Innovations improve life as we know it. They make things easier, better, faster, and cheaper. They solve problems, cure ills, reduce inequities, and drive economic growth. Thankfully, with its rich talent base, access to funding, and business-friendly culture, there’s no better place to innovate than Dallas-Fort Worth. The region’s rich legacy in the arena dates back to the 1950s when Jack Kilby invented the integrated circuit at Texas Instruments. Since then, and accelerating in recent years, North Texas has just strengthened its reputation as an innovation hub. To help recognize successes, D CEO teamed up with our colleagues at Dallas Innovates in 2020 to launch The Innovation Awards. We expanded the program this year, honoring 51 companies and individuals in a variety of industries. Winners will be revealed at an event on Jan. 21. Read on, and be inspired.
Innovation in Talent and Diversity
One of the greatest economic development tools North Texas has is access to a deep base of employees. This category recognizes companies that cultivate talent in North Texas and help employers enhance their D&I efforts.
Co-founded by Mandy Price, CEO, and Star Carter, COO, Kanarys has changed how diversity, inclusion, and equity are measured and how corporate efforts are implemented. “Innovation means creating unique systems in order to open up new possibilities in an industry-changing it for the better,” Price says. “It’s bringing together ideas that will improve our society.”
A nonprofit that provides free tech education for military veterans and their families in underserved communities, NPower Texas operates with the deep support of AT&T. “Innovation is all about response,” says Russ Medina, executive director of NPower Texas and U.S. Army (ret). “The incredible potential for veterans is what drives our work.”
Dallas-based Work Shield offers an unbiased solution for reporting, investigating, and resolving workplace harassment and discrimination. It helps empower employees, lower risk, and preserve corporate culture. “We constantly encourage our team to use their ingenuity to adapt our solution to the continuously changing workplace and cultural landscape,” says Founder and CEO Jared Pope.
Startup Innovator of the Year
With Asset Panda, Rex Kurzius aims to dominate the SaaS sector by helping organizations effectively manage their fixed assets. He says he has learned that being a leader is not about being the smartest or hardest-working person in the room. “My journey has led me to believe that the only durable competitive advantage a company will ever have is its culture,” Kurzius says. “The world is saturated with competing companies; what sets one apart from the other is its ability to build a culture that empowers people. Companies gain a competitive advantage by establishing a strong work-life balance and giving people creative freedom to work on their own terms.”
Robert Atkins, Balanced
Balanced Media | Technology connects gamers, developers, researchers, and foundations to take on huge issues, from terminal illnesses to education. “The world needs it, our children deserve it, and now is the time to bring purpose to play,” Atkins says.
Tony Goodman, PeopleFun
Tony Goodman, the entrepreneur behind Ensemble Studios and Robot Entertainment, has helped establish North Texas as an epicenter for mobile gaming with PeopleFun. “So much of our strength comes not just from working hard, but working together,” he says.
Kumar Narala, ABIA
ABIA has created a new enterprise software technology category of process intelligence. Its co-founder and CEO, Kumar Narala, rates North Texas 10 out of 10 on the innovation scale. “It’s one of the most conducive locations for startups and growth,” he says.
Tom White, Phynd Technologies
What Amazon has done with product SKUs, inventory, and location availability, Dallas’ Phynd Technologies is doing with healthcare services, says Tom White, CEO. “Together, we collectively are ushering in the digital future of healthcare,” he says.
Innovation in Cybersecurity
led by Tiffany Ricks
As a former “ethical hacker,” Tiffany Ricks says she saw first-hand how hard it was for companies to protect themselves against phishing attacks. She began looking for a tool that would help protect them but found that none existed. So, she decided to build one. Ricks launched HacWare in 2019, supported by a team of experts with four decades of cybersecurity, software, and data science experience. “I am excited that we are solving the root cause of cybersecurity problems head-on,” she says. “We are using innovative A.I. technology to solve the social engineering problem at scale and making it easier for businesses to adopt our technology.”
Rob Davis, Critical Start
Rob Davis founded Critical Start to protect companies from cyberattacks while reducing their risks. He found that many were making big tech investments without addressing underlying issues. Critical Start is deliberate about how it innovates, Davis says: “There is an enormous opportunity cost to innovation that isn’t closely aligned to the strategy of the company.”
Milind Borkar, Iluma Labs
Based in Plano and led by Milind Borkar, co-founder and CEO, Illuma Labs is bringing advanced A.I. and machine learning-powered fraud detection software to the financial industry and aims to expand it to other sectors, such as healthcare. Its flagship product, Illuma Shield, was developed with $2 million in R&D contracts with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Bhavani Thuraisingham, University of Texas at Dallas
Bhavani Thuraisingham has built a culture of innovation at the Cyber Security Research and Education Institute, of which she serves as founding executive director. “Innovation is at the heart of civilization, and it means everything to me,” she says. I’m excited about the integration of quantum computing, cybersecurity, and A.I. and data science—that is the future.”
Innovation in Healthcare
Healthcare in Dallas-Fort Worth is a $52 billion economic force, representing about 15 percent of the local economy. This category recognizes innovation in the industry, from pharmaceuticals and medical devices to research and biotech.
