Featured Innovator

This entrepreneur is changing the landscape of Houston's innovation ecosystem

Grace Rodriguez is the co-founder and executive director of Impact Hub Houston. Courtesy of Grace Rodriguez

It's been a winding road for Grace Rodriguez to get to where she is today, but she wouldn't have it any other way. Rodriguez's career has spanned from managing a collective of DJs called Kracker Nuttz and consulting to one of the co-founders of Station Houston — and now the co-founder and executive director of Impact Hub Houston.

Impact Hub is a worldwide collaborative of resources for entrepreneurs, thought provokers, and supporters, and Rodriguez has been working for a while now to get Houston's chapter off the ground. As of April 17, Impact Hub Houston has launched its first popup location at Sharespace (1120 Naylor) where the organization will be until May 17. The popup concept is so that the nonprofit can really get to know all corners of Houston's innovation ecosystem, Rodriguez says.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston announced last month that it has launched its fundraising campaign called 321 Impact. The money donated will go to the programming, events, and development of the organization.

Rodriguez spoke with InnovationMap about her goals for the organization and her thoughts on the ecosystem as a whole.

InnovationMap: When you say you want to help "do gooders do greater," what does that mean for you?

Grace Rodriguez: For me, I want to help people at the idea stage — people who are beginning to build something. Talking to entrepreneurs, they say that's usually the hardest part. Once you get something going and you have some traction, it's easy to keep improving that. But, getting started is where people need the most help. With Impact Hub, we want to figure out how do we intentionally approach the problem of helping an entrepreneur go from 0 to 1, and 1 to 2, and then 2 to 10, and so on. And respond to their actual problems — versus what we think they need. There's a lot of personalization that needs to happen for early-stage entrepreneurs, and I'm hoping that this is the role in the Houston ecosystem that Impact Hub Houston can provide.

IM: What's Impact Hub's bigger picture goals?

GR: Our real vision is to help Houston become a role model for how the world solves the most pressing issues. We want to show the rest of the world that Houston has the talent, expertise, insight, and resources to solve issues around the world. Within that is the idea that Houston is an international city. A lot of times when people get together and talk about improving the perception of Houston, but honestly outside of the United States, Houston is seen as a major player on the world stage.

Another part of our mission is to move beyond discussing diversity toward actually creating equitable environments where people plug in and actively advocate for each other. A lot of people talk about how Houston is the most diverse city in the country and how it's a strength of Houston, but when you go to meetings with decision makers from the innovation ecosystem, you don't see that diversity represented. We want to make sure we are intentional about creating equitable environments and that diversity is included in the shaping of policy and institutions moving forward.

IM: How do the hubs work together?

GR: The interesting thing about Impact Hub is it isn't a franchise or like WeWork. It functions a lot like the United Nations. Each organization opts into the network, and you can form it anyway you want to — nonprofit or for-profit or a hybrid — and as large or as small you want to be. We are all connected by the common guideline of working alongside the United Nations to help advance the 17 sustainable development goals.

IM: What pain points do you see Houston entrepreneurs struggling with and how can the city address them?

GR: Over and over again, access to funding is a big issue — and access to someone who has the answers they need is another issue too. I feel like a lot of the conversation within the Houston innovation echo chamber has been around venture capital funding, but there's so many more types of capital that entrepreneurs can have access to. There's bootstrapping, angel investment, lending groups, and crowdfunding.

I've met a lot of Houston entrepreneurs who had to go to Austin for MassChallenge or Capital Factory and who didn't find that support or money here in Houston. And because they found it in Austin, they're considering moving there. This is how we lose our best and brightest. It's been happening and it keeps happening because we haven't focused on our city. Instead of being Austin, we need to figure out how to be Houston better. Until we start some really rough self reflection, then I don't think we'll ever be a better Houston. We'll continue trying to be "Silicon Bayou" versus being whatever Houston needs to be.

IM: I know with Impact Hub, you're trying to be transparent. But overall, do you feel like Houston's innovation ecosystem has a hard time being transparent?

GR: The challenge in Houston is trying to be shiny and polished. And, to me, shiny and polished is Dallas. No one in Houston wants to be Dallas. Let's accept the fact that we are an R&D city. We are a city that researches and develops and experiments new things. Let's lean hard into that and not say we're going to be perfect, and if we do that, then the need to try to appear perfect can go away. Being transparent on the things we are trying makes us become a role model for other cities. I feel like the feeling that we have to be polished and perfect for the rest of the world to be interested in us is the biggest hindrance to our progress. I already know the rest of the world is interested in us.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Koda Health, Houston, uses AI to help guide difficult conversations in health care, starting with end-of-life care planning. Image via kodahealthcare.com

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fafanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fafanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fafanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fafanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

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