NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine joined the Greater Houston Partnership for the State of Space online event this week. Photo via NASA.gov

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its inaugural State of Space event featuring a keynote address by Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator, that touched on the many ongoing projects at Houston's Johnson Space Center.

The online event, which also featured speeches from GHP President Bob Harvey and JSC Mark Geyer, took place Tuesday, December 15, for GHP members and nonmembers alike.

In his address, Bridenstine discussed the commercialization of space, how politics have affected the agency's history, and the exciting projects underway — including returning man to the moon. Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

"Houston is a city that chooses to take on humankind's boldest challenges head-on, and through that work we have built Houston as a technology-oriented city."

— Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. Harvey called out, specifically, the Johnson Space Center and its history as the mecca for human space flight, as well as the emerging Houston Spaceport, which hopes to combine innovation across industries, from space to energy and life sciences.

"In fiscal year '21, NASA will see the first two lunar landings of the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services — this is an initiative led in Houston where American companies will serve science and technology payloads to the surface of the moon to prepare for human missions."

— Mark Geyer, director of JSC. Geyer mentions this initiative specifically, as well as 2020's collaboration with SpaceX to have the first American launch since 2011. Geyer also calls out NASA's new Commercial Crew Program. "All of these things position Houston to be a leader and a focal point for this new commercial space ecosystem, which is national and global in nature," Geyer says.

"We are very fortunate to have a center like Johnson in a city like Houston — a city that produces talent, that has an amazing workforce, a dedication to education and to the STEM fields."

— Jim Bridenstine, NASA administrator. Bridenstine, a Rice University alumnus, adds that the JSC currently has more programs and projects under development at any point in history.

"Johnson is focused like a laser on Mission Control. ... The No. 1 project NASA has, which we celebrated last month, is 20 years of humans working and living in space continuously."

— Bridenstine says, noting some of the continued missions like Artemis, which will return humans to the surface of the moon, and Gateway, an outpost orbiting the moon to support continued human space exploration.

"Our goal is to put an American flag on Mars — the moon is the proving ground, and Mars is the destination."

— Bridenstine says regarding NASA's focus on returning to the moon.

"I am judging my time as NASA administrator based on whether or not — when my children are my age — we are still on the moon and on Mars."

— Bridenstine says. He notes that part of moving forward is looking back and learning about programs got canceled and why, and which ones were sustainable and why. In some cases, says Bridenstine, who served in U.S. Congress for five years, it was due to divisive politics.

"The Johnson Space Center is quite well positioned for attracting a lot of commercial industry and international partners."

— Bridenstine says when asked about Houston's potential for attracting space business. He mentions how crucial Houston-based Mission Control is and always has been, as well as the emerging focus on Gateway, which will be open for other countries to be supported by. "I think Houston is in great shape — between Mission Control and the Gateway."

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual economic outlook event online — here's what the numbers indicate for Houston business in the new year. Photo via Getty Images

2021 will be a 'bipolar year' and other key takeaways from the Greater Houston Partnership's economic outlook

looking forward

As much of the world is ready to celebrate a new year — one likely to be drastically less affected by COVID-19 — the Greater Houston Partnership released an annual report about what Houston's economy will look like in 2021.

Senior vice president of research Patrick Jankowski and his team put the Houston Region Economic Outlook report together and shared some its highlights at a virtual event hosted by Bob Harvey, president and CEO of GHP.

Of course, much of the study focused on how the coronavirus — as well as the impending vaccine — will affect the region's economy.

"At this point last year, neither Patrick nor any of us could have predicted the arrival of COVID-19 and its devastating impact on the global economy," Harvey says at the event. "Here in Houston COVID wreaked havoc on industries across the spectrum from energy to hospitality."

In the early weeks, the Houston region lost 350,000 jobs, according to the report, and in the months since, the region added back about half with 176,000 jobs.

Below are some more key takeaways from the report — and in most cases, the outcome depends on how COVID-19 case numbers are affected by the holidays and the accessibility of the vaccine.

"The weeks and months ahead are likely to be some of the most difficult of the pandemic," Harvey cautions. "We cannot afford to let our guard down now as we approach the finish line."

