When Downtown’s innovation hub, Downtown Launchpad, opened in 2020, it was a bright light in a gloomy year. Even with the clouds of pandemic-induced uncertainty hanging over the city, the Houston innovation community showed that they weren’t just up for a challenge, but ready to come back stronger than before.
As MassChallenge and gener8tor, two of the Launchpad’s inaugural residents, prepared for their cohorts, they rolled with the punches, shifting to virtual programming and welcoming new companies in with enthusiasm.
In a short period of time, Downtown’s centralized innovation ecosystem has played host to some of the city’s most promising startups, including the following four companies taking their businesses to the next level.
How prepared are we for autonomous vehicles?
Tech and infrastructure experts are asking this important question all around the world, and that includes Sarah Park, co-founder of zero5. Her San Francisco-based innovative startup is developing systems that will transform parking lots into tech-enabled marketplaces, equipping cities to easily accommodate autonomous vehicles when they become mainstream.
Though headquartered on the West Coast, zero5 has a close connection to Houston: Park and her zero5 co-founder, Jae Paik, participated in MassChallenge Houston’s inaugural 2019 class. They credit the time they spent with MassChallenge as a major turning point in understanding how cities like Houston can lead the way for the burgeoning autonomous vehicle and automated parking industries.
“If autonomous cars are to really serve their purpose, they should be able to drop you off, park themselves, then pick you up when you’re ready to leave.”
The way Park describes it, we’re all about to get our very own Batmobile; but not without a change in mindset and community support. Help from both real estate developers and tech ecosystem leaders is essential, as current infrastructure does not support autonomous vehicular traffic. Parking garages, for example, rely on manual ticketing systems. Autonomous vehicles can do a lot of innovative things but pressing buttons on ticket booths is not one of them.
That’s why Park and Paik envision a world where parking lots are fully automated, comprehensive networks that collect, analyze and distribute on-demand, real-time data. Their goal: Connecting available spots, drivers and vehicles for a seamless parking experience, while maximizing revenue for lot operators by reducing overhead and eliminating unused spots.
Per the zero5 website: “We are starting with building technology to streamline parking of today. Next, we will truly bring the offline parking market online. We will reveal the potential of the parking market and change the way the world thinks about parking.”
Houston: A Smart City
zero5 was recently contracted by Houston-based Lovett Commercial to automate the parking system for over 900 spaces at the new Post Houston development, an adaptive reuse of the former Barbara Jordan U.S. Post Office. The location will no doubt put zero5’s systems to the test, as it’s expected to be a vibrant Downtown destination. The project will feature an international food hall, experiential shopping options, coworking offices, a six-acre rooftop farm, a music venue and more.
Zero5’s success at Post Houston would have tremendous effects on the future of this city and the viability of autonomous vehicles calling Houston home before other major metropolitan areas. It might even convince more tech companies to move headquarters from Silicon Valley to Houston.
For one, ride-sharing companies would benefit. During an interview with Autonomous Vehicles Podcast, Park and Paik discussed Uber and Lyft’s plans for AV fleets. Not only would they be able to safely store vehicles in the off-hours, but they could enhance customer experiences by using data to identify where vehicles should be stored for the fastest deployment and pick up.
The zero5 team are not the only ones who envision Houston as a smart city. As Mayor Sylvester Turner said three years ago, “We must leap, not stroll into the future. We must sprint, not jog. It will be this city that will be the smart city of the world."
The mayor’s office has launched a vision of our city’s tech-driven future, providing solutions to transit, public safety, sustainability and community engagement concerns. Within the transit category, plans include parking guidance systems, intelligent transportation systems, and autonomous transit circulators.
With Downtown Launchpad home to two internationally acclaimed startup accelerator programs, MassChallenge and Gener8tor’s gBeta; and the the Ion’s Smart and Resilient Cities accelerator and Greentown Labs’ clean energy incubator holding court just down the block in Midtown, it certainly seems like zero5 has found the perfect place to park its services.
How it all began
“We didn’t really know much about Houston before the MassChallenge program but, once we were here, we quickly realized how important it would be to our mission.” IS THIS PARK SPEAKING?
The zero5 story began in a unique way. Co-founders Park and Paik met while working for a wearables factory. Paik, a mechanical engineer in Korea at the time, was the only person on his team who spoke English. Park was the only one on her team who spoke Korean. The two formed a close professional bond, one that would bring them together again after that wearables company was acquired.
By 2017, Park had moved to the venture capital side of tech, helping fund ambitious startups like zero5, when she received a call from Paik. She knew he had always been interested in cars, but he had become fascinated with how autonomous vehicles will change our lives. The two spoke at length and came to the conclusion that infrastructure had to be reimagined and prepared before autonomous vehicles could go mainstream.
It was this vision that got them accepted into the 2019 MassChallenge Houston program.
Advice for budding startups
When Park and Paik initially entered MassChallenge, they planned to raise funding by graduation. That didn’t happen. They knew what they wanted but didn’t know what they were missing.
Luckily, one of MassChallenge’s main goals is to partner founders with industry experts and mentors. Zero5 ended up connecting with Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston, Inc. Park credits Pieroni for identifying with their vision right away and knowing exactly how their services could benefit the world.
Robert Pieroni was also instrumental in connecting zero5 with the Lovett Commercial Post Houston project. During the program, they met with Pieroni weekly, refining their pitch until the startup was ready to be connected with real estate companies.
“He helped us identify what we needed to do to get to that funding stage. He was always available,” IS THIS PARK AGAIN?
Collaboration with fellow founders was also very important to Park. She found tremendous value in workshopping the zero5 mission with fellow MassChallenge Houston founders. During these sessions, she discovered a symbiotic relationship, one in which they offered advice to founders developing hardware, based on their backgrounds, and would receive advice on software development from fellow founders.
“We were really lucky to end up in Houston,” she says.
On the heels of receiving the Post Houston contract, zero5 raised $2 million in seed funding in 2021. They finally began to fulfill the original goal they had upon graduating from MassChallenge.
See zero5’s work in action
The expected completion date for Post Houston is fall 2021.