Class project

How tech boot camps can help solve the Houston innovation equation

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. Getty Images

It's been a little over a year since Houston lost out on the Amazon HQ2 bid and left the city pondering its approach to innovation. Houston is known for taking risks and bouncing back from adversity. We're known for growth and entrepreneurship. But are we still known for innovation? Are we positioned for growth as a creative class and digital skills city?

It's my belief that we need to invest in the professional skills of our local workforce and ensure we can attract companies that will help our city and Houstonians thrive. Amazon pointed us in the right direction. It highlighted our need of more professional upskilling programs and increased investment in the city's innovation infrastructure.

At Rice University, we listened, and launched fast-track, intensive tech training programs designed specifically for working adults to help solve these problems. We launched a pilot program in late 2018, a data analytics boot camp in partnership with a national workforce accelerator called Trilogy Education. It was met with such an enthusiastic response from students that we are expanding the initiative by adding programs in cybersecurity and other high demand fields later this year.

These tech boot camps are designed to augment Rice's other efforts to foster innovation in our community like a recent $100 million investment in a new innovation hub for all of Houston and an already ambitious innovation and technology ecosystem, highlighted by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. Combined, we hope these efforts will help Houston to secure its position as a magnet for technology employers and workers alike.

By many standards, Houston's tech industry is booming. Digital middle-skill jobs — the kinds that provide a stepping stone between lower-paid non-tech roles and high-earning careers in tech — represent 42 percent of overall job postings in Houston. And these jobs are on the rise. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Houston job postings requiring web development skills rose by 57 percent, earning the city 6th-place ranking among the top 10 U.S. cities for coding job growth.

With numbers like these, it's easy to grow complacent. But Houston is by no means immune to the widening digital skills gap that is holding back business growth nationwide. And unless we create programs to support upskilling and career mobility, even the people currently driving Houston's tech renaissance may struggle to keep their skills sets up to date.

These programs help us address Amazon's core area of critique: innovation. This is something Houston has historically been known for; in 1969 alone, we helped put the first astronaut on the moon and the first artificial heart in a patient. But like all important skills, innovation must be regularly nurtured, enhanced, and relearned.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. These employers are starting to look beyond traditional degrees for people who can simply prove they have the skills for the job. The relatively lower barrier to entry for a technology boot camp opens the door for candidates of all races, genders, and walks of life to bring their unique perspectives and insights to an industry sorely in need of more diversity.

As one of the country's most racially diverse metros, Houston reflects the nation's demographic future, and can make a unique contribution to the diversity of our workforce. We already rank among the top five best U.S. cities for women in tech (number four, to be exact). And if the demographics of Rice's earliest boot camp enrollees are any indication, a widespread rollout of these kinds of programs may be a part of Houston's ability to garner the number one spot in coming years. Among our boot camp students to date, 35 percent are white, 20 percent are Hispanic, 17 percent are African American, and 23 percent are Asian. Women made up 25 percent of our first class, a good start that we plan to improve.

Houston has the potential to become a nationwide leader in tech innovation. The problems we face in getting there are complicated, but like all equations, they can be solved with resilience and hard work.

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Robert Bruce is the dean of Rice University's Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

Syzygy Plasmonics, which is creating a cleaner energy source that runs on hydrogen, closed a $5.8 million round. Photo via plasmonics.tech

A Houston technology company is doing something that, for many decades, wasn't thought to be possible. Syzygy Plasmonics is creating a hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions.

The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander.

"There are rules in chemical engineering, and you can't break them, but we follow them in a different way," CEO Trevor Best tells InnovationMap. "What we're doing is fundamentally different. We're using light instead of heat to drive chemical reactions."

Syzygy's technology is structured more like a battery than that of a combustion engine. Inside the technology, there are cells, lights, and mirrors making as bright as possible, which then spurs a reaction that creates energy. It has the potential to be cheaper — it's made with cheaper materials — and, of course, cleaner than traditional fueling technology with fewer carbon emissions released.

This new photocatalytic chemical reactor has the potential to shake up the industrial gas, chemical, and energy industries — something that hasn't gone unnoticed by investors. Syzygy just closed a $5.8 million Series A round led by MIT's The Engine and Houston-based The GOOSE Society of Texas. Evok Innovations, a previous investor in the company, and angel investors from the Creative Destruction Lab also contributed to the round.

The funds will allow for Syzygy to continue to develop its technology and grow its team. Best tells InnovationMap that he expects to launch a full-size pilot by the end of 2020 and is already in talks with potential clients who are interested in the technology for industrial purposes.

"We're starting to solidify relationships and get customers ready," Best says.

Earlier this year, the company also received funding from the Department of Energy and from the National Science Foundation SBIR Program. The DOE tasked Syzygy with creating a reactor that transforms ammonia into hydrogen for fueling purposes. For the SBIR Program, the company is creating a reactor that processes carbon dioxide.