Calling for cash

Houston nonprofit makerspace seeking donations as it prepares to move into its new home

TXRX's new East End Space will allow them to provide prototyping and manufacturing services to more innovators. Courtesy of TXRX

With grants and public funds secured, Houston-based TXRX Labs as one last round of fundraising to acquire before it's ready to head full-speed ahead into its new location.

TXRX launched a $85,000 fundraising campaign to help get the organization where it needs to be before it moves into its 60,000-square-foot space in the East End Maker Hub in spring or summer of next year. The organization, along with its sister nonprofit, Urban Partnership Community Development Corp., has been selected by the city of Houston for an $18 million award and by the federal government for a $5 million innovation grant.

"In the last two weeks, we were getting close to finalizing funding for the building and came up short," says Lauren Caldarera, development director at TXRX. "We wanted to reach out to our membership at TXRX and the broader Houston community to help see if people will help support this unique offering for Houston."

In order to receive those grants, TXRX needs to submit design materials — a process that they budget to cost $325,000. (TXRX has already procured $240,000.) An anonymous donor agreed to match donations, and the organization has until the end of May to raise. Anyone can donate online.

TXRX is focused on bringing back Houston's East End as a manufacturing hub. As manufacturing jobs left the second, third, and fifth wards, it's created a need for skilled labor, middle class jobs, says Roland von Kurnatowski, executive director of TXRX.

"We're looking to bring together innovative companies in the physical innovation space into the East End and creating these middle class jobs," says von Kurnatowski. "It's a modern approach to combating economic inequalities instead of providing handouts."

TXRX is already making a dent in their mission with their smaller space. The organization has over 400 members and incubates 20 or so companies. The new space will allow TXRX to incubate almost twice that amount, work with 75 companies who need prototyping and manufacturing services, and grow their classes and educational offerings.

"Having this space is critical as Houston moves forward in creating an innovation ecosystem," Caldarera says. "We need a space for people to develop their physical prototypes, have engineers and other experts to coach and mentor them, and create more startups and innovators here."

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.


The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University


The Sears opened in 1939. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.