Energy will continue to struggle

Photo via Getty Images

The past six years have been rough for oil and gas, and in Houston specifically, Houston has lost nearly 100,000 upstream energy jobs, and the energy industry's share of Houston's GDP has fallen from 35 to 40 percent (a GHP '14 estimate) to 20 to 25 percent (a GHP '19 estimate).

The Russia-Saudi Oil Feud in March brought this decline to its head and it's not looking like it's getting back to normal any time soon. "Next year won't be any easier for the industry. While global demand has improved, it will remain three to five million barrels per day below pre-COVID levels," reads the report.

The new administration is expected to have several goals that will affect the industry, such as bringing the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement, negotiating new mileage and emission rules for autos and trucks, slowing or halting oil leasing on federal lands and in the Gulf of Mexico, increasing environmental scrutiny during the pipeline permitting process, and more.

Jobs in some industries will come back

Chart via GHP

According to the report, Houston's unemployment rate, at 3.9 percent in February, jumped to 5.5 percent in March, then 14.3 percent in April — the highest on record.

"Unemployment has improved — we're at 7.9 percent now," Jankowski says at the event.

But recovery depends on the industry. Jankowski predicts that retail and energy are both expected to continue to lose jobs, and other industry sectors — such as government, arts and entertainment, and educational services — aren't expected to grow by much.

However, some of the sectors hardest hit in 2020 — construction, manufacturing, support services, and restaurants — are expected to bounce back with thousands of new jobs.

The chart gives a range of job growth — there's a lower and a higher outlook. Jankowski says it depends on how well the vaccine is doing.

If by mid-year, we don't have much of the population inoculated, it's going to be closer to that lower number," he says.

2021 will be a "bipolar year"

Patrick Jankowski of the GHP. Photo via Houston.org

The first and second halves of the year are going to look different, Jankowski says, it's just a matter of how different at this point. In addition to the vaccine and COVID case numbers, the things the GHP as well as Houston businesses are watching is the new Biden Administration

"We won't see any significant growth in the economy until we get to the second half of the year," he says

The first quarter of 2021 will be especially tough for Houston, according to the report, since the region always experiences job losses in January as retail, restaurant, and transportation workers hired for the holiday season are rolled off. Additionally, contract workers employed to meet year-end deadlines are released and plans for reorganization are implemented.

"No one should be surprised when Houston loses 40,000 or more jobs this January," the report reads. "Houston's recovery will likely lag the U.S.'s by a few months, but growth will resume in the second half of '21."

From the potential for electric vehicle growth to the role of corporates, experts joined a panel to discuss the progress of Houston's low-carbon energy initiatives. Photo by Katya Horner

Overheard: Here's where Houston's low-carbon efforts stand, according to the experts

eavesdropping online

Houston is moving the needle on low-carbon initiatives, as one panel agreed at the Center for Houston's Future's Low-Carbon Energy Innovation Summit.

The annual event, which is taking place virtually this year, was broken up into two days. The first installment focused on low-carbon markets on October 8. This week on October 15, the virtual programming will cover Houston's energy ecosystem.

While the day of low-carbon programming zeroed in on specifics within the subject, one panel zoomed out to check in on Houston's progress. Brett Perlman, president and CEO for the center for Houston's Future, moderated the discussion, which featured five energy experts. Here are some highlights from the panel.

“We’ve identified 200 companies in Houston that we would call energy 2.0 companies — solar, wind, energy stories, and other energy and clean tech companies. So, there’s already a lot happening.”

— Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership.

“While innovation and the energy transition are not the same thing, they are close cousins. Innovation is about change and new businesses and how they work with incumbent businesses, so when you think about the transition, you have to include both of them.”

— Barbara Burger, Chevron's vice president of innovation and president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

“Hurricane Harvey was a point where so much changed. Everything I do in my job changed. We went from climate being talked about discretely to something we can’t not talk about. It’s in every conversation whether we like it or not.”

— Lara Cottingham, chief of staff and chief sustainability officer for the city of Houston.

“This is a global challenge, but Houston is a global leader. We really want to be hands on and tackle this to keep Houston in that leadership role.”

— Cottingham continues.

“Houston has the engineering expertise and experience doing energy at scale. Frankly, we need that set of expertise at the table.”

— Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which recently expanded to Houston.

