Rand Stephens, managing director of Avison Young's Houston office, discusses COVID-19's effect on office and innovation spaces. Photo courtesy of Avison Young

Rand Stephens has been in Houston since the '80s, and he's seen the city evolve from having an economy heavily dominated by oil and gas to a city focused on diversification of industry.

Now, as a technology and innovation ecosystem is emerging with new startup and lab space being developed, Houston is on a good path — even in light of the effects of the pandemic.

"I think that Houston is a very vibrant place and it always has been. It's very entrepreneurial, and it will adjust to the new environment," says Stephens, who's principal at Avison Young and the founding managing director of the company's Houston office.

Stephens discussed the importance of new developments and the effect of the pandemic on the commercial real estate industry in an interview with InnovationMap.

InnovationMap: Why is the timing right for Houston's innovation ecosystem to emerge?

Rand Stephens: Since the '80s, there's been a real emphasis within the city to diversify. Trying to do new things is always difficult because a lot of it has to do with timing — it has to make sense economically. Innovation is a hot thing right now, more so than ever. As a city or company, if you're not constantly innovating, you're going to get left behind.

From a real estate standpoint, we've really had an abundance of low-cost space in an environment that is very entrepreneurial.

IM: Why are emerging innovation campuses like The Ion and Texas A&M Innovation Plaza near the Texas Medical Center so important?

RS: Houston is an incredible diverse city. We have unlimited talent from an engineering standpoint, and I think those types of projects bode well for keeping and attracting top tech talent. I think that's really the key.

You have to have this kind of infrastructure to support the innovation. The more that we can do to make the city walkable and to provide connectivity to the different parts of the city, is important. It's all about the experience. And, I don't think people like getting in the car and fight traffic — I think it's that simple.

IM: Has COVID-19 affected the momentum of innovation development?

RS: It has. But, what I've seen, and it's totally anecdotal, but people are coming to grips with COVID. They are coming to grips with the risks, and, as time goes on, they will see it as a less risky disease as a vaccine and treatment become available.

These innovation spaces are going to be important for collaboration. You lose the spontaneity of innovation and collaboration if you're not around people. But, we're already seeing people in Houston returning to work.

IM: In general, how is the pandemic affecting commercial real estate?

RS: COVID is impacting the office market the most — and I think it will long term as well. There's been a trend for a long time now to use less square footage per person. I think corporations have evolved from looking at their office spaces as a place to put people to work to really trying to create an experiential environment to use the office to re-enforce their culture and brand in order to recruit top talent. COVID has accelerated that trend now.

My gut feeling on that is it's going to depend on the business. Different types of industries function differently, and the size of the business is going to depend on that too. I think the trend of using less square footage per person isn't going to go up. I don't think we're going to see companies taking more space for social distancing. I think what they'll do is give people more flexibility. I think corporates are going to say, "let's ammenitize our space and put people in places where it's experiential and a cool place to work." And I think people are OK with that.

IM: What makes Houston a good city for innovation?

RS: There are three or four reasons off the top of my head, but one is the entrepreneurial spirit and that's pervasive everywhere. Then, we have amazing infrastructure here, with talent and education. Another thing that is key is affordability. Relatively speaking, it's a very affordable city to do business in. The fourth thing would be the diversity and inclusion we have here. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country — and a lot of people don't know that. And I have found it to be an incredibly inclusive city. I think if you move here and you have good ideas and work hard, there's nothing to hold you back here.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Both commercial and residential real estate businesses have been greatly affected by social distancing mandate. These two Houston companies are using technology to help grow their business. Photo courtesy of Cameron Management

Houston real estate sector adapts new tech to stay competitive during coronavirus outbreak

virtual tools

As the coronavirus impacts foot traffic throughout businesses in Houston, the real estate world is ushering in digital resources to adapt to a socially distanced city.

Mike Miller, vice president of Ashlar Development, saw the growing threat of COVID-19 in early March and knew he and his team had to find new ways to engage prospective home buyers safely. By the time Houston County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the stay-at-home order, Ashlar Development had started the process of drafting a 360-degree interactive map for its northeast Houston community, The Groves, that would allow homebuyers to virtually tour the property.

