Fifteen startups — with clean energy solutions involving everything from solar energy to hydrogen — are joining Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator later this summer. Photo via Getty Images

A clean energy program has announced its third cohort and named the 15 startups that were accepted into to the accelerator.

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator revealed its 2023 cohort that will be in the 10-week program that kicks of July 25. CEA, a hybrid program based out of the Ion, will wrap up with a Demo Day alongside the 20th Annual Rice Alliance Energy Tech Venture Forum on September 21.

The accelerator, led by Kerri Smith and Matt Peña, provides the cohort with programming, networking, and mentorship from six executives in residence — Nathan Ball, Fatimah Bello, Michael Egan, Michael Evans, Stephen Sims, and Deanna Zhang.

Since the Clean Energy Accelerator launched in 2021, the program has supported 29 ventures that have gone on to raise over $75 million in funding, identified and launched pilots, and created jobs, According to Rice, many of these companies relocated to Houston.

Class 3, which has already raised $23.3 million in funding, hails from four countries and seven states and are addressing a range of energy solutions — from advanced materials, carbon management/capture, energy storage, hydrogen, solar energy, wind energy, and more. They were selected by a screening committee consisting of more than 50 industry experts, investors, energy leaders, and entrepreneurs.

The third class, as announced by Rice Alliance, is as follows:

  • Ayrton Energy, based in Alberta, Canada,provides hydrogen storage technology that improves hydrogen transport logistics for distributed energy applications.
  • Headquartered in Massachusetts,Carbix transforms atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions into building materials using proprietary reactor technology.
  • Houston-based CryoDesalination lowers the carbon footprint and cost of removing salts and heavy metals from water and industrial effluents.
  • Digital Carbon Bank,based in Alberta, Canada, provides a carbon solution tailored for the energy industry.
  • Chandler, Arizona-basedEarthEn provides compressed carbon dioxide-based energy storage and artificial intelligence solutions allowing grid owners/operators to be completely renewable.
  • H Quest Vanguard, from Pittsburgh, provides green hydrogen at a five to 10 times lower cost to users of natural gas to decarbonize industrial heat.
  • Calgary, Alberta-based Highwood Emissions Management'sSaaS platform allows oil and gas companies to understand their emissions and develop robust plans to reduce them.
  • Icarus RT,from San Diego, California, improves photovoltaic efficiency while enabling useful heat energy storage.
  • Los Altos, California-based Khepra has developed a chemical manufacturing platform for the low-cost, sustainable production of agrochemicals.
  • Binghamton, New York-based Natrion’s electrolyte is a drop-in solid-state battery component that can be rapidly implemented into existing batteries.
  • Oceanways, based in London, provides low-cost, flexible and scalable zero-emission underwater "virtual pipelines" to energy producers.
  • Relyion Energy, from Santa Clara, California, is developing battery usage and intelligence solutions with deeper data and insights for retired electric vehicle batteries.
  • Massachusetts-based Triton Anchor provides a more cost-effective anchoring solution for offshore clean energy with minimal environmental impact.
  • TROES, from Markham, Ontario, provides a 4-in-1 microgrid solution with integrated hardware and software for a streamlined energy storage experience.
  • Mexico City-basedTycho Solutionssupports clean energy project developers by saving time and money during the critical project-siting process.
Halliburton Labs has added three energy tech startups to its program. Photo via Getty Images

Houston energy tech accelerator names 3 startups, announces first out-of-state pitch day

onboarding biz

Halliburton Labs has announced its latest cohort — and revealed details about its next pitch day.

The program, housed at Halliburton's facilities in Houston, added FuelX, LiNa Energy, and Solaires Entreprises to the clean energy accelerator. The companies will receive support from mentors from within Halliburton's workforce and network, as well as go through the accelerator's programming.

“We’re excited to support FuelX, LiNa Energy, and Solaires with the tools they need to achieve their goals,” says Halliburton Labs Managing Director Dale Winger in a news release. “Each participant company receives customized support to enable efficient use of their time and capital by engaging Halliburton’s scaling experience and capabilities.”

The next Halliburton Labs will not take place in Houston. The program is going on the road to host its next Halliburton Labs Finalists Pitch Day on Thursday, September 21, in Denver. The event will be a part of the inaugural Energy Tech Day at Denver Startup Week and will include pitches from innovative, early-stage energy tech companies.

FuelX

FuelX, which has a production plant in the Houston area, manufactures hydrogen storage materials and fuel cell power systems with alane solid state hydrogen fuel.

“Participation in the Halliburton Labs program accelerates our ability to scale to meet existing military and commercial project milestones,” says Greg Jarvie, co-founder and CEO of FuelX.

LiNa Energy

Headquartered in Lancaster, England, LiNa Energy develops and provides low-cost, solid-state sodium batteries.

"LiNa is delighted to be selected for Halliburton Labs – the support and investment will accelerate LiNa's growth on a scale found only in the energy industry,” says Chief Commercial Officer Will Tope. “Halliburton Labs is a cornerstone of our strategy, as we scale up manufacturing to deliver bigger energy storage systems to our partners around the world."

Solaires Entreprises

Solaires Entreprises, based in Victoria, British Columbia, is developing lightweight, flexible, efficient, and transparent solar cells.

