Summer school

Station Houston partners with universities to launch new accelerator program

This summer, Station Houston is connecting the dots for student and alumni entrepreneurs within Houston's innovation ecosystem. Station Houston/Facebook

Houston universities — namely the University of Houston and Rice University — have been providing student and alumni entrepreneurs with acceleration programming for some time now through RED Labs and OwlSpark, respectively. But nonprofit acceleration hub Station Houston is connecting the dots with these programs — and inviting more schools to join in — through a new summer acceleration program.

"One of the things we haven't historically had in Houston that other cities have are broad collaborations between our universities to help build on one another's resources and really demonstrate for our young people — the talent that we want to keep here — exactly how deep and strong the opportunity to be in Houston is," Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station, tells InnovationMap.

The program will bring in 30 to 40 student and alumni from academic partners, which currently includes Rice, UH, and the University of St. Thomas, to Station. The schools will be responsible for selecting their participants and some of their own programming, and Station will provide additional resources, events, and full member access.

"We're not just going to depend on them bumping into someone at the coffee pot," Rowe says. "We're going to do meet and greets, some speed dating events, and some pitch practice events, so that they have the opportunity to have experienced entrepreneurs give them feedback and share their experiences."

The program, which is free to its participants, has derived out of planning for the Rice University's upcoming innovation district hub called The Ion, for which Station is the programming partner. Launching the student and alumni summer program ahead of The Ion's debut allows Station to get a couple summer cohorts under its belt.

"We have been for a number of months now — and will continue for the next two years — built out out a hub where all of the things that can be happening in The Ion," Rowe says. "We're piloting an building here first, so that, when the building opens, it can open in full force."

The plan is also to collect more universities in the area for the program and even expand it to provide more student and alumni access to resources.

"We have the ability at Station to give an expanding base as more schools choose to join them over time, so that hopefully we end up with something that is really robust in its ability to support students all year round — not just as a summer program," Rowe says.

Combining the forces of Houston's universities is unprecedented, Rowe says, but crucial to ensuring that these young entrepreneurs aren't leaving Houston for other major cities unaware of what their city has out there for them.

"For me, more than anything, it's about exposing these young, motivated entrepreneurs to all of the resources available in Houston," Rowe says. "By bringing them here into Station, we have the ability to show them first hand what entrepreneurs in Houston have access to. It allows them to see what an incredible place Houston is to stay and build and grow your company."

The Ion is expected to debut in 2021. Courtesy of Rice University

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.


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


The Sears opened in 1939. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.