Eye on Ion

Rice University's Midtown innovation hub dubbed The Ion takes shape

The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University

Houston's innovation district is one step closer to the Midtown hub it was promised early last year. Rice University announced the construction details of the historic Sears building's transformation into The Ion, as it's now called.

"We chose the name Ion because it's from the Greek ienai, which means 'go'" says Rice University president David Leebron in the release. "We see it as embodying the ever-forward motion of discovery, the spark at the center of a truly original idea. It also represents the last three letters in many of the words that define the building's mission, like inspiration, creation, acceleration and innovation."

Construction on the 270,000-square-foot building will begin in May, according to Rice's release, and is expected to conclude by the end of next year. The cost of the project wasn't disclosed with the announcement. The building will serve as a coworking space, provide resources for entrepreneurs and startups, and host events, the release says, as well as offer retail space for restaurants and entertainment amenities.

"I gleefully applaud this next giant step in the creation of an innovation hub that will take Houston closer to becoming a world leader in data science and digital technologies" says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "As I said last year when the idea was unveiled, we have to leap, not stroll, into the economic frontier. Now the physical transformation of The Ion will help get us there."

Leading the project is the Rice Management Company, and Rice will provide academic programming, along with other educational institutions including the University of Houston, UH-Downtown, the University of St. Thomas, Houston Community College, Texas Southern University, Houston Baptist University, San Jacinto College, and the South Texas College of Law. Station Houston has been named as the programming partner and will have a huge presence in the hub.

"The Ion will inspire open innovation between universities, global corporations and investors," says Gabriela Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, in the release. "Students and faculty members from institutions like Rice University and the University of Houston will coexist and collaborate with scientists from Houston's other great institutions. Investors and corporations will meet face to face with startup entrepreneurs. Together, at The Ion, they will transform Houston into a thriving, connected, high-tech ecosystem."

Houston-based Hines was listed as the developer, and other dealmakers include New York-based SHoP Architects, James Carpenter Design Associates, James Corner Field Operations, and Gensler's Houston office. The Ion's transformation will include removing the '60s-era metal cladding, but the structure will maintain its original art deco façade.

This is the first phase of development for Houston's innovation district — a 16-acre plan for Midtown, according to the release, and the district will also feature housing, public spacing, and important infrastructure.

"We are eager to contribute to an enhanced quality of life for residents and visitors of Midtown Houston," said Matt Thibodeaux, executive director of Midtown Houston. "The Midtown innovation district is an embodiment of our shared community vision to give professionals and families a means of seizing opportunity as Houston continues to grow as a leading city in technology."

Courtesy of Rice University

Syzygy Plasmonics, which is creating a cleaner energy source that runs on hydrogen, closed a $5.8 million round. Photo via plasmonics.tech

A Houston technology company is doing something that, for many decades, wasn't thought to be possible. Syzygy Plasmonics is creating a hydrogen fuel cell technology that produces a cheaper source of energy that releases fewer carbon emissions.

The hydrogen-fueled technology originated out of research done over two decades by two Rice University professors, Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander.

"There are rules in chemical engineering, and you can't break them, but we follow them in a different way," CEO Trevor Best tells InnovationMap. "What we're doing is fundamentally different. We're using light instead of heat to drive chemical reactions."

Syzygy's technology is structured more like a battery than that of a combustion engine. Inside the technology, there are cells, lights, and mirrors making as bright as possible, which then spurs a reaction that creates energy. It has the potential to be cheaper — it's made with cheaper materials — and, of course, cleaner than traditional fueling technology with fewer carbon emissions released.

This new photocatalytic chemical reactor has the potential to shake up the industrial gas, chemical, and energy industries — something that hasn't gone unnoticed by investors. Syzygy just closed a $5.8 million Series A round led by MIT's The Engine and Houston-based The GOOSE Society of Texas. Evok Innovations, a previous investor in the company, and angel investors from the Creative Destruction Lab also contributed to the round.

The funds will allow for Syzygy to continue to develop its technology and grow its team. Best tells InnovationMap that he expects to launch a full-size pilot by the end of 2020 and is already in talks with potential clients who are interested in the technology for industrial purposes.

"We're starting to solidify relationships and get customers ready," Best says.

Earlier this year, the company also received funding from the Department of Energy and from the National Science Foundation SBIR Program. The DOE tasked Syzygy with creating a reactor that transforms ammonia into hydrogen for fueling purposes. For the SBIR Program, the company is creating a reactor that processes carbon dioxide.