“Our company is purpose-driven toward what our technology can achieve: a more affordable and reliable alternative within solar energy and photovoltaics and where renewables become a bigger portion of the world power mix,” says Solaires Co-founder and Chief Science Officer Sahar Sam.

Proxima Clinical Research has announced an office expansion — and more Houston innovation news. Photo via Twitter

Med tech firm expands footprint, Houston innovator assumes new role, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has had some big news this month, from new job titles for Houston innovators to expanding office space.

In this roundup of Houston startup and innovation news, a Houston organization expands its footprint in the TMC, Rice University opens applications for a cleantech accelerator, and more.

Organization expands footprint in Houston

Proxima CRO has announced its expansion within TMCi. Photo via Twitter

Proxima Clinical Research, a contract research organization headquartered in Houston, announced that it is expanding its office space in the Texas Medical Center Innovation Factory.

"Texas Medical Center is synonymous with innovation, and the TMC Innovation space has proven an ideal location for our CRO. It's an important part of our origin story and a big part of our success," says Kevin Coker, CEO and co-founder of Proxima CRO, in a news release.

The expansion will include around 7,500-square feet of additional office space.

"The resources found across TMC's campuses allow for companies such as Proxima Clinical Research to achieve clinical and business milestones that will continue to shape the future of life sciences both regionally and globally. We are excited for Proxima to expand their footprint at TMC Innovation Factory as they further services for their MedTech customers," says Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation, in the release.

$20M grant fuels hardtech program's expansion

Activate is planting its roots in Houston with a plan to have its first set of fellows next year. Photo via Activate.org

A hardtech-focused nonprofit officially announced its Houston expansion this week. Activate, which InnovationMap reported was setting up its fifth program here last month, received a $20M commitment by the National Science Foundation to fuel its entrance into the Bayou City.

“Houston’s diversity offers great promise in expanding access for the next generation of science entrepreneurs and as a center of innovation for advanced energy," says NSF SBIR/STTR program director Ben Schrag in a news release.

The organization was founded in Berkeley, California, in 2015 to bridge the gap between the federal and public sectors to deploy capital and resources into the innovators creating transformative products. The nonprofit expanded its programs to Boston and New York before launching a virtual fellowship program — Activate Anywhere, which is for scientists 50 or more miles outside one of the three hubs.

“We are delighted to be opening our newest Activate community in Houston,” says Activate Anywhere managing director Hannah Murnen, speaking at the annual Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy Innovation Summit. “Houston is a city where innovation thrives, with an abundance of talent, capital, and infrastructure—the perfect setting for the Activate Fellowship.”

Activate is still looking its Houston’s first managing director is actively underway and will select fellows for Activate Houston in 2024.

TMC names new entrepreneur in residence

Zaffer Syed has assumed a new role at TMC. Photo via TMC.org

Houston health tech innovator has announced that he has joined the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Factory as entrepreneur in residence for medtech. Zaffer Syed assumed the new role this month, according to his LinkedIn, and he's been an adviser for the organization since 2017.

Syed has held a few leadership roles at Saranas Inc., a medical device company founded in Houston to detect internal bleeding following medical procedures. He now serves as adviser for the company.

"As CEO of Saranas, he led the recapitalization of the company that led to the FDA De Novo classification and commercial launch of a novel real-time internal bleed monitoring system for endovascular procedures," reads the TMC website. "Zaffer oversaw clinical development, regulatory affairs and strategic marketing at OrthoAccel Technologies, a private dental device startup focused on accelerating tooth movement in patients undergoing orthodontic treatment.

"Prior to working in startup ventures, Zaffer spent the first 13 years of his career in various operational roles at St. Jude Medical and Boston Scientific to support the development and commercialization of Class III implantable devices for cardiovascular and neuromodulation applications."

TMC is currently looking for an entrepreneur in residence for its TMCi Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics program.

Applications open for clean energy startup program

Calling all clean energy startups. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Clean Energy Accelerator, an energy transition accelerator housed at the Ion and run by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, has opened applications for Class 3. The deadline to apply is April 14.

The accelerator, which helps early-stage ventures reach technical and commercial milestones through hybrid programming and mentorship, will host its Class 3 cohort from July 25 to Sept. 22.

“Accelerating the transition to a net-zero future is a key goal at Rice University. Through accelerating the commercial potential of our own research as well as supporting the further adoption of global technologies right here in Houston, the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator is proof of that commitment,” says Paul Cherukuri, vice president of innovation at Rice, in a news release. “The Rice Alliance has all the critical components early-stage energy ventures need for success: a corporate innovation network, energy investor network, access to mentors and a well-developed curriculum. This accelerator program is a unique opportunity for energy startups to successfully launch and build their ventures and get access to the Houston energy ecosystem.”

According to Rice, the 29 alumni companies from Class 1 and 2 have gone on to secure grants, partnerships, and investments, including more than $75 million in funding. Companies can apply here, learn more about the accelerator here or attend the virtual information session April 3 by registering here.

DivInc is bringing another new accelerator program to Houston — this one is focused on clean energy. Photo via DivInc.com

Chevron, Microsoft back Houston-based clean energy program for BIPOC and female founders

ready to grow

A Texas-based accelerator is bringing its third diversity-focused program to Houston.

