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5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

Sesh, a female-focused coworking space, opening in Montrose was one of this week's top stories. Photo courtesy of Sesh

Editor's note: Houston innovators, a new coworking space, and more trended on InnovationMap this week. Plus, what a non-Houston-based venture capitalist does and learns on his first visit to town.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Marc Nathan, Meredith Wheeler, and Maggie Segrich are this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

Passion is usually the motivator for starting a business, and this week's innovators to know have an undeniable passion for what they are doing.

Marc Nathan is passionate about Texas startups — it's why he started and still maintains a comprehensive newsletter of Texas innovation news. Meanwhile, Maggie Segrich and Meredith Wheeler are passionate about bringing together a community of women with Sesh Coworking.

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2 startups win big at Accenture's ​Houston-based health tech competition

For the first time, Accenture hosted its HealthTech Innovation Challenge finals at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. Photo courtesy of Accenture

Two health tech companies walked away from Accenture's HealthTech Innovation Challenge with awards. Regionals took place in Boston and San Francisco, and Houston was selected to host the finals last week.

New York-based Capital Rx was selected as the 2020 Innovation Champion of the Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge, and Minneapolis-based Carrot Health was given the second-place award for Top Innovator. The program, which was first launched in 2016, aims to pair startups with health organizations to drive innovative solutions to real challenges in health care.

"The submissions we received this year demonstrate the momentum of discovery and digital innovation in healthcare," says Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health and innovation at Accenture, in a news release. "Healthcare organizations continue to advance their digital transformation agendas — enhancing access, affordability, quality and experience to drive innovation that improves the lives of consumers and clinicians. We look forward to working with these companies and others to continue to help advance solutions that address the industry's toughest challenges."

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First female-focused coworking space opens in Houston

Sesh Coworking is committed to providing quality coworking space for women and by women. Photo courtesy of Sesh

For so long, women have been influenced on how to behave professionally at work and expected to leave home life at home. But two female entrepreneurs are flipping the switch on that way of thinking with their new coworking space.

"We as women show up in our work lives as a whole person. We don't compartmentalize and forget about all the other things happening in our lives," says Meredith Wheeler, co-founder and chief creative officer of Sesh Coworking. "We wanted a space that reflected that and embraced it."

Sesh officially opened its doors this week at its new 2,000-square-foot space in Montrose (1210 W Clay St #18). Wheeler co-founded the company with Maggie Segrich after hosting coffee and coworking meetups for women around Houston for over two years.

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Former Station Houston CEO says Capital Factory merger was about taking the organization 'back to its roots'

Gabriella Rowe has transitioned from CEO of Station Houston into her role as executive director of The Ion following Station's merger with Austin-based Capital Factory. Courtesy of Station Houston

Among the top news for Houston's innovation ecosystem for the year so far has been the announcement that Austin-based Capital Factory has merged with Station Houston.

The merger is officially completed, and how the combined startup development organization will interact with Houston's entrepreneurs is clear for Gabriella Rowe: It's about bringing Station Houston's mission back to why it was founded in the first place.

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Here's how a visiting venture capitalist explores Houston's startup ecosystem for the first time

Pat Matthews of Active Capital visited Houston with a collaboration with the HX Venture Fund. Photo courtesy of Active Capital

When Houston Exponential established the HX Venture Fund, the goal was to bring out-of-town capital and investors into the city of Houston. The fund of funds invests in a portfolio of venture capital funds with the hope that those funds find a way back into the Houston startup ecosystem.

After a little over a year, HXVF has invested in five funds: Boston-based .406 Ventures, Austin-based Next Coast Ventures, Boston-based OpenView Venture Partners, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, and Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners.

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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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