For now, HTX Labs produces VR training software under the EMPACT brand name and teams up with hardware vendors to sell turnkey offerings.

Today, the company employs 12 people, all of whom are in Houston. Schneider would like to increase HTX Labs' headcount by 50 percent before the end of 2019. Also this year, Schneider hopes to raise its first round of outside capital, but only after HTX Labs secures more private and government contracts. And he doesn't rule out enlarging the company through M&A activity.

Overall, Schneider sees tremendous potential for HTX Labs, as pretty much any employer can benefit from VR training for its workers. VR training — already part of a multibillion-dollar VR market — is expected to be so pervasive, in fact, that software review website Capterra predicts one-third of small and midsize businesses in the U.S. will be piloting VR training of employees by 2021.

"VR is … being used to enhance employee training to give workers immersive 'learning by doing' opportunities they can't find in a classroom or online course," Capterra notes. "It's a revolution in an area that's historically been static and unengaging for workers."


The U.S. Air Force also uses HTX Labs' technologies to train for emergency response procedures.Courtesy of HTX Labs

The Texas Medical Center releasing new designs for its TMC3 campus was one of the top stories for this week. Courtesy of Elkus Manfredi Architects

5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

what's trending

Editor's note: It was a busy week for InnovationMap readers. Several articles trended all week long — from the Texas Medical Center's big announcement to this month's list of innovation events you can't miss. Here's what all our readers were checking out.

Need more than just trending news on Fridays? Subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for May

Here's your one-stop shop for innovation events in Houston in May. Getty Images

The month of May has business and innovation events aplenty to offer local entrepreneurs and movers and shakers. Scroll through this month's event roundup to find workshops, pitch nights, and more — and stay tuned, as more events will be added. Read the full list of events here.

Texas Medical Center reveals new details and renderings for its TMC3 campus

The design and construction team has been announced for TMC3. Courtesy of Elkus Manfredi Architects

The Texas Medical Center just announced the dream team of architects and designers that are making TMC3 into a reality.

Elkus Manfredi Architects, Transwestern, and Vaughn Construction are the three companies that will serve as the architectural and development team for the 37-acre research campus. TMC3's founding institutions — TMC, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas A&M University Health Science Center, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center — decided on the three entities. Read the full story and check out more renderings here.

Overheard: 9 powerful quotes from TED-style talks by Houston entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs' Organization had seven of its members give TED-style talks on April 25. Ammar Selo

Moving the needle on something — whether it's changing the world or growing your business — hearing how others accomplished their own goals can be a beacon of hope and guidance for others.

The local Entrepreneurs' Organization chapter, EO Houston, hosted a series of seven TED Talk-style talks by members of the organization. These seven entrepreneurs discussed everything from being an introvert in a world of extroverts to the biggest security threat to American citizens: obesity. EO Talks took place at a breakfast event on April 25 at Houston Baptist University. Read the overheard quotes from the event here.

Developments in virtual reality technology are changing the workforce, say Houston experts

The solution to Houston's workforce problem might be right in front of our eyes. Getty Images

Everyone's job has training associated with it — from surgeons to construction crane operators — and there's a growing market need for faster, more thorough training of our workforce.

"The best way to learn how to do something, is to just get out and do it," says Eric Liga, co-founder of HoustonVR. "But there are a lot of reasons why you can't do that in certain types of training."

Augmented and virtual reality training programs are on the rise, and Liga cites safety, cost, and unpredictable work environments as some of these most obvious reasons reasons to pivot to training employees through extended reality. This type of training also provides portability and has proven higher retention, Liga says in his keynote speech at Station Houston's AR/VR discuss on April 25. Read the rest of the story here.

5 new technologies enhancing health care at Houston Methodist

Patients about to undergo brain surgery can use VR to see what their surgeon is about to do to their brain. Courtesy of Methodist

While hospital systems might have a reputation for being slow adaptors to new technologies, Houston Methodist is single-handedly trying to change that theory. From artificial intelligence to virtual reality, the hospital system is making big moves innovating and introducing cutting edge tools and systems. Read about the hospital's newest tech innovations here.


The solution to Houston's workforce problem might be right in front of our eyes. Getty Images

Developments in virtual reality technology are changing the workforce, say Houston experts

XR express

Everyone's job has training associated with it — from surgeons to construction crane operators — and there's a growing market need for faster, more thorough training of our workforce.

