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.

Wyzerr, a member of Station Houston's Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, has a way to better collect information from citizens. Photo courtesy of Wyzerr

In a 2019 report card handed out by Cincinnati-based startup Wyzerr, Houston didn't do too well — It got a C, a 2.5 out of 4. Houston is passing, but just barely.

Wyzerr didn't give the city a bad rating; Houstonians did. In July, Wyzerr sent two researchers downtown to hang out near public places — bus stops, street corners, etc. Overall, respondents said they are satisfied with dining options, shopping, and the airports but were really struggling to embrace long commutes, poor local transit, and even public services: the police department, local government, schools and parking all got grades of C minus.

Wyzerr, which has ventured to Houston to partake in the ongoing Ion Smart Cities Accelerator out of Station Houston, is focused on creating surveys that make it easier for companies — and, increasingly, cities and airports — to collect useful information to improve their offerings.

"You can't build perfect cities," says Natasia Malaihollo, founder of Wyzerr. "But if you make small, incremental improvements, you can start to see a difference in communities (through Wyzerr's smart surveys)."

Wyzerr began in June 2014 and focused on designing smart survey for retailers. Now, the company works with more than 2,100 small and large businesses, including Kroger, Walmart, Facebook, Unilever — a lot of consumer packaged goods, Malaihollo says.

Wyzerr is focused on creating engaging surveys to better collect information. Photo courtesy of Wyzerr

Consumers interact with many of these brands on a near-daily basis, and Malaihollo estimates a person might get his with 7 surveys in a day — some of which require dialing in, or going online, or filling out responses on a sheet of receipt paper.

But Wyzerr makes surveys fun — they're interactive and game-like. Most importantly, though, they're short. Nearly every survey is designed to wind a customer through 25 questions about their experience with a certain retailer, product or service in 30 to 60 seconds. There's a science to it — shorter word counts on survey questions, for example, and making the final questions as engaging as possible, because people usually start answering more quickly, and maybe less thoughtfully, toward the end of a survey form.

Malaihollo calls this a design-focused approach to market research, and it has gotten results. In some surveys, Wyzerr was able to gather data on up to 20 percent of total consumers. Unlike most survey engagement, which usually falls lower, Wyzerr's data meets the threshold for statistical analysis — a valid sample size, in mathematics, is 10 percent of the population.

Two years ago, the Cincinnati Airport approached them. Amid a stream of reports that airports would develop into great hubs for the future of retail, the Cincinnati Airport team wanted a way to track shoppers' satisfaction as they trafficked through the terminals. Wyzerr created a survey that connected to the airport's Wi-Fi system — if users wanted to log on, they had to take a brief survey first.

"That ended up being our most successful campaign," Malaihollo says.

Wyzer, which has a team of 12, has raised $2 million and is getting ready to raise more. Upon completion of the accelerator program, the company will work with a Houston neighborhood for a pilot program, and the team hopes to get their survey system on the Wi-Fi system in Houston airports early next year.

Now, Wyzerr focuses on gathering data for smart cities — urban spaces that offer higher-tech solutions to regular city activities, like parking, and use electronic sensors to collect data that helps monitor the public. For example, cities across the U.S. have adapted free Wi-Fi on public transit, parking lot trackers, smart traffic lights to reduce congestion, automated bike-sharing programs and pedestrian detectors at intersections.