customer innovation

University of Houston launches innovation lab focused on the shopping experience

The University of Houston's College of Technology is looking to optimize the shopping experience. Photo via UH.edu

A new AI-powered lab at the University of Houston will supply real-time intelligence about the behavior of retail shoppers to help spur development of new technology for the retail industry.

The University of Houston College of Technology and Houston-based Relationshop announced the launch of the AI Retail Innovation Lab on November 10. Relationshop provides digital engagement and shopper loyalty technology to customers like Albertsons, United Supermarkets, Save On Foods, Market Street, and Big Y Foods.

The cloud-based lab, located at the College of Technology building in Sugar Land, will enable students, faculty, and industry professionals from across the U.S. to sift through in-store and online shopper data and then come up with new technology for the retail sector.

"This academic and commercial partnership with Relationshop accelerates the understanding and advancement of applied technology to keep pace with the unparalleled growth of digital retail as a result of COVID," Anthony Ambler, dean of the UH College of Technology, says in a news release.

The news release indicates new technology arising from the lab-supplied data "will optimize the shopper journey through more personalized and curated digital interactions across all forms of digital engagement and commerce … ."

Randy Crimmins, president of Relationshop, says his company will work alongside UH faculty and data science teams to advance the use of AI and big data in the retail sector.

"We see this partnership as a perfect blending of our strengths, with great synergy in the incredible work they are doing in academia, and our key areas of focus and experience in the retail marketplace," Crimmins says.

The AI lab, part of the College of Technology's Advanced Technology Innovation & Research Center, also will be a hub for industry training, undergraduate and graduate studies, and other initiatives.

The lab's activities will be carried out in concert with the AI Innovation Consortium, a think tank of IT and advanced technology thought leaders. Aside from UH, members of the consortium include Pennsylvania State University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Louisville.

The UH announcement comes two days after the official debut of a retail innovation lab at McGill University in Montreal. The lab, which includes a "fully frictionless" Couche-Tard Connecté convenience store, fosters collaboration among key players in the retail, emerging technology, and startup communities.

"By combining artificial intelligence and retail management, this retail innovation lab at the Bensadoun School of Retail Management will allow our researchers to develop new initiatives and technologies to improve the customer experience for the retail sector with the help of industry partners," says professor Morty Yalovsky, dean of McGill's Desautels Faculty of Management.

In the U.S., Alimentation Couche-Tard is the parent company of the Circle K chain of convenience stores. Circle K currently is rolling out frictionless technology, including AI-supported self-checkout systems, at stores in Tempe and Tucson, Arizona.

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Building Houston

 
 

Dream Harvest picked up funding to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

Houston-based Dream Harvest Farming Co., which specializes in sustainably growing produce, has landed a $50 million investment from Orion Energy Partners to open a 100,000-square-foot indoor farming facility in Houston. The facility will enable the company to dramatically ramp up its operations.

The new facility, which will be built in Southwest Houston, is scheduled for completion in January 2023. Dream Harvest’s existing 7,500-square-foot facility in Southwest Houston supplies 45 Whole Foods stores in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as Sweetgreen restaurants in Texas.

The company currently employs 25 people. With the addition of the 100,000-square-foot facility, Dream Harvest’s headcount will rise to 65.

Dream Harvest relies on wind-powered, year-round indoor vertical farming to generate 400 times the yield of an outdoor farm while using 95 percent less water and no pesticides.

“Because the vast majority of America’s produce is grown in California and has to be shipped over long distances, most of the country receives produce that is old, has a poor flavor profile, and a short shelf life — a major contributing factor to the more than 30 percent of fresh vegetables being discarded in the U.S. each year,” Dream Harvest says in a December 7 news release.

Zain Shauk, co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest, says his company’s method for growing lettuce, baby greens, kale, mustards, herbs, collards, and cabbage helps cut down on food waste.

“Demand for our produce has far outpaced supply, an encouraging validation of our approach as well as positive news for our planet, which is facing the rising problem of food and resource waste,” Shauk says. “While we have the yields today to support our business, we are pleased to partner with Orion on this financing, which will enable us to greatly expand our production and increase access to our produce for many more consumers.”

Dream Harvest expects to expand distribution to more than 250 retail locations in 2022.

“Orion’s focus on sustainable infrastructure and deep experience in building large industrial facilities will be complementary to Dream Harvest’s impressive track record of being a reliable supplier to high-caliber customers by achieving consistent yields, food safety, and operational efficiencies … ,” says Nazar Massouh, co-managing partner and CEO of Orion Energy Partners, which has offices in Houston and New York City.

Other companies in the Orion Energy Partners portfolio include Houston-based Caliche Development Partners, Tomball-based Python Holdings, The Woodlands-based Evolution Well Services, Houston-based Produced Water Transfer, and Houston-based Tiger Rentals.

Zain Shauk is the co-founder and CEO of Dream Harvest. Photo courtesy of Dream Harvest

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