Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion."

To focus on the Ion's Academic Partner Network, Jan E. Odegard has been appointed senior director of industry and academic partners. Odegard's background includes research and leadership at Rice University in computing. Odegard will also oversee The Ion's labs, which include human/robotics interaction lab, an immersive reality lab and an industrial prototyping lab.

Deanea LeFlore has been named senior director of community and corporate engagement. Like Rowe, LeFlore had a similar role at Station Houston before this new position. Before that, she spent most of her career working for the city of Houston and served under four Mayors over 17 years.

Lastly, Chris Valka, has been hired as senior director of operations, overseeing finance, accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management. Prior to this position, Valka served in the president's cabinet overseeing a similar spectrum of responsibilities at the University of St. Thomas.

"As we prepare for The Ion's opening in early 2021, we are excited to welcome Deanea LeFlore, Dr. Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka, to our growing team," says Rowe in the release. "I am excited to see what this diverse group of experts will bring to our efforts to build an inclusive innovation hub in a tech-forward environment that promotes all that is great about Houston."

The 270,000-square-foot Ion building broke ground in July of last year and is slated to open in 2021. Recently, the organization announced its first programming partner — Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, and select courses have already begun.

From M&A action to the development of Houston's innovation corridor, these are five Houston innovators to keep an eye on in 2020. Courtesy photos

5 Houston innovators to know in 2020

Who's who

For so many Houston innovators, 2020 will be a year of growth, execution, proof of concept, piloting, pivoting, fundraising, and more.

It's hard to narrow down the list of movers and shakers in Houston innovation, but a few have stood out for making waves in the new year. From M&A action to the development of Houston's innovation corridor, these are five Houston innovators to keep an eye on in 2020.

Rakesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of SnapStream

Photo courtesy of SnapStream

This past year has been good to SnapStream, but it's only the beginning of the company's next growth phase. The software company's technology allows its clients to easily record, search, and share video and broadcast content and has attracted clients from the likes of Saturday Night Live and Last Week Tonight.

In 2019, the company was named the transition partner for Volicon Observer, a company Verizon brought under its umbrella and then changed its mind about, Rakesh Agrawal, CEO of SnapStream, explains on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Volicon's specialty is in monitoring and compliance, and with that move, SnapStream brought on around 150 new clients. To maintain those clients and grow its services, SnapStream has rolled out a whole new department. The launch of SnapStream Monitoring and Compliance is the next step for SnapStream's takeover of Volicon, according to a news release.

The M&A activity sparked a move to hire and expand the SnapStream team as the division grows throughout 2020.

Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston has its eyes on The Ion, a 270,000-square-foot building innovation center being developed in the former Sears building in Midtown. Behind the project is the Rice Management Company, which is led by Allison Thacker, president of the organization.

The Ion broke ground in May, and also named its operations leader, Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston earlier this year. While the project isn't expected to deliver until 2021, next year will likely entail determining a few key things about The Ion and the surrounding innovation corridor Rice Management and the city will be developing.

The Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed organization, has recently expressed its concerns with the development of the property in the historic Third Ward. The community organization wants Rice Management and all parties involved with the innovation corridor to agree to a Community Benefits Agreement, which would protect local residents and provide positive initiatives for growth. The CBA is expected to be arranged in 2020 as the project moves forward.

Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo

Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Another Houston company that plans to grow throughout 2020 is Data Gumbo. The blockchain-as-a-service company has raised some significant funds — a $6 million series A round closed in May — and will be putting that money to work by expanding the company's footprint and services.

Earlier this year, the company announced its entrance into the construction industry — Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo, says in a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that the funds will also take Data Gumbo to new global markets, including the Middle East.

"The whole thing for us is building this blockchain network of interconnected companies," Bruce says. "The more companies that are a part of that network, the more value that network has."

Payal Patel, director of corporate partnerships at Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston

Courtesy of Payal Patel

San Francisco-based Plug and Play Tech Center quickly established its new energy-focused Houston location — from announcing its entrance into the market in June to hiring its director of corporate partnerships, Payal Patel, in September. The first cohort of portfolio companies were named in October, and several new Houston partner corporations have been announced as well.

Next year, the local team is expected to grow and is currently hiring for a few positions, as well as announce its office space in town. Patel, specifically, will spearhead the initiatives to grow the organizations already impressive list of corporate partners.

"[Plug and Play ha] great Fortune 500 corporate partners, they work and know the best tech startups all over the world, and they have a strong investment capability," Patel previously told InnovationMap. "I'm excited that those resources and capabilities are coming to Houston."

