In 2021 Texas added seven unicorns based on a report by CultureMap – Austin. If you come to Texas do not look around to find the colorful magical creatures walking around. A unicorn is a startup valued at more than $1 billion. Innovation hubs in Austin, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitans continue to welcome new businesses and entrepreneurs. Out of the six unicorns, four are from Austin:
Austin-based Iodine Software, valued at more than $1 billion as of December. The company’s artificial intelligence offering aims to help healthcare organizations improve their operations.
Austin-based ZenBusiness, valued at $1.7 billion as of November. ZenBusiness provides an online platform designed to help entrepreneurs start, run, and grow their small businesses.
Cedar Park-based Firefly Aerospace, valued at more than $1 billion as of May. The startup makes rockets and commercial spacecraft.
Austin-based The Zebra, valued at more than $1 billion as of April. The Zebra runs an online marketplace that enables consumers to compare insurance quotes.
And two are from Houston:
Solugen, valued at $1.5 billion as of September. The company uses corn syrup to produce chemicals.
Axiom Space, valued at more than $1 billion as of February. The startup is developing the world’s first space station for commercial purposes.
Sahar Nezami, Senior Director of Advanced Analytics and Data Management, Internal Audit at CIBC, shares her achievements in the last year and what she’s focused on for 2022 Would you please start by telling us a bit about your greatest achievements at CIBC over the past 12-24 months? I run the data analytics team in internal audit, and we have a lot of authority, and we have a lot of scopes. So, we support all the audits that are done on the entire organization, meaning we have a 360-degree view of the entire bank.
In addition, we have access to any data anywhere at any time in the organization. So, we work in a very large-scale environment.
The nature of the role is very interesting. Number one, we are very tool agnostic, and we are skill agnostic as well. So, when I’m posting for jobs, I don’t ask for knowledge and experience about any specific tool or database because, when you land in my shop, you can be working with any type of tool or any type of database depending on what the client is working on. So, we have very specific, best-in-class talent management policies to make sure that people stay with us and grow with us.
There are two things that data analytics leaders often complain about. One is that they can’t find or they can’t keep talent. That has never been our problem. Secondly, when they find very good data scientists, they can’t speak the language of the business. Again, that has never been our problem because, as people who are auditing other people’s businesses or analyzing other people’s data, that’s a skill set you either learn in my team or you come to my team with.
How do you go into somebody else’s business and work with somebody else’s data and still deliver a quality job? The skills that you really must know are interviewing skills. How do you ask the right questions? How do you learn somebody else’s business in a short period of time? Data profiling, and the like, have all become very important.
We’ve introduced a lot of programs to make sure that people are rotating from every part of the bank. Now, we are now actually leading destination for top analytics talent.
Two or three years ago, people didn’t even know internal audits had analytics. Right now, every analytics and technology rotation program has a stop through my shop. So that’s a big achievement on the talent side.
How has the data and analytics maturity in your organization evolved in 2021? What new challenges is this giving rise to? And how are you working to overcome them? I develop three-year strategies for my department, and we just kicked off our second three-year strategy. We have gone through the maturity cycles very quickly.
When we started, we just had to just introduce analytics to people, which I call the adoption stage. Then, we wanted to go to the expansion stage and then to the innovation stage. So, we went through the adoption and expansion stages in the first three-year strategy.
By the time we kicked off our second three-year strategy, we were well into innovation. And what I say about innovation is, if you’re a mature data and analytics shop, you’re serving up your data analytics as a product or as a service, which is exactly what we have done.
In the past two years, we’re the only analytics team in the entire organization that has our own website. We call it our data hub. The hub is an internally maintained website where we serve up products and services. There’s going to be ad hoc stuff that people come to us for. But anything that is repeatable, like access to our data pipeline or access to cleaned data, running dashboards, requesting consulting, etc, is all done on the hub.
