Smart Cities

Exclusive: New Houston accelerator reveals its inaugural cohort and announces strategic partner

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator — named for its to-be home, The Ion — announced the 10 companies selected for the first cohort. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator launched earlier this year with a goal of engaging startups from around the world to solve some of Houston's most prevalent challenges. Backed by Intel and Microsoft and partnered with the city of Houston and Station Houston, the program has developed a curriculum and selected its first cohort.

Ten startups from around the world — half of which from right here in Houston — were selected to be a part of the program. And narrowing down to 10 was tough for the program's judges, says Christine Galib, director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator.

"Selecting the participants for our first cohort was difficult, due to this amazing pool of talent — that's always the problem you want to have," she tells InnovationMap.

The program will be a 10-month process, beginning Wednesday, September 4. The accelerator's Demo Day is scheduled for December 4, and then the participants will complete a pilot program with the city from January to June, Galib says.

Based on the issues the cohort aims to solve — resilience and mobility — the program and the city of Houston decided on Near Northside as a focus for the companies.

"We focused on aligning to the needs of the city of Houston and our spotlight community, Near Northside," Galib says. "We really considered the focus areas that we have identified that were needs or challenges in the area, like aging infrastructure or health and safety."

The entrepreneurs will attend local meetings, connect with the community, and zero in on the neighborhood for solutions. This provides a more accessible avenue of integration for each of the companies' technologies and allows for the entrepreneurs to receive feedback in real time from the community.

"One of my biggest things with the accelerator is technology will be for the people, and not the other way around. We're really hoping that we can build relationships with community members in Near Northside such that they'll be able to have access to our startups and their technology in a very integrated way."

Along with this new neighborhood focus, the program also announced a partnership with the University of Houston.

"We're collaborating with the UH Technology Bridge such that professors, researchers, and startups associated with UH can have a pipeline from the world of academia and research to industry and urban planning," says Galib.

Here are 10 selected startups for the inaugural cohort.

Aatonomy

Houston-based Aatonomy has developed a device that allows for Houston drivers to instal self-driving technology in their own vehicles.

"They're basically Tesla's autopilot — but for cars we already own," Galib says.

The technology makes for safer, smarter driving around town.

AeoShape

Another homegrown company, AeoShape is in the business of compiling data and making it easier to use — from facial analysis to location-based services, the company is taking data and organizing it to more easily use it for finding solutions or strategies.

"Imagine having all the big data served up anywhere at any time in a comprehensive, visual way," Galib says.

BlocPower

Based in New York, BlocPower is connecting the dots in the consumer energy world. The startup links up with government entities, utilities contractors and more to engage IoT, machine learning, and structured finance technology to better provide clean energy in American cities.

"This is pairing the different segments in the building and infrastructure world in a way that makes sense so that they can build in an integrated way," Galib says.

GoKid

Another New York company, GoKid has a solution for carpooling. In a world so conveniently filled with ridesharing technology, busy parents still struggle to find safe rides home for their kids. The free app allows for parents to connect with one another in a way never before been optimized for school pick-up and drop-off.

"We see GoKid really working with our schools here to make ridesharing safer," Galib says. "We really like them because they were a solution for the ridesharing challenge — a lot of parents who might need carpooling services don't necessarily trust an Uber driving that they don't know."

Kriterion

Artificial intelligence company Kriterion is based in South Africa, but will soon call Houston home. The company takes AI a step further in its industry and infrastructure approach.

"We see their platform shaping three areas of Houston: waste management, power system management, and pothole detection and maintenance management," says Galib.

Sensytec

Sensytec comes out of the University of Houston and uses is technology to monitor, analyze, and quantify cement and concrete conditions.

"We thought this was pretty cool to have in our cohort because Houston is quite the concrete jungle," says Galib.

The company was also recently named a top startup in MassChallenge Texas' inaugural Houston cohort.

SlideX

Houston-based SlideX has solutions for everyone's daily struggle: Parking. The company's technology has applications for finding parking in the city — including a 3D map to help direct you — and even for paying for parking.

"They call themselves 'the next generation of intelligent parking,'" Galib says.

Umanity

San Francisco-based Umanity has created a philanthropic supply chain tool. The technology can match and map local nonprofit needs to volunteers and donations, plus provide real-time analytics.

"This is kind of the epitome of doing good and adds a very strong social enterprise and community base component to our startups," says Galib.

Wyzerr

Kentucky startup Wyzerr specializes in easy-to-use surveys.

"We think Wyzerr can provide a good feedback platform where the city of Houston, businesses, and nonprofits can easily engage with people all over the city to find out how satisfied they are with the businesses and services the city provides," Galib says.

