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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."

Ahead of entering the Houston market later this year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play hosted three days of programming surrounding innovation in energy and health care. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Plug and Play, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm and accelerator program, plans to launch its operations in Houston later this year. And, in showing its commitment to the Bayou City, the organization hosted three days worth of panels, talks, and pitches at the Texas Medical Center's TMC Innovation Institute earlier this month.

Houston Innovation Week was Plug and Play's formal introduction to Houston startups and the local corporations that have the potential to support them. The programming focused on health and energy and sustainability, and the summit concluded with TMCx's Demo Day.

If you missed the event, we've hit the highlights for you by rounding up nine powerful quotes overheard throughout the week.

“Nowadays, I feel every industry is going to go through an incredible digital transformation. Even the oil and gas industry, which is very capital heavy, there’s going to be a layer of fast-moving technologies which would help the industry be more efficient. This is the crossroads where Plug and Play was born — bridging the gap between the entrepreneurs and the technologies. That changes an industry.”

— Saeed Amidi, CEO and founder of Plug and Play, says. He also shares the story of how Plug and Play got its start from a few lucky early investments to making over 150 investments a year.

“Now we have about 30 offices, and then quite frankly I realized I had forgotten about America.”

— Amidi says, announcing that Plug and Play will open five new offices across the United States in the next six months to a year.

“We’re not walking in terms of building this integrated robust innovation ecosystem, we’re sprinting in that direction.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner says, adding that, "If there is any city that ought to be leading the way when it comes to startups, technology, and innovation, it ought to be the city of Houston."

“You have to get people to invest more. It doesn’t happen on its own. People have to see that if we invest, we’re going to get a return.”

— Mayor Turner says, calling the crowd to action. "You can't just talk about what others have done and what we have accomplished. You have to take that now, build the platform, and move into where we are going."

“One of the things you look at is it’s not the technology itself that’s going to make you win or lose, it’s what you do with it.”

— Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, responding to a question about what technologies she has her eyes on. Burger continued on to say that, while she couldn't highlight any technologies in particular — it's like picking a favorite child, she's always evaluating how a new technology would help with the affordability, reliability, and lower environmental impact. "That's the game," she says.

"Management is amazing at suppressing innovation. … We can move toward just trying not to suppress it. If someone has an idea, they are safe to go through the process and raise their hand."

— Bradley Andrews, president of digital at Worley. "I think it's a change in attitude," he says about how management can evolve to advance ideas within energy companies.

“It’s easy to say that we’ll do the thing that gives us the most competitive advantage — and it’s really hard to figure out what that means and how you do that. In general, if we see something that’s out there and implemented that someone else has done, I don’t need to create an internal capability like that. I just need to go access that.”

— Doug Kushnerick, senior technology scouting and venture adviser at ExxonMobil. For Kushnerick, technology solutions that fix specific problems are easy to go after, but things that affect big picture and strategic assets are harder to figure out if they are worth implementing.

“One of our big asks from our partners from an internal perspective is really to have a champion — whether its an innovation manager or someone who really advocates these startups internally. Someone who will find the clinician and the business unit and tap the legal team.”

— Neda Amidi, global head of health and partner at Plug and Play Tech Center, responding to a question about opening up the channels of communications between startups and large companies. She adds that it's a requirement for these people to visit a Plug and Play location four to six times a year.

“What I see from a culture perspective is that it really starts with the leadership in the institution. If the people at the top in the C-suite of the institution are focused on understanding why their organization isn’t performing as well as they expect it to be and are willing to look to the outside, that’s how it starts in my mind.”

— Thomas Luby, director TMC Innovation Institute, responding to a question from the audience about large organizations that tend to be slower adaptors to new technologies.