So, we have now moved on to data ‘as a service’ and analytics as a product, and that’s where we are now. And when you get to that level of automation and innovation then new use cases and clients emerge.
Now that we have a home for our hub and for our services, the next part of what we are doing is the automation of the processes in the department. So, if someone comes to me and asks for help with a manual process that someone in their team is spending time on, and it’s repeatable and valuable enough then we can automate it, we just take that entire process, and we create a web application. So, people can just go to our website and enter the data. This kind of automation not only adds value but also saves time.
Sahar Nezami is one of our 2022 Global Top 100 Innovators in Data and Analytics. To discover the full list and exclusive interviews with this year’s ‘top 100’, click here now.
Amazon is making a significant donation to Seattle University to create an endowed chair to lead its Computer Science Department, a move that promises to help the private Jesuit university raise the profile and expand the capabilities of its computer science program.
Seattle University announced the gift on Thursday morning with much gratitude to Amazon — but there’s more to the story.
The university lost its existing chair, Roshanak Roshandel, to the tech giant in December. She resigned from the role to take a full-time position at Amazon as a principal product manager – technical (PMT) for Alexa Experience.
Michael Quinn, dean of the Seattle University College of Science and Engineering, said in a Dec. 11 email to faculty and staff that he worked with Seattle University Advancement to ask Amazon to endow a chair in computer science after Roshandel decided to leave.
Quinn’s email quoted a message from Drew Herdener, an Amazon vice president and Seattle University trustee, saying the company agreed that it was “a golden opportunity for Amazon to help raise the profile and firepower of the person who would replace Roshanak, and in turn the reputation of Seattle U and Seattle U Computer Science.”
The email, obtained independently by GeekWire, described the endowment as a $3 million gift to Seattle University, but it’s not clear if the amount changed as the endowment was finalized. The company and the university declined to confirm the number. The search for the new departmental leader is underway.
Mike Quinn, dean of Seattle University’s College of Science and Engineering. Universities for years have struggled to stave off the poaching of star faculty by technology companies that can offer higher salaries, shares of the company and bonuses. A 2019 study documented the increasing trend of AI professors in the U.S. leaving academia for the private sector.
But at the same time, some of those tech companies have helped universities recruit talent from other academic institutions: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos had his company fund two $1 million professorship endowments at the University of Washington in 2012 to woo married tech experts from their academic roles.
“The Amazon Endowed Computer Science Chair will continue to build the visibility and prestige of the computer science department nationally and internationally as it continues its rapid growth in size and quality,” Quinn said in a statement. “It will appeal to exceptional candidates who are drawn to Seattle U’s values around seeking diverse perspectives and focusing on whole-person learning and curiosity.”
Ed Lazowska, a long-time leader at the UW’s School of Computer Science & Engineering, praised Amazon’s gift.
“I think it’s really huge. It’s almost unprecedented,” Lazowska said, adding that when recruiting a department chair from outside, an endowed chair “is a great lure.”
Amazon has supported Seattle University in the past, announcing a $3 million contribution in May 2019 to help fund its new Jim and Janet Sinegal Center for Science and Innovation. The online retail and cloud giant’s support of the UW includes a $10 million gift in 2016 for the construction of a second computer science building.
Seattle University’s College of Science and Engineering enrollment has increased by 60% over the past decade, and computer science is the university’s fastest growing program.
The center is slated to open this fall, with renovations of existing buildings completed in 2022. Microsoft also gave $3 million to the center and to establish a program focusing on technology and ethics. The center will allow for enrollment of 600 undergraduate and graduate students by 2025.
In the email, Herdener spelled out the potential benefits of the endowed position: “Amazon wants to help Seattle U hire someone who is going to attract top-notch faculty and students to SU Computer Science and STEM programs in general, and in particular, [Black, Latinx and Native American] and female students — groups that are sorely underrepresented in STEM today. We’re hoping that using the Amazon brand and our gift will help Seattle U make that happen.”
