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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Booming Houston suburb hauls in top spot among growing U.S. cities

making moves

The Houston metro area's population is poised to continue booming over the next decade, so it should be no surprise that U-Haul calculated one Houston suburb as one of the top U.S. cities for growth.

In its annual report, released January 7, the company details migration trends across the U.S. Analyzing data from 2019, the moving and rental company placed Spring-The Woodlands at No. 14 among the 2019 U-Haul Growth Cities.

To determine the country's top 25 growth cities, U-Haul analyzed more than 2 million rental transactions over the calendar year. It then calculated the net gain of one-way U-Haul trucks entering an area versus those leaving an area.

Unlike U.S. Census Bureau or real estate data, the company says its U-Haul Growth Cities offers a snapshot of an area's retention rates versus strictly growth.

"While U-Haul migration trends do not correlate directly to population or economic growth, the company's growth data is an effective gauge of how well cities and states are attracting and maintaining residents," it explains in a release.

Three other Texas cities were perched on the list: the Austin suburb of Round Rock-Pflugerville (No. 5), the San Antonio suburb of New Braunfels (No. 11), and the Dallas suburb of McKinney (No. 17).

The top spot this year went to Raleigh-Durham, where arrivals accounted for nearly 51.4 percent of all one-way U-Haul traffic. In its explanation as to why the North Carolina hub is growing, the company points to the region's booming tech sector, which is says rivals that of Austin.

"We have tons of businesses coming here, bringing new residents in U-Haul trucks," said Kris Smith, U-Haul Company of Raleigh president, in a release. "Raleigh-Durham is rivaling Austin for attracting tech businesses and young professionals. We're seeing Silicon Valley talent and companies flock to the area. With a competitive cost of living, good wages, and job growth, Raleigh-Durham is experiencing a boom in population."

But when it came to the top growth state, neither Texas nor North Carolina got the No. 1 spot. That honor went to Florida, which took the crown from Texas, the winner in 2018. The Sunshine State claimed seven cities among the top 25, including five in the top 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston is full of innovative people looking to make an impact — whether it's in the health tech, fashion, or science industries.

This week's innovators to know represent different industries within Houston, but they are all looking to leave a legacy in making a difference.

Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck

Photo courtesy of BrainCheck

Yael Katz has seen the company she co-founded grow tenfold in its almost five years, and now she's watching that growth from a corner office with a great view of Houston.

BrainCheck, a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health, has moved into a new office space in the West University area following a series A round of fundraising.

"It's pretty exciting to have reached this milestone where we need more space," Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, tells InnovationMap. "We were pretty much bursting at the seams in our old office." Read more.

Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair

Photo courtesy of Goodfair

With the rise of fast fashion — in which huge clothing lines rapidly produce cheap clothing for consumers, humans are cycling through clothing at a detrimental rate.

According to a report from Business Insider, the fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Houston-based Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild." Read more.

Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

Libby Neder Photography

On the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Dorit Donoviel speaks of space health needs in ways that sound like futuristic science fiction. However, the director of the Translational Research Institute of Space Health is actively seeking solutions for issues and needs for living in space.

TRISH works hand in hand with NASA's Human Research Program to identify the program's biggest concerns, and then tap into professors, researchers, and scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, and other partners in order to innovate solutions.

"Everyone tosses the word 'innovation' around, but that means, to us, taking risks in science. Health care, in particular, is very risk averse, but the space industry is taking risks every single day when they put people in a rocket and hurl them into space," Donoviel says on the podcast. "If we're going to mars, for example, we are going to put people at risk." Read more.

These 3 Houston research projects are aiming to fight or prevent cancer

Research roundup

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."