seeing green

Report evaluates Houston's potential as a climatetech hub with 6 key takeaways

The Texas Climate Tech Collective issued its 2023 report tracking Houston's progress as a climatetech hub. Photo via Getty Images

Three Houston energy tech innovators sought to quantify Houston's growth as an energy tech ecosystem, and, after 200 survey respondents and dozens of interviews, they've created six calls to action for the city.

Taylor Chapman, Gabe Malek, and Deanna Zhang created the Texas Climate Tech Collective to issue the Houston's Climate Tech Ecosystem 2023 report. The trio revealed some of its key takeaways at Greentown Houston's Climatetech Summit last month.

"We wanted to understand how the city has evolved," Malek, who's also chief of staff at Fervo Energy, said at the event. "We went into this project with a shared belief that Houston has unique characteristics that set it apart from the other cities thinking about climate, and if we could really lean into those characteristics, develop them, and amplify them, we could help grow the ecosystem in Houston and build climate solutions ... to accelerate the energy transition."

The full report, which is available online, highlighted six key takeaways paired with six action items.

1. "Houston has a perception problem."

Houston is known as a leader in the energy industry, which positions it well in a lot of ways, but in other ways, as Zhang points out, Houston might be being left out.

"People in this community like to talk about energy because we are the energy capital of the world, so we use a lot of energy-centric terms," she says, using "energy transition" as an example. "We don't use the word climate enough."

It might just be semantics, but it could be a reason the city isn't as regarded as a climatetech leader.

"If other ecosystems are using 'climate' and 'climatetech,' we need to be using these terms," she continues. "It's like SEO but for the ecosystem."

2. "Houston needs more risk capital, especially at the earlier stages." 

Money is a huge factor, which comes as no surprise. While the city has a lot of corporations and private equity here, as Zhang explains, there seems to be room for improvement for early-stage resources.

"If you're a founder raising pre-seed, seed, or even series A, often times you have to go outside of Houston to meet those investors," she says.

According to the report, about half of survey respondents chose "access to venture capital" as one of the biggest challenges facing the ecosystem.

3. "Houston’s startup scene has improved radically."

The report found that 80 percent of responders agreed to the statement: “the ecosystem has improved dramatically over the last 5 years.” Meanwhile, 75 percent of respondents agreed that “Houston is more innovative than outsiders perceive it to be."

So what's holding the city back? According to the collective, "Shameless self-promotion of ecosystem accomplishments."

"We need to be shouting from the rooftops what is happening in this city. It's really a PR game," Zhang says.

4. "Houston’s energy resources and infrastructure have massive potential to create change, but are underutilized by the climate ecosystem."

The collective and survey respondents acknowledge that Houston has a lot of infrastructure already in place, but the call to action is for coordination of these resources.

"Greentown, Ion, Halliburton Labs, HETI — the list goes on and on, but people don't know where to start," Chapman says.

The report says the city's resources are "woefully undertapped" and "29 percent of respondents highlighted partnerships, coordination of existing assets, and Houston’s own future investments in infrastructure as potential accelerants to growth."

5. "Houston’s strong workforce and human capital are one of its greatest strengths – and it should be investing in transitioning that workforce to new opportunities."

Cultivating the workforce for the energy transition needs to be a major priority, according to the collective. The city has a talented workforce for engineering, technical, and project management talent.

"How do we reach and transition this workforce?" Chapman asks. "It's a huge opportunity and critical for Houston to ensure that its economic development continues to grow."

6. "Houston knows how to build...but needs to put expertise that towards climate innovation."

Houston as a major, sprawling city needs to continue to become "greener" in every way. While Chapman praises the city has done with its Climate Action Plan, Houston still lags other major cities like Los Angeles and New York in this way, per the report. Fourteen percent of respondents cited better climate-friendly infrastructure as a priority issue.

Chapman urged the audience to get involved locally to move the needle on more green initiatives for the city.

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A View From HETI

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want. Photo courtesy of Boxes

With the help of a new conversational artificial intelligence platform, a Houston startup is ready to let brands get up close and personal with consumers while minimizing waste.

IBM and Boxes recently partnered to integrate the IBM watsonx Assistant into Boxes devices, providing a way for consumer packaged brands to find out more than ever about what its customers like and want.

The Boxes device, about the size of a 40-inch television screen, dispenses products to consumers in a modern and sustainable spin on the old-fashioned large vending machine.

CEO Fernando Machin Gojdycz learned that business from his entrepreneur father, Carlos Daniel Machin, while growing up in Uruguay.

“That’s where my passion comes from — him,” Gojdycz says of his father. In 2016, Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay with some engineer friends

Funded by a $2,000 grant from the University of Uruguay, the company's mission was “to democratize and economize affordable and sustainable shopping,” in part by eliminating wasteful single-use plastic packaging.

“I worked for one year from my bedroom,” he tells InnovationMap.

Fernando Machin Gojdycz founded Boxes in Uruguay before relocating the company to Greentown Houston. Photo courtesy of Boxes

The device, attached to a wall, offers free samples, or purchased products, in areas of high foot traffic, with a touch-screen interface. Powered by watsonx Assistant, the device asks survey questions of the customer, who can answer or not, on their mobile devices, via a QR code.

In return for completing a survey, customers can get a digital coupon, potentially generating future sales. The software and AI tech tracks sales and consumer preferences, giving valuable real-time market insight.

“This is very powerful,” he says.

Boxes partnered in Uruguay with major consumer brands like Kimberly-Clark, SC Johnson and Unilever, and during COVID, pivoted and offered PPE products. Then, with plans of an expansion into the United States, Boxes in 2021 landed its first U.S. backer, with $120,000 in funding from startup accelerator Techstars.

This led to a partnership with the Minnesota Twins, where Boxes devices at Target Field dispensed brand merchandise like keychains and bottles of field dirt.

Gojdycz says while a company in the Northeast is developing a product similar in size, Boxes is not “targeting traditional spaces.” Its software and integration with AI allows Boxes to seamlessly change the device screen and interface, remotely, as well.

Boxes aims to provide the devices in smaller spaces, like restrooms, where they have a device at the company's headquarters at climate tech incubator Greentown Labs. Boxes also recently added a device at Hewlett Packard Enterprise headquarters in Spring, as part of HPE’s diversity startup program.

Boxes hopes to launch another sustainable innovation later this year, in universities and supermarkets. The company is also developing a device that would offer refillable detergent and personal cleaning products like shampoo and conditioner with a reusable container.

Since plastic packaging accounts for 40 percent of retail price, consumers would pay far less, making a huge difference, particularly for lower-income families, he says.

“We are working to make things happen, because we have tried to pitch this idea,” he says.

Some supermarket retailers worry they may lose money or market share, and that shoppers may forget to bring the refill bottles with them to the store, for example.

“It’s about..the U.S. customer,” he says, “….but we think that sooner or later, it will come.”

Boxes has gotten funding from the accelerator startup branch of Houston-based software company Softeq, as well as Mission Driven Finance, Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, and Right Side Capital, among others.

“Our primary challenges are scaling effectively with a small, yet compact team and maintaining control over our financial runway,” Gojdycz says.

The company has seven employees, including two on its management team.

Gojdycz says they are actively hiring, particularly in software and hardware engineering, but also in business development.

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This article originally ran on InnovationMap.

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