Herdener is on the university’s board of trustees and holds a communications degree from Seattle University. He’s been at Amazon for nearly 18 years and is VP of Worldwide Communications.
Roshandel didn’t choose Amazon out of the blue. She had been working with the company for a couple of years while still at the university. She took a yearlong sabbatical as an Amazon scholar beginning in October 2018 and then worked with the tech giant’s Amazon Care initiative, a virtual healthcare benefit being piloted with employees in Seattle.
Roshandel reflected on her sabbatical for a 2019 university publication, saying, “During the past year, I have attended conferences and interacted with people I never would have met in my academic life, from software security experts to highly successful entrepreneurs who focus on building humanity into technology and making the world a better place.
“The Amazon Scholar program has given me the opportunity to be both an academic and an industry professional. This dual perspective is a real privilege.”
Roshandel was named chair of the Computer Science department in the spring of 2016. She was the first woman to hold the title and became a faculty member at the university in 2005. On her faculty page she described her focus as “software architecture, security and privacy, and reliability modeling and analysis.”
Endowed positions are a tool for recruiting and retaining faculty for a number of reasons, Lazowska said. Endowed chairs and professorships boost the prestige and visibility of a professor and provide flexible discretionary funds that can be applied to any scholarly purpose.
The UW has more than two dozen endowed chairs and professorships in its Computer Science department and is working to grow that number. The department’s professorships are endowed with $1 million in funding while chairs are backed by at least $2 million.
Seattle University currently has endowed positions in multiple departments, but this is its first in Computer Science.
“The Amazon gift to Seattle University will allow us to enhance this first-rate program by recruiting the best faculty and educating students as leaders in service to the industries of our region,” said Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg, in a statement.
Lazowska, who recently stepped down from his position as the Bill & Melinda Gates endowed chair but remains a UW professor, hopes that other tech companies take notice of Amazon’s gift — singling out Facebook in particular.
The social media giant has tried unsuccessfully in the past to nab UW faculty, he said. Google, on the other hand, has sometimes “borrowed” UW professors for a couple of years, paying for post-doctoral fellows to continue running a faculty’s research during their absence.
Regarding Amazon’s actions, “it is incredibly heartwarming to see this happen,” Lazowska said. “It shows once again Amazon’s support of the local tech community and local academic community.”
The Global Innovators Community is an invitation-only group of the world’s most promising start-ups and scale-ups that are at the forefront of technological and business model innovation.
Amid major global disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a critical moment for innovative companies to bring forward new ideas and innovations to help protect the lives and livelihoods of communities and industries around the world.
As the Organization for Public-Private Cooperation, the World Economic Forum provides the Global Innovators Community with a platform to engage with public- and private-sector leaders and to contribute new solutions to overcome the current crisis and build future resiliency.
Companies who are invited to become Global Innovators will engage with one or more of the Forum’s Platforms, as relevant, to help define the global agenda on key issues.
By: Eli Freund, Editorial Communications Manager, UConn School of Engineering
A startup with origins in the University of Connecticut School of Engineering was awarded third place in the Mercury Fund Elevator Pitch Competition category of the Rice Business Plan Competition, the world’s richest and largest graduate-level student startup event.
The startup, named Encapsulate LLC, is run by current biomedical engineering Ph.D. candidate Leila Daneshmandi, and former UConn Engineering Ph.D. students Armin Tahmasbi Rad and Reza Amin. The three co-founders are building up a company that offers an automated tumor-on-chip system that grows cancer patient’s tumor cells outside the body and tests the efficacy of chemotherapeutic drugs against them to advocate for the best course of treatment for doctors.
This year, the Rice Business Plan Competition, which according to their website will be the 20th year for the competition, had 42 teams competing for $1.5 million in cash and prizes. Since 2001, the competition has grown from nine teams competing for $10,000 in prizes to this year, where the very large competition transitioned to a virtual experience with over 400 applicants for 42 spots.
