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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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address.

Here are a few other memorable moments from the event.

"Houston, I feel, is poised to be a leader. We have led in human space flight, and we will a leader in commercialization."

— Wyche says in her keynote address, which gave a thorough overview of what all NASA is working on at JSC. She calls out specifically how startups are a driving force in commercialization. JSC is working with local accelerator programs at The Ion and MassChallenge.

"These startups help us to connect to tomorrow's space innovation leaders, and gives our team the opportunity to mentor these entrepreneurs as we work to advance both our scientific and technical knowledge," she says.

"The ability to have a place where government, academia, and industry can come together and share ideas and innovation is incredibly powerful."

​— Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines LLC, specifically talking about the Houston Spaceport, where Intuitive Machines has signed on as a tenant. Altemus adds that a major key to leading space commercialization is a trained workforce, which the spaceport is focused on cultivating.

"We shouldn't discount the character that Houston has from the standpoint as a great place to build a business."

— Tim Kopra, vice president of robotics and space at MDA Ltd., says, adding that Houston is a big city that feels like a small town. "We need to incentivize companies to come and stay," he says.

"Great cities — like great companies — understand that if you're still, you're probably moving backwards. ... I think Houston gets it in that regard."

— Todd May, senior vice president of science and space at KBR, says, adding that Houston realizes it needs to be on the offensive side to bring innovation to the game, positioning the city very well for the future.

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