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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."

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Building Houston

 
 

For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

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