"The best way to learn how to do something, is to just get out and do it," says Eric Liga, co-founder of HoustonVR. "But there are a lot of reasons why you can't do that in certain types of training."

Augmented and virtual reality training programs are on the rise, and Liga cites safety, cost, and unpredictable work environments as some of these most obvious reasons reasons to pivot to training employees through extended reality. This type of training also provides portability and has proven higher retention, Liga says in his keynote speech at Station Houston's AR/VR discuss on April 25.

"You get a much higher retention rate when you actually go out and do something — physically going through the motions — than you do sitting in a classroom or reading a book," he says.

As more companies are introducing this type of technology into the workforce, there's a growing need for developers and experts to design these programs. Currently, it's rare for a company to have employees with XR expertise.

"Working on commercial accounts, I see a lot of customers who have done enterprise software — web pages and forums — but it's a very different skill set from simulations," says Jared Bienz, senior software engineer at Microsoft.

So, companies are faced with hiring developers and designers to create these training programs. Ethan LeSueur, who oversees immersive technology at ExxonMobil, says his team benefitted from the cut-throat game design industry. So many developers want to go into video game creation, but there's not enough jobs. At Exxon, developers get to create games — but for training purposes. LeSueur says he looks for a diversity of programming experience when hiring for these types of jobs.

"It's important to not have one skill set," he says. "We're looking for the people who are sort of a swiss army knife. You don't have to know everything, but if they have more than one specific skill set, that's really important."

But hiring a team might not be the only option to AR/VR development. Working with startups has been an avenue for major companies seeking out XR programs.

"People talk about digital transformation all the time, but half the time we wouldn't know what that looked like if that slapped us in the face," LeSueur says. "That's what we're asking startups to do — help slap us in the face."

LeSueur says that proving cost effectiveness is extremely important for startups looking to win big companies as clients, but so is passion. The complexity of the process as well as all the red tap of business calls for passion from a startup.

"We're trying to take a complicated physical process and digitize it," LeSueur says. "That means there's going to be a lot of back and forth."

From the startup perspective, it's not always easy working with major corporations – especially within oil and gas. Amanda, who works with construction clients and larger companies as an instructor at ITI, recommends having someone on the inside to look out for you.

"I think it's really important to have an internal champion who really owns the product and wants to see it through to its last degree of integration."

On display

Courtesy of Station Houston

After the panel, Station Houston VR companies showed off their programming.

A real estate company is on the hunt for space in Houston for a virtual reality theme park. Photo courtesy of Legend Heroes

Virtual reality theme parks set to beam into Houston area

TECH-FUELED FUN

Coming soon to a vacant retail store near you: an indoor virtual reality "theme park" being planned by a company based in Singapore.

D. Legends Holdings Pte Ltd. has hired a New Jersey real estate brokerage, R.J. Brunelli & Co. LLC, to scout the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth areas for shuttered retail spaces — like former Toys R Us stores — to house virtual reality entertainment centers.

It's part of the rollout of the Singapore company's Legend Heroes Park concept in major U.S. metro areas, the brokerage says in a release. Aside from Houston and DFW, those markets include Boston, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco.

Capitalizing on technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, holograms, and motion tracking, Legend Heroes Park enables customers to immerse themselves in next-generation attractions such as rides, arcade games, entertainment, and sports like football and archery.

The first Legend Heroes Park opened recently in Macau, a casino and mall mecca off the coast of China.

In the U.S., R.J. Brunelli is focusing on old retail spaces measuring 30,000 to 40,000 square feet — roughly the size of an average Best Buy or Bed Bath & Beyond store — to house the high-tech parks, it says. The overall ceiling height must be at least 16 feet, with 40 percent of the space accommodating rides 32 feet tall or more.

The real estate broker is on the hunt for vacant stores or abandoned floors at regional malls, as well as empty big-box stores outside regional malls or at major retail centers. It's also considering warehouses close to malls or entertainment complexes.

"At a time when many mall operators are struggling to fill vacant department store spaces, Legend Heroes Park offers a unique entertainment destination … aimed at people of all ages," Julie Fox, manager of new tenant representation at R.J. Brunelli, says in the release. "In particular, the flexible concept presents a compelling alternative for properties desiring to present new options that can potentially bring back millennials who have shied away from malls in recent years."

