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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.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Building Houston

 
 

Greentown Labs announced its latest accelerator program — this one is focused on DEI in clean energy innovation. Photo via GreentownLabs.com

Greentown Labs has announced its latest accelerator program that will be co-located in both its Houston and Boston-area spaces.

In partnership with Browning the Green Space, Greentown Labs has officially launched the Advancing Climatetech and Clean Energy Leaders Program, or ACCEL, and is seeking applications from climatetech entrepreneurs who identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color.

The startups accepted into the year-long program will receive a curated curriculum, incubation at one of the Greentown locations, and mentorship from its large network of energy professionals. Each participant will also receive a non-dilutive $25,000 grant. Applications for ACCEL are open now and are due by Dec. 23

“We need all hands on deck to solve the climate crisis and foster a just energy transition,” says Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, in a news release. “We are proud to partner with Browning the Green Space on this important program, and are eager to support more underrepresented founders through ACCEL to help build a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable climatetech industry.”

BGS is a nonprofit that is focused on making clean energy other climate-related fields more diverse, equitable, and inclusive. The organization is headquartered in Boston.

“We are excited to work in partnership with Greentown Labs to build critical support infrastructure for entrepreneurs of color and accelerate the equitable development and distribution of climate solutions across all communities,” says Kerry Bowie, executive director and president of Browning the Green Space, in the release. “ACCEL will help us move closer to where we all should be collectively, and create the opportunity to change the face of clean energy as we know it.”

The new program is also supported the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a state economic development agency dedicated to accelerating the growth of the clean energy sector across the Commonwealth, and then Boston-based Barr Foundation, a foundation with a regional focus, working in partnership with partners to elevate the arts, advance solutions for climate change, and connect all students to success in high school and beyond, per the news please.

“The Barr Foundation’s climate program has made a commitment to centering racial equity in the energy transition,” says Kathryn Wright, senior program officer of Clean Energy at The Barr Foundation, in the release. “We are excited to support this crucial opportunity to provide education and mentorship for underrepresented climate entrepreneurs in our region. We look forward to seeing the impact of the ACCEL program in the coming years.”

The curriculum for ACCEL will be led by Hadley, Massachusetts-based VentureWell, a nonprofit that funds and trains innovators to create successful, socially beneficial businesses. Applicants may be based anywhere in the world, but will be expected to attend in-person elements of the program at either Greentown Boston or Greentown Houston.

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