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

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Building Houston

 
 

Kelly Avant, investment associate at Houston-based Mercury Fund, shares how and why she made her way into the venture capital arena. Photo courtesy of Mercury

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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