Representatives of R.J. Brunelli couldn't be reached for comment.

With its Legend Heroes Park venture, D. Legends Holdings is hoping to ride the virtual reality wave. According to one forecast, the global market for virtual and augmented reality is expected to reach $571.4 billion by 2025.

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston health and wellness startup uses money as a motivator for lifestyle changes

health is wealth

Everything is different when money is on the line, and a Houston startup is using financial incentives as a motivator for its users to make smart, healthy lifestyle changes to enhance their wellness.

Healthiby, a cost-effective wellness program, is changing the game of health solutions by addressing chronic and pre-chronic conditions through innovative prevention and management methods, all incentivized by both short-term and long-term financial benefits.

"Healthiby incentivizes and empowers people to achieve better health outcomes in a team context," says Mary Beth Snodgrass, managing director and co-founder. "We're different from other wellness solutions because we're focused on changing habits, as well as incentivizing better health outcomes, providing both immediate and long-term rewards."

The company launched in May 2019 and is still in its pilot stage. Snodgrass and co-founder Dr. Tristan Hartzell, a surgeon based in Nebraska, have remained committed to their foundational concept for their startup, which is to empower people on their wellness journeys and spread knowledge about the financial benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle.

Mary Beth Snodgrass (pictured) founded Healthiby with Nebraska-based surgeon Dr. Tristan Hartzell. Photo courtesy of Healthiby.

Healthiby's notion that "health is wealth" relates to the idea that engaging in a healthy lifestyle will ultimately benefit individuals financially long-term, as healthcare costs can be avoided. Essentially, Healthiby qualifies health goals as preventative measures for chronic and pre-chronic diseases. Not only does Healthiby inform its users about the long-term financial benefits of healthy living, the program introduces exciting contests in which users are eligible to win financial rewards if they meet certain health-related criteria.

In time for the start of the new year and the health-related resolutions buzz, Healthiby enacts their user-friendly digital software application, social programs, expert health advice and financial incentives to serve their goal-oriented consumers with an engaging health management regiment that is sure to keep them on track throughout the year.

"What we're really focused on this year is, in addition to our incentives, digital content and coach guidance, is making sure that participants are engaging among themselves," Snodgrass tells InnovationMap. "Science shows there are benefits to surrounding yourself with other people who share similar health goals."

In what the program's founders refer to as a "wellness rewards solution," users are able to tap into the Healthiby digital platform to track their progress, participate in social wellness groups, invest in long-term financial incentives and access digestible, cutting edge wellness literature; all components of Healthiby's "journey goals," the program's building blocks to achieving a healthy lifestyle.

"Our software application manages our contests and our rewards, but we also have a very social component, in which participants are meeting online regularly with a dietician coach," Snodgrass explains. "The reason for this is because when we're talking about chronic and pre-chronic conditions, it's important for people to have a strong understanding of how these issues affect the body and what kinds of lifestyle changes are most effective at helping people better manage or reverse them."

Photo courtesy of Healthiby

For an annual minimum of $8 each month, individual consumers have the opportunity to invest in their own long-term wellness through this interactive, user-friendly health progress program.

"Healthiby is providing a really low cost solution for people to get additional social motivation, information, and incentives so that they can stick with their goals throughout the year," Snodgrass said.

Healthiby is currently available to individual consumers in Texas, but its founders have their sights set on expanding the business and sharing their solutions to companies vested in the importance of healthy living for their employees. For now, Houston's health and wellness consumers just got richer — both physically and financially — when Healthiby opened its digital doors to the city.

Real estate tech company founded by Houstonian launches locally, looks for office space

Homecoming

A New York-based company that uses technology to optimize the commercial real estate leasing process is expanding into Houston — and it's a bit of a homecoming for the company's CEO.

SquareFoot, which was founded by Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum in 2011, has launched in Houston following the closing of a $16 million series B funding round led by Chicago-based DRW VC. The company uses tech tools — like a space calculator and online listings to help users find the right office space quicker and easier than traditional methods.

The Bayou City's growth in small businesses and startups makes for a great market for SquareFoot.

