Eavesdropping in Houston

Overheard: Prominent business leaders weigh in on innovation in the energy and health industries

Ahead of entering the Houston market later this year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play hosted three days of programming surrounding innovation in energy and health care. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Plug and Play, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm and accelerator program, plans to launch its operations in Houston later this year. And, in showing its commitment to the Bayou City, the organization hosted three days worth of panels, talks, and pitches at the Texas Medical Center's TMC Innovation Institute earlier this month.

Houston Innovation Week was Plug and Play's formal introduction to Houston startups and the local corporations that have the potential to support them. The programming focused on health and energy and sustainability, and the summit concluded with TMCx's Demo Day.

If you missed the event, we've hit the highlights for you by rounding up nine powerful quotes overheard throughout the week.

“Nowadays, I feel every industry is going to go through an incredible digital transformation. Even the oil and gas industry, which is very capital heavy, there’s going to be a layer of fast-moving technologies which would help the industry be more efficient. This is the crossroads where Plug and Play was born — bridging the gap between the entrepreneurs and the technologies. That changes an industry.”

— Saeed Amidi, CEO and founder of Plug and Play, says. He also shares the story of how Plug and Play got its start from a few lucky early investments to making over 150 investments a year.

“Now we have about 30 offices, and then quite frankly I realized I had forgotten about America.”

— Amidi says, announcing that Plug and Play will open five new offices across the United States in the next six months to a year.

“We’re not walking in terms of building this integrated robust innovation ecosystem, we’re sprinting in that direction.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner says, adding that, "If there is any city that ought to be leading the way when it comes to startups, technology, and innovation, it ought to be the city of Houston."

“You have to get people to invest more. It doesn’t happen on its own. People have to see that if we invest, we’re going to get a return.”

— Mayor Turner says, calling the crowd to action. "You can't just talk about what others have done and what we have accomplished. You have to take that now, build the platform, and move into where we are going."

“One of the things you look at is it’s not the technology itself that’s going to make you win or lose, it’s what you do with it.”

— Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, responding to a question about what technologies she has her eyes on. Burger continued on to say that, while she couldn't highlight any technologies in particular — it's like picking a favorite child, she's always evaluating how a new technology would help with the affordability, reliability, and lower environmental impact. "That's the game," she says.

"Management is amazing at suppressing innovation. … We can move toward just trying not to suppress it. If someone has an idea, they are safe to go through the process and raise their hand."

— Bradley Andrews, president of digital at Worley. "I think it's a change in attitude," he says about how management can evolve to advance ideas within energy companies.

“It’s easy to say that we’ll do the thing that gives us the most competitive advantage — and it’s really hard to figure out what that means and how you do that. In general, if we see something that’s out there and implemented that someone else has done, I don’t need to create an internal capability like that. I just need to go access that.”

— Doug Kushnerick, senior technology scouting and venture adviser at ExxonMobil. For Kushnerick, technology solutions that fix specific problems are easy to go after, but things that affect big picture and strategic assets are harder to figure out if they are worth implementing.

“One of our big asks from our partners from an internal perspective is really to have a champion — whether its an innovation manager or someone who really advocates these startups internally. Someone who will find the clinician and the business unit and tap the legal team.”

— Neda Amidi, global head of health and partner at Plug and Play Tech Center, responding to a question about opening up the channels of communications between startups and large companies. She adds that it's a requirement for these people to visit a Plug and Play location four to six times a year.

“What I see from a culture perspective is that it really starts with the leadership in the institution. If the people at the top in the C-suite of the institution are focused on understanding why their organization isn’t performing as well as they expect it to be and are willing to look to the outside, that’s how it starts in my mind.”

— Thomas Luby, director TMC Innovation Institute, responding to a question from the audience about large organizations that tend to be slower adaptors to new technologies.

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.