Q&A

Greentown Houston names local leader as climate tech enters 'perfect storm' for the energy transition

Juliana Garaizar is transitioning her role at Greentown Houston. Courtesy photo

When Greentown Labs opened its doors in Houston on Earth Day this year, Launch Director Juliana Garaizar had worked diligently with the Greentown team in Boston and Houston to make that day possible. Now, she's preparing for her next role within the organization.

Garaizar — who has worked in Houston over the past several years at organizations like the Houston Angel Network, TMC Innovation, Portfolia, and more — is transitioning into her new role as head of Greentown Houston and vice president of innovation for Greentown Labs.

Garaizar recently joined InnovationMap for a Q&A on her new role, how Greentown Houston has been since its launch a few months ago, and why now is the time for Houston to take the lead within the energy transition.


InnovationMap: What does the transition look like for you to go from launch director to head of the Houston incubator?

Juliana Garaizar: I think that the transition sends a signal — it means that we have successively launched Greentown Houston. We've got the founding partners and grand opening partners we needed, we hit the fundraising milestone that we had in place, and now it's time to deliver and to make sure we have the team and the resources in place to be able to deliver on our promises. That's why I'm transitioning my role to the head of Houston incubator and that will mean a leadership role for the Houston team.

IM: You’re also assuming a general role for Greentown Labs as vice president of innovation — what does this part of your job entail?

JG: The most important part is being able to be part of the executive team. I think it's very important for the executive team to have a Houston representative so that Houston can have a voice. The launch period, we've been a little bit of a side project, and now we are trying to get into full speed and try to figure out how we ramp up all of the initiatives that are taking place in Boston and make them happen, making them happen in Houston.

We've learned a lot about this expansion and how to make an expansion happen. This was our first ever expansion. So, one of my roles now is to make sure that all the key learnings that we've had during this year and a half — almost two years — make like sort of a book on how to make a new Greentown happen if there's another opportunity for an expansion but also to figure out what the initiatives are there that can add value to our locations.

It's also about making sure that we have a more strategic view on the differences between ecosystems. I think there's more room for growth in Houston. Houston is a little younger of an ecosystem than Boston is. So I think we need to do more in terms of investment activation. And also workforce development in Houston — we have a pretty big workforce that is trying to transition from oil and gas to cleaner ventures. And I really believe that Greentown Houston as a role to play. That's something that might not be that obvious in Boston, because we don't have all this workforce trying to transition.

IM: You have a really thorough background in investment — is this something you’re focusing on with Greentown too?

JG: Yeah, definitely. Greentown doesn't take any equity, but we are very aware that investments and capital access to capital is one of the biggest requirements that our members have. And, uh, we have our own investor program that we launched in Boston, and we're going to continue to apply it to Houston now that we're open.

The access to capital in Houston is not as developed as the access to capital in Boston. So there's several things. First of all, I think quite a lot of partners and investors in the Boston ecosystem are very interested in Houston. So, we're making sure that our Houston members have access to those new investors, and that they are aware of the Houston deal flow. And in some cases also, that means that some of the Houston investors that are knowledgeable in investing in oil and gas and energy can get educated on investing in climate tech. That's something that we've taken on as an extra project for Houston. We actually dedicated one specific Rice fellow for that, and what we've been doing so far for the past year is training events that we did in collaboration with our law firm, Vinson and Elkins and also with some of our Boston partners like Clean Energy Ventures. And out of those trainings that were remote, a lot of opportunities came out — not only in terms of deal flow and connections with our entrepreneurs, but also opportunities to engage syndicates between Boston and Houston investors.

IM: I got to attend the launch of Greentown Houston a few months ago. How has it been since launch and what’s the reception been like?

JG: It's been much bigger and better than we expected. I mean, the reception has been overwhelming. Every day, we have people just popping in unannounced because they want to see Greentown. And I think that's the way it should be. People are excited, they see the new building — they've seen it on TV — and they're curious to see how things are going.

We've been very surprised by how many of our early access members — we had the 30 that we announced — and out of those 30, I think we already have around 23 that have moved in. We onboard five new people every week, so the community is really growing. We're also surprised that there's quite a lot of interest in corporate desks — those are partners and investors who want to mingle with our community.

We've had members who were based out of Boston that decided to move to Houston permanently, and we've had entrepreneurs who were in Memphis who decided to move to Houston too. So, we're already attracting quite a lot of climate tech entrepreneurs from all over the U.S., and I would say all over the world, because we also have international, um, members who want to also be part of Greentown Houston.

IM: Why is now the time for Houston to lead the energy transition?

JG: I think we already knew that the time it was was now. I think that if Greentown had happened one year before or even one year later, it wouldn't be the right time. I really believe that our main partners are transitioning themselves — Shell, Chevron, and many others are announcing how they are transitioning. And now they look at Greentown as an execution partner more than anything. Before, it was a nice initiative for them to get involved in. Now, they are really thinking about us much more strategically.

We really believe that the energy transition can happen in Houston because we're there to be a convener. I think we have all the elements to make the energy transition happen in Houston. We have the capital, we have the assets, we have the talent, we have the corporate partners, we have the universities, we have the SDOs in place — but everything has been pretty siloed. And I think having a building and a physical space where all of these people can collide and talk about what's next. And even the partners can talk about open innovation without feeling like they have to compete so that we can rise the tide to all boats is pretty important.

So I think we are at this perfect storm, no pun intended, where finally all of these elements that were somehow siloed are happening, and we're having also the right and policy framework with the Biden Administration pushing for all these new initiatives and also highlighting our work. I think those things make the energy transition in Houston more than possible.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

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