BenefitMall developed an internal digital platform before the pandemic, allowing it to help its network of 20,000 brokers and 140,000 businesses handle an unprecedented number of benefits changes. “We were able to step seamlessly into a virtual environment as shutdowns began,” says Scott Kirksey, CEO.
Caris Life Sciences
Led by Chairman and CEO David Halbert, biotech innovator Caris Life Sciences is a pioneer in precision medicine. The Irving company sequences 22,000 DNA genes, 220,000 RNA genes, and proteins for every patient to reveal a molecular blueprint that leads to more precise and personalized treatment decisions.
Center for BrainHealth
“We are headed into a ‘brain economy’ that depends on our capacity for innovation, emotional intelligence, and flexible adaptation,” says Stephen White, executive director of the Center for BrainHealth’s Brain Performance Institute. It has developed a revolutionary way to measure the brain’s health and performance.
Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation
Spun out of Parkland Health and Hospital System in 2012, PCCI has been key in providing analytics for COVID-19 management. “The innovations we brought to the table this past year have naturally advanced our mission to help the underserved populations in North Texas,” says Steve Miff, president and CEO.
Innovation in Real Estate
As a top national real estate market, it’s no surprise that North Texas has become a hub for innovation in the industry, both in the residential and commercial sectors. This category recognizes disruptors who are leading the way.
Founded in 2016 by CEO Kyle Waldrep, Dottid streamlines the leasing process. In 2020, it became the first proptech company accepted into the Microsoft Teams app store, and its Dottid Mobile went from beta to an enterprise platform in just eight months. “Sometimes, the best innovations solve the simplest problems,” Waldrep says.
Stephen Lewis started Homematchx, a matchmaking service that connects buyers and sellers, in January 2020. His goal is for it to become the “online dating” of residential real estate. Lewis says he has learned there is no ideal time to launch a product or service. “We’re figuring out how important it is to jump off the cliff and assemble an airplane on the way down,” he says.
Real estate is the largest industry in the world and a company’s No. 2 expense, says Ryan Turner, who launched RefineRE in 2017 to help global occupiers leverage big data into big deals. The innovator says he has learned to embrace failure. “It’s what led me to start RefineRE in the first place,” he says. “I couldn’t be more thankful for those early failures that led me here.”
Farrukh Malik is constructing a new reality for homebuilders with his revolutionary 3D platform, Roomored, a virtual platform that lets homebuyers visualize different floorplans and customizations, do video “fly-throughs,” and more. “I’m excited about Dallas and the thriving tech and startup community here,” Malik says. “It’s no longer a community in its infancy.”
Innovation Advocate of The Year
McKinney Economic Development Corp.
Corporate relocations may have stalled last year, but McKinney Economic Development Corp.’s Innovation Fund, which launched in January 2020, helped lure a flurry of new tech headquarters and startups to the city. Overseeing it all was Danny Chavez, senior vice president at the MEDC. “Through 10 months of progress, we have seen the capability reach an international audience, close deals in targeted industries, and cultivate growth with a high conversion rate of success, all during a global pandemic,” he says. “The results this year have been incredible to watch and have showcased the potential of our fund moving forward.”
Duane Dankesreiter, Dallas Regional Chamber
As senior VP of research and innovation for the DRC and co-founder of Dallas Innovates, Duane Dankesreiter connects entrepreneurs, innovators, researchers, and the business community. “I’m excited about the buzz and momentum we have right now as a region,” he says. “We are seeing a convergence of emerging technologies that aligns well with industry diversity.”
Dr. Hubert Zajicek, Health Wildcatters
The U.S. is “unique in its ability to enable innovators to execute on ideas,” says Dr. Hubert Zajicek. A native of Austria, he made the most of that environment in 2013, when he co-founded Health Wildcatters, a remarkably successful seed accelerator he now runs. “The innovation I see in digital health, even applied to pharma or medical devices, is stunning,” he says.
Innovation in Food and Beverage
led by Tyler Shin
Tyler Shin swore he’d never get into food service. Growing up in Seoul, South Korea, he watched as his mother, who ran restaurants there, put in the long hours the industry often requires. But after moving to the U.S. and working in corporate finance, he ultimately migrated back to familiar territory with Revolving Kitchen—like co-working for chefs. When COVID-19 hit, and restaurants began focusing on to-go versus in-person dining, Shin’s ghost kitchen concept really took off. “We leverage economies of scale to drive down capital requirements and increase operational efficiencies,” Shin says. “To date, Revolving Kitchen has helped more than 50 business owners realize their dream and expand their food companies.”
Merrilee Kick, Buzzballz/Southern Champion
Former schoolteacher Merrilee Kick disrupted the packaged cocktail industry when she launched BuzzBallz/Southern Champion in the mid-2000s. Last year, when duty called, she switched gears and began producing much-needed hand sanitizer. “Running a business is good,” she says. “But creating things and watching nothing become something is really a rush.”