"People were scared to come out of their homes, to touch model home door knobs, and walk-in and see a sales agent," says Miller, who noted the initial decline in foot traffic.

The interactive map debuted on The Groves' website on March 30, allowing users to experience the community through 35 different touchpoints. Website visitors can peruse nearby trails, the playground, pool, community amenities, and the local elementary school to immerse yourself in the community.

"One of our mantras at The Groves is to get outside. We encourage our residents to get outside and enjoy the community, enjoy the trails, and enjoy everything. What this [interactive map] does is it allows you to safely get outside from the safety of your home," he says.

Ashlar Development launched a virtual tour tool for its northeast Houston community. Image courtesy of Ashlar Development

Commercial real estate is also paving the way for innovation amid the pandemic. Houston-based real estate group, Cameron Management, unveiled its virtual 3D office tour on Monday. Partnering with Austin-based Swivel, a digital leasing platform for office space, the real estate group's latest venture will allow tenants and brokers the ability to take a 3-D virtual tour of suites.

The SaaS-based leasing application, AgileView, will feature 50,000 square feet comprised of 12 Cameron Management suites.

"We were looking to provide a tour to a broker, [or] to a broker's client, without anybody having to put themselves at any risk," says Jano Nixon Kelley, Cameron Management's director of marketing.

Kelley had built a strong relationship with the Swivel team prior to the coronavirus outbreak. When she learned of the capabilities of AgileView, "we jumped on it," she says.

"We were so pleased that they actually got the feeling for the building," Kelley says, "It doesn't look cookie cutter."

Another way both companies are getting creative is through digital marketing. Ashlar Development pivoted to digital advertising through paid media ads, email campaigns, and social media marketing. Rather than cutting its marketing budget, the community reallocated funds to building out the 360-degree interactive map and transitioning from print ads to digital display ads.

The response equated to what Miller deems an "incredible success." In the first week of launching the 360-degree interactive map, Ashlar Development saw a 3,000 percent increase in page views. The traffic resulted in a 1,200 percent increase in views to its "Meet the Builder" page, which features various home builders partnered with The Groves community. Since the tour launch, the company has seen a 220 percent increase in first-time visitors to its website.

Ashlar Development's significant web traffic isn't just a vanity number; Miller states that the Groves has seen a 116 percent increase in April sales as compared to last year. To date, the community is seeing approximately 30 percent in year-over-year sales since the stay-at-home order took effect.

Similar to Ashlar Development's approach, Kelley says Cameron Management utilized email marketing to launch her campaign. Cameron Management is also incentivizing brokers to use the application by hosting a two-week-long scavenger hunt for a chance to win an Amegy Bank debit card in an effort to support local business. "They can choose how to use their money, but hopefully they use it locally," says Kelley.

"Even if you're at home, [AgileView] gives you something visual to look at. Maybe you've got kids at home and can say, 'look, here's a game we can play together.' It's something to get people engaged," says Kelley.

"Office space needs for organizations of all sizes are modifying quickly, and likely will be changed for the long term. As the commercial real estate community adjusts to this new normal, there are still many unknowns," Kelley says. "At Cameron Management, we believe our differentiator is the ability to be nimble and pragmatic across all areas of our business—now and well beyond COVID-19," she continues.

For Ashlar Development, foot traffic has returned "almost back to normal," according to Miller, who attributes the rise to "pent up demand" once the stay-at-home order lifted.

"We're all kind of stuck in our houses, and our only outlet is to get outside and enjoy where you live," he says. "Our residents don't have to get in the car to enjoy a nearby county park, they can enjoy the community and the great outdoors right outside of their home," he says.

Miller himself recently bought a house from the comfort of his residence, electronically depositing his earnest money and signing for his future home.

"I think we're on the verge of a digital revolution in our industry," Miller says confidently. "Real estate has been slow to get into the digital realm, but I think this is going to force us to embrace technology."

