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This Houston sports tech entrepreneur wants more big wins for Houston

Stephane Smith wants his company, Integrated Bionics, and its sports tech sensor to be a big win for Houston. Courtesy of Integrated Bionics

It took Stephane Smith and his brother, Yves, a few tries to get a revolutionary sports device that the market actually wanted. Now that they have, their Houston-based company, Integrated Bionics, has its Titan Sensor device being used worldwide — from Zimbabwe and Israel to Brazil and Mexico.

The Titan, which launched in 2017, syncs GPS with video and provides athletic metrics at an attainable price. Most of the company's customers are soccer teams primarily in the collegiate space — with some professional and even youth teams. Smith says the company has a firm footing within soccer because that's where this technology really started.

"People were doing GPS and sensing with soccer before we arrived. Soccer had this orientation from the get go," Smith tells InnovationMap. "There's a lot higher of awareness in soccer — but we think that awareness is going to grow across all sports as people realize how this data can be used without breaking the bank."

Smith spoke with InnovationMap about figuring out the Titan's technology, Houston's challenging venture capital environment, and why he hopes to be one of the city's big wins.

InnovationMap: Why did you want to start a company?

Stephane Smith: My background is in engineering. I worked at Intel for five years. I worked at silicon server processors — very deep into that, down to drawing wires of ultra miniature fabrication for electronics. It was an awesome experience. My group at Intel was actually an analogue group that was purchased by Intel. Analogue groups tend to be high risk in general. The company has to have a lot of trust in those people. My boss told me I had to go do something. At the time, I was married but didn't have any kids or own a home, so he was nudging me a little bit on a personal development side to go do my thing. This was in California, so everyone had startup fever. So, I quit my great job, and decided to do a startup.

IM: What brought you to Houston?

SS: We figured the cost of living was good, and it's where we grew up. We thought it'd be a good fit. My brother, Yves, and my co-founder, was doing a research project at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

IM: What was you and your brother’s first product?

SS: I'm a solutions guy and he had problems to solve. His problem at the time was sleep apnea monitoring and making sure patients are using the device. We made this really tiny device that could fit inside the retainer and it could communicate whether or not the person was wearing the mask. That was product No. 1. But then we found out no one wanted to buy it in the real world. It was kind of a reality check.

We pivoted. Inside the sensor, is something that could detect motion. We took the appliance and stuck it on a headband. I had one of my wife's friends do a header on a soccer ball. We had this nice video of someone heading a ball and the impact or reaction of the head movement. That was a couple years ago, and everyone was concerned about concussions. That was called Heads Up. We had some success and sales at the college level, but it still wasn't there yet.

IM: What was the issue with Heads Up?

SS: Concussions were kind of a taboo topic. The device was indicating something bad that happened. Something they did like on the report was how many steps they took. They were just looking at the performance metric. So, it was back to the drawing board. At the same time, we were trying to raise money in Houston, and it was a massive struggle. Houston's a hard place to raise money in general and especially in sports. We decided to just raise money from the customers. We wanted to make sure that people actually wanted the product. We doubled the price of the device and added a GPS sensor. We sold it to three teams before we even had it built yet. That became the Titan Sensor.

IM: But you did eventually find funding, right?

SS: We sort of stumbled upon Work America Capital. We weren't looking for it. Someone in my past life told me to check out this profile of Shane Hildreth. And I was like, hey it's a sports guy. I didn't think there was any of them in Houston. So, I contacted them. I feel like they got us — not just sports, but us — and had the same values of us. It was more than the money. We found a partner in them.

IM: Do you see venture in Houston changing?

SS: I don't know. I doubt it, at the moment. I think that what's missing is big wins. The analogy I like to use is I don't think that any city can build the Texas Medical Center. It's something built over generations. Silicon Valley has the same thing. You can just say, "Oh in five years, we'll make a task force and shabam, we're the next Silicon Valley." Every city's dream is that — that's why you hear Silicon Hill, Silicon Rock, Silicon Pond — you name it. But there's only one Silicon Valley and that's not going to change. There needs to be more wins and more leadership. We need more fish swimming in that direction to create momentum. Hopefully we become a win and can help build that momentum. Houston has all the ingredients.

IM: What’s next for Titan and other products?

SS: We're going to continue relentless innovation — doing things that no one is expecting and helping coaches with things not even on the radar. We'll going to be rolling out new capabilities and features that have traditionally been relegated to high-end systems or that haven't even existed before.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news. Image via Getty Images

As Houston heads toward the end of summer with no major vaccine or treatment confirmed for COVID-19, local research institutions are still hard at work on various coronavirus-focused innovations.

