UNT's Tech Stars

Written by: 
By Erin Cristales

Alums, faculty and former faculty discuss the future of entrepreneurship at annual conference

This year's Techstars Startup Week featured experts who contemplated the various facets of business and technology, doling out advice to up-and-coming and established entrepreneurs about the innovation ecosystem. Several of this year's speakers hailed from UNT, including alumni, faculty and former faculty who broached topics ranging from big data to big money. Below, they discuss their thoughts on some of the important issues facing entrepreneurs.

Kevin Stevens
Kevin Stevens ('11)

Kevin Stevens ('11), co-founder, Intelis Capital
Degree from UNT: B.S., political science
Expertise: Venture capital
Goal: Intelis Capital aims to help startups secure capital without unrealistic expectations attached.

Thoughts on DFW's tech ecosystem: "If you think of a first-tier ecosystem as Silicon Valley, New York and Boston, and second-tier as Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle, then I think DFW is a third-tier ecosystem. Dallas can grow into a major tech hub with more collaboration between cities -- think of Silicon Valley -- and possibly cutting down on the number of collaborative spaces so the talent isn't as spread out.

"The resources are here -- I recently spoke to Bloomberg about this very thing. A lot of times, people in Dallas … As a Texan myself, it's this very Texan thing of, 'We're going to do this our own way.' But there are a lot of lessons for us to learn from those bigger ecosystems about what does and does not work. I think the innovation culture and the risk-taking culture is very good, but I think you should build a company that is eventually going to be profitable and scale. We have really big industries here -- health care, energy, finance, transportation -- that we can really innovate in. I think there's a long way to go, but the ingredients are here, including great universities. You need those anchor universities."

Major challenges facing entrepreneurs: "The terms entrepreneurs who are looking for seed capital get from investors are sometimes egregious, like needing to see a million in revenue per year. Those things often don't happen without capital, and once they do, you've built a business that doesn't need capital."

What does Intelis like to invest in? "We like companies that are disrupting -- either directly or indirectly -- big industries: health care, energy, finance, real estate, insurance. The first one we invested in is an asthma tech startup, BioLum. It's a technology that diagnoses asthma and determines if your asthma treatment is working."

How can universities help prepare students for the tech startup ecosystem? "By forcing the people who build things to work with the people who are learning how to sell things or run a business. Cross-pollination is what breeds good ideas. Building a curriculum around starting a business and cross-pollination is super important."


Michael Monticino
Michael Monticino, director of UNT's advanced data analytics graduate program

Michael Monticino, director of UNT's advanced data analytics graduate program
Expertise: Data and artificial intelligence (AI)
Goal: To help businesses understand the difference between data and big data -- and approach AI accordingly.

Thoughts on DFW's tech ecosystem: "It's more than emerged now -- it's a fairly strong ecosystem. There are a lot of startups that have evolved over the past 10 years or so. There's a lot of support and mentoring. Virtually every city in the DFW area has some sort of collaboration center. The challenge, though it's improving, is still support. Finding people who will invest early on is still not as strong as in Silicon Valley. Some of that comes from the culture of Texas. Most people made their money in Texas by getting stuff out of the ground or building stuff on the ground. So it has taken awhile to understand tech-based startups. That's starting to change. But it's still often the case a startup here has to go to Silicon Valley to find funding.

"Part of the struggle for DFW is geography -- it's spread out. But quite frankly, Silicon Valley is, too. The big advantage for Silicon Valley is that the partnerships between education and industry started earlier. One of the main benefits here is the low cost of housing. It allows people to take more risks."

Big data and AI: "AI is only as good as your data. I think what's happened is there's been a confluence of buzzwords -- you have "big data" and "AI" -- and there are a lot of people involved in AI who think, 'I've got to do this, I've got to do big data.' But they're not quite sure what that means. Big data does have a meaning, but it's not necessarily what many people think it is. Most companies don't have big data. They may have large data sets, but they're not dealing with a high velocity of data, these huge distributed data sets. So let's dial back from the hype.