Usually, Ashlar Development's selling point for The Groves is its access to "get outside." But, in a time of COVID-19, the company has optimized its technology to let home buying and touring stay inside for the time being. Photo courtesy of Ashlar Development

SquareFoot — a real estate tech company with Houston roots — is entering the Houston market. Getty Images

Real estate tech company founded by Houstonian launches locally, looks for office space

Homecoming

A New York-based company that uses technology to optimize the commercial real estate leasing process is expanding into Houston — and it's a bit of a homecoming for the company's CEO.

SquareFoot, which was founded by Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum in 2011, has launched in Houston following the closing of a $16 million series B funding round led by Chicago-based DRW VC. The company uses tech tools — like a space calculator and online listings to help users find the right office space quicker and easier than traditional methods.

The Bayou City's growth in small businesses and startups makes for a great market for SquareFoot.

"Houston, in addition to being a leading market for business, is a city in transition," Wasserstrum says. "We've witnessed a growing trend of smaller companies cropping up, with startups showing that they're here to stay. I want SquareFoot to be a major part of the city's growth and evolution."

The idea for a company, Wasserstrum says, came from a friend in Houston who was struggling to find office space for his small company. Years later, that problem's solution would be SquareFoot.

SquareFoot's Houston operations are up and running online, and the listings and resources will continue to grow. Wasserstrum says the team will also open a physical office in Houston, and the team is currently looking for its own office space in a "highly-desirable" area, Wasserstrum says.

"That will not only make it easier for us to show office spaces to prospective clients, but it also sends the message that we understand these clients better than anyone," he explains. "Where you choose to open your offices is part of the story you're shaping for candidates and clients."

In regards to Houston-based employees, Wasserstrum says he will start with tapping a few Houston real estate experts. He will take the business model that was successful in New York and adapt it for Houston

"It's not only the East and West Coasts where innovation is taking place," Wasserstrum says. "We want to help Houston continue to grow as a stellar place to launch and grow a company."

National expansion is Wasserstrum's big goal, he says, and after settling in Houston, he plans to next enter into Washington, D.C., and a few other major markets.

Wasserstrum explains what the Houston expansion means to him, how tech is changing real estate, and trends he's keeping an eye on.

IM: What does it mean to be expanding in your hometown?

Jonathan Wasserstrum: Houston is where I grew up. My whole life has been shaped by what I saw and learned in Houston. I moved away for college, and have built my career on the East Coast, but Houston will always be a big part of me. My parents still live there so I have good reasons to fly home and to come home again.

As I've built out my company, SquareFoot, since 2012 at our NYC headquarters, I have dreamed of being able to expand our services nationally. We have helped over 1,200 companies find and secure office spaces in major cities. As our executive team considered where to invest in and to expand to next, Houston emerged at the top of the list. We made this decision for professional growth reasons, but that choice has an emotional element for me as well.

Going forward, I should have additional good reasons to fly home and to see my parents more often than I have had the occasion to over recent years. Plus, we save on hotel costs!

IM: What makes Houston a great place to expand into?

JW: From an office space perspective, Houston is an under tapped market. There are countless companies looking for the services we provide, but nobody has yet figured out how to build a company to serve them specifically.

We acquire many of our clients through online search — people looking for office space are literally searching online for solutions. We've seen in recent months and years a surge in searches from Houston, which indicated to us that there was a gap that had developed there. We've long had a digital presence there, thanks to these searches, but now we're increasing our physical presence on the ground. We'll hire a broker and put an office there in the coming months.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in office real estate? Are these trends happening in Houston already?

JW: Over the past years, we've seen a sharp increase in demand for flexible solutions. Traditional coworking spaces have worked out for many companies, but it's not for everyone.

At the same time, the long-term leases that are usually required upon signing on for an office space of your own has largely kept growing companies out of the market; it has scared them off. We realized there had to be a middle option so we launched FLEX by SquareFoot last year. Now, for the first time, all companies can find the spaces they want with the terms they want.

