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

Camppedia, a Houston-based startup, can help match kids to summer camps all around town. Educational First Steps/Facebook

Tudor Palaghita and his sister Ana are both parents and both busy professionals. And both used the same word when it came to finding camps to help their kids pass the long, steamy summer: painful.

"We're working parents, we're strapped on time, but we want to make sure we give our kids enriching experiences," explains Ana. "One spring, we were going through the [camp search] process, and we talked about how difficult it was. And the next spring, we said, there's something here. We feel this pain, our friends feel this pain, and no one is helping us. Why don't we solve our problem ourselves?"

And that's exactly what they did. The duo used their business and technology backgrounds — Ana has an MBA from Northwestern University and built a successful career in a major financial institution, and Tudor has his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech — to launch Camppedia.com. The site is intended to be a one-stop shop for parents looking for camps for their children.

The tool launched in March of 2019, coinciding with spring break. Currently, it offers options throughout central Houston. Parents can select camps for their children based on interests, their ZIP codes, cost or even those that offer extended hours for moms and dads with full-time jobs.

"We believe the most important aspect to building anything is to understand your users," says Tudor, who left his research and development job at a major oil and gas services company to work full-time on Camppedia. "Before we launched, we did a lot of interviews and talked to a lot of parents, and then hand sketched prototypes to better convey our idea."

The pair went one step further after that, speaking with camp providers, seeking input about not only their products, but also the issue they faced in terms of marketing or registration. Following that fact-finding mission, they built Camppedia to show as many options as possible for families who want to book activities, as well as giving users the option to build their own calendars, save favorite options and see what camps actually have spots available. When parents select a camp, they are then driven to the individual camp's website to book.

Development on Camppedia, which is a member company at Station Houston, began last September, when the duo began looking at what to include on the site and finding partners who could assist them in building it.

"We looked at a bunch of different paths from a technology perspective," says Ana, who works on the site from her home in Virginia. "Because you can build the sort of the fancy, what I'd call destination-technology architecture, or you could build something scrappier, and I think we landed on something scrappy because we are still learning. Chances are [going forward] we'll change quite a bit."

Camppedia is built on WordPress, and currently features more than 275 camps from large to small. Tudor and Ana have been making improvements ever since, but the response has been enthusiastic. Parents, the pair say, have loved having so much information in one place. And camps have actually come to them, seeking information about how to be listed. That led to the creation of a camp partnership category, where camps can pay to use certain features on Camppedia's site, such as the ability to reach out to interested parents.

Going forward, the duo look forward to further building Camppedia as a resource. They're looking at adding reviews and experiences from parents, as well as finding ways to take the concept nationwide. But they're really happy with how the site has grown and the response they've had. The business, they insist, is designed to be a service that will support parents as they try to make the best decisions they can for their children.

"While the road ahead is daunting," says Tudor. "We are super excited about the possibility of building something truly useful for working parents who nowadays are struggling with so many competing priorities and whose needs seem to be somewhat overlooked by the digital reinvention coming out of Silicon Valley."


Photos courtesy of Camppedia