"The same thing with AI -- there's this feeling that 'all I need to do is get an AI, whatever that means, and it will solve all my problems.' But for all of these things, you have to build a data infrastructure, you have to have an architecture. Underneath both of these buzzwords, there are useful tools for businesses. But you've got to step back and do your fundamentals first. Your first question should be: What's the problem you're trying to solve? Have that well-defined. That will guide the data you gather, how you look at your data, and the appropriate machine-learning, AI technique you apply."

Why AI and big data are important to startups: "I think what a lot of startups are seeing is that there are opportunities to help businesses with AI and big data. A lot of small and medium-sized business don't have the expertise to implement an AI-based system. Or there's an opportunity to build a business around these techniques because there's so much data publicly available that they can build a system and launch before they get a huge customer base. So I think the reason it's so appealing to startups is 1) It's the buzzword, and it gets you in the door -- everyone says, 'I have to be using this,' and 2) It's a good time to build these sorts of products because the tools themselves are relatively cheap. Storage of data is relatively cheap, and you can bootstrap your way into building a customer base."

The need for more information professionals: "There is a tremendous shortage of people who can help companies implement this data culture. The need is not only in the number of people available, but also in the skillsets. If you look at what a company needs in a person, there are three basic qualities: data architecture, data analysis and domain expertise. What people often are looking for are people who are good at all three of these -- this kind of mythical unicorn data scientist. It's good to find people who can speak to all of those areas, but it's incredibly rare to find people who are superior in all of them. It often takes a team. You have to be willing and patient to find the right skillset for what you need."

How can universities help prepare students for the tech startup ecosystem? "At UNT, we've been looking at how to get data literacy skills across the curriculum, so we've launched several analytics programs. One of those is advanced data analytics, and we're looking to take those courses to the undergraduate level as a way for students to get a certificate in data analytics. We're planning to roll some of those things out in the next year."

Rich Last
Rich Last, former director of UNT's digital retail program and research center for Global Digital Retailing; former executive, J.C. Penney; co-founder of Axcelora

Rich Last, former director of UNT's digital retail program and research center for Global Digital Retailing; former executive, J.C. Penney; co-founder of Axcelora, which connects service providers with retailers
Expertise: Retail
Goal: To help businesses understand and meet consumer expectations when it comes to digital retail

Thoughts on DFW's tech ecosystem: "I think the Metroplex is a great area for startups. We have a lot of mentors here -- there is so much retail business talent. There's a lot of access to talent in general, through the universities."

What digital retailers need to be successful: "There are really five things. They need to have a unique product, including the design. They need to offer customers a unique service. And then there's customer experience -- how do you become the next Starbucks or Sephora, one of these businesses that also provides a great in-store experience? They also need to capitalize on their skillsets, and think hard about what their business model is going to look like."

Consumer expectations: "When I taught digital retail at UNT, I began one class by asking how many students sold items online. I expected a hand or two to go up. Just about everyone raised their hand. I thought it would be just a few people, and I'd have the other students ask them questions. That's not the way it worked out. So we have this culture now of people who are used to selling and buying online. There's been a major transformation driven by consumers and their expectations. Retailers have to stay open-minded."

Impressive area retail startups: "There are a few. [Carrollton-based] Woot, for one -- Amazon acquired them. There's Leatherology and The Cover Store, both in Carrollton. Leatherology makes personalized leather gifts and The Cover Store makes custom covers for outdoor patio furniture. And [Grapevine-based] RuffleButts -- they make these adorable baby bloomers that they sell to stores like Nordstrom."

How can universities help prepare students for the tech startup ecosystem? "Build relationships with places like RevTech that can help students develop and fund their ideas. And keep connecting with established retail companies. UNT has a great foundation with what's been done so far. It's a natural environment for startup incubation."

