If you want to get excited about what’s ahead for Dallas-Fort Worth, all you have to do is read about the companies and leaders featured here. They are disrupting their industries and solidifying the region’s reputation as a hub for innovation. It’s especially felt in the tech arena, where North Texas continues to shine, ranking among the nation’s best markets for tech talent. But innovation permeates companies of all sizes in every industry, from healthcare and education to energy and commercial real estate.
To take a closer look at what’s happening here, we teamed up with our colleagues at Dallas Innovates to present The Innovation Awards. A special thank you to our judges: Duane Dankesreiter of the Dallas Regional Chamber; Joe Beard of Perot Jain, and Bill Sproull of Tech Titans, who joined our respective editorial teams in selecting the winners and finalists among the more than 120 nominations that rolled in.
corporate innovator of the year
Senior Vice President, Samsung Electronics America
As a senior executive and product lead, Alanna Cotton oversees everything from wearables and tablets to portable audio and virtual reality for Samsung Electronics America, one of the largest tech companies in the world. Her impact is global but is especially strong in North Texas, where the company has more than 1,000 employees. Cotton has played a key role in bringing cutting-edge technologies to the marketplace. In the past year alone, Cotton led the launch of 12 Samsung products that continue to push the envelope, including the Galaxy Tab S6 and the Galaxy Watch Active2, which lets users monitor their health and wellness in real time. “The best innovation out there will empower people to live their best lives,” she says. One of the highest-ranking African-American women in the industry, Cotton makes it a priority to encourage a diversity of thought and perspectives in technology. She leads the Women in Samsung Electronics initiative, which helps bring women to the decision-making table. “The ability to unleash the power of this portion of our workforce in ways that we haven’t been able to before has been extremely rewarding,” Cotton says. The Mississippi native has had roles at PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble in other markets but has found Dallas-Fort Worth especially welcoming. “It is a great place for inspiring innovators.” —Will Maddox
Finalists: Arjun Dugal, Capital One; Paola Arbour, Tenet Healthcare; Heidi Soltis-Berner, Deloitte
Innovation in placemaking
Better Block Foundation
The Better Block Foundation began in 2010 as a local effort by urban planners Jason Roberts and Andrew Howard to improve their neighborhoods. Since then, the approach has been adopted internationally by more than 200 cities across the globe. Roberts says the goal is to revitalize neighborhoods by “giving people the tools they need to implement change in their community.” Innovation for Better Block Foundation begins with community engagement, partnerships, education, design, and public outreach. The Better Block team has turned empty parking lots into vibrant plazas, created architectural design competitions, promoted local art, and used environmental design to prevent crime—all by working with communities to bring people together. —Amanda Salerno
Finalist: Fort Worth Medical Innovation District
Innovation in education
UT Southwestern Simulation Center
UT Southwestern’s simulation center uses the latest technology to train medical staff. With settings that include an emergency room, labor and delivery room, and a patient exam room, it’s disrupting traditional educational methods. Opened in September 2018, the 49,000-square-foot facility hosted nearly 500 individual simulation events in its first year. Looking ahead, leaders at the center believe the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and immersive virtual reality will help UT Southwestern more accurately evaluate the next generation of medical providers. “The phrase ‘it takes a village’ may sum it up best,” says Daniel Scott, assistant dean of simulation and student integration. “Without a culture of collaboration, this endeavor would not have been possible.” —W.M.