DivInc, a startup accelerator originating in Austin and established for people of color and women entrepreneurs, has announced that the title sponsors for the inaugural Clean Energy Accelerator are Chevron and Microsoft. The new program will join DivInc's existing accelerators — Women in Tech and Sports Tech — at the Ion.

"With Houston known as the energy capital of the world, DivInc has the opportunity to provide a pipeline of women, black, and latino-led high-growth, high-impact startups focused on clean energy," says Ashley DeWalt, DivInc Houston's managing director, in a news release. "We see this initiative ultimately driving a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive ecosystem within this clean energy transition sector for generations to come."

Applications for the Spring 2023 Clean Energy Accelerator are due today, February 10, according to the website. Startups accepted into the program should be led by BIPOC and women founders committed to working 10 to 15 hours per week during the 12 week program, which will start April 10.

The founders should be "working to shift the energy sector in the areas of clean energy production, energy storage and transmission, energy efficiency, carbon economy, and sustainable cities," per the release. In addition to the two title sponsors, the new program is also supported by Houston Premier Partners, J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Verizon, The Ion, and Mercury.

"With a booming startup industry, a commitment to innovation, and a diverse workforce, Houston and organizations like DivInc are poised to play a vital leadership role and operate as a powerful force for energy progress," says Jim Gable, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, in the release.

The cohort, which will accept up to 10 companies, will work one-on-one with both the Microsoft and Chevron teams, as well as have access to DivInc's network of mentors and curriculum. Once the selected companies have completed the program, they will each receive $10,000 in non-dilutive seed funding.

"We are committed to enabling organizations in the clean energy transition while mindful of millions still without access to energy," said Darryl Willis, Corporate Vice President, Energy Industry at Microsoft. "This collaboration with DivInc and Chevron to support underserved entrepreneurs advancing the world's clean energy needs speaks to this climate commitment as well as diversity, equity and inclusion."

The Rice Alliance has named its second annual cohort. Photo via Getty Images

5 Houston energy tech companies named to Rice accelerator

seeing green

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has announced the 17 companies joining its second accelerator — and the program didn't have to venture very far for some of them.

The Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator named the early- to mid-stage startups that will participate in its second annual class — five of which are based in Houston:

  • CLS Wind is developing a unique system to lift any size wind turbine component to any height using smaller-capacity cranes, an efficient, safe and economical solution to a lack of available high-capacity cranes and vessels.
  • Dsider is developing a low code solution for climate minded organizations to visualize and analyze their carbon pathways to plan, prioritize and operate sustainably and economically.
  • Emission Critical is developing carbon accounting and management software as a service to help enterprises solve end-to-end carbon footprinting with minimum effort
  • NanoTech is developing advanced materials to help businesses and individuals solve fireproofing and thermal insulation challenges with new world particles.
  • Pressure Corp is developing waste pressure power systems to help midstream gas companies solve how they reduce emissions by providing the technology, capital and expertise required to achieve their environmental, social and governance goals.

The 10-week program kicks off at the university’s Rice Alliance Energy Tech Venture Forum in September, and concludes on Demo Day on Nov. 17. While mostly virtual, the program will welcome the complete cohort to Houston three times throughout the accelerator.

The full cohort of companies — which come from seven states and four countries — has already collectively raised more than $54.5 million. Over the 10 weeks, the companies will receive support and mentorship to help them raise funding, launch pilots, win adoption into the marketplace, and more.

The 2022 cohort specializes across the spectrum of clean energy, including advanced materials, digital technology for energy, energy efficiency, energy storage, geothermal energy, hydrogen, waste heat to power, wave energy, and wind energy. The rest of the cohort includes:

  • Atargis Energy, based in Colorado, is developing an innovative twin hydrofoil-based wave energy converter technology combined with a proprietary feedback control system that combines real-time sensors, predictive algorithms and machine learning to make possible the first predictable, low-cost, utility-scale baseload electricity sourced from ocean waves for utilities and other electricity providers.
  • Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, Eden GeoPower Inc. is developing electrical reservoir stimulation technology to help geothermal, petroleum and mineral resource developers solve issues with low-permeability reservoirs by effectively increasing permeability in a way that uses less water and emits less CO2 than traditional stimulation methods.
  • FuelX has developed solid-state hydrogen power systems to help transportation manufacturers meet their customers’ growing performance requirements by using high-energy-density systems that outperform batteries and other pure hydrogen solutions. When coupled with a green hydrogen raw material, FuelX systems provide zero-carbon power.
  • GeoGen Technologies — a Canadian company — is developing a new kind of geothermal that allows oil and gas companies to convert end of life oil and gas wells to economic geothermal.
  • Durham, North Carolina-based GOLeafe uses organic materials and non-energy or capital-intensive equipment toproduce graphene oxide — the world's strongest, thinnest and most conductive material — through a process that’s 10 times more cost efficient and eco-friendly using readily available materials such as hay, sugar and wood chips.
  • LiNa Energy is commercializing safe, sustainable, solid-state sodium batteries that contain no lithium or cobalt.
  • Luminescent, based in the United Kingdom, is building an isothermal expansion heat engine for waste heat recovery along gas transmission pipelines.
  • Nobel improves fuel efficiency for gas-fired power plants with drop in, reliable supersonic combustion technology.
  • Quino Energy — based in California — produces low-cost, long-lifetime aqueous organic flow batteries for grid storage applications. The charge is stored in specially designed organic molecules called quinones, which are produced from cheap chemical precursors in a proprietary, zero-waste process.
  • Viridly, based in Texas,is developing geothermal power plants with patent-pending generator technology alongside geothermal greenhouses to provide the first financially viable way to confidently deliver and scale up the development of baseload geothermal electricity.
  • Another Canadian company, Volta Technique’s compressed air storage and management technology addresses the unpredictable and ever-increasing cost of energy for large commercial and industrial electricity users while enabling decarbonization of the electricity grid through higher integration of renewable energy.
  • Wootz, another Texas company, is developing a scalable manufacturing process to produce sustainable, cost-effective, high-performance carbon nanotube materials at commercial scale to replace or enhance traditional metallic conductors.