Julie Hall-Barrow ('94), vice president of virtual health and innovation, Children's Health
Degree from UNT: M.S., kinesiology and exercise science
Industry: Health care
Goal: To promote innovation in the health care sector, especially when it comes to virtual medicine

Thoughts on DFW's tech ecosystem: "We have a lot of individuals and companies moving into the Metroplex, and our economy is robust. Companies want to locate where schools and health care are strong, and DFW has done really well with that. In particular, the growth of industry in north DFW means there's a demand that education and health care be key assets for those communities, and it's important that we in the health care field meet those demands. Do you realize how many kids are in Texas? One of every nine kids in the country lives in Texas. We have a lot of kids to take care of."

How should the health care industry approach innovation? "The industry needs to really engage in technology. You shouldn't only interact with patients and families when they're inside your walls, and your zip code shouldn't determine if you get access to care. Here at Children's, we extend the expertise of our specialists to providers across the state. We deliver health care in schools across North Texas. We can monitor and treat patients 24/7 from their homes. We're always asking ourselves how we can ensure patients and families experience the best outcomes of their health care, and many times, technology can allow that to happen, like with remote patient monitoring. There are sensors on pill bottles that let you know if someone has opened them, but it doesn't track if the pill is not taken. We are working with a cutting-edge company and co-encapsulating those pills with sensors. It's important that doctors have the opportunity to see if medications are in fact really working."

Where is the future of health care headed? "The way we need hospitals will look different. There are going to be things that you have to come inside the walls for, but there will be more use for technology, like accessing a live provider online. The guiding question is how do we get data that will truly move the lever in terms of patient outcomes? There will be more use of AI in terms of analytics, pharmatherapy and individualizing treatment plans. These are the areas that are going to be driven by our data that we've previously only used in a reactive way, not a predictive way."

Major challenges facing health care innovation: "Many times, we've been in a very conservative area for risk, so one of the main challenges is developing a tolerance for risk that allows innovation to happen. There are strict rules and guidelines around privacy and confidentiality, so when data is traveling through the cloud, that tends to raise the hair on the back of the necks of legal compliance professionals. They really need to be intertwined with the innovation process, so that everyone can work collaboratively to ensure privacy while embracing risk.

"I sent out a tweet not long ago that said, 'If you're asking for permission to transform health care, you never will.' You just have to do it. It's not going to transform itself."

How can universities help prepare students for health innovation? "When I was a student at UNT, Dr. Robert Patton had a robust internship program. During my internship, a stroke patient came in for therapy, and that drove my path for the rest of my career. I wanted to make a difference in someone's life. As a student, you have to be exposed to industry and ask yourself, 'Is this an area in which I can thrive?' Universities and health care providers need to form partnerships to open up as many experiences as possible for students. We have a plethora of interns within our virtual health department. It's going to be important to have exposure earlier, not later."


Cijoy Olickal
Cijoy Olickal, CEO, Plymouth.AI

Cijoy Olickal, CEO, Plymouth.AI; will teach a master's level course on Blockchain at UNT this fall
Industry: Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence
Goal: Drive the understanding of Blockchain in business

Thoughts on DFW's tech ecosystem: "There are people who know it a lot better than I do. But I would say with Dallas, everything is very spread out. That's the physical challenge. There could be more forums for people to meet-and-greet and throw out ideas. But there's a lot of people here and a lot of pent-up demand for high quality investment here.. I think the advantage we have is that we're multi-industry . We're not strictly oil and gas like Houston or finance like New York. We've got one of every industry, and Dallas historically has built innovation elements such as the semiconductor, telecommunications, and computer services for the rest of the world -- or the rest of the country, at minimum. So we have a culture, but we're not as well organized as some other cities. Regulations-wise, I think we're pretty good too. But things like Startup Week need to be every week. So whether that's done at a city level or a university level, somebody needs to do something in a widely known and ongoing basis."

How should consumers think about Blockchain and cryptocurrency like Bitcoin? "Blockchain is nothing more than a data construct. It's a format of storing information. Because of the technologies that are layered onto it, you can make that storage mechanism have some interesting properties, like that it's immutable -- you can design it so that no one can alter it, which makes it a really good way of recordkeeping. It creates continuous records of transactions that you can look at it in reverse and figure out who owns what piece of a property or what piece of a Bitcoin or other object you wish to track.

