Mavericks and trailblazers took the stage Wednesday night as D CEO and Dallas Innovates celebrated North Texas disruptors at the Innovation Awards 2024. The private event was held at On the Levee in Dallas’ Design District.
The program—now in its sixth year—honors companies, CEOs, CIOS, CTOs, entrepreneurs, and other leaders helping make Dallas-Fort Worth a hub for innovation.
D CEO and Dallas Innovates announced the winners and recognized all 74 finalists in 17 award categories like AI and machine learning; healthcare and biotech; education; banking and finance; food and beverage; real estate; robotics and IoT, and more.
From a startup using human crowd-gaming to advance machine learning to a real estate firm revitalizing unused towers into living spaces, the packed event buzzed with inspiration.
“Dallas-Fort Worth has a long history of innovation,” said D Magazine Partners Publisher Noelle LeVeaux in a welcome to the crowd. “Today, DFW is in the top five most active areas in the US when it comes to the high-tech industry.”
Presenting hosts D CEO Editor Christine Perez and Dallas Innovates Editor and Co-Founder Quincy Preston were joined by Matt Anderson of Munck Wilson Mandala and Jeff Winton of Pariveda Solutions to honor the envelope-pushing finalists and winners.
“These innovators are shaping what’s next and changing our world,” said Perez.
Winners stepped onstage to share their visions for evolving healthcare through AI, making commercial facilities more sustainable, and tapping technology to optimize complex systems like supply chain logistics.
Dallas Innovates’ Preston spotlighted those who are boldly leading the frontier. “Innovation is an extreme sport,” she said. “The playing field is ever changing. Tonight, we’re delighted to celebrate the risk-takers and market makers who are elevating our region.”
The honorees were also recognized in the January/February issue of D CEO magazine.
Here’s the complete list of winners and finalists for the 2024 awards:
THE INNOVATION AWARDS 2024 WINNERS AND HONOREES
STARTUP LEADER OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Gary Wojtaszek, RecNation
Gary Wojtaszek, founder and “chief camper” at RecNation, has capitalized on surging post-pandemic interest in RV and boat ownership, driving the company’s swift expansion. Founded in 2020, RecNation strategically acquires and revitalizes storage facilities nationwide, enhancing them with security features, improved infrastructure, and modernized units—either adding canopies or fully enclosing spaces as needed. With a portfolio of over 50 properties in six states and a staggering $800 million raised in capital within three years, Wojtaszek’s vision is propelling the company toward a goal of managing 350 assets by 2028.
Before RecNation, Wojtaszek transformed CyrusOne into a formidable data center giant, culminating in its acquisition for $15 billion—a record multiple for the industry. His current venture marks a significant pivot, commercializing a traditionally small-scale real estate sector. His foresight and initiative in the wake of a 30% increase in RV and boat ownership have positioned RecNation as a leading entity in the storage facility market. The entrepreneurial journey is a family affair, with Wojtaszek’s four children leaving their careers to join the venture, a testament to the company’s promising trajectory.
CORPORATE INNOVATOR OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Pedro Lerma, LERMA/ Agency
Lerma stands out as a formidable figure and innovator in the realm of advertising, leading LERMA/ Agency with a mission to not just participate, but actively shape the industry. The independent full-service agency with multicultural roots has a culture of innovation evident in its work, particularly in achieving the feat of creating three spots for the 2023 Super Bowl—making LERMA/ the first Dallas agency to do so. Commercials produced for Avocados From Mexico and the Christian nonprofit He Gets Us showcased the agency’s ability to deliver impactful messages on one of the world’s largest stages.
Lerma’s pursuit of excellence have earned LERMA/ Agency the title of Agency of the Year from Ad Age for two consecutive years. His definition of innovation as “fearlessness” reflects in the way he pushes his team to break barriers and create meaningful change. Under his guidance, LERMA/ has expanded its physical presence with nearly 56,000 square feet of creative workspace in Dallas’ West End. More recently, Lerma joined forces with three top industry pioneers in Hispanic marketing that led to the founding of a new minority-owned and Hispanic-led, full-service communications agency set to have offices in Dallas, Miami, and New York.
- Jeremy Fudge, BAL
- Dr. Eric Haney, Lone Star Analysis
- Jared Johnson, Frito Lay North America
- Craig Torrance, MCS
EMERGING LEADER AWARD
WINNER: Deven Panchal, AT&T
Working at the forefront of innovation in the tech and telecom sector, Deven Panchal has made a mark as the Chief Innovation Officer at AT&T. His notable achievements in the field at a relatively young age include leading the development and launch of four AI and machine learning products that have been released into open source and are currently in use worldwide. The CIO’s expertise as a software architect and data scientist has directly contributed to advancements that benefit millions globally.
This dual commitment to technological progress and social betterment has characterized Panchal’s leadership at AT&T. Guided by the wisdom of his father’s advice that one’s work should aim to better the lives of all living beings and help save the environment, his vision for innovation is as humanitarian as it is technological.
