Eavesdropping in downtown Houston

Overheard: Panel of experts sums up the Houston innovation ecosystem's real estate needs

Houston's innovation ecosystem development is highly interconnected to the city's real estate industry. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

As the city and multiple entities strive to develop an innovation hub and ecosystem, real estate plays a huge role. Developing the physical space is one of the first steps to attracting companies, talent, and money to the Bayou City.

At Bisnow's annual Houston State of the Market event, five panelists heavily involved in the process of developing Houston's innovation ecosystem weighed in on the real estate needs of innovation development in Houston. Check out these powerful quotes said during the panel.

“What we build in Houston has to be uniquely Houston. ... At the end of the day, for this innovation district and Houston’s innovation ecosystem to be successful, it has to build off of the economic strength that Houston already has."

— Ceci Arreola, investment manager of real estate at the Rice Management Company. Arreola describes a collaborative effort to make Houston somewhere attractive for tech and startup talent.

“Think of it as a neighborhood of knowledge. That’s what we’re trying to create, and that’s connecting intellectual assets, institutional assets, place assets — meaning the physical space in which people connect and relate.”

— Jonathan Brinsden, CEO of Midway Cos., describes the innovation district, which will stretch from midtown to downtown.

"The flexibility in hospitality — that sort of different version of work and play — is critically important to the entrepreneurs. They need the ability to be transient. … They want the furnished apartment, but they don’t want to live in a hotel. They want a bike lane, because they aren’t going to have a car."

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, says stressing the importance of a innovation center having restaurants and retail surrounding coworking spaces. "They want to continue the conversation they're having but with a beer in their hand."

“These companies take a lot from our designs and our way of nurturing them, but they want to give back and stay within the innovation campus. I think we need to be mindful of that. There’s a lot of cross pollination that happens when companies at different levels of each stage stay together.”

— Juliana Garaizar, director of the TMC Venture Fund, stresses the importance of designing real estate that can keep companies and startups of different sizes and stages together.

“When I lived in New York City, grocery shopping was the single biggest headache I had to deal with every week. One of the things I love about Houston is that this is no longer a problem for me.”

— Chris Turney, head of real estate for Sonder, says about ensuring development of city spaces keeps in mind day-to-day conveniences that make Houston more comfortable than other major cities.

Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion."

To focus on the Ion's Academic Partner Network, Jan E. Odegard has been appointed senior director of industry and academic partners. Odegard's background includes research and leadership at Rice University in computing. Odegard will also oversee The Ion's labs, which include human/robotics interaction lab, an immersive reality lab and an industrial prototyping lab.

Deanea LeFlore has been named senior director of community and corporate engagement. Like Rowe, LeFlore had a similar role at Station Houston before this new position. Before that, she spent most of her career working for the city of Houston and served under four Mayors over 17 years.

Lastly, Chris Valka, has been hired as senior director of operations, overseeing finance, accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management. Prior to this position, Valka served in the president's cabinet overseeing a similar spectrum of responsibilities at the University of St. Thomas.

"As we prepare for The Ion's opening in early 2021, we are excited to welcome Deanea LeFlore, Dr. Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka, to our growing team," says Rowe in the release. "I am excited to see what this diverse group of experts will bring to our efforts to build an inclusive innovation hub in a tech-forward environment that promotes all that is great about Houston."

The 270,000-square-foot Ion building broke ground in July of last year and is slated to open in 2021. Recently, the organization announced its first programming partner — Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, and select courses have already begun.