"Bitcoin is kind of a recipe. It's five or six existing technologies put together and then boom! -- you have gumbo. Bitcoins don't actually get traded around. They're more like deeds. If you look at a Bitcoin, you can see who held it at any given time. So it has a lot more traceability than the U.S. dollar. When you get a dollar from a merchant, you have no idea who touched it before you. But with Bitcoin, the ledger is keeping track of its full history. So it's a lot more transparent than people think it is. Plus, it makes transactions more economically viable -- we can create systems that don't have scaling transaction fees."

Why are these technologies important? "They are the most interesting thing to happen in 5,000 years. When we started commerce 5,000 years ago, there were two distinct roles: banker and bookkeeper. Today, those two functions are still two very distinct things. This is the first time in history that we've had a system where the functions are unified. Some people say, 'Oh, it's as disruptive as the internet.' No, that's just scratching the surface."

What is the biggest misconception about Blockchain and Bitcoin? "People always say, 'Oh, isn't that used for fraud?' The U.S. dollar is probably the most-used currency for the black market and that's not going away any time soon -- it can't be tracked, whereas Bitcoin can absolutely be tracked. The other thing that's counterintuitive is people think, 'Oh, if criminals use it, I shouldn't use it.' Actually, it probably means you should. When criminals were using it early on, they were using it when they couldn't trust the other party and to transfer value between each other. If it's good enough for criminals, it should be good enough for non-criminals."

How can startups use Blockchain and cryptocurrency to their advantage? "There are many mom-and-pop startups that work by selling e-commerce products with these very straightforward distribution models. If they accept payment today in Visa or American Express, they only get their cash after three or four days, or after a sale happens, or after they ship the product. And then they have up to 30 days where they have to be aware that there could be a charge back, meaning the person could say I didn't get it, or I didn't like it, and I want a refund. To dispute that, that's a lot of time and work for the company.

"So if you and I are selling the exact same widgets for the exact same price, but I decide to accept cryptocurrency for my payments -- and cryptocurrency doesn't accept charge backs -- then I can drop my price by 10 percent. I don't have to inflate my price to cover my costs. I'll sell more, meaning my volume goes up, and I get a discount from my distributor."

How can universities help prepare students for these emerging technologies? "They should be thinking about convergence of topics. The people I see who are really excelling in this space are the polymaths. I love the liberal arts -- part of the reason I'm good at this is that I was a passionate fan of history. My outlook on technology is that history just repeats itself, only faster. Our scholastic model has always been the separation of subjects, but with this subject, you only get the full view of it once you start understanding everything from mathematics to commerce to history to industrial psychology to economics to finance to accounting.

"In the course I'm teaching in the fall, the hope is that the cohort groups we're creating are going to include people from many different disciplines. If you look at UNT, what's interesting to me -- I've spoken at other universities and been to university-sponsored events -- is that UNT's approach is far more comprehensive. Most are approaching it only from the finance dimension or the computer science dimension, but the way we structured our course is that it's going to cover system theories, economics, accounting, commerce -- the whole ecosystem, so to speak."

Read feature story on Putting the Tech in Texas.

Emily Roden ('01) uses Denton-based Stoke Coworking -- a space where UNT alums and staff provide mentoring to aspiring entrepreneurs -- as a meeting place for ReadyRosie. Read more about how the Denton startup community is making the most of Stoke at northtexan.unt.edu/tech-startups#extras.

View an interactive timeline of UNT alums, including Sutaria, who have founded tech startups over the past decade at northtexan.unt.edu/tech-startups-timeline.

As an undergrad, Jessie Stauffer ('15) found inspiration at UNT's Murphy Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Read more about plans for the revamped center.

Read about Ryan Douglas ('04), a UNT alumnus who works as vice president of operations at fast-growing Plano-based startup OpenKey while also building his own startup, CampReward.com, on the weekends.

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