The competition is designed to give collegiate entrepreneurs a real-world experience to fine tune their business plans and elevator pitches to generate funding to successfully commercialize their product. Judges will evaluate the teams as real-world entrepreneurs soliciting start-up funds from early stage investors and venture capital firms. The judges are asked to rank the presentations based on which company they would most likely invest. According to the organization, 87 percent of the competition judges surveyed considered investing in a team that presented at the 2019 RBPC or referred a team to a third-party investor.
The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles different business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Shahrzad Rafati, founder and boss of internet video technology firm BroadbandTV (BBTV).
Shahrzad Rafati was only 13 when she decided she would one day build a global business.
She also knew that she wouldn’t be able to achieve her dream if she stayed in her native Iran.
So at the age of 17 her drive and confidence managed to persuade her parents to let her move by herself to Vancouver to go to university.
Shahrzad arrived in the city on Canada’s Pacific coast in 1996 with just one suitcase, and only a limited grasp of English.
“I couldn’t communicate what I wanted to say [when I arrived], and I think that was probably the biggest challenge,” she says. “But I was determined to make a success out of my life.”
Today the 40-year-old continues to run BBTV, a company that helps firms around the world secure advertising revenues from videos on YouTube, Facebook and other websites and apps.
“It’s important for entrepreneurs to think as big as possible,” she says.
Shahrzad was born into a family of business leaders in Tehran in 1979, the year of the Iranian revolution. Her mother ran a textiles firm and her dad owned a property company.
Life in the Iranian capital became increasingly difficult for her family following the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War that raged from 1980 to 1988. To escape the bombings by the Iraqi Air Force, Shahrzad and her family moved out of the city to a small village.
“Iran was at war for eight years, and a lot of my family’s success had been taken from them,” she says. “I knew that I needed a different future, and a life where I could make a difference, and where equal was equal.” So when she became a teenager she was determined to move abroad.
In Vancouver she enrolled at the University of British Columbia to study computer science. She didn’t know much about computers, nor did she have one to begin with, but she was passionate about maths and technology.
Graduating in 2000, Shahrzad then studied French at the Université Paris-Sorbonne, and leadership at Oxford University’s Said Business School.
Looking back, she says that she was interested in how Apple was disrupting the music industry, and the way people consumed music, with its then iPod player and iTunes service. She realised that video would inevitably follow suit, and be streamed over the internet.
“The shift in the music consumption trend was a clear indication of where video content was heading,” she says. “Audio was at the start of the evolution, and it was clear to me that video was going to be next.”
So in 2005, at the age of 25, and the same year that YouTube was born, she founded BBTV.
Initially it was a hardware company making a set-top box that enabled users to watch internet videos on their televisions. But not popular with buyers – people are happy to watch online videos on their computers – within just three months Shahrzad decided to change the company’s focus.
“You need to fail fast, and learn from your mistakes quickly,” she says.
To pivot the company, Shahrzad says she noticed that internet users were pirating videos and uploading them to online platforms, such as the new YouTube. The copyright holders, the movie or TV companies, would then move to rapidly get the videos removed.
That’s when she had her big idea – to create software that would allow these firms to profit from advertisements put on all that content, rather than seek to take it down.
BBTV’s software tracks uploaded video content, such as the highlights of sports games, or clips from films.
It does this through audio and video recognition technology, and adverts are then placed on the videos. The advertising revenues then go to the firms or sporting bodies affected, with BBTV taking a percentage.
Only two years after its creation, BBTV landed one of its first major clients – the NBA – with whom it continues to work to this day. “I was in my 20s and I was very nervous, but I really believed in our solutions,” says Shahrzad.
To help grow the business, she gained a number of investors, including Canadian tech businessman Hamed Shahbazi. Then in 2013 European entertainment group RTL purchased a 51% stake for $36m.