Travis Parigi, CEO of LiquidFrameworks

Courtesy of LiquidFrameworks

Travis Parigi has always been the one to write the code for his company's software technology, but now, he's in acquisition mode thanks to new support from private equity. Last January, LiquidFrameworks entered into a partnership with private equity firm, Luminate Capital. The new financial partner has opened doors for Parigi, CEO of LiquidFrameworks, and the company as a whole — including putting merger and acquisition activity on the table.

The company has grown its team and even moved to a bigger space in Greenway Plaza. LiquidFrameworks, which has created a suite of software solutions for upstream and downstream oil and gas companies called FieldFX, is also working on key updates and new features for its software.

The Rice Management Company has created a new operations organization for The Ion and has selected Gabriella Rowe to lead it. Courtesy of Rice University

Station Houston CEO to lead operations at The Ion

Eyes on the ion

A Houston innovation leader is switching sides of the table to support on a highly anticipated entrepreneurial hub.

Rice Management Company has created an operating organization for The Ion and has named Gabriella Rowe as the executive director. Rowe has served as CEO of Station Houston since August 2018. The Ion, which broke ground on the site of the Midtown Sears building in July, is expected to deliver early 2021.

"To ensure that The Ion is a catalyst for the continued growth of the innovation ecosystem, we've been collaborating with Gaby and her team as well as civic leaders, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County commissioners and Midtown Houston," says Allison Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the RMC, in a news release. "We know that under Gaby's leadership The Ion will become an innovation hub for not only all Houstonians, but for anybody looking to thrive and collaborate in an entrepreneur-first, tech-forward environment."

Station was previously announced as The Ion's exclusive program partner, however that's no longer the case, according to the release. RMC plans to have a mix of incubators, accelerators, and startup development organizations within The Ion, and Station will be among that group. Per the release, an advisory board will formed to steer the innovation hub's programming.

"Collaboration is key to accelerating the growth of Houston's technology economy," says Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential, in the release. "The Ion will play an important role, serving the entire ecosystem as a place where those collaborations occur. Houston's incubators and accelerators, universities, corporations and venture capitalists will have a hub to leverage the innovation taking place all across the Houston region."

Station's newly named chief of staff, Stewart Cory, will oversee the organization until its new leader is named, and the nonprofit will focus on the needs of its startup entrepreneurs and growing its membership base, according to the release.

"It is a tremendous honor to be given such an incredible opportunity to serve Houston," Rowe says in the release. "I look forward to building partnerships and collaborations that will enable The Ion to engage and connect the innovation and startup community with Houston corporations and academic partners, to use the technology we're building right here in Houston to showcase our homegrown talent, and to create platforms for local entrepreneurs to take their offerings to new heights."

The Ion's early programming — like The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, which launched last month — is being hosted out of Station's downtown location. According to the rease, The Ion expects to deliver more programming from its partner organizations — like the Houston Independent School District, the University of Houston, Houston Methodist, Pumps & Pipes and TXRX Labs — by early 2020.

The Ion is the first phase of the 16-acre South Main Innovation District the city is envisioning.

"The Ion, with Rice University's stewardship, represents the best of our vision for the future of Houston — one where a kid like me from Acres Homes grows up with access to the opportunities that innovation and technology represent," says Mayor Turner in the release. "I couldn't be happier that Gaby will be leading the Ion towards that vision and believe that she has the energy to help make this project a reality that will transform our communities."

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Correction: Early information sent to InnovationMap reported that Rowe was leaving her position at Station, but she will maintain both roles, according to a representative at Station.

gaby rowe Gabriella Rowe will lead operations at The Ion.

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

Overheard: The Ion breaks ground in Midtown's former Sears building

Hard hats on

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.

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Early-stage accelerator names finalists for its second Houston cohort

ready to grow

A traveling seed-stage accelerator has announced its return to Houston and named its second cohort.

CodeLaunch, produced by Dallas-based constant and software development company Improving and presented by Ohio-based VC network Cyrannus, is returning to Houston. The company's second Houston accelerator event will be held on March 2.

Putting a fresh spin on the seed accelerator model, CodeLaunch combines a startup competition with a tech tradeshow, as well as allows for networking among attendees. Since its inception ten years ago, the touring competition has doled out over $1.4 million in services to its finalists and overall winners.

"CodeLaunch is a startup and rock-n-roll show like nothing you've ever seen before," says CodeLaunch President and Founder Jason W. Taylor in a news release.