- Zach Cunningham, Remington Hospitality
- Tavian Harris, Seasons of Change
- Khirodra Mishra, Cybalt
- Arun Kumar Ponnusamy, Jugl
- Shanthi Rajaram, Amazech Solutions
NONPROFIT OR ACCELERATOR LEADER OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Trey Bowles, Techstars Physical Health Fort Worth Accelerator
Bowles, a longtime pillar of support for innovators in Dallas-Fort Worth, has launched numerous initiatives that foster entrepreneurial growth. Currently leading the Techstars Physical Health Fort Worth Accelerator, Bowles continues to be an invaluable advocate and mentor for startups, empowering them to bring innovative health solutions to the market.
As a serial entrepreneur, Bowles embodies the entrepreneurial spirit and works tirelessly to provide resources and tools for fellow entrepreneurs. His influence has reached national levels with his appointment to the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the formation of smart-city-focused InnoCityPartners. His efforts have included the establishment of an entrepreneurship program at Southern Methodist University and the relaunch of the Startup America Partnership as the Startup Champions Network.
Bowles also co-founded the Dallas Innovation Alliance, spearheading the Smart Cities initiative to transform Dallas into a city of the future. His commitment to the local entrepreneurial ecosystem is also evident through the launch of the Dallas Entrepreneur Center and the creation of the Mayor’s Star Council, a young leaders program in Dallas.
- Ann Montgomery, United Way of Metropolitan Dallas
- Jennifer Sanders, Dallas Innovation Alliance
- Abigail Erickson Torres, Frontiers of Flight Museum
CIO/CTO OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Phill Lawson-Shanks, Aligned Data Centers
Lawson-Shanks has played a pivotal role in the growth and success of Aligned Data Centers, attributing this achievement to the strategic use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in its operations, particularly in cooling technology. As the CIO/CTO of the global data center company, he steers towards sustainability, boasting a portfolio powered entirely by renewable energy. Overcoming an adult diagnosis of dyslexia and a unique educational journey—including being “invited to leave college”—Lawson-Shanks has forged an extraordinary path in the industry without traditional academic credentials. His philosophy that “There [is] usually more than one way to address any problem, and the easiest is not always the best” reflects his innovative mindset in tackling challenges and developing solutions.
- Srujana Bobba, Jiito.ai
- Bala Subramanian, UPS
- Joe Vaughan, MoneyGram International
INNOVATION IN AI AND MACHINE LEARNING
WINNER: Balanced Media Technology
Balanced Media Technology’s approach to using technology for real-world impact sets a new standard for interdisciplinary advances in technology. The company, which has secured nearly $30 million in various stages of funding, claims such notable achievements as the development of “Eye in the Sky Defender,” a crowd-sourced, AI-powered game that helps identify age-related macular degeneration.
The company’s technology infrastructure fuses AI and machine learning with data, distributed grid computing, and engaging elements of human computational gaming.
- AdComp Systems Group
- SDV International
INNOVATION IN CYBERSECURITY
Island.io is at the vanguard of internet security, carving out new frontiers with its enterprise browser that elevates security for corporations in the cloud. At the core of Island.io’s strategy is a security stack designed to safeguard user data, cookies, and local storage. Fortified with anti-exploitation and anti-phishing technologies, along with a password security manager, Island integrates security education directly into its product, guiding end users on safe browsing practices and link verification.
- Cyber Defense Labs
INNOVATION IN EDUCATION
WINNER: Dallas College
Dallas College stands out for its groundbreaking achievements in educational offerings. The school recently celebrated the graduation of 125 students from its Bachelor of Applied Science in Early Education and Teaching program, the first bachelor’s degree program available at a Texas community college. Its graduates are entering the workforce with hands-on teaching experience and without the burden of student debt. Dallas College is also expanding its reach by launching a new bachelor’s program in nursing.
The college, which is committed to accessibility, provides dual credit opportunities to some 30,000 high school students, along with free tuition for students at numerous local high schools. To ensure all students have the tools they need, Dallas College distributes laptops and hotspots to those in need.
INNOVATION IN BANKING AND FINANCE
WINNER: Nexus PMG
Nexus PMG is at the forefront of low-carbon infrastructure, leading the way in energy transition investments. The company has dedicated itself to uncovering sustainable and reliable methods within industries known for high pollution levels, positioning itself at the “nexus” of finance, development, and operations.
In serving its mission, Nexus PMG oversees more than $300 billion in low-carbon assets for over 100 investors. The company’s commitment to sustainable development has recently been bolstered by a $50 million capital infusion from notable investors including Greenbacker Capital, Liberty Mutual Insurance, and the Ontario Power Generation Pension Fund.
INNOVATION IN FINTECH AND INSURANCE
Bestow is revolutionizing the life insurance industry with its cutting-edge approach to product creation and technology adaptation. The company’s Software as a Service (SaaS) platform aims to give clients timely and flexible access to insurance with established insurance carriers. Its tech platform serves as vital infrastructure, facilitating a more efficient and user-friendly experience for life insurance clients.