We are excited to introduce FLEX to the Houston market and to show companies there that there's more lease flexibility and opportunity available than they might think. Change in commercial real estate happens slowly over a long period of time. Houston has the chance now to be a part of their changing wave.

IM: How is technology changing the industry?

JW: For many decades, commercial real estate operated the exact same way. And it intended to stay that way because nobody had reason to believe anything was broken or wrong. However, there were several inefficiencies that clients just had to deal with because that was the industry standard.

The first one was the lack of transparency of which office spaces were unoccupied or what they'd cost. Brokers would lock up this information and keep clients at a distance, unless they were willing to sign on to work with them. With SquareFoot's online listings platform, we have unlocked that information, have educated countless people, and have made for a more seamless and enjoyable process for our clients as partners in their searches.

The other technological breakthrough we've made is in our mobile app. Still, in 2020, too many clients are taking tours of these offices with pen and paper and occasionally snapping a photo or video to send back to their stakeholders. Our app solved those issues once and for all, enabling better communication back and forth and a better user experience for all. Regardless of which team member goes on the office tour with our broker, everyone is clued in and on the same page.

We want everyone on the greater team to buy into the vision, and to recognize the potential, not just one representative who happened to be on the office tour one afternoon.

Natalie Goodman founded Incentifind, which connects home builders and commercial developers with green incentives. Courtesy of Incentifind

Unique Houston startup is finding ways for developers to go green — and save money in the process

Seeing green

When asked about the origin story of IncentiFind — a Houston-based startup that connects real estate developers and home builders with green construction incentives — founder Natalie Goodman doesn't mince words.

"We're a complete accident," Goodman says. "I'm an architect. We didn't set out to have a startup."

IncentiFind's mission is to increase the amount of green developments and construction projects in the U.S. The company is equipped with a massive database of green incentives that are offered by utility, county, city, state and federal agencies. Many home builders or commercial developers don't take advantage of green incentives because they're simply not aware of them, Goodman says.

"The government is strapped — they have all this money that they want to give away, but not the (marketing) money to get the word out," Goodman said. "That's where IncentiFind stepped in."

Goodman said IncentiFind's goals differ slightly for commercial and residential developers. For commercial developers, the database is built to be simple, predictable and intuitive. For home builders, the model is to make IncentiFind as simple and inexpensive as possible, since new homeowners are already shelling out cash for home improvement projects.

Commercial developers can expect to spend around $1,500 with IncentiFind, while homeowners can expect to spend between $50 and $150.

By tapping into IncentiFind's resources, Goodman says that clients can expect up to a tenfold increase on their investment with IncentiFind — all while developing in an environmentally conscious way.

An 'overnight' surge in demand
Goodman started building the infrastructure for IncentiFind several years ago, and long before she thought she'd one day be running a startup. She was a sustainability architect, living overseas and seeing that green architecture was far more common around the world than it was in the U.S.

Once she returned to the U.S., Goodman called a good friend at the Department of Energy, and asked where she could find a central database for green construction incentives in the U.S. She was told that a central database didn't exist, and probably never would.

"So, I created it selfishly just for me," Goodman says. "I thought [that I was] going to have this tiny little architecture firm, and we're going to do all things green."

At that time, several outdated incentive databases were still funded by public agencies. But at the end of 2017, a massive defunding of databases meant that Goodman's resource was the only one of its kind in the U.S.

Following the defunding of those databases, Goodman saw a surge of activity to her website from people who used to rely on those databases as go-to resources.

"Overnight, we saw that traffic come to us," Goodman says. "We didn't do any marketing — it was all organic. People were desperate to find this information. We weren't high on Google."

From Houston, to Austin, to Houston again
From there, Goodman decided to take her database to the next level. Six employees were hired, and in April 2018, IncentiFind officially launched in Austin in The Capital Factory, a major startup incubator. Goodman and the IncentiFind team were commuting from Houston. She wanted to launch the business in Houston, she said, and while there were a lot of exciting developments underway at Station Houston, Houston's startup scene was still clouded with uncertainty.

"There's already so much instability with a startup, and we can't surround ourselves with more instability," Goodman said.