Finalists: Big Thought, Design and Innovation Program at Southern Methodist University, The University of Texas at Dallas
Innovation in Manufacturing and Consumer Goods
Rajeev Malik has combined pop culture and streetwear with his ability to predict the tomorrows of the ever-shifting consumer market. Leveraging an opportunity to expand, Malik steered his empire, Bioworld Merchandising, to specialize not only in music-based goods but also commodities featuring other forms of entertainment. Serving as a hands-on mentor and investor for more than 500 employees, Malik is always the first to invest in their fresh ideas—however risky they may be. Over the past 12 months, he has actively invested in e-commerce platforms and diversified Bioworld’s capabilities to secure an upper hand in the ever-evolving realm. “Innovation is not only about creating something radically new but also challenging the status quo, always trying to get better and finding ways to solve problems,” he says. —Sooha Ahn
Finalists: Mary Kay, Solaris Technologies Services, VARIDESK
Innovation in energy
Founder, president, and CEO James MacLean leveraged his mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology with his experiences working for global oil field services giant Schlumberger to form a startup that developed radio-frequency identification when he launched Geoforce in 2007. The firm’s “track-and-trace” technology, which is catered to oil and gas companies, is used by more than 1,000 customers in field operations in more than 70 countries. Its technology has been implemented in agriculture, mining, and transportation to measure ocean currents and to track California’s grape harvests. The company hit a milestone of more than 140,000 assets tracked last summer. Still, MacLean sees the opportunity to track millions of assets. “We have tremendous potential to scale the company 10 times where we are, if not more,” he told D CEO in Oct. 2018. —Brandon J. Call
Finalists: ES Xplore, Skyven Technologies
Innovation in finance
2019 was Alkami’s 10th anniversary as a company, but for the fast-growing fintech this is just the beginning. CEO Mike Hansen has built an intentional workplace culture of Alkamists at the company’s Plano home base around the idea that “business innovation is very simply the focus of the human capacity to create or improve products, solutions, and business models.” He compares Alkami’s model to how water and the sun are essential to life—innovation is the source of all human change, improvement, and progress. The company’s cloud-based digital banking solutions are now being used by more than 130 financial institutions across the country, and its clients have more than 6 million registered users on the platform. Since its founding, Alkami has raised more than $225 million in capital and it has received some of the highest app store ratings in digital banking. —Alex Edwards
Finalists: Comprehensive Finance, Gig Wage, Zirtue
startup innovator of the year
Four years ago, Vaidyanatha Siva decided to apply deep learning technology to healthcare. That idea led to DocSynk, a Dallas-based startup driven by “making healthcare better” through machine learning. Today, DocSynk’s artificial intelligence platform is being used by some of the largest players in the industry. The use cases are transformative, all designed around having a positive impact in healthcare. Using clinical informatics, recommender systems, and deep learning on data sets, the engine has the potential to detect a patient’s chronic condition, modernize a business process, or improve a care management process and revenue cycle. Siva and his team operate on the strategy of going deep before going wide, as DocSynk focuses on tuning the accuracy of its predictions. They believe the model could become the industry standard for patient risk stratification and cohort building. DocSynk was recently selected to participate in a federal AI healthcare challenge, a feat Siva hopes will help move the needle. From working as CTO at Infosys to CTO and COO at Parkland’s Innovation arm, and being instrumental in raising $50 million in funding for healthcare predictive analytics research, he is now focused on one thing: Building a “world-class technology unicorn in Dallas.” —A.E.
Finalists: Sean Minter, AmplifAI; Melbourne O’Banion, Bestow; Damir Perge, FluidLytix; Dave Copps, Hypergiant
Innovation in retail
Entering an industry widely hailed as stagnant is a leap for most, but for Skip Howard, innovation means solving practical problems in a way no one else has tried and taking risks along the way. He and his team at Spacee build custom retail experiences using light and motion through frictionless augmented reality—that means no phones, helmets, or apps needed. The patented virtual-touch technology transforms any 2D or 3D surface, allowing customers to interact with merchandise while increasing retailers’ dwell time and sales. Howard says some of the biggest names in the industry are now piloting Spacee’s solutions, giving the startup an “opportunity to provide billions in value.” Poised for explosive growth next year, Spacee is gearing up to play a part in massive business transformation across several Fortune 500 companies. —A.E.
Finalist: Neighborhood Goods
Innovation in healthcare
Blockit was formed in 2016 to provide pro bono care to community clinics. It is now a digital care coordination application that includes 5,000 physicians, 1.2 million patients, and 150,000 monthly appointments. Blockit makes the booking process more efficient and has been adopted by healthcare systems all over the country. The technology has been used to improve referral follow-through rates at a children’s emergency department and to book appointments for athletes with preferred providers following injuries. “The most effective way to drive industry-level innovation is for large organizations to partner with young companies who can move fast and solve problems in nontraditional ways,” says founder Jake McCarley. “As a community we need to support these arrangements with capital, stage-centric guidance, and visibility.” —W.M.