“We’d like to see 30 percent of new vehicle sales be electric vehicles by 2030. I think we’ll get there much sooner.”

Chris George, president and executive director of EVolve Houston.

“Houston is very important and significant because of our relation to the port. Whether it’s looking at hydrogen trucking for long haul trips or looking at reducing logistics cost for manufacturing and assembly, Houston has everything to offer.”

George continues.

Calling all clean energy startups — Rice Alliance has announced a new accelerator launching in 2021. Photo via Getty Images

Rice Alliance to launch clean energy accelerator in Houston

New to Hou

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has announced its new Clean Energy Accelerator — a 12-week program for early stage energy startups — at the close of the 18th annual Energy Tech Venture Forum.

"Houston truly is the hub of the global energy industry, and it is here where the next generation of energy leaders will create and scale innovations that will change the world," says Bob Harvey, president and CEO at the Greater Houston Partnership, in a press release. "The new Clean Energy Accelerator will build on that legacy and align with the work already taking place in Houston's robust energy innovation ecosystem."

The program joins Rice University's suite of business accelerating programs — including Owl Spark, the annual venture forums, and the Rice Business Plan Competition — and is being supported by Wells Fargo.

"The Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator is poised to increase the quality and quantity of clean-tech startups in the area, which benefits Houston but also has the potential to benefit the greater global economy," says Jenny Flores, head of small business growth philanthropy at Wells Fargo, in the release. "At Wells Fargo, we believe that climate change continues to be one of the most urgent environmental and social issues of our time."

The Clean Energy Accelerator — to be housed at The Ion when it opens — falls in line with the city of Houston's Climate Action Plan, which has a goal of making Houston carbon neutral by 2050.

"It's a very ambitious goal, and it's one the City of Houston, as a municipality, cannot do alone," Mayor Sylvester Turner says in the release. "Today's announcement of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator is a great example of what we have been seeking to build in Houston, an innovation ecosystem that can develop creative solutions to address our toughest challenges."

More information is available online, and applications for startups will open in early 2021. The Rice Alliance announced several community supporters for the new accelerator, including BP, Chevron Technology Ventures, Equinor, ExxonMobil, NRG, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, Shell Ventures, Sunnova, Total, Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co., Halliburton Labs, Houston Exponential, the Center for Houston's Future, and Greentown Labs.

"Houston is our home, and we are strong believers in our city," says Brad Burke, managing director of the alliance, in the release. "It is here that some of the greatest minds in energy are innovating. New technologies, many driven by startup companies, have enabled the U.S. to become energy self sufficient for the first time in history, but global energy needs are growing and changing. We need to apply that same entrepreneurial spirit and technology innovation to meet these challenges."


Greentown Labs has announced its second location will be opened in Houston next spring. Getty Images

Cleantech startup incubator announces new location in Houston

seeing green

A Massachusetts-based startup incubator focused on clean energy technology has announced its plans to open a new location in Houston.

The Greater Houston Partnership and Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that Greentown Labs will open its Houston location in Spring 2021. Greentown Houston, according to a press release, falls in line with the city's Climate Action Plan.

"Opening Greentown Labs' second location in Houston — the energy capital of the world — is the best place to broaden our impact and help accelerate the energy transition through cleantech entrepreneurship, in partnership with the nation's fourth largest city and the world-leading energy organizations headquartered there," says Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, in the release.

Reichert adds that Houston's access to talent and corporate energy partners made the Bayou City especially alluring as a new market.

Greentown Labs launched in 2011 as community of climatetech and cleantech innovators bringing together startups, corporates, investors, policymakers, and more to focus on scaling climate solutions. Greentown Labs' first location is 100,000 square feet and located just outside of Boston in Somerville, Massachusetts. Currently, it's home to more than 100 startups and has supported more than 280 startups since the incubator's founding. According to the release, these startups have created more than 6,500 jobs and raised over $850 million in funding.

The organization will be establishing a 30,000-square-foot prototyping lab and office space that will be able to accomodate about 50 startups. More details of this office are forthcoming.

"Climate change cannot be solved from the coasts — we need all hands on deck at this time," Reichert continues. "Houston has the opportunity to be the energy transition capital of the world and we believe bringing Greentown Labs to Houston will accelerate the shift in this direction."