RTL has subsequently increased its stake to 57.3%, but Shahrzad continues to have one of the largest individual shareholdings. RTL does not release separate financial data for BBTV, but its “digital activities” division, which includes the Canadian firm and two other businesses, had revenues of €452m ($539m; £408m) last year.
BBTV now also produces software to help make online videos, and its services are available to individuals as well as companies. It claims that videos connected to its various technologies were viewed 429 billion times in 2019.
Stephania Varalli, chief executive of Women Of Influence, a Canadian organisation that promotes businesswomen and other female leaders, says that Shahrzad’s secret is her ability to evolve with the industry.
“She has constantly pivoted, which has kept her ahead of the game,” says Ms Varalli.
As a female entrepreneur in a male-dominated industry, Shahrzad says she has had to work harder than her male counterparts. “I have less room for error,” she says.
In BBTV she has fulfilled her ambition to create a global business, The 400 employees are spread across four main centres, its headquarters in Vancouver, and offices in New York, Los Angeles and Mumbai.
Shahrzad says that there is no pay gap between her male and female staff, and that women make up 43% of the total workforce, and 46% of managers, high figures for a technology company.
“It gives me great pride,” she says. “This is a key factor in the reason why we are so successful at BBTV.”
Success, for Dr. Laleh Behjat, PhD, would mean working her way straight out of her new job. For the University of Calgary’s newly named NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (Prairies), making the prestigious position obsolete would be the pinnacle of achievement, as that would mean the goal of diversity and equity in STEM careers had finally been met.
“The ultimate accomplishment would be making it so this chair is not required anymore, when we have a system and culture that’s truly inclusive,” explains Behjat, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Schulich School of Engineering.
Program aims to encourage, celebrate and create opportunities
Launched in 1996, the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering (CWSE) program aims to increase the participation and retention of women in science and engineering, with five regional chairs across Canada nominated for five-year terms.
Each chair has three goals:
Encourage girls to consider careers in science and engineering professions through outreach and public advocacy, with a particular focus on inspiring Indigenous girls from the prairie region.
Celebrate women role models in science and engineering professions and ensure female students have access to these mentors.
Develop and implement a communication and networking strategy to ensure a regional and national impact on opportunities for women in science and engineering.
Change equals opportunity
With great change taking place in society and in the workplace, Behjat says now is the perfect opportunity to ensure the future is one where all voices are heard and respected.
We are at a moment of upheaval — the climate crisis will change our environment, artificial intelligence will change how our work is set up, and biotechnology is going to charge our bodies.
“All of this will take place over the next decade, so the question is not about bringing about change, it’s a question of what do we do with the change we now face,” explains Behjat.
Recent Statistics Canada data shows women make up 34 per cent of STEM bachelor’s degree holders and represent only 23 per cent of science and technology workers, and Behjat says the time is ripe to envision a new system.
“This is an opportunity to make the entire system more equitable and diverse, and more inclusive, not just for women but for all people.”
Plans include leadership program for women
Behjat’s plan as chair includes a leadership program that takes advantage of the digital revolution and other looming upheavals to re-envision the future STEM workplace, to one where all of society is represented.
Participants in Behjat’s program will turn ideas for an inclusive future into a viable and collaborative strategy, through leadership training, network building, and their own leadership equity action projects.
“The idea is not to have women fit into the current system, but to have women who can envision a better system and then build it,” she says.
“The goal is to systematically change the recruitment, retention, and advancement trends and realities of women in science and engineering, by enabling the women in these area to envision, strategize, build and scale up their works.”
Prestigious position returns to Calgary
The last time the prairies region chair was at UCalgary, it was held by future university president Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, PhD.
The return of the position to the Schulich School of Engineering is a tribute to Behjat’s efforts in making science and engineering inclusive to all, says Dr. Qiao Sun, PhD.