IncentiFind graduated from The Capital Factory's startup accelerator in August 2018. From there, IncentiFind landed at The Cannon, and is continuing to grow in Cannon Ventures. In less than twelve months, Goodman said she's seen Houston's startup scene undergo a nearly 180-degree shift, in large part due to the growth of The Cannon.

"I truly think that they're going to put Houston on the map for a radically new service, because they'll actually roll up their sleeves and do work with you," Goodman said. "[They'll do more] than just send you links or give you 15 minutes to ask someone a question. They'll give you all the time in the world, and [give] as many hours as you want."

Houston-based Work & Mother is rethinking how new mothers pump in the office. Courtesy of Work & Mother

This growing Houston company is revolutionizing the way new mothers pump in the office

Pump it up

A new mom returning to work is probably dreading her new daily inconvenience of taking the time out of the workday to pump her breast milk.

While some employers provide a wellness room to us, but the more likely scenario is that she will have to pump in your car, an empty conference room or the bathroom. And once she is done pumping, she'll have to wash her equipment in the kitchen sink, alongside her coworkers' coffee mugs or dirty Tupperware containers.

One newly launched company mission is to make that scenario a thing of the past.

Work & Mother is a boutique pumping and wellness center that opened its first location in downtown Houston in 2017 and is planning its second downtown location. The 600-square-foot space opened on the first floor of 712 Main St. and offers memberships to companies and individuals, regardless of whether they work in the building.

Abbey Donnell founded the company after speaking with friends who recently returned to work after giving birth.

"There were constant stories about [women] being told the use the IT closet, or the conference room, or the bathroom or their cars," Donnell says. "Some of them were pretty big oil and gas firms companies that should've had the resources and space to do better than that."

Work & Mother offers its members several private pumping rooms, private pumping office spaces, a kitchen area, member lockers and a small retail section where members can buy pumping and wellness equipment. The company's pitch to individual mothers is simple: come to us for privacy and community. But its pitch to companies is more rooted in regulations.

Per the Fair Labor Standards Act Section 7(r), companies with 50 or more employees are required to provide "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk." Companies that aren't in compliance with Section 7(r) — and lack the resources to do so — can either purchase individual or company memberships to Work & Mother.

"The reception from moms has been incredible," Donnell says. "I've gotten a lot of support from women who are older in their fields, who talk about how [pumping in the office] was a horrible experience for them."

Work & Mother is planning its second location, which will also be in downtown Houston, but Donnell declined to share additional details. When she started the company in 2017, she took minimal investments from friends and family, she says. But in anticipation of the company's second location, Work & Mother will likely launch a pre-seed fundraising round this summer, Donnell says. No financial figures have been finalized, but Donnell says the tentative plan is to raise roughly $1 million.

The company is also hoping to open in cities such as Chicago, New York, Austin, and Dallas in the near future.

Work & Mother isn't targeting companies that are solely concerned about meeting Section 7(r) compliance, Donnell says. Rather, she's hoping to show companies that investing in the well-being of new mothers is essential to running a successful business – and it's the right thing to do.

"If there's an employer who really only cares about the compliance, then they're not exactly a good fit, because they'll convert a closet and check that box," Donnell says.

But what Donnell says she's found refreshing is that most of the companies she's interacted with have had great feedback for her. They're trying to recruit — and retain — top female talent, she says.

More soon

Courtesy of Work & Mother

Donnell has plans for a second Houston location, as well as an expansion to other major United States cities.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

How a Houston corporate lawyer is making short-term commercial space easier to find

Featured Innovator

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks says. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

GotSpot Inc. soft launched last June with 17 listings. The company now has 37 and new listings are generated daily. Hicks has won two pitch competitions and is headed to Silicon Valley in March for Women's Startup Labs.

"In 2019, we're going to be working with local business partners, like the chambers. We'll be working on building out a team. I'll be hitting the road in March headed to Silicon Valley for Women's Startup Labs."

She spoke with InnovationMap on her career and what it takes to be a mom, a wife, a corporate lawyer, and a startup founder — all rolled into one.