Twelve companies participated in Class 1 of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy, which was delivered virtually last summer. The 12 startups in that inaugural class have raised a combined $6.5 million in funding, identified and launched pilots, met investors, hired staff and moved their offices to Houston.

The program is supported by founding sponsor Wells Fargo and supporters: BP, Baker Botts, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Halliburton Labs, Equinor, Microsoft, NRG, Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, Shell Ventures, Sunnova, TotalEnergies, Tudor Pickering Holt, Canadian Consulate, TC Energy, Phillips 66, and ENI Next.

Kerri Smith of the Rice Alliance joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss Rice's Clean Energy Accelerator. Photo courtesy of Rice

Cleantech accelerator leader looks forward to new cohort and making an impact on Houston's energy transition

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 134

Kerri Smith knows accelerators. Through her over 18 years at Rice Alliance, she's been responsible for overseeing several and was on the founding leadership team of Houston's first energy tech startup accelerator, SURGE. After years of focusing you accelerating Rice University's student-focused program, Owl Spark, she's transitioned back into the energy tech space.

"I've worked with many types of founders. There's not one unique characteristic that everyone has," Smith says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal is to help move them along and help them move the needle. At the end of the day, we want them to have a good experience and to meet their goals and objectives."

The Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator launched last summer with its inaugural cohort of 12 cleantech startups, which represented energy sectors from solar and wind innovations to hydrogen, geothermal, and more. Smith says the startups represented a wide range of stages and were from all over — only two companies were from Houston originally. The out-of-town companies were able to make critical partnerships in town and set up a presence and a home here.

"We were able to build a family-like culture among our group, and that was something that was wildly appreciative," Smith, who serves as executive director of the program, says.

Applications for Class 2 of CEA are open until May 31. While the program will offer the same access to mentorship and opportunities, the program will change slightly. CEA will focus on seed and series A-stage companies and will be a hybrid program. Throughout the 10 weeks, which begins in the fall instead of the summer this year, founders will visit Houston three times at the beginning, middle, and the end of the accelerator. Each startup will receive a grant to cover the expenses of the equity-free program.

CEA is just one part of a greater ecosystem of innovation under the umbrella of Rice University, which includes the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, The Ion Houston, Owl Spark, and more. All these entities also play into the greater Houston area's innovation ecosystem.

"Rice Alliance has a strong history of demonstrating collaboration with a number of organizations," Smith says. "I think one of the primary benefits that we have in these collaborative opportunities is to ensure that we are collectively building a capable and diverse pipeline of talent to solve for these problems and provide them with access to experiencing all of the benefits of our ecosystem."

With CEA specifically, some of these collaborations include working with Greentown Houston, which is just next door to the program's home at The Ion, and the Greater Houston Partnership's Houston Energy Transition Initiative.

"We're a cog in the wheel. We do really well with that. We play well with others – in ways that the founder has a good experience and can benefit," Smith says.

Smith shares more about what she's looking for in the second cohort of CEA on the podcast episode, as well as what she sees as Houston's role in the energy transition. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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Houston researcher scores prestigious NSF award for machine learning, power grid tech

grant funding

An associate professor at the University of Houston received the highly competitive National Science Foundation CAREER Award earlier this month for a proposal focused on integrating renewable resources to improve power grids.

The award grants more than $500,000 to Xingpeng Li, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of the Renewable Power Grid Lab at UH, to continue his work on developing ways to use machine learning to ensure that power systems can continue to run efficiently when pulling their energy from wind and solar sources, according to a statement from UH. This work has applications in the events of large disturbances to the grid.

Li explains that currently, power grids run off of converted, stored kinetic energy during grid disturbances.

"For example, when the grid experiences sudden large generation losses or increased electrical loads, the stored kinetic energy immediately converted to electrical energy and addressed the temporary shortfall in generation,” Li said in a statement. “However, as the proportion of wind and solar power increases in the grid, we want to maximize their use since their marginal costs are zero and they provide clean energy. Since we reduce the use of those traditional generators, we also reduce the power system inertia (or stored kinetic energy) substantially.”

Li plans to use machine learning to create more streamlined models that can be implemented into day-ahead scheduling applications that grid operators currently use.

