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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

 
 

Employers across industries need to step up their game when it comes to retention and recruitment. Photo via Getty Images

With Baby Boomers and older generations exiting the workforce in droves and COVID-19 variants still straining hospitals and doctors’ offices, the health-care industry is experiencing its own “Great Resignation” at a time when health-care occupations are projected to add more jobs than any other occupational group.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that “Employment in health-care occupations is projected to grow 16 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations, adding about 2.6 million new jobs … mainly due to an aging population, leading to greater demand for health-care services.”

This greater demand might run into a supply issue if employers don’t act swiftly to find creative ways to retain and recruit their staffs. Today’s workforce knows its value and is no longer so easily enticed or satisfied with basic benefits packages. It’s an employee market and employers across all industries are having to step up and bring their A-game when it comes to retention and recruitment.

What you can do to up your ‘A-game’ in 2022

COVID has taught employers that they must change to survive. Spend the time now to develop a strategic plan that will allow you to adapt and improve throughout the year. Be sure to give yourself a cushion in your budget that will allow you to meet new employee demands as they arise and to be generous with relocation and sign-on incentives when you compete for top talent. You can later list these incentives in your job advertisements and highlight any other benefits that might capture interest and bring talent into your organization.

Start your recruitment and retention efforts with a survey of your staff. Find out what they really need and want from you, then try to find ways to meet their demands. Some simple ways for you to take care of your employees right now include:

Bring employees meals to their floor.

Hospitals are becoming filled up once again with sick patients and most are understaffed as employees are contracting COVID from patients. Treat your staff to healthy food—not cookies and cakes—allow them to really stop and take 15 minutes to breathe and fuel their body. This can be done twice or three times a week for each shift. Talk to them about food options or restrictions so that everyone feels like they can participate.

Bring in a counselor on a monthly basis that employees may access during their shift.

Providing this accessible, valuable resource will give your staff the opportunity to address their mental health and wellness and can help you reduce burnout among your ranks.

Allow at least one meeting a week to be focused solely on your employees.

Often the shift start-up meetings are rushed due to the day’s demands. Spend at least one of these meetings a week asking your team things like, “Where do you feel you impacted someone this week?” or ask everyone to share a personal achievement that has helped them personally keep going. This will help you build unity with your team and develop a more positive, empathetic relationship.

Provide bonus incentives to take on extra shifts.

There’s a lot of work to be done and often too few people to do it, so make it worth their while by offering a bonus for taking on more work than normal. You can also provide an option for them to earn overtime on a rotation so they can plan accordingly and still have opportunities for rest and a life balance.

Help relieve the stress of being in a high-risk environment by offering additional paid sick leave for a COVID-related absence.

The paid leave should be for the employee to quarantine at home and convalesce or care for an immediate family member who has the disease, and it should not take away from their accrued unused time off. Consult your HR advisor or attorney to find out whether paid sick leave is legally required in your jurisdiction.

Say “thank you.”

It may sound overly simple but just having the executive leadership go in and say thank you, shake hands, or even show up to a shift meeting can show the staff that their leadership cares about their hard work and recognizes the excellent care they are providing to their clients and patients. People in health care or associated service industries just want to know that they are making a difference, so share positive feedback from patients when you can. It matters.

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Denise Macik is the manager of strategic HR advisory services for G&A Partners, a leading professional employer organization that has been helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses for more than 25 years.

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