Along with the mayor's office and the GHP, Greentown Houston will bring together key stakeholders from entrepreneurs and educators to corporates and investors.

"Reducing Houston's emissions and leading a global transition is a community-wide effort and will require action from residents and the business community," says Mayor Turner in the release. "This is why it's more important than ever to have partners and organizations like Greentown Labs, whose mission is to solve the climate crisis through entrepreneurship and collaboration."

Greentown Houston's network of founding partners includes the likes of Chevron, Shell, NRG Energy Inc., Sunnova Energy, BHP, Vinson & Elkins, and more. Ahead of the spring 2021 launch, Greentown Houston is seeking more strategic partners and interested startups. More information can be found online.

"We are thrilled to welcome North America's largest cleantech incubator to Houston, which comes at a time of great momentum for Houston's innovation ecosystem and further positions the region to lead the transition to a cleaner, more efficient and more sustainable, lower carbon world," says Bob Harvey, president and CEO at GHP. "As the home to major corporate energy R&D centers, corporate venture arms, and VC-backed energy startups, Houston is already leading the way in digitization, renewable forms of energy, and the development of carbon capture management technology."

Houston usurped the Dallas metro to grab the No. 2 ranking in the United States for big cities attracting corporate relocation and expansion projects. Getty Images

Report: Houston ranked No. 2 in the country for corporate relocation, expansion projects landed in 2019

big business

In Texas, Houston rules the corporate relocation and expansion kingdom.

Site Selection magazine ranks Houston second among large U.S. metro areas for the number of corporate relocation and expansion projects landed in 2019. That's up two spots from the previous year's ranking.

On the new list, published in the magazine's March issue, Houston replaces Dallas-Fort Worth in the No. 2 spot among metros with at least 1 million residents, pushing DFW down to No. 3. Austin takes the No. 6 spot.

Last year, Houston landed 276 projects that met the magazine's ranking criteria. With 416 projects, Chicago earned the No. 1 spot. Dallas-Fort Worth scored 261 projects in 2019, while Austin snagged 95.

Qualifying projects for Site Selection's rankings must have a minimum investment of $1 million, create at least 20 new jobs, or involve at least 20,000 square feet of new space.

A couple of notable Houston corporate relocations or expansions in 2019 were:

"This latest ranking is more evidence of Houston's strength as a destination for corporate relocation and investment," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, says in a March 3 statement. "Our low cost of doing business, access to quality talent, and pro-growth mentality continue to make Houston an attractive place for companies across the country and around the world looking for expansion and relocation opportunities. Our strong, diverse economy is a big part of what makes Houston a great global city."

Commercial real estate services company Colliers International notes that Houston is one of the country's most competitive cities for corporate relocation and expansion.

"Houston's ability to foster continued expansion in future-growth industries responsible for generating high-quality, well-paid jobs across all business sectors has placed it in the top tier among U.S. cities," Colliers International says. "With its numerous business advantages, Houston is well positioned to successfully compete in today's global marketplace."

Among those advantages, Colliers says, are:

  • Two major airports
  • Massive seaport
  • Extensive rail and road infrastructure
  • 90 foreign consulates

In February 2019, René Lacerte, founder and CEO of Bill.com, said the Palo Alto, California-based company picked Houston for its first U.S. outpost following an "extensive national search." Bill.com settled on Houston because of its talent pool, quality of life, and business-friendly environment, he said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the Bill.com expansion represents a "another great example of Houston's building momentum as a leading digital tech hub."

A second example is Amazon Web Services' July 2019 expansion in Houston. Kris Satterthwaite, the company's Gulf Coast enterprise sales leader, praised the city as "a fantastic place to live and work," and as having "a strong local economy that we look forward to investing in and growing together [with]."

The Houston-DFW-Austin trifecta of top-performing markets for corporate relocation and expansion in 2019 helped propel Texas to win Site Selection's Governor's Cup Award for the eighth consecutive year.

In accepting the award, Gov. Greg Abbott called Texas "the most dynamic economy in the nation."

"Texas' skilled, diverse, and ever-expanding workforce drives our booming economy," Abbott said. "I want to thank all of our local, regional and statewide economic development teams for their work to expand economic opportunity in Texas, as well as the companies that continue to invest and create more jobs throughout the Lone Star State."

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.