“With the proposed new modeling and computational approaches, we can better manage grids and ensure it can supply continuous quality power to all the consumers," he said.

In addition to supporting Li's research and model creations, the funds will also go toward Li and his team's creation of a free, open-source tool for students from kindergarten up through their graduate studies. They are also developing an “Applied Machine Learning in Power Systems” course. Li says the course will help meet workforce needs.

The CAREER Award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF. It's given to about 500 researchers each year.

Earlier this year, Rice assistant professor Amanda Marciel was also

granted an NSF CAREER Award to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston expert shares 3 leadership challenges inspired by jazz improvisation

houston voices

Crises, whether supply chain disruptions, natural disasters, or the arrival of an upstart rival, are a revealing moment for leaders. Such scenarios can push companies to the brink of meltdown or usher in dramatic organizational transformation. Whether an organization withers or thrives during a crisis is shaped by its resourcefulness—how it uses its existing resources.

The pandemic decimated many industries, but the performing arts industry faced especially grave challenges: rampant unemployment, limited prospects for revenue, and an existential crisis over the relevance of the arts in dire times. Initially, musicians could not congregate to practice, performance halls were shuttered, and classical music was the last thing on the public’s mind.

As tough as these circumstances appeared to be, what collaborator Kristen Nault and I learned during a multiyear study of two prominent orchestras surprised us: Not only was it possible to survive trying times, but it was also possible to emerge better because of them. The leadership key? Becoming nimbler by thinking more like jazz ensembles and less like classical orchestras.

Business leaders often call this agility, but for a musician, this is the realm of jazz improvisation. Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that helped leaders facing disruptions act like talented jazz musicians. Leaders in any industry can apply these practices during their organization’s next crisis.

The Resource Paradox During a Crisis

An organization’s most significant challenge during a crisis is that it typically needs resources — including time, money, expertise, equipment, and connections — at a time when activating resources has become more difficult. When faced with high levels of uncertainty, a leader’s first instinct might be to pare down investments to lower the risk of worst case outcomes. Ironically, such defensive behaviors can contribute to the organization’s demise. Threat rigidity sets in, with the leader doubling down on old habits and control mechanisms that make it difficult to harness the full potential of resources.

Instead of fearing crises, leaders can learn to embrace their hidden benefits. And by following the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention,” organizations can unlock the full power of their existing resources to respond to a challenge. Research on resourcefulness finds that when leaders take this approach, they can foster collective creativity to help groups solve problems in adverse times.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses discovered ways to access more knowledge (to understand how to repurpose products and services), capital (to invest in IT infrastructure), and connections (to identify new markets for revised products and services). Resourcefulness helped businesses pivot: Bakeries pivoted to selling raw ingredients for home chefs, clothing companies to producing face masks, vacuum manufacturer Dyson to designing a ventilator in 10 days, and distilleries to manufacturing hand sanitizer.

A Tale of Two Symphonies — and Leadership Approaches

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a multiyear research study with two of the world’s premier symphony organizations, the Houston Symphony and the Revenite Symphony (a pseudonym because the organization requested confidentiality).

When we began our research, it was an open question as to whether Revenite and the Houston Symphony would survive. Both organizations had struggled financially before the pandemic, with millions of dollars in losses and even more significant budget deficits. Both organizations were also steeped in customs and traditions, which, as any business leader knows, makes change difficult. Yet, crises often produce one valuable resource needed to instigate considerable change: urgency. Urgency makes it possible to rapidly implement changes that might otherwise have taken years (or not happened at all). A lack of urgency dooms many change management initiatives, making its abundance during a crisis an opportunity not to be overlooked. As we interviewed and observed symphony executives, staff members, and musicians, we discovered that the leaders of each organization took very different approaches to addressing the crisis and mobilizing their resources to respond.

Revenite announced a suspension of operations near the start of the pandemic. Its leadership could not envision how to pivot its labor and fixed assets, such as its performance hall, to capture new sources of revenue. As one Revenite executive told me, “I don’t think we had a sense of what the pathway toward restarting the business was going to be. … There were too many unknowns.”

After furloughing all of the musicians and most of its staff, Revenite focused on surviving. The organization radically slashed costs to 25 percent of the pre-pandemic budget and tried to get the remaining skeleton workforce to increase productivity to keep the symphony chugging along. Leaders sought to wait things out until the pandemic subsided. This defensive strategy led Revenite to constrict resources when the organization needed them most.

Afraid to go broke, the organization retreated — at a significant cost. Revenite lost any relevance to its community at this time of great need. Several difficult-to-replace musicians quit the industry. Trust between leadership and all employees, already strained from the furloughs, further deteriorated as Revenite’s leaders centralized control of the organization and focused on squeezing the remaining labor force to do more. Many employees felt burned out from working long hours with little purpose. No one, including executives, understood the “why” behind the work. As one executive said to me, “I’m working to sustain a thing that has no inherent meaning other than its survival. That’s a really weird place to be. … Our mission is to perform orchestral music.”

In contrast, the Houston Symphony made an early commitment during the pandemic to remain open. It abandoned the long-term planning that symphonies typically engage in (measured in years) and shifted to figuring out the next few weeks — for its concert program, staffing, safety practices, and marketing efforts.

