ion smart cities

Startups take home cash prizes at inaugural Houston accelerator demo day

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator program's inaugural cohort is moving into its next phase, and some participating startups earned some cash along the way. Courtesy of Station Houston

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator wrapped up the first phase of its inaugural program with a demo day this week as the startups move onto the pilot phase.

Over the past three months, the 10 selected startups have been working with mentors and the Station Houston resources to hone their companies within the program's new dedicated space, which includes a prototyping lab. At the demo day, which represents the conclusion of the first part of the Intel- and Microsoft-backed program, the startups presented their companies, what they've accomplished, and where they are headed.

Two companies received $5,000 checks from sponsors. GoKid, a carpooling optimization tool, received a prize from Brex, a credit card for startups. The other big winner was Aatonomy, a self-driving communities technology, which was awarded by Gulf States Toyota.

Ion Accelerator Demo Day F. Carter Smith

The second leg of the journey begins in January with pilot programs for the next six months. According to Christine Galib, director of Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, the companies have 15 pilots in the Houston area that hope to positively affect the lives of Houstonians.

"Our startups' technology focuses on connecting people. And this is what makes Houston truly the smartest city in America," says Galib. "To truly be the smartest city in America, we must continue to focus on how we connect people, and why we connect people, as well as to provide the processes and partnerships for these connections — not only to occur by chance, but also to be sustainable."

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, echoed the importance people had on the smart cities equation.

"The great success that this accelerator has experienced over the last three months has really been because of people," she says.

Among those people who received a special shoutout from Rowe were the program's inaugural set of mentors. Several of these mentors introduced each of the startups as they presented.

"All of you opened your calendars, your time, and your wisdom to help these startups, but also to help our city," Rowe says to the crowd, which included the program mentors. "And to express a universal desire to make Houston the best possible city it can be, accessible to all Houstonians in every way as we grow to be that innovation economy and city of the future."

Gabriella Rowe has transitioned from CEO of Station Houston into her role as Executive Director of The Ion following Station's merger with Austin-based Capital Factory. Courtesy of Station Houston

Among the top news for Houston's innovation ecosystem for the year so far has been the announcement that Austin-based Capital Factory has merged with Station Houston.

The merger is officially completed, and how the combined startup development organization will interact with Houston's entrepreneurs is clear for Gabriella Rowe: It's about bringing Station Houston's mission back to why it was founded in the first place.

Rowe joined this week's edition of the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the merger, as well as her position as executive director of The Ion, a 270,000-square-foot innovation hub being developed by Rice Management Company. Station was tapped to be the program partner for The Ion, but it's come a long way since its founding by John Reale, Grace Rodriguez, and Emily Keeton in 2016.

"Station was started originally to give entrepreneurs to give that place — that landing pad and cohort of colleagues. Over time as it grew and moved to 1301 Fannin St., it continued to do that," Rowe says on the podcast, explaining that the passion of the founders grew Station way beyond that. "That culminated in a lot of ways with Station being selected as the programming partner of The Ion."

Through this growth and transition, Rowe describes two different versions of Station Houston emerging. One was focused on longer term initiatives to bring programming that drives talent and attracts capital. But startups and entrepreneurs need funding help and business development mentorship now — not in a longer term way.

"That kind of attention is exactly what Capital Factory is all about," Rowe says. "[The merger is] about making sure that Station goes back to its roots to focus on the entrepreneurs."

Now that she is focused full time on The Ion, Rowe is ideating how to make the facility a vehicle for innovation development, but also create a diverse and inclusive environment reflective of Houston's own diversity.

"We're creating an opportunity for Houstonians," Rowe says on the episode, explaining why she's focused on bringing in a wide range of programming and education into The Ion.

In the episode, Rowe also discusses the Ion Smart Cities Accelerators, which has 10 companies from its inaugural cohort in pilot mode across Houston and has launched applications for its second cohort, as well as why she thinks Houston's innovation ecosystem is sure to succeed this time around.

Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.