Guest Column

Panel featuring Houston innovator discusses rapidly changing innovation ecosystem

The panel at the inaugural conference featured Brad Rossacci of Accenture Innovation. Courtesy of INNO

Recently, Brad Rossacci, Accenture's Houston Innovation Hub's disruptive innovationeer and creative director, participated in the inaugural INNO, a conference dedicated to supporting the community of innovators, collaborators, and industry disruptors by providing them with a forum to share knowledge, connect with colleagues from around the world, and identify opportunities to work together.

Brad made the trip to New Orleans not just to speak, but also to see first-hand how Houston's neighboring cities are approaching the ideas, themes, and business best practices he's developing within Accenture and more broadly, within the Houston business community.

Speaking as part of the kickoff keynote, titled "What Corporate Innovators Seek," Brad was joined on stage by Aimee Quirk of InnovationOchsner, Lauren Kenney, vice president of Grid Modernization and Strategy at Entergy, and panel facilitator Chase Langdon, Partnership Strategy Manager for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans. Seated on the INNO stage, Brad had the ideal spot to both share his own expertise, and to hear first hand about how big businesses are working with startups and entrepreneurs outside of Houston.

During the course of the discussion it became clear that all the panelists and the organizations they represent are on the same page in several important ways: all of these companies have big footprints within their local communities and beyond. All have concluded that the challenges facing their different industries and economic sectors — as well as their organizations specifically— require a broader set of skills, backgrounds, and expertise to work through than can be found within the walls of any single company. And all have come to appreciate that to remain a business leader in an increasingly agile and rapidly transforming world, the work of innovation and problem solving must be approached with intentionality and given enough freedom to move fast enough to keep up and get ahead.

They also differ in key respects. The companies represented did not all arrive at these conclusions at the same time. Accordingly, their innovation initiatives are at different stages of development and implementation, both with regard to putting together internal innovation- focused teams and in finding outside companies to partner and collaborate with. Moreover, there are challenges specific to their industries that impact how they pursue their innovation goals. They also face different challenges in terms of getting support from the rest of their organizations. Nevertheless, there have been some challenges that all panelists experienced in some capacity, as well as some agreed-upon best practices.

All agreed that when hiring for internal innovation teams or initiatives, the primary qualification is not a specific set of skills or work history, but rather a specific mindset: they are looking for creative problem solvers who are willing to think and do things differently and who are not intimidated by challenges. Another point they all agreed on is that it's not always easy to find these innovation-oriented people, and that it can be difficult to entice them away from other markets. In particular, the New Orleans based businesses represented expressed feeling the pinch of a limited talent pool.

As the conversation facilitator, Chase Langdon was informed by some of the goals and challenges he's facing as Partnership Strategy Manager for the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans. Reflecting on the structure of the discussion, shared that his team is increasingly cognizant of the potential they have to make an impact on the business community within the region by nurturing holistic economic growth. The Saints and the Pelicans are among the most visible and recognizable local business entities, and his team is actively exploring ways to leverage that visibility to drive growth through partnerships.

Accordingly, his questions reflected an interest in learning from the other organizations represented.

So what are some of the key take away points that Chase and other attendees interested in launching their own innovation initiatives, or in partnering with other organizations? Aimee noted that for those looking to do business with companies like Ocshner, it's important to think about what it takes to be a good partner, not just what it takes to get the deal done. There was general agreement that one of the advantages to working with startups is that they can move quickly as they are less burdened by legacy processes of an older institution.

Similarly, innovators and problem solvers, whether part of internal teams or outside partners, need to be empowered and supported when taking the risks inherent in exploration and experimentation. Brad, in particular, noted that he considers creating an environment that nurtures and protects the "beautiful minds" of his team and the larger Houston innovation ecosystem, to be one of the primary responsibilities of his job.

"Startups are the rockstars now," he says, and existing companies looking to remain competitive need to take a hands-on approach to cultivating a collaborative and sustainable business environment with the required diversity of experiences, perspectives, and skills that lead to breakthroughs.

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Lizy Freudmann is head of marketing for the INNO.

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Building Houston

 
 

As of this week, Lara Cottingham is the chief of staff at Greentown Labs. Photo via LinkedIn

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

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