At first, congregating in the performance hall was not allowed due to regulations and safety concerns. So instead, the Houston Symphony turned its musicians’ homes into performance venues. The musicians teamed up with musically talented (but not professional) family members, including partners and children. Instead of relying on a huge production team, the makeshift videos in its Living Room Series of performances were created by a minimal number of staff members. Other orchestras that livestreamed performances tried to re-create the symphony experience on Zoom, with 70-plus musicians appearing in tiny square boxes. The Houston Symphony realized that it would inevitably disappoint its customers by trying to transform a rich in-person experience into a mediocre online one. Instead, it reimagined the delivery of its content by inviting customers to learn about musicians and their families in an intimate setting while listening to enjoyable music.

When the Houston Symphony moved to livestreaming full concerts without an in-person audience, it could reach new geographic markets not possible with in-person-only events. It charged an admission fee for the virtual concerts (which was uncommon) and attracted donations from a wider variety of patrons. This brought in additional resources, such as revenue, new supporters, and media attention, as well as an enhanced reputation among industry peers.

Importantly, these decisions also created extra time for the organization to figure out how to safely and effectively return its patrons to the performance hall, which Houston did long before most other symphonies. However, the organization went further, using the pandemic to usher in a more profound transformation.

Instead of making deep cost cuts and unsustainable workforce reductions like Revenite did in the name of resourcefulness, the Houston Symphony took a strategic approach to resourcefulness. Leaders focused not on simply surviving but on strengthening the organization’s long-term outlook — financially, operationally, and in terms of its mission:

  • The need to be more mindful of costs during severe financial distress helped leaders balance the budget, a goal that had proved elusive in years past. The entire organization made a newfound commitment to follow a pathway of greater fiscal responsibility into the future.
  • The organization expanded its donor base beyond Houston and reached customers worldwide with the paid livestreaming product. Although at face value a livestreaming ticket yielded fewer proceeds than an in-person concert, many attendees were first-time patrons. Additionally, a large portion of these people donated money in addition to buying the livestream tickets.
  • The symphony maintained livestreaming performances after returning to a full, in-person concert schedule — earning incremental revenue with little added effort.
  • In a striking change, the organization introduced its patrons, who traditionally heard Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to a more diverse set of composers. Prepandemic, the pressure to fill 3,000 seats deterred the Houston Symphony from experimenting with new composers: When programs featured unfamiliar works, filling the theater with ticket buyers was a challenge. But that pressure disappeared when the performance hall was restricted to less than 50 percent capacity. The organization brought in much-needed new voices, and its audiences responded positively — so much so that the symphony upped its efforts. In the year before the pandemic, fewer than 1 percent of the symphony’s classical concerts featured musical pieces composed by members of underrepresented populations or women. In the 2023 fiscal year, and with Houston’s hall at full capacity, that number expanded to 72 percent.

Learning to Get Jazzy: Three Strategies for Leaders

Many organizations, whether a symphony, manufacturing company, or professional services firm, are metaphorically structured like an orchestra. They have conductors (leaders) and rely on sheet music (routines and practices) to coordinate different parts (teams, divisions, or functional areas) of the enterprise. Organizational leaders aim for reliable and standardized performances, much like conductors aim to make the matinee performance of a symphony the same high quality as the evening one. Through many rehearsals (that is, the repetition of behaviors), it is possible to make incremental improvements, but leaders seek output that, by design, is predictable and relatively static. Operating like a symphony orchestra allows organizations to thrive in environments of stability and low uncertainty. But during a crisis, this type of model can be disastrous.

Our research found that the Houston Symphony significantly changed its operating model. It pulled ahead of peers in the industry when leaders changed the operating metaphor to that of a jazz ensemble. As one executive told me, the collective team saw the power of flexibility: “Leadership has come from the admin and staff side and the musician side. … We’ve combined different kinds of music and programs that [we] would never do before. I would say that as a large organization, we’re operating more like a small organization.”

That is the kind of result that many business leaders navigating disruptive crises only hope to nurture within their teams.

How did the Houston Symphony’s leaders inspire the organization to become so nimble? Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that enabled them to adapt.

1. Keep the music playing.

Like a jazz ensemble, the Houston Symphony tried to keep the music playing, literally and figuratively. While Revenite stopped playing music and functioning as an organization, the Houston Symphony kept playing … anything. For example, the livestreamed Living Room Series was a far different product than a fully staffed professional production with 70 musicians in a 3,000-seat venue. However, those performances brought in new patrons and donors, and nurtured the symphony’s relevance in the community. This experiment also helped build the organization’s experience with livestreaming, which proved to be an important launching point for a more comprehensive virtual offering. Leaders, staff members, and musicians discovered their hidden capabilities around playing different types of music, utilizing novel technologies, and coordinating in new ways.

Without clarity on how the pandemic would unfold, the Houston Symphony focused on short-term decisions, asking “What can we play this week?” instead of trying to have an answer for the rest of the year. This allowed the symphony to have the most relevant information to inform its operations — real-time information that could be used to make decisions today, instead of relying on shaky assumptions about an unknown future. Leaders of any type of organization can understand a crisis by experimenting and then taking stock of lessons learned instead of remaining frozen by fear and uncertainty.

