Who's Who

5 Houston innovators headed to SXSW to know this week

Take a good look at these Houston entrepreneurs' faces, because you might be seeing them in downtown Austin next weekend for SXSW. Photos courtesy

Welcome to a special edition of InnovationMap's weekly innovators to know series. This week has more innovators featured than ever, and we're highlighting a particular group of people: The Houston founders headed for SXSW in Austin later this week. From startup founders, coworking space leaders, and pitch competition organizers, here's the Houston SXSW attendees you should know about.

Scott Parazynski, CEO of Fluidity Technologies

Courtesy of Fluidity

Houston-based Fluidity Technologies and its drone controller, FT Aviator, will be presenting at the 11th annual SXSW Pitch event on Saturday, March 9, at 5 p.m. The company has been named a finalist in the Hyper-Connected Communities category. Fluidity is lead by CEO Scott Parazynski, a former NASA astronaut, pilot, and physician. The FT Aviator has the potential to revolutionize drone technology. The joystick-like controller is based off movement in space, Parazynski says, and is less prone to user error by someone not as well trained in drone operation.

Fluidity will find out if it wins in its category on Sunday, March 10, at 6:30 p.m. at the SXSW Pitch awards program.

Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon

Courtesy of The Cannon

There's no better setting to talk Texas entrepreneurialism than a stage at SXSW, and that's what Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, is going to be doing on the "Austinpreneur: The Texas Startup Manifesto" panel presented by Capital Factory on Saturday, March 9, at 11 am.

Gow, who is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO, has been juggling a lot since the launch of Cannon Ventures last year and the anticipation of The Cannon's new West Houston 120,000-square-foot facility, which is expected to deliver in May.

Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston

Courtesy of Station Houston

Gabriella Rowe, the fearless leader of startup acceleration hub, Station Houston, is headed for the state capital to talk, well, capital. Rowe will be a panelist on the "Startup Funding: From Apprenticeships to Professions" panel on Saturday, March 9, at 12:30 pm.

Rowe has served as CEO of Station Houston since August. The nonprofit has a lot going on ahead of The Ion's launch, of which the Station is the programming partner. Read more about that — and why Rowe says wild horses couldn't drag her out of Houston —in her Featured Innovator piece.

Katharine Forth, founder and CEO of Zibrio

Courtesy of Zibrio

Another Houston company selected as a finalist of the 11th annual SXSW Pitch event is Zibrio SmartScale, which is in the Health and Wearable category and is presenting on Sunday, March 10, at 5 pm. The company is all about balance. Its product, a smart scale that tracks balance, aims to reduce dangers that come with poor balance — injuries, deaths, and costs from falls. Katharine Forth leads the company as CEO and founder. The company was a member of TMCx's 2015 medical devices cohort.

Right after pitching, Forth will find out if her company wins in its category on Sunday, March 10, at 6:30 p.m. at the SXSW Pitch awards program.

Greg Wright, founder of HATCH Pitch

Courtesy of HATCH

For the eighth year, Houston-based HATCH Pitch is headed to Austin for SXSW to host its pitch competition focused on startups making the world a better place. Greg Wright, founder of the pitch program, will be there leading the event, which takes place on Monday, March 11, from 10 am to noon. The competition will be between four finalists. While only invited guests guests can attend, the pitches will be streamed online in an interactive way, so viewers can post comments or questions to the mentors, pitchers, and judges.

The local community has raised some concerns about Rice Management Company's Ion project's effect on the Third Ward. Courtesy of Rice University

The city of Houston has been buzzing about Rice Management Company's Ion Innovation Hub — a 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub project expected to deliver in 2021 — but there's one group isn't so thrilled with the plans: The Third Ward community.

In a public community meeting on November 12, community members gathered at the Wesley AME Church to plan a Community Benefits Agreement that would legally bind The Innovation District's development team and the Rice Management Company to move forward with the local residents' indicated best interests. According to the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed group to work on the CBA, it would be the first of its kind in Houston.

The coalition is supported by Third Ward is Home Civic Club, the Emancipation Economic Development Council, the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats - Harris County, and the Houston Society for Change.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, presented the project's plans to the crowd, recognizing that innovation ecosystems across the country have issues with diversity.

"When you look around the tech ecosystems in the United States today, there are a couple things that stand out," Rowe says. "First and foremost is that they are extremely white and extremely male."

But since Houston is still developing its innovation infrastructure, Rowe says, the city has more opportunities to take the lessons learned from these other ecosystems and be more proactive about including diverse efforts.

One of the things The Ion is planning to incorporate to engage the community is a free coworking space — the only free coworking space in Houston, Rowe says. The Ion plans also include two public parks and community events, and both will be free and open to the public.

The Ion promises to bring free coworking, park space, and events to the area. Courtesy of Rice University

After the presentation, the estimated 150 community members in the crowd had the opportunity to address Rowe. While one local resident expressed concern with the non-inclusive verbiage The Ion is using — describing the area as "Midtown" over the pre-gentrification descriptor of Third Ward — other concerns surrounded the lack of diversity of the decision makers on the project.

"For me, that's where we need to start, which is in diversity," says Rowe, who mentions she has diversity among her programming team. "I look to all of you to come to get included in our team as we're growing."

Another concern that was raised was the job opportunities on the construction site itself. While Rowe didn't mention any specific job opportunities in construction, she did say she had been asked by the Rice Management Company to tap local artists to design the fences surrounding the site.

The meeting pivoted toward a discussion about the CBA and the importance the agreement would have moving forward. Assata Richards, founder of Sankofa Research Institute and local activist, and Mary Claire Neal, a Rice University student and leader of the Students for a Just and Equitable Innovation Corridor, and Carl Davis, chair of the Houston Society for Change and a representative of the church, have teamed up to move forward with the agreement.

Texas Appleseed, a group of volunteer lawyers, has agreed to help create and enforce the agreement, and Jeffrey Lowe, associate professor in the department of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has also advised the organizations.

"We've been told what's going to happen, but there's no binding agreement to make sure that it's going to happen," Richards says. "Those are just nice wishlists."

Moreover, the initiatives that have been suggested, enforceable or not, aren't enough, Richards adds, again stressing the importance of the CBA.

"We're going to be smarter this time. We're going to work with the people who have the power and make the decisions," Richards says. "You're doing all this development and come and tell me that you want art outside the building? We're talking millions of dollars of construction."

While the terms of the CBA are still in the works, some of the requests mentioned in the meeting include jobs, preservation of communities of color, affordable housing initiatives, access to affordable groceries, and opportunities for minority and African American-owned businesses.

The Ion Innovation Hub Proposed Site Plan The Ion Innovation Hub Proposed Site Plan was included in notes pre-released ahead of the Houston Planning Commission's November 14 meeting. Photo via HPC

Neal proceeded with a presentation of actionable ways students and community members can get involved and make their voices heard. Her presentation included new concerns following the release of the master plan of The Innovation District, which the Houston Chronicle released earlier this week. The plans included a parking area that will be the next construction project following The Ion. The variance request is headed to the planning commission on Thursday.

"That's a two-day turnaround and it's the first opportunity for us to do something," Neal says. The group is intending to at least acquire a delay in the variance request moving forward.

The meeting wrapped up with a call to action for local residents as well as students. Since The Ion will include local academic institutions, student and alumni input is crucial.

"We want you to hold up and pause and think carefully on how this development is going to benefit and affect the community," Richards says.