Q&A

Houston real estate expert shares why now's the time for the city's innovation ecosystem to emerge

Rand Stephens, managing director of Avison Young's Houston office, discusses COVID-19's effect on office and innovation spaces. Photo courtesy of Avison Young

Rand Stephens has been in Houston since the '80s, and he's seen the city evolve from having an economy heavily dominated by oil and gas to a city focused on diversification of industry.

Now, as a technology and innovation ecosystem is emerging with new startup and lab space being developed, Houston is on a good path — even in light of the effects of the pandemic.

"I think that Houston is a very vibrant place and it always has been. It's very entrepreneurial, and it will adjust to the new environment," says Stephens, who's principal at Avison Young and the founding managing director of the company's Houston office.

Stephens discussed the importance of new developments and the effect of the pandemic on the commercial real estate industry in an interview with InnovationMap.

InnovationMap: Why is the timing right for Houston's innovation ecosystem to emerge?

Rand Stephens: Since the '80s, there's been a real emphasis within the city to diversify. Trying to do new things is always difficult because a lot of it has to do with timing — it has to make sense economically. Innovation is a hot thing right now, more so than ever. As a city or company, if you're not constantly innovating, you're going to get left behind.

From a real estate standpoint, we've really had an abundance of low-cost space in an environment that is very entrepreneurial.

IM: Why are emerging innovation campuses like The Ion and Texas A&M Innovation Plaza near the Texas Medical Center so important?

RS: Houston is an incredible diverse city. We have unlimited talent from an engineering standpoint, and I think those types of projects bode well for keeping and attracting top tech talent. I think that's really the key.

You have to have this kind of infrastructure to support the innovation. The more that we can do to make the city walkable and to provide connectivity to the different parts of the city, is important. It's all about the experience. And, I don't think people like getting in the car and fight traffic — I think it's that simple.

IM: Has COVID-19 affected the momentum of innovation development?

RS: It has. But, what I've seen, and it's totally anecdotal, but people are coming to grips with COVID. They are coming to grips with the risks, and, as time goes on, they will see it as a less risky disease as a vaccine and treatment become available.

These innovation spaces are going to be important for collaboration. You lose the spontaneity of innovation and collaboration if you're not around people. But, we're already seeing people in Houston returning to work.

IM: In general, how is the pandemic affecting commercial real estate?

RS: COVID is impacting the office market the most — and I think it will long term as well. There's been a trend for a long time now to use less square footage per person. I think corporations have evolved from looking at their office spaces as a place to put people to work to really trying to create an experiential environment to use the office to re-enforce their culture and brand in order to recruit top talent. COVID has accelerated that trend now.

My gut feeling on that is it's going to depend on the business. Different types of industries function differently, and the size of the business is going to depend on that too. I think the trend of using less square footage per person isn't going to go up. I don't think we're going to see companies taking more space for social distancing. I think what they'll do is give people more flexibility. I think corporates are going to say, "let's ammenitize our space and put people in places where it's experiential and a cool place to work." And I think people are OK with that.

IM: What makes Houston a good city for innovation?

RS: There are three or four reasons off the top of my head, but one is the entrepreneurial spirit and that's pervasive everywhere. Then, we have amazing infrastructure here, with talent and education. Another thing that is key is affordability. Relatively speaking, it's a very affordable city to do business in. The fourth thing would be the diversity and inclusion we have here. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country — and a lot of people don't know that. And I have found it to be an incredibly inclusive city. I think if you move here and you have good ideas and work hard, there's nothing to hold you back here.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

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