Finalists: Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation, UNT Health Science Center, UT Southwestern Medical Center
Innovation in Food and beverage
It is said that the best ideas come to us when our brains are completely relaxed. That’s the case for Merrilee Kick, who came up with the design for ball-shaped, canned cocktails that float. The former Plano high school teacher worried that she might break the glass containers she sipped from while lying by the pool, so she devised a colorful, fun, and eco-friendly plastic alternative. About a decade later, Kick has built BuzzBallz/Southern Champion into a brand sold in 46 states and 21 countries and has diversified from her original idea into distilling and private label premixed alcoholic beverages. She keeps her Carrollton-based company on the bleeding edge of innovation by maintaining an ardently customer-first approach. “Don’t get stuck in the rut of ‘Well, this is how we’ve always done it,” she says. “Think about what the customer wants, and why they want it, and then find a vehicle that provides that.” —B.C.
Finalists: Avocados From Mexico, PureWine Inc.
Innovation in technology
Ed Chao and his team at Polte leverage cellular networks to help enterprises in a way that’s never been done before: locating their assets. The Location as a Service platform is disrupting the market by giving visibility to things in motion that previously couldn’t be traced due to size, power, and cost restraints. Although the tech itself is highly differentiated—Polte has more than 75 secured or pending patents—the driver of innovation is in how it’s applied. With deployment available in nearly every industry, including transportation, energy, and healthcare, Chao says the possibilities are endless, as the tech transforms how we live and work. “The best business advice I have received and would also offer to others is that you rarely succeed with the same business model that you start with,” he says. “The most successful entrepreneurs are decisive yet know when to evolve and take different paths.” —Julie Le
Finalists: Dialexa, Edgetensor Technologies Inc., ParkHub
Innovation in Transportation
A slight obsession with the then-nascent rideshare industry, Dallasite Will Coleman left a budding partnership with McKinsey & Co. to disrupt the landscape by creating the market’s first employee-based, owned-fleet ridesharing company. With $14.5 million in seed money, Coleman and longtime friend Alex Halbardier launched Alto in the spring of 2018 with 10 cars in select Dallas neighborhoods. Not quite a year into the business, Alto is positioning itself to be the industry’s first profitable ridesharing company. Today, it has more than 5,000 customers and has delivered more than 50,000 rides, at a time when concerns over rideshare passenger safety and employee welfare abound. “To me, innovation means surprising people,” Coleman says. “It’s doing something—even small—that makes your customer or audience stop and say ‘Wow, that’s different than what I’ve experienced.” —Bianca R. Montes
Finalists: Texas Central, The University of Texas at Dallas
CIO/CTO of the Year
Chief Digital and Information Officer, Jacobs
As Jacobs transitions from a traditional engineering firm into a professional services company, its information and technology challenges have become more complex. Chief Digital and Information Officer Madhuri Andrews has been tasked with leading an enterprise-wide campaign to make innovation part of the company’s DNA. Working with a global network of tech partners, Jacobs leverages predictive analytics, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and more to grow its business and keep its clients satisfied. Andrews is cognizant of her role as a woman in the engineering and technology industries and uses her time and energy to establish a culture of diversity and inclusion at Jacobs and in her community. “Great ideas can come from a wide variety of perspectives, so it is important to embrace and nurture a diverse team,” she says. As Jacobs transformed its portfolio over the past year with the acquisition of a major competitor, Andrews has had to be creative and decisive in her integration of 25,000 new employees to the company’s digital community. But those challenges are not always about spending more money and applying new technology. “Innovation is about cultivating a new way of thinking and behaving,” she says. “When you change your outlook and your behavior, you change the outcome.” —W.M.
Finalists: Amy Czuchlewski, Bottle Rocket; Chris Akeroyd, Children’s Health; Sherif Mityas, TGI Fridays