2. Don’t wait to practice transparency.

Houston’s leaders fostered strong trust between management and all employees. As resources become scarce during a crisis, it’s easy for trust to erode if decisions lack transparency. Instead of shrouding decision-making in secrecy, the Houston Symphony invited representatives from the front-line staff to weigh in on critical decisions. Relationships with the musicians’ union strengthened. By revealing sensitive information and disclosing the dire predicament the organization faced early on, leaders built trust and sparked a sense of urgency. Both were required in order for the team to quickly make significant changes.

Trust also came from empowering employees to experiment and not punishing them for making mistakes. For example, the marketing team had to try different campaign messages until they found one that resonated with patrons. The development team turned the mere fact that the symphony was playing into a comeback story—one that donors eagerly supported. The operations team discovered ways to socially distance musicians and audiences and continually modified its plans as the pandemic evolved.

3. Collaborate on a postcrisis identity.

Finally, the Houston Symphony constructed a new postcrisis identity that reflected its leadership role in the community. Instead of trying to return to pre-pandemic norms, leaders expanded the organization’s mission to cater to a wider, more diverse set of community members. The organization committed to experimenting with new types of music and continued with livestreaming to introduce audiences worldwide to a larger repertoire of selections. Expanded educational programs helped it reach underserved communities, providing a stronger foundation to diversify the artistic talent base.

Having helped shape the Houston Symphony’s comeback during the pandemic, employees embraced this community centered vision and rallied to keep the transformation momentum going. Additionally, they all came to see their own skill sets differently. After effectively coping with major adversity and helping to build a stronger organization, employees came to see themselves as capable crisis navigators — which will help everyone during future crises.

A Second Act

As our research progressed into its second year, we grew increasingly certain that Revenite would fold. We turned out to be wrong. As the organization neared the brink of death, Revenite’s leaders stopped waiting for the crisis to abate and ushered in a dramatic turnaround. It began when leaders engaged in updating. Updating is a leadership competency in which prior beliefs are revised to better address problems. It’s often a struggle for leaders to change direction after committing to a course of action, but Revenite’s leaders managed to dislodge their previous views of the crisis as the organization withered. They managed to adapt, as any jazz musician must.

Although the relationship with Revenite’s musicians had been deeply tarnished, leaders restarted a dialogue. The full impact of the furlough and Revenite’s decision to suspend operations became clear. Leaders updated their assessments of employees’ emotional states, gaining a more vivid understanding of how they had suffered economically and emotionally. Musicians explained that they had felt disconnected from their love of performance and struggled to stay sharp without practicing as an entire orchestra. After learning about employees’ hardships, leaders finally felt an urgent need to course-correct.

Revenite’s leaders next updated their assumptions about financial resources. They finally acknowledged that cost cutting was not a viable business strategy or a pathway to transformation. Instead of viewing employees as cost centers, leaders shifted to seeing them as revenue generators. By becoming more strategic with their resourcefulness, Revenite’s leaders could mobilize their existing resources to respond to the crisis more effectively. Musicians returned from furlough and started helping to increase revenues through donor outreach and, eventually, concerts.

Leaders also started noticing more about how other entities were adjusting to the crisis. They found inspiration in the Houston Symphony’s ability to operate during the pandemic — and also learned from Revenite’s musicians’ efforts to create COVID-safe concerts to raise money for themselves during the furlough. These examples showed Revenite’s leaders that operating during a pandemic was possible — something they had thought was insurmountable earlier in the year. By the end of year two of the pandemic, Revenite was well on its way to returning to its precrisis strength.

When a crisis hits, getting jazzy will help leaders in any industry adapt and positively transform their organizations. Instead of fearfully retreating at the onset of a crisis, using resourcefulness as a set of strategic tools can help leaders turn a threat into an opportunity. By unlocking the hidden potential of existing resources, organizations can emerge from a crisis with better financials, stronger operations, higher team morale, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Scott Sonenshein, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Rice University, author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined (HarperCollins, 2017), and coauthor (with Marie Kondo) of Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life (Little, Brown Spark, 2020).

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for April

WHERE TO BE

From pitching competitions to expert speaker summits, April is filled with opportunities for Houston innovators.

Here's a roundup of events you won't want to miss out on so mark your calendars and register accordingly.

Note: This post may be updated to add more events.

April 4 — Mission Control: Texas’ Leadership in Space, Technology, and Innovation 

Since its inception, the space industry has expanded across Texas and grown beyond scientific exploration into a tableau on which the terrestrial set have placed bets related to tourism, mining, communications, healthcare, food science, national security, technical innovations across all industries, and even human habitation beyond earth. The Texas Lyceum’s 2024 Public Conference (PubCon) will explore these opportunities and the journey to realize the promise of space and beyond for Texas and the nation.

Throughout the event, an expected 300 industry leaders and Texas legislators and staffers will participate in thought provoking discussions to inform our stakeholders and state leaders on the trajectory, challenges and opportunities in the Space Economy.

This event starts Thursday, April 4, from 2:30 to 9:30 pm at the Thompson Hotel. Click here to register.