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news.

Baylor College of Medicine genomics team to partner for local COVID-19 testing

Houston millionaire to start biotech accelerator for companies focusing on regenerative medicine

Two departments at BCM are working with the county on COVID-19 testing. Getty Images

Two Baylor College of Medicine institutions have teamed up to aid in local COVID-19 testing. The Human Genome Sequencing Center and the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research — under the leadership of BCM — are partnering with local public health departments to provide polymerase chain reaction testing of COVID-19 samples, according to a news release from BCM.

"We are pleased to work with the outstanding local government groups in this critical public health effort," says Dr. Richard Gibbs, director of the HGSC and Wofford Cain chair and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor, in the release. "We are proud of the tireless determination and expertise of our centers and college staff that enabled the rapid development of this robust testing capacity to serve the greater Houston community."

Baylor is among the testing providers for Harris County Public Health, and people can receive testing following a pre-screening questionnaire online.

"We are fortunate to have Baylor College of Medicine as a close partner during the COVID-19 pandemic," says Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, in the release. "This is a challenging time for our community and as the need for increased testing capacity and getting results to residents faster has grown, Baylor has risen to the occasion. There are countless unsung heroes across Harris County who have stepped up to the plate during this pandemic and Baylor College of Medicine is one of them."

COVID-19 testing samples are collected from testing sites and delivered to the Alkek Center. After isolating the virus, genomic material is extracted and sent to the HGSC to quantitative reverse transcription PCR testing. Should the sample's RNA sequence match the virus, then it is positive for COVID-19. The sequencing must test positive three times to be considered overall positive.

Results are returned within 48 hours, and the lab has a capacity of more than 1,000 samples a day. Since May, the team has tested over 30,000 samples.

"We knew we had all the pieces to stand up a testing center fast – large scale clinical sequencing, experts in virology and molecular biology, and a secure way to return results to patients," says Ginger Metcalf, Human Genome Sequencing Center Director of Project Development, in the release. "We are also fortunate to have such great partners at Harris County Public Health, who have done an amazing job of gathering, tracking and delivering samples, especially for the most at-risk members of our community."

National Science Foundation renews Rice University funding amid pandemic

José Onuchic (left) and Peter Wolynes are co-directors of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at Rice University. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics has been granted a five-year extension from the National Science Foundation. The grant for $12.9 million will aid in continuing the CTBP's work at the intersection of biology and physics.

The center — which was founded in 2001 at the University of California, San Diego, before moving to Rice in 2011 — is led by Peter Wolynes and José Onuchic.

"We have four major areas at the center," Onuchic says in a news release. "The first is in chromatin theory and modeling, developing the underlying mathematical theory to explain the nucleus of the cell — what Peter calls the 'new nuclear physics.' The second is to test ideas based on the data being created by experimentalists. The third is to understand information processing by gene networks in general, with some applications related to metabolism in cancer. The fourth is to study the cytoskeleton and molecular motors. And the synergy between all of these areas is very important."

Onuchic adds that an upcoming donation of a supercomputer by AMD will help the center's ongoing research into COVID-19 and four institutions — Rice, Northeastern, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston — are working collaboratively on the study,

"We're all set to move on doing major COVID-related molecular simulations on day one," he says in the release. "The full functioning of a center requires a synergy of participation. Rice is the main player with people from multiple departments, but Baylor, Northeastern and Houston play critical roles."

University of Houston offers free mental health therapy for restaurant workers

Texas restaurant workers can get free mental health care from a UH initiative. Photo via Elle Hughes/Pexels

Through a collaboration with Southern Smoke and Mental Health America of Greater Houston, the University of Houston Clinical Psychology program launched a a free mental health care program for Texas-based food and beverage employees and their children.

"During normal times this is a high stress industry where people work very hard in environments where they are just blowing and going all the time," says John P. Vincent, professor of psychology and director of the UH Center for Forensic Psychology, in a news release.

The program has 14 graduate students who converse with a total of 30 patients and meet weekly with supervisors at UH.

"This opportunity allows our clinical program to reach people in the community who usually don't have access to mental health services," says Carla Sharp, professor of psychology and director of clinical training, in the release.

For restaurant industry workers looking for help and care, they can visit the Mental Health Services page on Southern Smoke's website.

According to Vincent, this is just the beginning.

"We're discussing it," says Vincent in the release. "But as far as I'm concerned it can just keep going and going."

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