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5 things you need to know about Houston's Microsoft- and Intel-backed accelerator program

The inaugural Smart Cities accelerator in Houston will have its cohort create solutions for a set of problems the city faces. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

At a Microsoft IoT in Action event in April, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that the city would launch the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator — a program that would task a set of startups and entrepreneurs with creating digital and technical solutions to key problems within Houston.

"As a result of incorporating smart technologies, Houston will have the ability to create a more resilient and mobile-friendly city, and in turn accelerate our city's economic growth and prepare for the needs of 21st Century citizens," Mayor Turner says in a release.

While there's still a lot to finalize within this new program before the first cohort begins in September, here are the five things you need to know about the accelerator.

It's an effort from multiple parties.  

There are several major players behind the initiative. Station Houston will host the accelerator — first in its current headquarters and then later from The Ion when it opens in 2020. Station will also team up with TX/RX, a nonprofit makerspace in East Downtown, to be a resource for engineering and design elements.

Microsoft and Intel are backing the program — both monetarily and various other support roles.

"For me, having been doing this for a few years now, it's such a huge step for the city," Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, tells InnovationMap. "We are not only talking about major companies in the world of technology to make a significant investment in our startup community, but that investment that they are making is in our city as well. That is not to be underestimated."

The first cohort's goals will be to find solutions within mobility and resilience. 

Key stakeholders within the program identified mobility and resilience as the two focus points the first cohort will work within. Currently, the stakeholders are again narrowing down the topics to identify 10 problems within mobility and resilience, which the cohort will then be tasked with solving.

The accelerator, which is currently set up to have one cohort a year, Rowe says, will then identify other various issues within Houston in subsequent cohorts.

"There will be, what seems at this point, an endless array of challenges the entrepreneurs in the accelerator can address," Rowe says.

Should the opportunity arise, Rowe says, the organization could also launch a concurrent cohort in six months, rather than waiting until next year.

The cohort will come from across the country. 

Once the list of 10 problems to solve has been finalized, the organization will go on a national search to find the cohort.

"Of course we hope we will be able to find some fabulous companies here at home, but we are also hoping we are enabling companies from around the rest of the United States to discover Houston," Rowe says.

A selection committee made up of stakeholders from all the participating organizations will evaluate the applications and selections.

"We not only want to be sure we are bringing in geographic diversity, but we also want to bring in industry diversity because that will allow challenging perspectives when problem solving," says Rowe.

A key part of this process is getting the word out about the program. Station hosted a launch event on May 30 to introduce the program to Houston.

"We can only be successful as the companies we can attract to be a part of the accelerator," Rowe says.

How it will work.

The 10-month program will have 10 startups per cohort, and the programming will be broken down into three phases. The first three months will be a time of discovery and ideating with a structured curriculum designed around mobility and resiliency. Next, the startups will prototype and validate their products. The second half of the accelerator will be pilot programs within the city of Houston.

The ultimate goal is to better Houston as a whole.

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator is different than anything else Houston has to offer, Rowe says, mainly because its primary goal is creating solutions for some of Houston's biggest problems.

"We now finally for Houston to take the advancements we've made in innovation — especially in tech — and bring it into the lives of everyone," Rowe says. "It's wonderful in so many ways, but it puts a tremendous amount of responsibility on our shoulders to make sure we are doing this with the communities of Houston as opposed to doing it to the communities of Houston."

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

It's not too huge of an assumption to make that many Houston startups and small businesses failed to pay their rents in full yesterday. Since the city's stay-at-home mandate on March 24 — and even preceding that — most businesses have seen a slowdown of revenue as a result of COVID-19-caused business disruptions.

Business owners are frantically looking in their leases and searching online to see what rights they have and what sort of protection they have in such an unprecedented time.

"People are confused. They don't know what to do, and finding information is hard," says Meredith Wheeler, co-founder and chief creative officer of Sesh Coworking, which opened earlier this year.

Wheeler and Sesh's co-founder, Maggie Segrich, have created a petition to get on the radar of local elected officials to challenge them to pass legislation to protect small businesses in this time.

"At the end of the day, it would be so wonderful and idealistic to say that we could rely on the niceties and the moral compasses of our landlords, but it's probably not true for everyone and so that's why we need legislation to dictate what is right," Wheeler says.

But landlords are also in unchartered territory, says Josh Feinberg, who has worked in Houston as a commercial real estate broker and co-founded CRE tech platform, Tenavox.

"There's this idea that there's this acrimony between tenant and landlord, and I think, as a former broker, we're set up that way to get our side the best deal. But in reality, that's just not true," Feinberg says. "The majority of commercial real estate is owned by regular people — not usually some faceless, gigantic corporation."

And they have a piper to pay too, Feinberg adds. Ninety percent of CRE is owned by debt, he says. If the government steps in anywhere, it should be on the lender level, as well as creating some sort of tax relief.

"If there's any relief here, it's going to have to come from lenders, and I think you'd hear that from owners and brokers," Feinberg says.

In somewhat convenient timing, Tenavox has recently co-founded a new company that provides a bit of a solution for small businesses. Otso provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. Traditionally, deposits are held onto by landlords — they aren't legally allowed to spend it unless the tenant defaults.

"In general, I think cash deposits are wasteful," Feinberg says. "It's critical capital that the business can hire with, invest, and use."

Tenavox teamed up with Euler Hermes, a 135-year-old credit insurance company, to create Otso, and the credit company backs the lease performance of each tenant that is approved by Otso. The transaction calls for a fee added to the rent, but no large cash deposit would be required.

The tool can be used on new leases, and, in light of the current situation, Otso can also be used to create an addendum in existing leases so that the tenant can get back their deposit and use it in this time of crisis. Either landlord or tenant can apply online and hear back that same day — Feinberg says he's focused on a speedy response to help get this deposit money back to the tenant.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg says.

Other than looking into Otso, Feinberg has some other recommendations for small business owners. He says they should be applying for relief from the Small Business Administration, which has more money to dole out than they have ever had. And, as it pertains to working with their landlords, communication is key. Show financials and specific information — like what March 2019 looks like compared to 2020 — so that landlords can take that to their lenders.

"An unprecedented crisis is going to require unprecedented solutions," Feinberg says.