The competition pairs six startups with six startup consulting companies. This year's finalists and mentor pairings are as follows:

  • Lake Charles, Louisiana-based GOPHR's consultant mentor is Softeq
  • Port Arthur, Texas-based DrinKicks is paired with BJSS
  • Energy360, based in Houston, has been matched with Honeycomb Software
  • Inpathy, based in Detroit and Tyler, Texas, will work with Contollo
  • Drivingo, led by a student founder from Virginia Tech, is selected to collaborate with Blue People
  • Houston-based AnyShift's consultant mentor is Improving

Houston-based Softeq is returning to the event after working with software startup Codiac.

“CodeLaunch was great. We gained customers, investors, and a lot of local notoriety. It was the best event we had all last year," says Ben Ghazi, founder of Codiac about the event.

ResQ TRX, a Houston startup that provides solutions for the logistics industry, won CodeLaunch HOU 2022. Houston-based Clutch won Judges' Choice in last year's competition.

This year, investment is also on the line. Presenting partner Cyrannus announced that all startup founders who advance to the semifinal round of CodeLaunch will be competing in a $100,000 investment challenge, as well as the $50,000 challenge for impact startups. There would be one or two winners — either a winner for each award or, if a company scores top marks in both categories, one company can take home the entire $150,000.

“Not only will (a winner) get the cash, but also be introduced to a network that will help them refine their idea and get ready for their first big fundraiser," says Lee Mosbacker, founder of Cyrannus, in a news release.

This year's CodeLaunch event will be a part of Houston Tech Rodeo, which is taking place February 27 to March 2 this year. Tech Rodeo, which announced its schedule this week, will conclude its programming with the CodeLaunch event.

"Houston Exponential could not be more excited about our partnership with CodeLaunch Houston," says Houston Exponential CEO Natara Branch in the release. "They are a fantastic ally in Houston’s efforts to serve its growing startup community and CodeLaunch is an incredible fit for the capstone of the 2022 Tech Rodeo. Finishing off Tech Rodeo with CodeLaunch's exciting atmosphere will be a highly anticipated event for the Houston innovation ecosystem after an engaging week of programming."

Here's the income it takes to live among the top 1 percent in Texas

isn't that rich?

Wondering how "the other half lives" is so outdated, especially when we we can easily peek into what life is like for the "one percent." A new report from SmartAsset reveals how much money you'll need to be considered the top one percent in Texas.

With two Houston suburbs landing among the richest cities in Texas in a recent report, it's obvious that the Lone Star State is dotted with pockets of wealth. But how much do you actually need in your pocket to have a top one percent income?

In Texas, an annual income of $641,400 will land you at the top, while $258,400 only gets you to the top five percent.

To come up with those numbers, SmartAsset analyzed 2019 data from IRS tax units and adjusted the figures to 2022 dollars using the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For comparison, "the average American household earns a median income of under $70,000," according to the study. And per the latest figures from the U. S. Census Bureau, the median household income in Texas (in 2021 dollars) is $67,321. That leaves plenty of us with a long way to go in our financial striving.

So now we know how we compare to our neighbors, but where does that put the affluent population of Texas in comparison with other states?

For starters, Texas claimed the 10th highest income required to reach top income levels.

The one percent income threshold is hardest to meet in Connecticut ($955,000), Massachusetts ($900,000), New Jersey ($825,965), New York ($817,796), and California ($805,519). Only these five states have thresholds that exceed $800,00, and it's a pretty steep drop down to Texas ($641,400) in 10th place.

The five states where it's easiest to attain one percent status (even though that doesn't seem like good news) are Kentucky ($447,300), Arkansas ($446,276), New Mexico ($418,970), Mississippi ($383,128), and West Virginia ($374,712).

The SmartAsset report also included average tax rates for top earners in each state. There was surprisingly little variance in the top 10 states, with Washington state having the lowest rate (25.02%) and Connecticut collecting the highest tax rate (27.77%).

Texas was in the middle of the pack with a tax rate of 25.71% levied on top one percent incomes.

The 10 states with the highest earnings required to be a one-percenter and their tax rates are:

  1. Connecticut ($955.3K, Tax rate 27.77%)
  2. Massachusetts ($896.9K, Tax rate 26.4%)
  3. New Jersey ($826K, Tax rate 27.36%)
  4. New York ($817.8K, Tax rate 27.48%)
  5. California ($805.5K, Tax rate 26.78%)
  6. Washington ($736.1K, Tax rate 25.02%)
  7. Colorado ($682.9K, Tax rate 25.24%)
  8. Florida ($678.8K, Tax rate 25.23%)
  9. Illinois ($666.2K, Tax rate 26.23%)
  10. Texas ($641.4K, Tax rate 25.71%)
If you're on your way to being a top earner and want to do a deeper dive on those numbers, you can view the full report on the SmartAsset website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

How Houston businesses can support employee mental health in 2023, according to expert

guest column

In 2023, it is imperative leaders keep the wellbeing of their workforce at the forefront of their minds.

