Featured Innovator

Comicpalooza expects another record year, says Houston First Corp. executive

Michael Heckman shares about some exciting new aspects of Houston's 11th annual Comicpalooza. Courtesy of Houston First

Eleven years ago, Comicpalooza was a small event held out in Katy. Over the past few years, with the help of Houston First Corp., the three-day conference has grown to be so big, the 2019 programming will spill out of George R. Brown Convention Center and into Discovery Green, and attract over 50,000 attendees.

"These comic conventions used to just be for the hardcore pop culture fans. What we've attempted to do is make it so there's something for everyone," says Michael Heckman, Comicpalooza president and senior vice president at Houston First. "As a casual pop culture fan, there's a lot to see and do."

The festivities take place Friday, May 10, to Sunday, May 12, and include some big name events. Two Game of Thrones stars — Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) and Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei) — will be on a panel, and ESPN will host its first collegiate esports competition.

Heckman tells InnovationMap more about these big events and how Comicpalooza has transformed over the years.

InnovationMap: How the event has grown over the past decade? 

Michael Heckman: We've really worked hard to increase the impact of the event. There's a lot of out of town visitors that do come in — it has north of a $20 million economic impact every year. When you look at an event that is held during a traditionally slow period of time, it's a really big deal for the hotels and restaurants. The other part about it is when you're able to bring big stars to Houston, they're tweeting about it and posting Instagram stories about it. It does a lot to shine a spotlight on Houston's reputation and image.

IM: What are you most excited about for this year?

MH: It's a big sprawling event that takes place across all 1.2 million square feet of GRBCC. I'm excited about a few things. First, we've got the two folks from Game of Thrones. To be able to get Emilia Clarke in the middle of the final season of Game of Thrones, with only two episodes to go — the hype has been unbelievable. To be able to have a pop culture phenomenon like that come here to Houston — and it will be her first fan event. She's done the San Diego Comic Con, but that was more of a media event.

We've also got the ESPN Collegiate Esports Championship held here. We've done esports and gaming over the past few years, but it's a growth area for the event. To be able to hold that event with dozens of championships from around the country for this inaugural event is very exciting.

What a lot of people don't know is there are so many interesting aspects to Comicpalooza — from literature tracks to a film festival to a makerspace. There are hundreds of exhibitors on the expo showfloor, but there's an area carved out for makers. We have NASA, a cultural arts avenue, there's something for everyone. We're really looking forward to a blockbuster year.

IM: What did it mean for Houston to get ESPN’s collegiate esports program? 

MH: Esports is rapidly growing. That marketplace is developing very quickly. A lot of people and a lot of cities are figuring out what that means. We've understood the value of it for Comicpalooza for a number of years. ESPN is making a big investment — it's their first ever event of this nature, but it won't be their last.

IM: How did it come about?

MH: We've been talking to a number of folks across the landscape about how to best utilize the space that we have at GRBCC and find an opportunity that was a good fit for us. A couple people we were talking to out on the West Coast who connected us to the ESPN people, who happen to be the same division of ESPN that partners with the Houston Texans on a couple things. There's some synergies there, and they're familiar with Houston.

IM: How would you describe Comicpalooza's economic impact on Houston?

MH: Around 20 to 30 percent for the audience of Comicpalooza comes from outside of Houston. Last year, we had attendees from 47 states and 17 countries. It gives great exposure to the city, and the money they leave behind is valuable from an economic impact perspective. We think our numbers will be somewhat similar to last year.

If you look at the long term vision of what this could be, we have a beautiful campus for this event. We've moved some of our programming outside GRBCC onto the Avenida Plaza that connects to Discovery Green. If we have a full campus-wide event, that's something that's highly attractive. You grow that attendance, get up to 70 or 80 thousand people — that's a mega event. It's a snowball — once you get it started and then it just takes off. We're not there yet, but we've had really smart growth.

IM: How is the city as a whole preparing for the event?

MH: Houston's really good about handling events. It takes everything from the fire department to the police department and traffic control and 700 event volunteers — over 2,000 shifts. It's such a big footprint — it's kind of all hands on deck. It also looks like we'll have Astros at home and the Rockets playing game six of the playoffs at home. This major super block in downtown will be absolutely electric this weekend.

IM: What other events are you looking to bring to Houston?

MH: We'll always be chasing our conventions we have here. Our convention sales team looks to break another record this year. We have a lot of major events upcoming — from the college football playoff to the men's basketball Final Four, and we'll eventually pursue another Super Bowl. As we look to develop our portfolio of events that we manage here, there's a lot of opportunities here for events centered around innovation. There's a lot of talk around how Houston needs to have a better reputation for innovation. We've got aerospace, medical, oil and gas — what's an event we can create or partner on that could highlight Houston's innovation.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

The funds will go toward bringing a new, pre-accelerator program to Houston. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

Houston has yet again attracted a nationally recognized accelerator program to downtown. Wisconsin-based genera8tor has announced its plans to launch its pre-accelerator program, gBETA, in Houston in spring of next year thanks to a $1.25 million grant approved by the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

"With gener8tor joining nonprofit global accelerator MassChallenge in Downtown, the Houston innovation ecosystem will be home to two nationally ranked accelerators," says Bob Eury, president of Central Houston and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, in a news release. "This agreement furthers Central Houston's long-term goal to create a collaborative Innovation District within Downtown and helps bridge the gap between small local startups and the city's growing innovation economy."

The grant will not exceed $1.25 million and will be paid out over the next five years. Gener8tor will have two gBETA cohorts a year, and the seven-week program will have a max of five teams across industries. The program will be equity-free and at no cost to participants accepted into the program. The program will also host six lunch-and-learn events that will be free and open to the Houston innovation ecosystem.

"The city of Houston's leadership is supporting its community members to be the economic drivers of tomorrow," says Abby Taubner, partner at gener8tor and managing director of gBETA, in the release. "We are humbled and excited to be part of the palpable excitement surrounding the local startup ecosystem, and cannot wait to roll up our sleeves and get to work."

According to gener8tor, a third of gBETA graduates will advance to a later stage equity-based accelerator program or raise a seed round of at least $50,000, and gBETA graduates from across the organization's eight states have collectively raised $57.7 million and created 716 jobs.

This announcement comes on the heels of MasChallenge Texas launching its Houston program earlier this year, as well as Silicon Valley's Plug and Play Technology Center entering the Houston market as well this year. Houston's downtown landscape has become a major hotbed for tech and innovation, with UiPath opening a major Houston office and coworking space popping up across downtown.

"Innovation is the next economic frontier for Houston, and gener8tor's gBETA program will help bridge the gap between the city's legacy industries—energy, medicine, space exploration and the port—and our growing innovation ecosystem of startup accelerators, investors and entrepreneurs," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "gBETA is the latest leap into that future, following in the exciting footsteps of The Ion innovation hub; the relocation or expansion of Silicon Valley firms to Houston such as Bill.com, UiPath and Google Cloud; the plans for the Texas Medical Center's TMC3 translational research commercialization campus; and so much more."