InnovationMap: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

Reda Hicks: I feel like I kind of grew up the way a lot of small town, lower middle class kids do. The options you're aware of were either people you know or what you see on TV. Growing up there were no people in my life who were entrepreneurs. Even as a professional, it never even occurred to me. It's more about seeing a problem I wanted to be solved more than I just wanted to own my own business.

IM: How does GotSpot work?

RH: I have two types of users. One is the person who has the space — a shop on Main Street or conference rooms you're not using — and you're looking for a way to monetize that space. We call those our spot holders. It's so easy to go on the platform and create your profile and generate a listing. On the other side, I have spot seekers who can go on the site and search the available listings they are interested in booking for hours, days, or weeks at a time. It's not fully automated right now. The booking process and the calendar is all ran by me. In the next two to three months, we'll have it up and running like that, and it will feel a lot like Airbnb.

It's strictly website based right now, and I did that intentionally. Spot holders don't want to build their profile on their phones. But the site is mobile friendly.

IM: What are some early challenges you faced?

RH: My biggest challenge honestly was having a problem and wanting to solve it, but not knowing where to start — especially because I'm not a tech person. From a subject matter and contacts perspective, I felt like I had the resources. My first question was, "Who can I call?" It's a testament to Houston. No one I called said no. We talk often about how we are a new ecosystem, but we also are an extremely generous and connected city. What I see and what I hope continues is that we are an ecosystem that builds by leveraging all the awesome that's already here.

IM: Where did the name come from?

RH: I reached out to three military spouses I know and asked them to help. We spitballed a bunch of ideas. I wanted it to be simple and clear, because so many brands come up with a cute name but it takes forever to explain. We literally pulled out a thesaurus and thought of all the words that mean "space" and "finding," and that exercise is where GotSpot came from.

IM: What makes GotSpot different from anything else out there?

RH: There are a few different marketplaces out there for commercial space, but they tend to be more specialized. But another way GotSpot is different is I'm being very intentionally community driven. I look at GotSpot as your digital sidekick to grow your business — whether it's helping you pay your rent by creating a new way to make money or helping you say yes to more opportunities. But I'm also collecting information on how that same space can be used for the community. Harvey is a part of my origin story. Every time I onboard a new space, I ask if you are willing to be activated in case of an emergency, and if so, how can you be used — industrial space or washer and dryers. In other communities, there are other kind of emergencies. And, I also know half the nonprofits in Texas don't keep their own space any more, because donors don't want their money to go to overhead. I ask my space holders if they are willing to give a discount to nonprofits.

IM: What expertise from your career as a corporate lawyer do you bring to your startup career?

RH: A couple of things. I've spent my whole career working in large corporations. I really understand how the inside of a company works and how to think creatively and mitigate risks. It's so interesting because when I start talking to people about GotSpot, I have to be honest about how this is my first entrepreneurial experience. So when I say that, people tell me, "well, you're going to have to have really good counsel." And I tell them, "well, actually, I am really good counsel." The demeanor of who I'm talking to — whether it's an adviser or a potential investor — fundamentally shifts.

IM: What's been the most challenging aspect of still working full time and having a family?

RH: Probably the thing that has been the most challenging has been access to resources as a female founder. What I mean by that is there's all this great programing and things happening around town are always in the evening. It's hard to make happy hours. What I'm starting to see is more programing is a diversity of when that programing is available. I'm privileged in that I can do my job from anywhere during the day, but if all of the golden opportunities are on a weekday at 5 pm, my mommy duties win. Always.

IM: How has Houston been as a home for your startup?

RH: I think one aspect of the secret sauce is how open and can do of a city it is. It is not the traditional thing you think of when you think of startups. But we know better. In the startup space, what I love, is that I am kind of seeing it like we're building the plane as we're flying it. We have some people who have been around for a long time, but even some of our incubators are startups on their own. We have the ability, since we're still building it now, to have an ecosystem that reflects our city. We have a long ways to go, there are still some things that we are working through — capital is one of them.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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ExxonMobil announces $100B carbon-capture hub for Houston area

greener thinking

In a move that would be a gamechanger for Houston, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil envisions creating a $100 billion carbon-capture hub along the Houston Ship Channel.

