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

Wyzerr, a member of Station Houston's Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, has a way to better collect information from citizens. Photo courtesy of Wyzerr

In a 2019 report card handed out by Cincinnati-based startup Wyzerr, Houston didn't do too well — It got a C, a 2.5 out of 4. Houston is passing, but just barely.

Wyzerr didn't give the city a bad rating; Houstonians did. In July, Wyzerr sent two researchers downtown to hang out near public places — bus stops, street corners, etc. Overall, respondents said they are satisfied with dining options, shopping, and the airports but were really struggling to embrace long commutes, poor local transit, and even public services: the police department, local government, schools and parking all got grades of C minus.

Wyzerr, which has ventured to Houston to partake in the ongoing Ion Smart Cities Accelerator out of Station Houston, is focused on creating surveys that make it easier for companies — and, increasingly, cities and airports — to collect useful information to improve their offerings.

"You can't build perfect cities," says Natasia Malaihollo, founder of Wyzerr. "But if you make small, incremental improvements, you can start to see a difference in communities (through Wyzerr's smart surveys)."

Wyzerr began in June 2014 and focused on designing smart survey for retailers. Now, the company works with more than 2,100 small and large businesses, including Kroger, Walmart, Facebook, Unilever — a lot of consumer packaged goods, Malaihollo says.

Wyzerr is focused on creating engaging surveys to better collect information. Photo courtesy of Wyzerr

Consumers interact with many of these brands on a near-daily basis, and Malaihollo estimates a person might get his with 7 surveys in a day — some of which require dialing in, or going online, or filling out responses on a sheet of receipt paper.

But Wyzerr makes surveys fun — they're interactive and game-like. Most importantly, though, they're short. Nearly every survey is designed to wind a customer through 25 questions about their experience with a certain retailer, product or service in 30 to 60 seconds. There's a science to it — shorter word counts on survey questions, for example, and making the final questions as engaging as possible, because people usually start answering more quickly, and maybe less thoughtfully, toward the end of a survey form.

Malaihollo calls this a design-focused approach to market research, and it has gotten results. In some surveys, Wyzerr was able to gather data on up to 20 percent of total consumers. Unlike most survey engagement, which usually falls lower, Wyzerr's data meets the threshold for statistical analysis — a valid sample size, in mathematics, is 10 percent of the population.

Two years ago, the Cincinnati Airport approached them. Amid a stream of reports that airports would develop into great hubs for the future of retail, the Cincinnati Airport team wanted a way to track shoppers' satisfaction as they trafficked through the terminals. Wyzerr created a survey that connected to the airport's Wi-Fi system — if users wanted to log on, they had to take a brief survey first.

"That ended up being our most successful campaign," Malaihollo says.

Wyzer, which has a team of 12, has raised $2 million and is getting ready to raise more. Upon completion of the accelerator program, the company will work with a Houston neighborhood for a pilot program, and the team hopes to get their survey system on the Wi-Fi system in Houston airports early next year.

Now, Wyzerr focuses on gathering data for smart cities — urban spaces that offer higher-tech solutions to regular city activities, like parking, and use electronic sensors to collect data that helps monitor the public. For example, cities across the U.S. have adapted free Wi-Fi on public transit, parking lot trackers, smart traffic lights to reduce congestion, automated bike-sharing programs and pedestrian detectors at intersections.