who's who

4 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Tatiana Fofanova of Koda Health, Rafael Verduzco of Rice University, and Sujata “Su” Bajaj and Dakisha Allen of Yuvo Health. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local innovators across industries — from digital health to research — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda Health

Tatiana Fofanova, co-founder and CEO of Koda, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss her company's growth. Image via LinkedIn

It's Tatiana Fofanova's goal to have Koda Health's platform — a B2B Enterprise SaaS solution that guides patients through the process of proactive healthcare planning and document authentication — active in all 50 states by the end of the first quarter of 2023. She's already halfway there.

The tech platform allows for patients and their providers to get on the same page for their care. Fofanova describes the platform as similar to TurboTax — users answer a series of questions and the program provides a care plan then shared with the patient's doctors. This greatly simplifies — and democratizes — the process for patients and providers both.

"The standard of care for advanced care planning has traditionally been left to patients to do on their own — with estate planning attorney or through a direct-to-consumer solution," Fofanova says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Read more.

Rafael Verduzco, associate chair and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering at Rice University

Rafael Verduzco is leading the research and development. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A team of researchers from Rice University have received a $2 million grant to develop a unique technology that speeds up the analysis of wastewater for viruses from hours to seconds. The team is based out of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and led by Rafael Verduzco, associate chair and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering. The four-year grant from the National Science Foundation will support the development of the technology, which includes wastewater-testing bioelectric sensors that deliver immediate notice of presence of viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, according to a news release from Rice.

“Monitoring wastewater for COVID has been pretty effective as a way to get an idea of where we are as a population,” says Verduzco in the release. “But the way it’s done is you have to sample it, you have to do a PCR test and there’s a delay. Our selling point was to get real-time, continuous monitoring to see just how much of this virus is in the wastewater.” Read more.

Sujata “Su” Bajaj as CTO and Dakisha Allen as head of product of Yuvo Health

Two Houstonians have been named to the executive board of a New York startup. Photos courtesy of Yuvo Health

ANew York City-based, tech-enabled health administrative and managed care solution has announced the latest addition to its C-suite — including two executives based in Houston.

Yuvo Health, which provides community health centers a tech platform for managing care, announced the appointment of Sujata “Su” Bajaj as CTO and Dakisha Allen as head of product. Additionally, the startup named New York-based Anthony Thompson as head of development and Ishaan Jalan as chief of staff.

“It is with tremendous pride and excitement that we announce the growth of our leadership team, especially as it is less than six months since our last corporate expansion,” says Cesar Herrera, CEO and co-founder of Yuvo Health. Read more.

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Building Houston

 
 

UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

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.

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