Houston Voices

University of Houston-founded company shares its lessons learned from accelerator programs

Houston-based Sensytec founder gives his advice for accelerating your startup. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

A startup accelerator provides promising companies with an opportunity to boost their chances of marketing their technologies. These programs help small companies pivot their technologies strategically, interface with industry sectors and engage with mentor network to better pitch their ideas to the market.

Unfortunately, most startups will never have the chance to participate in an accelerator. But the information gained from such an experience can be valuable knowledge for all entrepreneurs who wish to accelerate their business.

Sensytec – a UH startup that developed smart cement to monitor the health of structures – was recently accepted into the Techstars Energy Accelerator. Techstars Energy is a highly competitive accelerator in Norway that partners with Equinor, Kongsberg, and Mckinsey to find sustainable technologies for the energy industry. Sensytec's smart cement technology is being considered for use in new oil and gas wells and concrete structures.

Sensytec president Ody De La Paz learned quite a bit about what companies are looking for when it comes to new technology and what entrepreneurs can do to boost their startups.

Understand where your tech fits into the market

Though joining Techstars to better position their smart cement technology to energy companies, De La Paz has learned the many ways in which his company's tech could be positioned to other markets.

"Recognizing the way the market is moving is critical to successfully pitching your tech to customers," he says. "But you have to be honest with yourself – your target market may not be the one you need to pitch your tech to make money."

According to De La Paz, this is where many inventors may miss their opportunity to profit.

"It's understandable that many researchers and inventors are passionate about the one problem they are trying to solve," he says. "But the real trick is trying to discover the solution currently needed by industry sectors – and that is continually changing."

His recommendation? Be open to any opportunity.

"It's not so much about you or your technology," he says. "It's about how your technology fits within an industry's business strategy. It's always about what the company needs, so there may be different applications to consider."

Focus on company values

Every decision made by industry will be focused on the bottom line. It's business, after all. But in addition to providing a high-value, low-cost solution for companies, aligning your tech with company core values may win over a few more hearts.

"Because we know that Equinor has a 'safety first' approach and values sustainability, we put together a solid business case to reflect those values," says De La Paz.

Current technologies used to monitor cement are not as accurate as they should be, says De La Paz. This leads to very costly solutions. So Sensytec built a business case that outlines how their technology accurately reports when cement loses structural health, allowing companies to proactively fix problems before they become disasters.

"We know exploration and drilling will continue," he says. "But if we can show how our technology is not only cost effective, but a safer choice for oil and gas companies like Equinor, we will align with their values and that's very important to them."

Seek feedback — and lots of it

One of the things De La Paz has experienced while in the Techstars Energy accelerator is the value of feedback.

In fact, he says you can't get enough of it, that every piece of feedback, every perspective gained is another clue that helps you figure out if your technology is needed and, if so, how to pitch it.

Here's what he suggests:

1. Interview as many customers as possible

According to De La Paz, every person working in that industry has perspective. He and his team have interviewed hundreds of experts, from the architect to the concrete manufacturer to subcontractors. "It's important to understand your customer and how they think about our technology," he says.

2. Find mentors

In addition to interviewing customers, select a few as mentors. Business leaders, strategists, and even everyday users, can help you toss around ideas.

3. Be honest with yourself

When you receive the feedback, be honest with yourself, says De La Paz. You may be better suited for another market or you may need to pivot your technology, but this will not happen if the feedback is not used wisely.

De La Paz also stress the value of patience and persistence during this process.

"It's a very long process and there's a lot you have to consider," he says. "But if you stay on top of everything and follow through, it will help your startup get moving more quickly."


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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Lindsay Lewis is the director of strategic research communications at UH.

Slightly-to-moderately overqualified workers are more likely to be valuable and to reimagine their duties in ways that advance their institutions. Getty Images

You're a rocket scientist. You've worked for NASA. You won a Nobel Prize. Shouldn't your qualifications give you an edge on a software developer job?

According to typical hiring practice, the answer is no. You might not even get an interview for a job sweeping the floor. That's because, for years, research has warned that hiring applicants with too much experience or too many skills will saddle you with employees who don't appreciate their jobs.

Now there's good news for rocket scientists and others who happen to be overqualified for their work. According to a groundbreaking new study coauthored by Rice Business professor Jing Zhou, workers who are slightly to moderately overqualified are actually more likely to be active and creative contributors to their workplace. As a result, they're more likely to be assets. The study adds to a new body of research about the advantages of an overqualified workforce.

Zhou's findings have widespread implications. Worldwide, almost half of the people who work for a living report that they are overqualified for their jobs. That means Zhou's research, conducted with Bilian Lin and Kenneth Law of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, applies to a vast segment of the labor market.

To reach its conclusions, Zhou's team launched two separate studies in China. The first looked at six different schools with a total of 327 teachers and 85 supervisors. The second analyzed an electronic equipment factory with 297 technicians. Both studies revealed a strong link between perceived slight and moderate overqualification and the frequency of "task crafting," that is, expanding the parameters of the work in more innovative and productive ways.

In the school study, teachers who were slightly to moderately overqualified set up new online networks with students and parents. They also rearranged classrooms in ways that made students more engaged and productive. Meanwhile, in the factory, workers took tests to gauge their abilities in complex tasks designing a ship. The ones who were slightly to moderately overqualified built more complex versions that reflected their superior competencies.

The key to both sets of workers' superiority was their impulse to "job craft." Every worker leaves a personal imprint: meeting the bare minimum of criteria, pushing to exceed expectations, innovating or imagining new or more useful ways of getting the job done. Expert "job crafters" turn this impulse into an art. Some redraw their task boundaries or change the number of tasks they take on. Others reconfigure their work materials or redefine their jobs altogether. Still others rearrange their work spaces and reimagine their work procedures in ways that can catapult their productivity upward.

For overqualified workers, Zhou's team found, task crafting is a psychological coping mechanism – a welcome one. Workers want to show their superiors the true level of their skills. Doing so fortifies their self-esteem and intensifies their bonds with the company they work for. Far from being dissatisfied, these overqualified workers are more productive, keen to help their organizations and interested in finding ways to be proud of their work.

So how did the outlook on such workers go from shadowy to brilliant? Past research, it turns out, focused rigidly on the fit between worker experience and a task. It didn't consider the nuanced human motivations that go into working, nor the full range of creativity or flexibility possible in getting a job done.

Thus, older studies cautioned that overqualified workers are likely to feel deprived and resentful. Zhou's research shows the opposite: a statistical correlation between worker overqualification and high job performance.

Organizations do need to do their part for this alchemy to work. Above all, Zhou writes, it's crucial to build a strong bond between worker and institution. This is because workers who identify strongly with their workplace feel more confident that their job-crafting efforts will be well received; those who don't feel this strong bond often feel mistreated and give up the project of crafting their work.

Similarly, companies also need to grant workers flexibility to expand the scope or improve the process of their jobs. The outcome can be the evolution of the entire business in unexpected and often creative ways.

Not all super-qualified workers will be inspired to re-craft their tasks. When the gulf between skills and task is extreme, Zhou writes, workers are bored and job crafting loses its juice as an incentive. For more moderately overqualified employees, however, their expertise should rocket their CVs to the top of the stack. For seasoned workers, the evidence shows, a job is not just a job. It's an adventure in finding ways to be excellent.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Jing Zhou is the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University.