According to an October 2022 publication from the McKinsey Health Institute, 59 percent of the global workforce report having at least one mental health challenge either now or in the past. These challenges not only threaten employee wellbeing but can also impact performance by a reduction in productivity.

Numerous factors outside of work impact individual mental health. Nonetheless, employers can make a difference with a few key steps, such as properly training management to mitigate toxic behaviors, prioritizing inclusivity and providing mental health resources.

Management training

To start, leaders need to prepare their managers to set the tone for employees. Frontline managers can have a large influence on employee wellbeing through their daily interactions with their teams. Even if organizations offer a host of mental health benefits, employees might not take advantage if their managers do not buy in. There is no substitute for the genuine care and concern that a supportive manager offers their employees, and they can tell the difference when they are authentically cared for or not.

Although the vast majority of managers have good intentions toward their employees, managers also may hold themselves and their teams to high standards without realizing the impact on mental health. Managers should receive training in how to respect work-life balance, help employees prioritize their duties, and create and maintain a supportive, positive work environment. These things may not have been on the radar for management in the past, but it is now the norm to lead with the wellness of the whole person in mind.

Beyond helping employees balance their lives, managers also need support in balancing their own, particularly to avoid burnout. Employees and managers may both face pressure to perform, and leaders need to make sure mental health initiatives for junior employees do not simply transfer excessive workloads to their supervisors. To accomplish that, train managers in time- and stress-management techniques and keep the lines of communication open with the executive team. Staying in tune with the pulse of wellness at work requires open communication and the commitment to support work-life balance by all members of the organization.

Prioritize inclusivity

Since 2020, inclusivity has become a bigger and bigger part of the conversation about workplace culture. The impact of a discriminatory workplace on mental health can be profound. When employees experience or indirectly experience discrimination in the workplace, their overall wellbeing suffers, with engagement and satisfaction decreasing as well, according to a 2021 survey from Gallup. The good news is most workplaces already have policies in place to prevent and report discriminatory practices.

However, a truly inclusive workplace will go beyond anti-discrimination policies to create an affirmative environment where employees can fully embrace their identities. Steps to promote inclusivity include celebrating holidays of various cultures, creating opportunities for employees to discuss their heritage and traditions, organizing relationship-focused exercises and offering educational opportunities in the workplace. To promote unity in the workplace, leaders should take care to discourage the formation of cliques and ensure all employees feel welcomed and not judged or mistreated by coworkers. Valuing diversity and honoring the individual drives the culture of tolerance and acceptance, which promotes a harmonious and productive work environment and team.

Provide mental health resources

To promote mental health and wellness, employees need access to the right resources and the knowledge to navigate those resources. In many cases, employees with the biggest mental health challenges may also face the most obstacles in receiving care. For employers offering health care benefits, employees may need training on how to find mental health practitioners in their area. What is more, employees accustomed to inconvenient appointment times or long wait lists for therapists may benefit from learning about online therapy platforms, which can offer care sooner and outside of typical work hours.

Many employers also choose to offer an employee assistance plan, or EAP, which can offer further mental health programs, free of charge. Despite their relevance to employees in need, EAPs are often overlooked and underutilized, making it even more necessary for managers or HR to proactively reach out to employees and educate them about their EAP benefits.

For organizations without the budget to provide health care benefits or EAPs, their leadership should investigate free or low-cost mental health resources in their region. In many cases, local government will provide free access or subsidies for mental health care. Nonprofit organizations may also offer free programs for those meeting eligibility requirements.

Employers should keep in mind employees may feel afraid to use mental health benefits for fear of stigma. While managers should be careful not to intrude on employees’ personal lives, managers can still gently offer caring support to employees who show signs of struggling with mental health, including chronic tardiness, absenteeism, low mood and a sudden change in personality or work performance. The ability to know if a behavior is out of the norm for an employee, the manager needs to have built a relationship with them and to care enough to notice the change.

As employees continue to face mental health challenges in their personal lives, employers can be part of the solution by educating managers, emphasizing inclusivity and offering mental health resources and support. Being a caring human being goes a long way, even at work.

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Karen Leal is a performance specialist with Houston-based Insperity, a provider of human resources offering a suite of scalable HR solutions available in the marketplace.