The company's technology can be crucial for tracking KPIs and progress.

"When you're creating a Smart City, there are obviously objectives you set for what you consider to be a Smart City, but also there are ways to measure how well you're meeting those objectives," she adds.

Reality IMT

Houston-based Reality IMT is engaging the latest technology tools to digitize infrastructure.

"This really speaks to understanding our infrastructure and ways to make it safer and more efficient, and also understanding the data associated with that," says Galib.

The local community has raised some concerns about Rice Management Company's Ion project's effect on the Third Ward. Courtesy of Rice University

The city of Houston has been buzzing about Rice Management Company's Ion Innovation Hub — a 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub project expected to deliver in 2021 — but there's one group isn't so thrilled with the plans: The Third Ward community.

In a public community meeting on November 12, community members gathered at the Wesley AME Church to plan a Community Benefits Agreement that would legally bind The Innovation District's development team and the Rice Management Company to move forward with the local residents' indicated best interests. According to the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed group to work on the CBA, it would be the first of its kind in Houston.

The coalition is supported by Third Ward is Home Civic Club, the Emancipation Economic Development Council, the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats - Harris County, and the Houston Society for Change.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, presented the project's plans to the crowd, recognizing that innovation ecosystems across the country have issues with diversity.

"When you look around the tech ecosystems in the United States today, there are a couple things that stand out," Rowe says. "First and foremost is that they are extremely white and extremely male."

But since Houston is still developing its innovation infrastructure, Rowe says, the city has more opportunities to take the lessons learned from these other ecosystems and be more proactive about including diverse efforts.

One of the things The Ion is planning to incorporate to engage the community is a free coworking space — the only free coworking space in Houston, Rowe says. The Ion plans also include two public parks and community events, and both will be free and open to the public.

The Ion promises to bring free coworking, park space, and events to the area. Courtesy of Rice University

After the presentation, the estimated 150 community members in the crowd had the opportunity to address Rowe. While one local resident expressed concern with the non-inclusive verbiage The Ion is using — describing the area as "Midtown" over the pre-gentrification descriptor of Third Ward — other concerns surrounded the lack of diversity of the decision makers on the project.

"For me, that's where we need to start, which is in diversity," says Rowe, who mentions she has diversity among her programming team. "I look to all of you to come to get included in our team as we're growing."

Another concern that was raised was the job opportunities on the construction site itself. While Rowe didn't mention any specific job opportunities in construction, she did say she had been asked by the Rice Management Company to tap local artists to design the fences surrounding the site.

The meeting pivoted toward a discussion about the CBA and the importance the agreement would have moving forward. Assata Richards, founder of Sankofa Research Institute and local activist, and Mary Claire Neal, a Rice University student and leader of the Students for a Just and Equitable Innovation Corridor, and Carl Davis, chair of the Houston Society for Change and a representative of the church, have teamed up to move forward with the agreement.

Texas Appleseed, a group of volunteer lawyers, has agreed to help create and enforce the agreement, and Jeffrey Lowe, associate professor in the department of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has also advised the organizations.

"We've been told what's going to happen, but there's no binding agreement to make sure that it's going to happen," Richards says. "Those are just nice wishlists."

Moreover, the initiatives that have been suggested, enforceable or not, aren't enough, Richards adds, again stressing the importance of the CBA.

"We're going to be smarter this time. We're going to work with the people who have the power and make the decisions," Richards says. "You're doing all this development and come and tell me that you want art outside the building? We're talking millions of dollars of construction."

While the terms of the CBA are still in the works, some of the requests mentioned in the meeting include jobs, preservation of communities of color, affordable housing initiatives, access to affordable groceries, and opportunities for minority and African American-owned businesses.

The Ion Innovation Hub Proposed Site Plan The Ion Innovation Hub Proposed Site Plan was included in notes pre-released ahead of the Houston Planning Commission's November 14 meeting. Photo via HPC

Neal proceeded with a presentation of actionable ways students and community members can get involved and make their voices heard. Her presentation included new concerns following the release of the master plan of The Innovation District, which the Houston Chronicle released earlier this week. The plans included a parking area that will be the next construction project following The Ion. The variance request is headed to the planning commission on Thursday.

"That's a two-day turnaround and it's the first opportunity for us to do something," Neal says. The group is intending to at least acquire a delay in the variance request moving forward.

The meeting wrapped up with a call to action for local residents as well as students. Since The Ion will include local academic institutions, student and alumni input is crucial.

"We want you to hold up and pause and think carefully on how this development is going to benefit and affect the community," Richards says.