Q&A

New Greater Houston Partnership chair asks business community to spread the word

Houston, we have a perception problem — but the Greater Houston Partnership's new chair, Amy Chronis, is here to fix it. Photo courtesy Deloitte/AlexandersPortraits.com

If there's one thing Amy Chronis — the Greater Houston Partnership's 2021 chair and the Houston managing partner at Deloitte — wants you to know, it's that now's the time to spread the word about what's happening in Houston.

"We just don't brag enough about how much the city has changed and its trajectory," she tells InnovationMap.

While Houston has long been innovative in the health, space, and energy industries, it has a perception problem. Recently, Chronis addressed some of these concerns in her address at the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting. She joined InnovationMap for an interview to zero in on how the business community can work to change this perception problem and continue to grow its innovation and tech community.

InnovationMap: You describe your new role at GHP as a convening one. As you begin your tenure, what do you have your eye on?

AmyChronis: Well, if you told me a year ago that we would still be virtual, I would never believe it. I think that's one thing. And I think the GHP staff is really doing a great job in trying to bring connectivity despite the virtual times. Expanding the programming to more opportunities for people to hear experts and to connect — that's positive. On the other hand, people are tired of virtual meetings, and there's a fatigue factor. So, I worry about how much longer we're going to be virtual and can't get back together safely. It hinders us making more progress.

IM: In your address, you highlighted the importance of fostering innovation. Why is this top of mind?

AC: A university board that I participate on basically said it had taken them seven to eight years to get an eighth of their curriculum online. They accomplished the other seven-eighths in three weeks last spring when they went completely virtual. And that happened over and over again in terms of whole companies, including ours, going virtual in the space of a week, basically. And now we are all very accustomed to using technology to get our work done, to do breakout sessions, to do strategy sessions, focus groups. We can do all kinds of things virtually that just a year ago. So, I think that's really positive though, because the digitalization needed to happen.

IM: Looking back over the past few years, what were some key indicators of progress within Houston innovation that you have seen?

AC: Well, TMC3 is one of those things. There are so many great things happening in and around the medical center and the development. And frankly, the pandemic forced parties that hadn't worked that well together in the past to work really well and really fast together in terms of the development of the vaccines. The fact that we can now do that and prove that can happen is just going to continue to accelerate the sharing of knowledge and data.

The Ion too — Rice University stepping up and thinking through a really generous lens to make it so all the higher institutions of education to use it through the business community can be part of this. That was a landmark decision that will change our landscape in terms of enabling that whole Midtown corridor and all the other accelerators and incubators that are creating a density hub in that area. That's another foundational accomplishment that we'll look back in Houston and say we needed to create those hubs of density.

IM: Have you seen the pandemic’s effect slow this type of growth in any kind of real major way? Or are we still kind of on track to promote these hubs that are popping up?

AC: No, I think it's making them move faster. And it's not just because of the pandemic, but it's also because of all the other societal pressures around climate change, renewables, and clean energy. And, it's a business opportunity — it really is like a new frontier where people are rushing in, like Greentown Labs deciding to be here. They very smartly said, "well, where's the smartest place for us to be?" And it's at the hub where the energy companies and the huge R&D capacity, budgets, and the expertise already reside. I like to think this is like the next iteration of our frontier.

IM: Of course in Houston, the energy transition is a big focus. Is Houston were it needs to be to maintain its title of Energy Capital of the world?

AC: I think there are many great things going on, but if you talk to a typical person in New York and they think of Houston is old energy. There is certainly a perception campaign to be waged. And we as individual citizens all need to help. I think both the industry and everybody in the industry needs to do a better job of educating the world. We power the world.

IM: What must Houston do to continue to attract big tech companies?

AC: We are blessed that Texas is almost always in the consideration is kind of companies on both coasts look to move to more business-friendly and lower cost places to put either their operations and or their headquarters. And so we're lucky, Texas almost always gets a look. I think we do lose out more than our fair share to some of the other cities in Texas — especially the tech companies coming from San Jose, with the exception of HPE recently. I do think there are so many coming to central Texas right now that the ability to get lower cost housing and infrastructure needs at some point is going to be an issue. I think Houston needs to step up and state our case as often as possible.

IM: Why does Houston struggle to compete with other Texas cities for new corporate business?

AC: There's this perception issue that Houston is just not a great place or an attractive place to live. And that a lot of executives and their families don't see themselves living in Houston, but they have kind of an image around Austin and Dallas from TV or music festivals. We need to get those aerial images out that show us as a city with a lot of green space and a lot of fun capabilities for families and people that live here.

IM: How can the city continue to support startups?

AC: I think we need to continue on all cylinders — both internally and externally. So, externally, that's really continuing to reach out in welcoming venture capitalists here. Even though we've accelerated greatly over the last four years, in terms of venture capital coming into the city, there are still impressions around old energy.

I think we need to continue to press our story of advancing and how not only are we part of the solution, but we will be the center for clean energy too. I think we need to really continue aggressively selling our story to venture capitalists, especially on the coast. And then internally, you know, I sound like a broken drum, but we need to keep educating people around the opportunities with these accelerators and startups.

IM: What do you hope to leave behind at the end of your tenure?

AC: Well, I'm hoping by the end of my tenure that we are back meeting and networking together in person — working in an easier way with all of our constituencies in our city and county region. I hope I'm into my tenure that we will announce several more really exciting relocations to Houston.

Lastly, I try to weave D&I into all my goals, both inside Deloitte and this role too. It's my job to bring along future leaders. I've been talking to former chairs about making sure we get more D&I leaders onto our committees and participating in the partnership. So they also can grow and become hopefully the future chairs of in future years. So I would to leave that as a legacy as well.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

A team out of the engineering school at Rice University has created a technology for real-time wastewater monitoring. Photo via rice.edu

A team of researchers from Rice University have received a $2 million grant to develop a unique technology that speeds up the analysis of wastewater for viruses from hours to seconds.

The team is based out of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and led by Rafael Verduzco, associate chair and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering. The four-year grant from the National Science Foundation will support the development of the technology, which includes wastewater-testing bioelectric sensors that deliver immediate notice of presence of viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, according to a news release from Rice.

The research project — with its partners at the Houston Health Department — have already developed water testing procedures and have analyzed samples from locations around the city. The current process includes taking samples and transferring them to Rice for analysis, but the new technology would be able to monitor systems onsite and instantly. The parties involved with this work are also collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Center of Excellence for wastewater epidemiology that was announced in August.

“Monitoring wastewater for COVID has been pretty effective as a way to get an idea of where we are as a population,” says Verduzco in the release. “But the way it’s done is you have to sample it, you have to do a PCR test and there’s a delay. Our selling point was to get real-time, continuous monitoring to see just how much of this virus is in the wastewater.”

The grant's co-principal investigators include Jonathan Silberg, the Stewart Memorial Professor of BioSciences and director of the Systems, Synthetic and Physical Biology Ph.D. program, and Caroline Ajo-Franklin, a professor of biosciences. Co-investigators also include Lauren Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Kirstin Matthews, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“These are engineered microbes we’re putting into wastewater, and even though they’re encapsulated, we want to know if there are concerns from health authorities and the general population,” Verduzco said. “Kirstin’s role is to look at the policy side, and also gauge public reaction and educate people about what it means when we talk about engineered bacteria.”

Rafael Verduzco is leading the research and development. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

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