ExxonMobil foresees the Houston Ship Channel being the site of an "innovation zone" for carbon capture and storage. In a blog post on the ExxonMobil website, Joe Blommaert, the Houston-based president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, says Houston would be "the perfect place" for the project because:

  • The ship channel is home to dozens of refineries and petrochemical plants.
  • The geological formations in the Gulf of Mexico could "safely, securely, and permanently" store tons of carbon emissions under the sea floor, according to the blog post. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the storage capacity along the U.S. Gulf Coast could handle 500 million metric tons of CO2.

Irving-based ExxonMobil, which employs more than 12,000 people in the Houston area, says the project could capture and store about 50 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030. By 2040, that number could rise to 100 million metric tons.

"We could create an economy of scale where we can reduce the cost of the carbon dioxide mitigation, create jobs, and reduce the emissions," Blommaert tells the Reuters news service.

In a news release, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner applauds the ExxonMobil plan.

"This proposal by ExxonMobil is the type of bold ambition and investment we will need to meet our climate goals and protect our communities from climate change," Turner says. "ExxonMobil's proposal represents a significant step forward for the energy industry, and I hope it brings more companies to the table to help Houston lead a global energy transition."

Turner notes that the Houston area is home to some of the largest emitters of carbon in the U.S., adding that everyone has "a responsibility and role to play in decarbonization."

Blommaert says the project would require public and private funding, along with "enhanced regulatory and legal frameworks that enable investment and innovation." According to Politico, ExxonMobil wants the federal government to kick in tax breaks or to set carbon-pricing policies to help get the project off the ground.

Politico reports that the Biden administration isn't considering ExxonMobil's idea as it prepares a climate-change package.

"Meanwhile, environmental groups and many Democrats have slammed carbon-capture proposals as a climate strategy, saying the only way to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution is a wholesale switch away from fossil fuels," Politico says.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency maintains that carbon capture and storage "are critical for putting energy systems around the world on a sustainable path." Achieving net-zero goals "will be virtually impossible" without carbon capture and storage, the group says.

ExxonMobil announced creation of its Low Carbon Solutions business unit in February as part of its push to invest $3 billion in lower-emission energy initiatives through 2025. Low Carbon Solutions initially will focus on technology for carbon capture and storage. The business unit is exploring opportunities along the Gulf Coast, as well as in Wyoming, Belgium, the Netherlands, Qatar, Scotland, and Singapore.

Last year, ExxonMobil hit the pause button on a $260 million carbon-capture project in Wyoming due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Bloomberg news service.

In a December report, the Global CCS Institute, a think tank, said 65 commercial carbon-capture projects were in various stages of development around the world.

"Climate ambition, including efforts to decarbonize industry, has not been curtailed despite the adversities faced in 2020," Brad Page, CEO of the institute, says in a news release about the report. "We're continuing to see an upward trajectory in the amount of CO2 capture and storage infrastructure that is being developed. One of the largest factors driving this growth is recognition that achieving net-zero emissions is urgent yet unattainable without CO2 reductions from energy-intensive sectors."

Newly appointed innovation leader calls for more health care collaboration in Houston

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 80

Allison Post is a professional dot connector for the Texas Heart Institute. Located in the Texas Medical Center and founded in 1962, THI has long had a history of innovation — from Denton Cooley, THI's founder, performing the first artificial heart implementation in 1970.

Now, Post — who was appointed to a newly created position of manager of innovation partnerships — is focused on working with THI's latest generation of cardiac health innovators. She works internally to foster and support THI's brightest inventors as well as externally to make sure the institute is bringing in the best new technologies out there to its patients.

"The whole mission of the Texas Heart Institute is to help our patients. If that means that someone else has an incredible idea we want to jump onboard and bring it to people," Post says in this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Post, who has a bioengineering background and has worked on both sides of the table as an entrepreneur and a startup mentor, is looking to support breakthrough cardiac innovations within stem cells, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and more. And unfortunately, the cardiac health space has an increasing need to develop new health care solutions.