“We are so proud to bring this chair back to our school, almost 20 years later, and there is no one more deserving than Dr. Behjat to act as a mentor and champion for women in science and engineering,” says Sun, senior associate dean of diversity and equity at Schulich School of Engineering.
“Laleh brings strength and vision to the chair, and her initiatives will increase the participation and influence of women in science and engineering.”
Five-year term for each chair
Along with Behjat, Ontario has another newly named chair, Dr. Shohini Ghose, a quantum physicist at Wilfrid Laurier University, while Quebec Chair of Dr. Eve Langelier, a mechanical engineering researcher at the Université de Sherbrooke, is being renewed.
Each chairholder will receive $135,000 per year for five years, including $25,000 per year over five years to support a postdoctoral fellow.
“The stellar efforts of the CWSE Chairs to increase the number of women in fields where they are underrepresented support NSERC’s commitment to fostering equity, diversity, and inclusion in the natural sciences and engineering,” said Alejandro Adem, NSERC president, in a release.
SAN FRANCISCO, October 17, 2019 — San Francisco State University announced that the Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies received an additional $1 million from alumna and Iranian American philanthropist Neda Nobari, building upon her generous gift of $5 million from June 2016 that established the first-of-its-kind center.
Administered under the College of Liberal & Creative Arts, the center is dedicated to research and teachings that examine the historical and cultural experiences of the global Iranian diaspora. The $1 million will expand Nobari’s vision for the center and provide grants and fellowships that will amplify the importance of studying the impact of migration, immigration and patterns of ethnic and racial identity formation.
“The impact of this gift will solidify the stature of the growing interdisciplinary field of Iranian diaspora studies and increase the University’s ability to nurture its continued vitality,” said Andrew Harris, dean of the College of Liberal & Creative Arts. “SF State is thankful for Neda’s generosity as the gift will provide faculty and students opportunities for intellectual growth and dissemination of new research and knowledge, which are central to the University’s mission.”
Over the next five years, the gift will be used for a variety of student and faculty initiatives that will roll out in 2020. The initiatives include the:
Iman Nobari Post-Doctoral Fellowship: An inaugural fellowship that will support a recent Ph.D. graduate to work in fields related to Iranian diaspora, Iranian-American studies or Iranian studies for one academic year.
Azar Hatefi Graduate Student Fellowships: Two annual fellowships will help two SF State graduate students advance their research and studies in the field of Iranian diaspora.
The Center for Iranian Diaspora Studies Faculty Research Grants: These grants will support SF State faculty members with their research related to the Iranian diaspora, Iranian studies or other diaspora communities. An advisory committee made up of SF State faculty will be established to review submissions for these awards late in the fall 2019 semester.
“The post-doctoral and graduate fellowships are named after my parents Iman Nobari and Azar Hatefi,” said Neda Nobari. “Neither had opportunities for higher education, but they made sure that my siblings and I did in Iran and abroad. I am grateful for my parent’s commitment to their children’s education and want to honor them in this special way and share their vision with others.”
Nobari emigrated from Iran to the U.S. in 1978 at the age of 15. She graduated from SF State in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science and earned a master’s degree in Liberal Studies from Dartmouth College in 2015. Her graduate research at Dartmouth focused on the intersection of diaspora and cultural identity of Iranian American women.
From 1985 to 2006, Nobari served as the director and vice chair of bebe stores Inc. After transitioning away from the for-profit sector, she established the Neda Nobari Foundation. Over the past 12 years, she has guided the private foundation in supporting organizations and initiatives associated with the arts, film and education in service of social justice and cultural awareness. In addition to her philanthropic support, she also serves on the board of directors of the San Francisco State University Foundation.
Many diseases are driven by metabolites — small molecules in your body like fat, glucose, and cholesterol — but we don’t know exactly what they are or how they work. Biotech entrepreneur and TED Fellow Leila Pirhaji shares her plan to build an AI-based network to characterize metabolite patterns, better understand how disease develops — and discover more effective treatments.
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