Featured Innovator

Accelerator program executive to connect the dots within Houston's innovation ecosystem

Yvette Casares Willis leads partnerships for MassChallenge Texas. Courtesy of MassChallenge

For Yvette Casares Willis, Houston already has what it takes to be a strong innovation ecosystem. Now, it's about working together to get the city where it needs to be, and MassChallenge hopes to do that with its new chapter in Houston.

"I'm excited about what Houston has to offer," says Willis, who is the director of partnerships for the organization. "We have everything we could possibly provide in this ecosystem to be amazing, as long as we all work together. If we can all collaborate and if we all have the same mission, we can really make a difference in Houston."

MassChallenge Texas announced its new Houston program in January. Applications for the inaugural cohort will be officially open as of tonight's launch party for the program. The organization, which has locations around the world, looks for early stage startups that haven't raised more than $500,000 in equity-based funding and have generated less than $1 million in revenue over the past year. The cohort will support 25 startups with free GreenStreet office space, mentorship, investment opportunities, and more, all the while taking no equity in the companies.

Willis has been the organization's boots on the ground in Houston, since MassChallenge Texas is run out of Austin. She spoke with InnovationMap about what MassChallenge's Houston program means to her and the city.

InnovationMap: Why did the city need something like this?

Yvette Casares Willis: We're a little unique to what Houston already has. Houston has a lot of great organizations, but MassChallenge is unique in the fact that we're industry agnostic, we're a nonprofit, and we offer a different business model to be added into the local ecosystem.

IM: Having worked in Houston, what do you feel you bring to the table for MassChallenge?

YCW: My role covers the entire state, but I have been boots on the ground for MassChallenge in Houston and it's been exciting to bring this to where I'm from. I have over 20 years in the Houston market in the corporate environment — my background is in professional sports and entertainment.

IM: As the director of partnerships for MassChallenge, what have you been able to accomplish?

YCW: In the last 10 months, I've been able to meet with several community and corporate partners to talk about MassChallenge. I've seen a lot of excitement. We're working on collaborating, so that when we do have our cohort, we can provide them with the best opportunities to partner with the community and corporations."

IM: What are you most excited about for Houston's MassChallenge program?

YCW: I feel like Houston has all of the best ingredients to be an amazing ecosystem. MassChallenge is going to play a big part of bridging all of the different organizations together. I see that everything is here, but it needs to come together, and I think MassChallenge is really good at doing that wherever they are.

IM: What's next for MassChallenge?

YCW: In my role, when I talk to other organizations, I see a lot of interest between collaborations between Houston and other cities in Texas, but I also see a lot of excitement globally. Houston's a global city and a lot of people are excited about the network MassChallenge has around the world.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Here's your one-stop shop for innovation events in Houston in January. Getty Images

Start of the new year — and new decade — strong with tech and innovation events across Houston. From networking and panels to workshops and meetups, here's what Houston startup and tech events to attend in January.

If you know of innovation-focused events for this month or next, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.

January 9 — TransMedia Marketing® A New Paradigm

Phil and Karen Snyder are professors of Digital Media at University of Houston's College of Technology, and are the creators/developers of the University's unique Transmedia Marketing® Online Certificate Program. Reinventing the concepts of multi-platform storytelling, the Snyders apply them to marketing strategies. They share their experiences in their presentation: Transmedia Marketing® A New Paradigm.

Details: The event is from 11 am to 12:30 pm on Thursday, January 9, at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Road). Learn more.

January 9 — SBIR 101: A Practical Approach to Engaging with the US Air Force

At this event you will hear from Lt. Col. Eric Frahm, AFWERX chief product officer, and Ryan Erickson, AFWERX head of operations, who will present the details of engagement with the Air Force via the AFWERX SBIR process. Additionally, you will hear from Gustavo Sanchez (Pandata Tech) and Scott Schneider (HTX Labs), two Station Houston member companies that are on current AFWERX SBIR Phase II contracts, who will share their journeys through the SBIR process from customer discovery to securing customer MOUs to navigating bureaucratic hurdles such as non-US citizen employees.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7:30 pm on Thursday, January 9, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, Suite 2440). Learn more.