"Because of the growing burden of heart disease, heart failure, coronary artery disease, the unfortunately long list of things that can go wrong with someone's heart means the pressing need for therapies is just growing," she says on the show. "We're trying to keep up and break into things that people haven't done a lot of work on, such as women's heart health."

Another factor in Post's role, which she's had since last fall, is to bring THI further into both the TMC's innovation efforts as well as the greater Houston innovation ecosystem — as well as beyond. To her, Houston has a huge opportunity to lead health care innovation.

"It makes no sense that we aren't the health care leaders yet in med tech development. It should not be Boston, San Francisco, or Minneapolis. It should be Houston," Post says. "We have everything we need to do it. We just need to bring it all together."

The key to getting there, she says, is further collaboration. If there's one thing the world has learned about health care innovation from COVID-19, it's that when experts are rallying behind and collaborating on solutions, the speed of development is much faster.

"The more minds we have the better the solutions I going to be," she says.

Post says that she hopes her work at THI can inspire other institutions to collaborate ‚ since everyone has the same goal of helping patients.

"I only see just phenomenal things for Houston, and what I really want is for the Texas Medical Center to become even more interconnected. We've got to be able to transfer ideas and thoughts and intentions seamlessly between these institutions and right now there are a lot of barriers," Post says. "And I really think Texas Heart is hopefully going to serve as an example of how to take down those barriers."

Post shares more about what she's focused on and where THI is headed on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

New Houston accelerator supporting BIPOC in aerospace announces inaugural cohort

out of this world

A new accelerator program that is focused on aerospace innovation and supporting entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color has announced its first cohort.

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises, or AIA for MBEs, has named the four companies that well be a part of its inaugural cohort. The 12-week program will guide the entrepreneurs through the development of their innovations, the growth of their businesses, and the development of relationships with mentors, corporate partners, and stakeholder networks.

"Aerospace contains a myriad of dimensions and by demystifying the industry in the form of the AIA for MBEs, we are able to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at The Ion, in a news release. "It's our goal to not only support participants to be successful, but to open the playing field for other minority business enterprises hoping to enter the space."

The program's existence was possible through a partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center, DivInc, and The Ion — as well as a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency.

Here are the four companies to take part in the cohort, according to the release:

  • Axialnics Systems Inc., led by Vincent Mbuvi, is an aerospace technology platform developing a Disc-wing Rotor Aircraft Concept, which takes-off as a helicopter, carries as much payload as an airplane and flies just as fast beyond the range of typical helicopters. The innovation solves runway inefficiencies and enhances military efficiency.
  • Boozed Beverages LLC, led by Damyanna Cooke and Jim Luu, specializes in intelligent vending in the liquor industry. The company provides a contactless, AI-driven cocktail making and dispensing vending machine, for locations such as weddings and events, sporting venues, festivals, restaurants, and nightclubs and lounges.
  • NANCo Aero, led by Shern Peters, provides urban air vehicles and drones to commercial, small business, government, and nonprofit organizations. It is working to develop the first Hybrid Personal Air Vehicle capable of transporting a family over the city of Houston.
  • Stratos Perception LLC, led by Rube Williams, develops artificial intelligence solutions for space systems to benefit human productivity, safety, and enterprise. It is also developing an intelligent transducer, a tool that can monitor and control multiphase flow, for use in space such as lunar water extraction and waste processing.

The hub and its associated accelerator will be housed at The Ion when it opens up later this year — along with the organizations other accelerators — but the program is being launched virtually on Wednesday, April 21, at noon.

"The Aerospace Innovation Hub came from the idea that the aerospace industry is well-known in Houston but for many people, particularly underrepresented communities, there have been barriers in entering the aerospace industry," says Jan E. Odegard, executive director of The Ion, in the release. "By offering mentorship, introduction to capital and training opportunities, with significant backing from Microsoft, The Ion is working to remove the barriers."