"Houston, in addition to being a leading market for business, is a city in transition," Wasserstrum says. "We've witnessed a growing trend of smaller companies cropping up, with startups showing that they're here to stay. I want SquareFoot to be a major part of the city's growth and evolution."

The idea for a company, Wasserstrum says, came from a friend in Houston who was struggling to find office space for his small company. Years later, that problem's solution would be SquareFoot.

SquareFoot's Houston operations are up and running online, and the listings and resources will continue to grow. Wasserstrum says the team will also open a physical office in Houston, and the team is currently looking for its own office space in a "highly-desirable" area, Wasserstrum says.

"That will not only make it easier for us to show office spaces to prospective clients, but it also sends the message that we understand these clients better than anyone," he explains. "Where you choose to open your offices is part of the story you're shaping for candidates and clients."

In regards to Houston-based employees, Wasserstrum says he will start with tapping a few Houston real estate experts. He will take the business model that was successful in New York and adapt it for Houston

"It's not only the East and West Coasts where innovation is taking place," Wasserstrum says. "We want to help Houston continue to grow as a stellar place to launch and grow a company."

National expansion is Wasserstrum's big goal, he says, and after settling in Houston, he plans to next enter into Washington, D.C., and a few other major markets.

Wasserstrum explains what the Houston expansion means to him, how tech is changing real estate, and trends he's keeping an eye on.

IM: What does it mean to be expanding in your hometown?

Jonathan Wasserstrum: Houston is where I grew up. My whole life has been shaped by what I saw and learned in Houston. I moved away for college, and have built my career on the East Coast, but Houston will always be a big part of me. My parents still live there so I have good reasons to fly home and to come home again.

As I've built out my company, SquareFoot, since 2012 at our NYC headquarters, I have dreamed of being able to expand our services nationally. We have helped over 1,200 companies find and secure office spaces in major cities. As our executive team considered where to invest in and to expand to next, Houston emerged at the top of the list. We made this decision for professional growth reasons, but that choice has an emotional element for me as well.

Going forward, I should have additional good reasons to fly home and to see my parents more often than I have had the occasion to over recent years. Plus, we save on hotel costs!

IM: What makes Houston a great place to expand into?

JW: From an office space perspective, Houston is an under tapped market. There are countless companies looking for the services we provide, but nobody has yet figured out how to build a company to serve them specifically.

We acquire many of our clients through online search — people looking for office space are literally searching online for solutions. We've seen in recent months and years a surge in searches from Houston, which indicated to us that there was a gap that had developed there. We've long had a digital presence there, thanks to these searches, but now we're increasing our physical presence on the ground. We'll hire a broker and put an office there in the coming months.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in office real estate? Are these trends happening in Houston already?

JW: Over the past years, we've seen a sharp increase in demand for flexible solutions. Traditional coworking spaces have worked out for many companies, but it's not for everyone.

At the same time, the long-term leases that are usually required upon signing on for an office space of your own has largely kept growing companies out of the market; it has scared them off. We realized there had to be a middle option so we launched FLEX by SquareFoot last year. Now, for the first time, all companies can find the spaces they want with the terms they want.

We are excited to introduce FLEX to the Houston market and to show companies there that there's more lease flexibility and opportunity available than they might think. Change in commercial real estate happens slowly over a long period of time. Houston has the chance now to be a part of their changing wave.

IM: How is technology changing the industry?

JW: For many decades, commercial real estate operated the exact same way. And it intended to stay that way because nobody had reason to believe anything was broken or wrong. However, there were several inefficiencies that clients just had to deal with because that was the industry standard.

The first one was the lack of transparency of which office spaces were unoccupied or what they'd cost. Brokers would lock up this information and keep clients at a distance, unless they were willing to sign on to work with them. With SquareFoot's online listings platform, we have unlocked that information, have educated countless people, and have made for a more seamless and enjoyable process for our clients as partners in their searches.

The other technological breakthrough we've made is in our mobile app. Still, in 2020, too many clients are taking tours of these offices with pen and paper and occasionally snapping a photo or video to send back to their stakeholders. Our app solved those issues once and for all, enabling better communication back and forth and a better user experience for all. Regardless of which team member goes on the office tour with our broker, everyone is clued in and on the same page.

We want everyone on the greater team to buy into the vision, and to recognize the potential, not just one representative who happened to be on the office tour one afternoon.