January 9 — How to be a side hustler

So, how do you make your aspirations of becoming your own boss come to life? Enter the side hustle. Come join General Assembly's lineup of speakers as they delivers a highly tactical tips and tricks on the how (and why) behind starting a successful side hustle while keeping your day job.

Details: The event is from 6:30 to 9 pm on Thursday, January 9, at GA Houston (1301 Fannin St, Floor 21). Learn more.

January 14 — Employable in 2020: Closing the skills gap

What jobs will exist in 2030? Come along and hear from a panel of industry leaders on how to stay relevant in the rapidly changing space for 2030 and beyond.

Details: The event is from 6:30 to 9 pm on Tuesday, January 14, at GA Houston (1301 Fannin St, Floor 21). Learn more.

January 16 — Practice Makes: Inclusion

Inclusion means a better world for all. It's about correcting mismatched human interactions and opening up experiences/products for everyone to participate.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Thursday, January 16, at Accenture Houston (1301 Fannin Street). Learn more.

January 22 — Bots and Brews

"Bots & Brews," is the winter meetup of the Energy Drone & Robotics Coalition. It offers insights from energy unmanned experts, and rapid-fire use cases from cutting-edge drone, robotics solutions and startups for the energy, and industrial autonomous challenges of today and tomorrow.

Details: The event is Wednesday, January 22, from 4 to 7pm at Saint Arnold Brewery (2000 Lyons Ave). Learn More

January 23 — JLABS x IGNITE: Girls Just Wanna Have Funds

Join JLABS and IGNITE for an evening of rotating round table discussions as we tackle these questions and aim to forge a path forward for two of the most prohibitive factors at play: a lack of a robust network of female mentors and lack of investment dollars in female-led startups.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7:30 pm on Thursday, January 23, at JLABS @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

January 24 – 11th Annual WISE Luncheon

By celebrating the achievements of women leaders in science, we want to inspire others to pursue research and applications that will spur economic prosperity and improve the quality of life for our region and our state as a whole. WISE is more than just a luncheon. It is a place where everyone can come together to share their ideas, tell their stories and fall in love with math and science all over again.

Details: The event is from 11 am to 1 pm on Friday, January 24, at River Oaks Country Club (1600 River Oaks Blvd.). Learn more.

January 28 — E-Commerce Meetup & Panel Discussion with Kim Roxie

E-commerce is one of the industry's producing tech billionaires, and this panel will discuss the path to get there.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7 pm on Tuesday, January 28, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, Suite 2440). Learn more.

January 29 — MassChallenge Texas in Houston 2020 Launch Event

MassChallenge Texas is launching both its Austin and Houston programs simultaneously. It's a good networking opportunity and a chance to learn more about this year's cohort.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7:30 pm on Wednesday, January 29, at the Four Seasons Hotel (1300 Lamar St.). Learn more.

January 30 — Digital Storytelling for Your Startup: Deconstructing Digital and Social Media

Savvy digital storytelling is a powerful tool in your entrepreneurial toolbox. JLABS has tapped into The Black Sheep Agency for this workshop, where we'll break down digital strategy, tools, tips and tricks that will set you up for success both online and offline.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm on Thursday, January 30, at JLABS @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd.). Learn more.

January 30 — Intro to the Houston Startup Community

This free event is an orientation to help newcomers to the startup scene get acquainted with the exciting world of tech in Houston. A panel of professionals will give you the inside scoop on Houston's key events and meetups, people, companies, VCs, blogs, programs, and more.

Details: The event is from 6:30 to 9 pm on Thursday, January 30, at GA Houston (1301 Fannin St, Floor 21). Learn more.

January 31 — Innovate Integrate Inspire

The Society of Petroleum Engineers' Gulf Coast Section is hosting its WIN Congress 2020. Expect to come away with invaluable gems and insights as an eclectic mix of oil and gas professionals talk about their challenges, opportunities, and give their best advice on how to reach the success you want.

Details: The event is from 7 am to 5 pm on Friday, January 31, at Hilton Garden Inn NW American Plaza (14919 Northwest Fwy). Learn more.