tables have turned

New program at Rice University to educate corporate leaders on innovation

A new program within Rice University's Executive Education school will foster education for corporate innovation. Photo courtesy of Rice

As important as it is to foster innovation among startups, there's another side of the equation that needs to be addressed, and a new program at Rice University plans to do exactly that.

Executive Education at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, which creates peer-based learning and professional programs for business leaders, has created a new program called Corporate Innovation. The program came about as Executive Education, which has existed since the '70s, has evolved over the past few years to create courses and programs that equip business leaders with key management tools in a holistic way.

"We realized we need to open the innovation box," says Zoran Perunovic, director of Executive Education and is also a member of the Innovation Corridor committee and a mentor at TMCx.

The program, which is open for registration and will take place September 28-30, will flip the script on how innovation is normally discussed and observed and instead take a holistic approach to innovation in a corporate setting.

"In the innovation space, you have two lines — one is the entrepreneurial and the other is happening in large, established organizations," Perunovic tells InnovationMap. "The mechanisms of innovation within in those companies are different than the entrepreneurial."

The course's professor is Jing Zhou, Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology – Organizational Behavior, and she says that when people think "innovation" they think of startups or technology. However, when it comes to innovation at the corporate level, it's so much more than that.

"In the past, we think about corporate innovation, we think about technological advancements. Because we have so many world-class organizations in Houston, we feel like we are doing a good job," Zhou says.

"Innovation definitely includes technology, but it also involves new business models, new way of meeting customers, new work processes — everything we do in a large corporation, there's always a better way of doing it. That's our definition of our corporate innovation."

Zoran Perunovic (left) anf Jing Zhou created the Corporate Innovation program housed in Rice's Executive Education department. Photos courtesy of Rice

Zhou and Perunovic designed the program to target business professionals from all areas of the corporate world.

"People, managers, professionals, executives in all functional areas of business can benefit from this program," Zhou says. "We don't teach to just one function area. We teach the fundamental principles of how to drive innovation and broaden the cognitive space."

Perunovic concurs with his colleague and adds that, "everyone is relevant — that's the future of innovation." Another aspect of the program that's forward thinking is the idea of cross-industry innovation collaboration.

"In all our programs, especially this one, we are not encouraging members from one type of industry to join. We want diversity of industry," Perunovic says.

The program has an advisory board comprised of business leaders in Houston. The program's board is made up of:

  • Tanya Acevedo, chief technology officer of Houston Airport System
  • Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures
  • Gareth Burton, vice president of technology at American Bureau of Shipping
  • David Hatrick, vice president of innovation at Huntsman Advanced Materials
  • Roberta L. Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer at Houston Methodist

Industry, position, and company notwithstanding, the program has value across the board in Houston, now more than ever.

"Innovation is no longer optional for large organizations," Zhou says. "It's required in whatever you do, and whatever space you're competing in."

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Building Houston

 
 

Cloudbreak Enterprises is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo via Getty Images

Lauren Bahorich is in the business of supporting businesses. In February 2020, she launched Cloudbreak Enterprises — B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage venture studio — with plans to onboard, invest in, and support around three new scalable companies a year. And, despite launching right ahead of a global pandemic, that's exactly what she did.

Bahorich, who previously worked at Golden Section Ventures, wanted to branch off on her own to create a venture studio to get in on the ground level of startups — to be a co-founder to entrepreneurs and provide a slew of in-house resources and support from development and sales to marketing and administration.

"We start at zero with just an idea, and we partner with out co-founders to build the idea they have and the domain expertise and the industry connections to take that idea and built a product and a company," Bahorich says.

Bahorich adds that there aren't a lot of venture studios in the United States — especially in Houston. While people might be more familiar with the incubator or accelerator-style of support for startups, the venture studio set up is much more intimate.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

Cloudbreak now has three portfolio companies, and is looking to onboard another three more throughout the rest of the year. Bahorich runs a team of 15 professionals, all focused on supporting the portfolio. While creating the studio amid the chaos of 2020 wasn't the plan, there were some silver linings including being able to start with part-time developers and transition them to full-time employees as the companies grew.

"Within the first month, we were in shutdown here in Houston," Bahorich says. "But it's been a great opportunity for us. Where a lot of companies were pivoting and reassessing, we were actually able to grow because we were just starting at zero ourselves."

Cloudbreak's inaugural companies are in various stages and industries, but the first company to be onboarded a year ago — Relay Construction Solutions, a bid leveling software for the construction industry — joined the venture studio as just an idea and is already close to first revenue and potentially new investors. Cloudgate is also creating a commercial real estate data management software and an offshore logistics platform. All three fall into a SaaS sweet spot that Bahorich hopes to continue to grow.

"We are looking to replace legacy workflows that are still performed in Excel or by email or phone," Bahorich says. "It's amazing how many opportunities there are that fit into that bucket — these high-dollar, error-prone workflows that are still done like it's 1985."

Given the hands-on support, Bahorich assumed she'd attract mostly first-time entrepreneurs who don't have experience with all the steps needed to launch the business. However, she says she's gotten interest from serial entrepreneurs who recognized how valuable the in-house support can be for expediting the early-stage startup process.

"What I'm realizing is a selling point is our in-house expertise. These founders are looking for technical co-founders," Bahorich says. "We can both provide that role and be capital partners."

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