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.

The coffee company announced three Houston-area solar projects. Courtesy of Starbucks

Coffee shop chain Starbucks is plugging into Texas' solar energy industry in a big way.

Two 10-megawatt solar farms in Texas owned by Cypress Creek Renewables LLC are providing enough energy for the equivalent of 360 Starbuck stores, including locations in Houston, Humble, Katy, and Spring. Separately, Starbucks has invested in six other Texas solar farms owned by Cypress Creek, representing 50 megawatts of solar energy; Santa Monica, California-based Cypress Creek is selling that power to other customers.

Three of the eight solar farms in the Texas portfolio are just outside the Houston metro area. One is in the Fort Bend County town of Beasley, while two of the projects are in Wallis and Wharton.

Starbucks already relies on a North Carolina solar farm equipped with 149,000 panels to deliver solar energy equivalent to powering 600 Starbucks stores in North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

"Our long-standing commitment to renewable energy supports our greener-retail initiative and demonstrates our aspiration to sustainable coffee, served sustainably," Rebecca Zimmer, Starbucks' director of global environmental impact, says in an April 15 release about its solar investment in Texas. "Now, we are investing in new, renewable energy projects in our store communities, which we know is something our partners and customers can appreciate for their local economy and for the environment."

The solar commitment in Texas aligns with Starbucks' goal of designing, building, and operating 10,000 "greener" company-owned stores around the world by 2025. The Seattle-based retailer expects this initiative — whose features include renewable energy, energy efficiency, and waste reduction — to cut $50 million in utility costs over the next 10 years.

U.S. Bank's community development division teamed up with Starbucks and Cypress Creek on the Texas solar farms. Chris Roetheli, a business development officer at U.S. Bank, says solar tax equity investments like those undertaken by Starbucks are growing in popularity among non-traditional investors.

"Starbucks is taking a unique approach — investing in solar farms regionally to support a specific group of its stores," Roetheli says in the announcement of the solar collaboration. "This is a new concept, and one that I think other companies are watching and may follow. It's an interesting model that allows them to talk specifically about the impact of their investments."

Starbucks' investment comes as Texas' stature in the solar energy sector keeps rising, along with the state's role in the wind energy industry.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, more than 2,900 megawatts of solar capacity are installed in Texas. That's enough energy to power nearly 350,000 homes. Among the states, Texas ranks fifth for the amount of installed solar capacity.

Solar investment in Texas exceeds $4.5 billion, with about 650 solar companies operating statewide, the association says. The solar energy industry employs more than 13,000 full-time and part-time workers in Texas, according to the Texas Solar Power Association.

With more than 4 gigawatts (over 7,000 megawatts) of solar capacity expected to be added in Texas over the next five years, the national solar association reported in 2018 that "Texas is poised to become a nationwide leader in solar energy … ."

As it stands now, though, solar supplies less than 1 percent of Texas' electricity.

A 2018 state-by-state report card for friendliness toward solar power assigned a "C" to Texas, putting it in 34th place among the states.

The report card, released by SolarPowerRocks.com, lauds the backing of big Texas cities like Houston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio in encouraging residential solar installations.

However, the report card adds, outlying areas in Texas lag their urban counterparts in support of residential solar, "and we'd like lawmakers here to codify more protections and goals for solar adoption, but in the most populous areas, the Lone Star [State] shines."