Jim Stevens, Golden Chick
Jim Stevens joined Golden Chick as a franchisee in 2018 and a year later was named president. He pioneered a deal to become the first quick-service restaurant to sell the iconic Fletcher’s Original Corny Dogs, created a modular building plan, and opened a Golden Chick at Globe Life Field for the World Series. The end result? “2020 was a record year,” Stevens says.
Chad Houser, Momentum Advisory Collective
Chad Houser has garnered wide recognition for creating Café Momentum, a nonprofit restaurant to help at-risk juveniles find a pathway to employment. Now, his Momentum Advisory Collective expands the concept and takes it nationwide. “My priority in social innovation must center around creating ideas for lasting change,” Houser says.
Innovation in Manufacturing and Consumer Goods
North Texas is known as a hotbed for energy, technology, and professional services. But it’s no slouch when it comes to manufacturing, too. This category recognizes innovators that are reimaging the way things are made.
Argyle-based BPS Technology addresses big global issues like food insecurity and energy production by drastically reducing the amount of chemicals needed across myriad industries. “A scientific advancement with this type of broad-reaching implication could have a tremendous impact,” says CEO Bravis Brown.
Founded in 1872 and led by Michael Hsu, the $18.5 billion Kimberly-Clark makes everything from Kleenex tissues to Huggies diapers. It constantly looks to innovate its products and practices, and launched an ambitious sustainability strategy in 2020, aiming to halve its environmental footprint in the next decade.
After revolutionizing the workplace with its sit-stand desks, Coppell-based Vari has segued into “Space-as-a-Service” with its new VariSpace platform, which puts flexible options in a multitenant campus environment. “It’s a perfect time to find new ways to serve others and build great companies,” says Jason McCann, CEO.
Swiss American CDMO
Carrollton-based Swiss American was founded in 1988 to make skincare products inspired by an innovation discovered in Switzerland. It transitioned to a contract developer and manufacturer and now has more than 350 employees. “Finding solutions to unmet needs will fuel the future in our industry,” says CEO Phil O’Neill.
Corporate Innovator of the Year
Innovation is often associated with entrepreneurs and the startups they launch. But there is plenty of disruption happening in big businesses. This category recognizes leaders driving innovation in corporate settings.
Elyse Dickerson, Eosera
With her multimillion-dollar biotech company, Eosera, Elyse Dickerson continues to gain market share in the ear care industry, doubling sales every year since its first product was launched. She recently developed a new product to clean AirPods and other earbuds. “It launched in November, and we couldn’t be more excited,” Dickerson says.
Will McClay, Dallas Cowboys
After COVID-19 hit, Will McClay, vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, had to figure out how to hold a draft, build a team, and prepare for the season—virtually. “We rolled up our sleeves and just figured out how to be our best in an environment that was different from anything we have had to deal with before,” McClay says.
John Olajide, Axxess
Just 26 years old when he founded Axxess, John Olajide has revolutionized the home healthcare industry by helping providers leverage technology for everything from staffing to revenue cycle management. “Innovation springs from a willingness to look at something without bias, and I challenge myself to do that every day,” Olajide says.
Sanjiv Yajnik, Capital One
In a dozen years, Sanjiv Yajnik has helped catapult Capital One’s financial services division from 51 team members in 2008 to nearly 5,000. He also drove development of the company’s innovation center in Plano. “Along with its challenges, the current environment brings amazing opportunities to reimagine financial services,” Yajnik says.
Innovation in Finance
led by W. Alexander Holmes
For years, financial services firms were behind the curve when it came to innovation and risk. MoneyGram International decided to break the traditional model. “About four years ago, we began putting major emphasis on our digital innovation,” says W. Alexander Holmes, chairman and CEO. “We set out to disrupt ourselves—reengineering our products, processes, and customer service strategies with a startup mindset and agile approach.” The company, which operates in more than 200 countries and territories, is now fully digitally enabled. “We’re the first to use both blockchain technology at scale and utilize cryptocurrencies to move money across borders,” Holmes says.
Frank Santoni, ImpactX Partners
ImpactX Partners offers a credit-building loan service to help customers prop-up lagging credit scores without going further into debt. “Innovation starts with being curious and paying attention to how people are solving problems for themselves,” says Co-founder Frank Santoni.
Boruch Greenberg, Payrix
Boruch Greenberg, co-founder of Frisco-based Payrix, says we should all be excited about the future. “I believe we are still in the first inning of a nine-inning digital revolution,” he says. Backed by Jerry Jones’ Blue Star Innovation Partners, Payrix aims to “reimagine the digital economy.”
Craig Scheef, Texas Security Bank
Craig Scheef founded Texas Security Bank to serve entrepreneurs. He eschewed brick-and-mortar locations and invested in a digital platform. He also leveraged A.I. bots to execute nearly 1,000 PPP loans. “Through a combination of innovation and brute force, we succeeded,” Scheef says.
Dennis Cail, Zirtue
Peer-to-peer lending app Zirtue makes it easy for friends and family members to lend and borrow money while keeping a paper trail of how much is owed. Its impact could be profound, says Dennis Cail, co-founder and CEO, by helping to “close the wealth gap nationally and abroad.”