Founded in 2016, the company’s forward-thinking strategies have resulted in partnerships with major carriers like USAA, Nationwide, and recently, Transamerica, featuring enhanced self-service capabilities for customers. Bestow’s innovative solutions have attracted more than $200 million in capital in the last five years.
INNOVATION IN FOOD AND BEVERAGE
WINNER: Harwood Hospitality Group
Harwood International, known for its success in office development, has significantly expanded its reach into the hospitality and dining industry in the past three years. The Harwood Hospitality Group recently made a splash with the opening of the 22-story Hotel Swexan and has established itself as a major player in Dallas’ restaurant scene with some 20 unique dining concepts, including well-known spots like Happiest Hour and Poco Fiasco, and new concepts like Tequila Social.
Known for bringing European flair to Dallas and venturing into residential development with some of the city’s most luxurious condominiums, Harwood’s move into hospitality was a strategic step to enhance amenities for its tenants and make effective use of its land holdings in Dallas’ Harwood District.
INNOVATION IN HEALTHCARE AND BIOTECH
WINNER: Lyda Hill Philanthropies
Lyda Hill Philanthropies has played a pivotal role in boosting Dallas’ standing in the healthcare innovation sector. Last September, its efforts were instrumental in establishing a customer experience hub for the new $2.5 billion federal Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health in Dallas. The CX hub at Pegasus Park, one of a network of three national hubs, is devoted to advancing significant biomedical and health innovations and improving health outcomes across communities.
Lyda Hill Philanthropies is also dedicated to shaping the future of women in science and technology. Its IF/THEN initiative continues to make significant strides in inspiring a new generation of female STEM pioneers across the U.S. A notable highlight was the display of statues representing women STEM leaders at the Smithsonian during Women’s History Month last year.
INNOVATION IN REAL ESTATE
WINNER: Mintwood Real Estate
Mintwood Real Estate works to reshape the urban residential real estate landscape by transforming underutilized properties into high-quality developments. Its project at Santander Tower converted empty floors into The Guild, a chic boutique hotel in downtown Dallas. Building on that success, Mintwood further redeveloped 11 floors of the same tower into nearly 230 modern apartments offering urban living.
The company is breaking new ground in affordable housing with its Oakhouse project, a 219-unit development on Colorado Boulevard in North Oak Cliff. The project is the first in a series planned along the south banks of the Trinity River.
INNOVATION IN ROBOTICS AND IOT
In Fort Worth, Clevon is pioneering the future of delivery services with its versatile robotic delivery vehicles, designed to minimize environmental impact while maintaining the capability to transport parcels of various types. Estonia-based Clevon moved its U.S. headquarters to the AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone in 2022.
Designed to revolutionize last-mile delivery solutions for businesses like grocery stores, restaurants, and more, the company offers a range of driving options for its vehicles: fully autonomous, partially autonomous with remote human assistance, and completely remote human operation, all capped at a safe speed of 20 miles per hour.
INNOVATION IN SOFTWARE AND SAAS
WINNER: o9 Solutions
o9 Solutions has distinguished itself in the supply chain management software market by employing advanced AI technologies to create forecasting models for planning teams. Last year, the company demonstrated a 51% increase in annual recurring revenue and an expansion to 2,500 employees worldwide.
With its recent $116 million funding round, o9 Solutions also attained a valuation of $3.7 billion, making it a nearly quadruple unicorn. Founded in North Texas in 2009 and headquartered in Farmers Branch, Co-Founder Chakri Gottemukkala called the Dallas business community “truly world-class.”
- JobTread Software
INNOVATION IN TRANSPORTATION TECHNOLOGY
Optym has notably impacted the transportation sector by leveraging AI to enhance efficiency in trucking, rail, and less-than-truckload deliveries. Collaborating with leading transportation companies globally, Optym’s advanced algorithms have contributed to significant cost savings for its clients—estimated at around $1 billion—alongside a daily reduction of 10 million miles in travel.
In its pursuit of continuous improvement within logistics, Optym introduced a suite of tools last year including a driver schedule optimization solution, a dispatch tool, and a real-time dock management system. The company, which related to North Texas in 2020, has said the move aligns with the state’s status as a logistics and transportation nucleus.
STARTUP OF THE YEAR
WINNER: Braemont Capital
Braemont Capital closed its inaugural $525 million capital raise in 2023, marking the largest first-time growth equity fund raised in Texas. Focused on founder-led and family-run businesses, the firm, which launched in 2021 and operates from Old Parkland, has already committed over $250 million across three investments.
The firm’s portfolio includes RedTeam, a construction software company, Vixxo, a facilities maintenance platform, and Incline P&C Group, an insurance firm. Looking to the future, Braemont plans to raise a second fund by late 2024 or early 2025, anticipated to exceed the initial fund but remain below $1 billion. In a brief message to innovators at the awards event, Founder Robert Covington said, “We’re an investor … and basically spend our time looking for businesses like yours.”
David Seeley, Jewels Clark, and Quincy Preston contributed to this report.
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