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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

 
 

New partnership chair, Amy Chonis, gave her address at the 2021 GHP Annual Meeting. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

With 2020 in the rearview, the Greater Houston Partnership is looking into the new year with a new board chair. In the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting, the organization introduced how important developing the innovation community is in Houston.

In her remarks, this year's Partnership Chair Amy Chronis, who is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte, shared what she hopes to inspire in her tenure. Her statement can be boiled down to three major points.

It's time to modernize Houston's economy

Chronis says it's time to focus on tech and innovation — and that requires support from all aspects of the city.

"Here in Houston, we must be laser-focused on building a strong, diverse, 21st century economy," she says. "Over the past few years, entrepreneurs, investors, academic institutions, local government, and the corporate sector have come together to unite, grow, and promote Houston's startup ecosystem. The progress since 2016 is staggering."

Since 2016, Chronis says, venture capital investment in Houston has increased almost 250 percent to a record $714 million dollars raised in 2020. Additionally, she calls out 30 new startup development organizations that have sprung up around town — like the East End Maker Hub, The Cannon, The Ion, Greentown Labs, and so much more.

Chronis also calls out the importance of educational institutions, such as Rice University and the University of Houston.

It's the industries that drive innovation

There is a growing need to diversify Houston's economy away from just oil and gas, Chronis says it's Houston's core industries — energy, life sciences, aerospace, along with manufacturing and global logistics — that have made transformative steps.

"We've got momentum, but we still need to double down with work to do," Chronis says, identifying energy, life sciences, and aerospace as three pillars to drive success.

Regarding energy, Chronis touts Greentown Labs opening in Houston — but warns it's increasingly important to have big corporations promote the energy transition.

"From the super majors to the service firms and the increasing presence of renewable companies, Houston is at the forefront of driving the Energy 2.0 sector," she says.

When it comes to health care, Chronis remarks on the Texas Medical Center's success with the TMC Innovation Institute and the development of TMC3, a 37-acre research commercialization campus.

"What's special about TMC3 is that it will create collaboration and innovation at scale," she adds. "It will be a catalyst that will advance Houston's position as the Third Coast for Life Sciences."

Lastly, Houston must maintain its moniker as the Space City — and the city has a lot of opportunities to do that with the development of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport and the NASA Johnson Space Center.

"Houston is already home to a rich talent pool of nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals and more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, but the potential is so much greater," Chronis says.

Houston needs to focus on four areas to "drive a technological renaissance"

Chronis concludes her speech with some calls to action. She first acknowledges that corporations ask themselves about how they are promoting and valuing innovation.

"We must be committed to inspiring, cultivating and rewarding technological innovation," Chronis says. "How is your company partnering with startups, higher education institutions and other stakeholders to drive innovation?"

Next, Chronis calls out Houston's global diversity as a differentiator when it comes to attracting companies to Houston, and she cites HPE as an example.

"We know there are hundreds of tech companies in the Valley, and up and down the West and East coasts that are striving to build global diversity within their companies," she says. "There is no better place than Houston to do this."

Third, Chronis calls for everyone — from corporates to educations — to empower the next generation of innovators.

And, finally, she says it's time to spread the word about Houston.

"We are modern, sophisticated, and at our core, an incredibly global city. Global in a way that sets us apart from most U.S. metros," she says. "So, as we embark on this work to drive Houston's technology renaissance, we must ensure perceptions of Houston are aligned with reality."

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