April 4-6 — 2024 Rice Business Plan Competition

Hosted and organized by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, which is Rice University's internationally-recognized initiative devoted to the support of entrepreneurship, and Rice Business, the Rice Business Plan Competition offers an educational program mirroring real-world experience through this multi-day event for student startups from across the world.

In total, more than $1 million in investment and cash prizes are expected to be awarded at the 2024 Rice Business Plan Competition. Every single startup will walk away with at least $950 in cash prizes, no matter where they place in the competition.

The Elevator Pitch event is open to the public and on Thursday, April 4, from 6 to 9 pm at Jones Graduate School of Business. Click here to register.

April 6 — 12th Annual Houston Global Health Collaborative Conference

This meeting is an annual gathering of interdisciplinary professionals and students with a passion for global health innovation and advancement. This year's Conference Theme is Global Health Diplomacy: Shaping Policies for Health Impact and will feature subthemes of vaccine diplomacy, global surgery, the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, and the global nutrition crisis. Clinicians, researchers, healthcare workers, policymakers, and students across any field who are interested in global health are especially encouraged to attend.

This event is Saturday, April 6, from 7:45 am to 7 pm at the University of Houston College of Medicine. Click here to register.

April 10 — Bayou City Bio Pulse

Check out a showcase of life sciences in The Woodlands. This event will feature a vendor exhibition, presentations from business, academic and community development leaders, and a panel discussion on The Woodlands’ life sciences ecosystem. Spanning across five sites totaling over 80 acres, The Woodlands Innovation District is positioned to meet the needs of companies focused on in-house manufacturing (from biopharma to industrial biology), as well as contract development manufacturing organizations (CDMOs).

This event is Wednesday, April 10, from 8 am to 12 pm at the Woodlands Towers. Click here to register.

April 18 — Energy Underground: All Things Hydrogen

The Energy Underground is a group of professionals in the Greater Houston area that are accelerating the Energy Transition. Come together to learn and support each other's work in advancing the Energy Transition: make industry contacts, secure financing, share deals, recommend talent looking to enter the energy workforce, and anything else that leads to bigger, better energy companies.

This event is Thursday, April 18, from 12 to 1:30 pm at the Cannon West Houston. Click here to register.

April 19 — Build Day x Tour: Houston Hackathon

A partnership between ACT House, a human analytics leader, and Tech Equity Collective, a Google Initiative driving black innovation in tech formed an exciting new accelerator. Participants will build their own startup team, collaborate on ideas, and sprint on real work. The first place winning team will receive $10,000, the second place team will recieve $5,000 and the third place team will get $2,500.

This event is Friday, April 19, at 4 pm until April 20 at 4 pm. Click here to register.

April 21 — The Energy Corridor District's Earth Day Celebration

Come out for a day of fun and environmental awareness. Get hands-on and contribute to a communal art piece that symbolizes a collective commitment to Mother Earth. Pick up a brush or a marker and add your creativity to the canvas.

Take a moment to learn how the world's top energy companies are contributing to a more sustainable future. Get inspired and pick up some tips for your own eco-journey

This event is Sunday, April 21, from 1 to 4 pm at Terry Hershey Park. Click here to register.

April 22 — EO4Energy Workshop

The Geological Remote Sensing Group (GRSG) Americas, in partnership with the University of Houston, invites you to a workshop focusing on the role of Earth Observation (EO) and remote sensing in the Energy Industry.

As the industry moves towards sustainability, driven by Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) considerations, the significance of EO and remote sensing continues to grow. This workshop will encompass insightful case studies, introduce emerging technologies, and present advanced methodologies. Participants will engage with a diverse group of professionals from the energy, space, academic, and government sectors.

This event begins Monday, April 22, at 8 am at Hilton University of Houston. Click here to register.

April 25 — 2024 PIDX International US Spring Conference

In this industry event, explore the intersection of AI and Digital Standards. All experienced speakers across industries are invited to contribute articles, share use cases and theories, and connect with attendees from the Energy Industry.

The accumulated knowledge shared at the event will guide the forthcoming phase of PIDX Standards Development tailored for the Energy Industry.

This event begins Thursday, April 25, at 8 am at 501 Westlake Park. Click here to register.

April 26 — StartupLaunch USA: Ignite Your Entrepreneurial Journey

This is an immersive online learning experience tailored for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to kickstart their startup ventures in the United States. This event provides participants with the essential knowledge, skills, and resources needed to navigate the complexities of launching and scaling a successful business.

Through a series of interactive workshops, expert-led seminars, and practical case studies. Participants will learn how to develop innovative business ideas, validate market opportunities, and create viable business models that resonate with target audiences.

This event is Friday, April 26, from 1 to 6 pm at Museum of Natural Science. Click here to register.

April 27 — World Youth Foundation: STEAM Innovation Incubator

WYF's STEAM Innovation Industry Pathways, or SIIP, is a youth out-of-school-time monthly program designed to bridge the gap between academic learning, industry, and digital skilling.

Open to youth ages 6 to 24, SIIP is not your typical program—it's a gateway to a world of metaskilling, offering a dynamic range of skills from design thinking, strategic project management, soft skills development, digital skills development, and industry application.

This event is Saturday, April 27, from 10 am to 1:30 pm at Sunnyside Health and Multi-Service Center. Click here to register.