Featured Innovator

Station Houston CEO on the future of the city's innovation ecosystem

Gabriella Rowe took over as CEO of Station Houston in August. Courtesy of Gabriella Rowe

A third-generation educator, Gabriella Rowe vowed she'd never go into the family business, but, she says, never say never.

She instead went into oil and gas and banking before working at a startup that sold after only 10 months. She then worked as a consultant — both for a company and then for herself — assisting high-growth, high-impact industrial companies.

"I realized for the first time that no matter what your size or how long you've been around, you were vulnerable to innovation and change," says Rowe, who is now the CEO of Station Houston, a Houston-based acceleration hub. "Many of the companies we worked with ended up shuttering their operations, which didn't just shut down a company; in most instances, whole towns were destroyed."

While on the road 300 days of the year, enjoying every minute of her job, she fell in love with a client, her now husband, and they decided to settle down to start a family in New York right as her grandfather was taking ill. She stepped in to help run his school.

At that time, New Yorkers were doing outrageous things to get their children into top-tier preschools, one of which happened to be The Mandell School, Rowe's family school.

"So, the first thing I did in my newfound motherhood was to hire a nanny, and then focused on how we could be opportunistic on this market shift in education in New York, so there was born my third startup."

She turned the school around and grew it to two schools in Asia, three preschools in New York, as well as a Kindergarten through eighth grade school — a total of over 700 children across the schools. She sold it in 2013, which led her to Houston to take a position as head of school at The Village School. She grew that school 20 percent in the first year before selling it to private equity.

"I fell in love with Houston and became involved in the tech ecosystem," Rowe says. "I had been involved in New York's tech ecosystem, and I wondered why we didn't have that tech ecosystem in Houston."

Now, Houston's exploding with startups, technology, and entrepreneurs, and Rowe, who took her CEO position at Station Houston in August, is among the leaders bringing Houston to the country's forefront for innovation.

InnovationMap: Coming in as CEO, what were the first things you wanted to do at Station?

Gabriella Rowe: Station is a startup like any other startup. It's thinking: what are we good at that we want to do more of, and what are we doing that someone else does better. And then building out the framework and infrastructure necessary to do what you do well at scale. Having the right people in the right job with the right tools and at the right time is what allows scale to happen. That's what we've been working on for the past three months.

We're going to be doing a huge launch of Station 3.0 in January. It will really allow us to tell the world not just what we're going to be for the next three months, but what we're going to be over the next three years.

IM: What's Station Houston doing differently from other coworking spaces?

GR: Well, we're not a coworking space; we are an acceleration hub for startups. First and foremost, we don't have the space to be a coworking space. We may have functioned like a coworking space in the beginning. We're here to accelerate startups in their growth, and we do that in a variety of ways. We connect them with curated connections to corporations that can help them pilot their ideas. We connect them with capital they need to grow fast. And we connect them with subject matter experts that help them understand how to grow their company. In some instances how to fail fast or pivot in a way that's going to make them the most successful. Our focus is accelerating the startups. It's one of the reasons we take no equity investments, because we don't want to be judging the success of a startup based on whether or not they meet our investment criteria. We want to do what's right for the startup, no matter the type of startup. I don't believe we can do that with a straight face and in good conscience if on the side we are doing investments. That really does differentiate us.

IM: So, how is Station Houston different from an accelerator program?

GR: The real answer is that these things are becoming more closely put together. We are more similar to an accelerator than anything else, but we are not time limited, and we are not hyper selective in a cohort way. A typical accelerator has a theme and cohorts with companies to that theme. We do not yet have a cohort-based accelerator with that specific timing. We apply many of the exact same methodology that they'd get in that time frame, but we carry it over the course of the year. We shift the companies to different buckets of focus. It's really the timing that's different. It might take a company longer to get to specific benchmarks, but we're still working to accelerate them. We're the only one doing this in Houston.

IM: Would you switch to a cohort-based accelerator?

GR: We won't be changing what we do, but we might be adding a specific themed-based cohort for companies at a specific stage of acceleration — an energy-focused cohort, for example, which would be really low-hanging fruit. We are in talks with Rice University to do something like this. My guess is we will launch this type of acceleration as a sub-product of what we do sometime in the first or second quarter of next year.

IM: What's on the horizon for Station, especially regarding Station 3.0?

GR: It all relates, in some way, to our move to the innovation district in 2020. That's what we are focused on. We worked really closely with Rice University on this. We believe that this building needs to open fully functioning and full, at capacity or as close as we can get from day one. The only way for us to do that is to be building that density at our current location here, and just shifting our operations there when the time comes.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

GR: Oh, I've got a long list. The thing that keeps me up at night is 2020 is around the corner. We have a lot of work to do to be ready for this Innovation Hub. And it's not just what's going in the hub. There's going to be a big spotlight shown on us to the rest of the world. We have to know now how to handle that when it comes. It's a lot of collaboration. It's a lot of leaving our politics and our agenda at the door. All of us have to be doing this for Houston. If we do it well, if we do this for Houston, and leave the other stuff aside, then we're all going to benefit. That's the thing I worry about most, that if we have these successes and wins, that maybe some territorial stuff comes into it and that politics creep back into it, and we don't focus on the collaboration.

The other thing that keeps me up at night, when I have the nightmares, is that we turn into a post-industrial ghost town because the energy capital of the world is somewhere else because we didn't innovate the way we were supposed to. That's a nightmare we can avoid by making sure we do what's needed — and a whole lot of that has to do with collaborating with each other.

IM: How is Houston's innovation ecosystem doing?

GR: I think we started to see something when the Crunchbase numbers that came out a couple weeks ago that showed Houston neck and neck with Austin from a VC investment standpoint, which is something we've never even come close to before and, all of the sudden, boom, we're right there. I think that's what we are going to continue to see in Houston. We're not going to see little wins now. We're going to start seeing big wins. The fact that I get a front row seat for that and get to invest my time and energy into something I care so much about makes me one of the luckiest people I know.

IM: What does Houston need to accomplish in the innovation community?

GR: Connective tissue — everyone knowing what's actually happening in Houston. Having resources, like InnovationMap, to tell us what's happening in Houston. I have been astonished for years now how much is happening here. Having resources like InnovationMap to tell us about what's happening here will make a huge difference.

The other piece we need that's on the way is a real focus on talent. We're beginning to see a lot of investment, and we're only going to see more of it over the next 12 months. And that's not just going to affect the talent, but also the types of companies we're attracting to Houston. The quality of life in Houston is phenomenal. That's what a lot of tech companies are looking for. There hasn't been enough yet to bring them to Houston, because we haven't been able to demonstrate the growth of our ecosystem.

We are going to have something big happening with either Google or Microsoft over the course of the next 12 months. That's only going to accelerate things for our startups.

IM: You moved here almost five years ago. What attracts you to Houston?

GR: First and foremost, the people. This is a city filled with some of the most amazing people I've worked with in my entire career anywhere in the world. We should not underestimate that as a city. The sense of humanity in Houston is like nothing I've ever experienced. It's not just what we saw in Hurricane Harvey, but it's exactly what happened in Hurricane Harvey, only it happens all the time in this city, it just isn't on the national news.

In Houston, everyone talks to each other all the time so you make connections all the time; you learn things about the community. I can't tell you how many Uber drivers I've had that have talked to me about their startup and then have ended up coming into the Station — that's the kind of stuff they say only happens in San Francisco, but it happens here for a different reason; it's because they really care. I hope that as we grow our ecosystem that we never forget that.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.