3 Houston innovators to know this week

WHO'S WHO

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Andrew Bruce of Data Gumbo, Jan E. Odegard of The Ion, and David Leebron of Rice University. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — blockchain, education, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Andrew Bruce, CEO of Data Gumbo

In a guest column for InnovationMap, Andrew Bruce advocates for securing your network. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Securing your network is extremely important, writes Andrew Bruce in a guest column for InnovationMap. In fact, it could be the difference of success and failure for startup founders.

"Innovation isn't born in a vacuum nor is the adoption of a new technology. Often the broader path to tech disruption is through groundwork and that's a system best laid by a well-connected network," he writes.

Bruce shares his tips in the article. Click here to read more.

Jan E. Odegard, executive director of The Ion

Jan E. Odegard got to drop the "interim" in his title. Photo courtesy of The Ion

Jan E. Odegard isn't a native Houstonian, but his passion for making Houston a destination city — especially when it comes to innovation — is unparalleled. And for the past year and some change, he's used that passion to drive his leadership as interim executive director of The Ion. As of this month, Odegard got to drop the temporary title ahead of the building's grand opening.

Odegard joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the title change and what has motivated him in his position from day one.

"We have been speaking for the last two years, 'let's build on Houston's DNA,'" he says, "well, we've built this building on the DNA. We are truly trying to amplify the connectivity to the history but serving it for the next 40 to 50 years." Click here to read more.

David Leebron, outgoing president at Rice University

David Leebron's tenure is one of the longest in Rice history. Photo courtesy of Rice University

All good things must come to an end, and Rice University president David Leebron, that time has come after 17 years of service. He has overseen exponential growth of the school's facilities, research initiatives, and student body.

Leebron and the university announced on May 26 that he is leaving his position at the end of the next academic year. His official departure from the presidency will be effective on June 30, 2022, per a press release.

"Ping and I are so grateful for the opportunity we have had at Rice," Leebron noted in a statement. "This is a truly remarkable and dedicated community and it has been a privilege to be part of it." Click here to read more.

David Leebron's tenure is one of the longest in Rice history. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Prolific Rice University president announces end to storied tenure

ADIEU, MR. LEEBRON

For some 17 years, Rice University president David Leebron has overseen exponential growth of the school's facilities, research initiatives, and student body. Now, his tenure is coming to an end.

Leebron and the university announced on May 26 that he is leaving his position at the end of the next academic year. His official departure from the presidency will be effective on June 30, 2022, per a press release.

"Ping and I are so grateful for the opportunity we have had at Rice," Leebron noted in a statement. "This is a truly remarkable and dedicated community and it has been a privilege to be part of it."

In turn, trustees thanked the departing president for his leadership through what they describe as "an era of growth unprecedented" in the university's 109-year history.

"On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I want to express our deep appreciation and esteem for what David has done to transform our university while preserving its core values and community," said Rob Ladd, chair of the board, in a statement. "Over what will be an extraordinary 18 years of service, David has had the vision, courage and determination to improve almost every aspect of this university."

Students especially have benefited from Leebron's oversight. Under his leadership, Rice's student body has grown about 55 percent from 4,855 when he arrived in 2004 to some 7,500 in fall 2020, the school notes. Impressively, by 2025, the population is expected to reach 9,000 — an increase of around 85 percent.

Diversity is also a highlight. Press materials note that between 2004 and 2020, the number of domestic undergraduate students from underrepresented minority groups grew by almost 75 percent.

In effort to expand the university's reach and access to more, Leebron launched the Rice Investment, the financial aid program offering free and reduced tuition to students from low- and middle-income families.

Facilities have also vastly expanded and improved; Rice's current $1.8 billion capital improvement plan includes 29 new buildings, renovations, and other construction projects.

Linking the school to its home city, Leebron's most recent strategic plan, the Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade, aims for the Rice "to engage with and empower the success of the city of Houston."

The university, under Leebron's guidance, has launched myriad initiatives, centers, and programs. A recent success is The Ion, the centerpiece of an innovation district now under development in Houston's Midtown area.

Philadelphia-born and Harvard educated, Leebron is only the seventh president in Rice's long history. His tenure is second only to the university's founding president, Edgar Odell Lovett, who held the post for 34 years.

A search committee will be formed to find the university's next president, the school announced.

"I am proud of so many things that we've accomplished at Rice," Leebron continued in a statement. "But I'm especially proud of the community's constant desire to provide greater opportunities and address the most important challenges facing our city, our country and our world."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Greentown Labs CEO Emily Reichert called on members of Houston's energy community to speak at Greentown Houston's grand opening. Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

Overheard: Houston's energy sector welcomes Greentown Labs

eavesdropping in Houston

Greentown Houston is officially open for business, and it's safe to say the energy innovation community is excited about it. The 40,000-square-foot space is expecting to move its inaugural 30 companies in throughout the summer.

The grand opening event, which was streamed online with an outdoor invite-only event, took place on Earth Day and featured speakers from across the energy sector. The speakers represented some of the almost 30 corporate partners Greentown Houston has announced.

Click here to read more about the grand opening and take a peek inside the facility.

Missed the discussion or just want a refresher on on the highlights? Here are some significant overheard moments from the Greentown Houston Grand Opening.

"Houston has all the necessary ingredients and it has momentum."

Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

— Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president of Chevron Technology Ventures. "Let's celebrate. And then let's get busy."

"Houston, as the energy capital of the world, has a moral obligation to reduce carbon emissions."

Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

— Mayor Sylvester Turner. "We need to invest in our innovation ecosystem and support the climatech and clean tech entrepreneurs who will be building Houston's new energy economy and creating the new jobs of tomorrow."

"Houston has the talent, know how, and can-do spirit to tackle the dual challenge of leading dual energy demand while aggressively lowering the carbon footprint."

Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

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

"Houston must remain the center of the future energy industry, and today is an important step in restoring that."

Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. "We look forward to our strong partnership."

"We can't solve climate change from the coasts. We need the whole United States to be engaged, and I'm bullish on Houston leading this transition for many reasons."

Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

— Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs. "Houston is home to world-leading energy organizations, incredible engineering strength, talent, and assets, that can, and frankly must, be redeployed to decarbonize resources."

"This is a city that does not stand still."

Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

— Ajay Mehta, General Manager of Shell. "At Shell, we have a mission to reach net zero emissions by 2050."

"For bp, partnering with Greentown Labs represents living our purpose to reimagine energy."

Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

— Jane Stricker, senior relationship manager, regions, cities and solutions at bp.

"Innovation is like oxygen, and it breathes life into hope and possibility. The work we are doing around the energy transition is hard and challenging, and frankly is going to take all of us."

Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

— Darryl Willis, corporate vice president, energy industry, at Microsoft. "We think that the future is all about partnerships and platforms, and our mission is to help from Microsoft's vantage point to accelerate the energy transition and to help the city of Houston around its aspirations around the energy transition as well."

"We appreciate being part of not only maintaining Houston's position as the energy capital of the world but also establishing it as the energy transition capital of the world."

Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

— Scott Burns, vice president of retail innovation, customer experience, and market intelligence at NRG.

"[Greentown Houston] will provide this center of gravity for the energy community to come together and work toward the transition plan."

Photo by Lee Bond/Greentown Labs

— Tim Ong, head of innovation at BHP Petroleum. "


Microsoft has announced it will be leasing space in The Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Microsoft announces lease in rising Houston innovation hub

eyes on the ion

Microsoft and Rice Management Company — the owner and management of The Ion, a rising innovation hub in Houston — announced that the tech company will be leasing space on the 288,000 square-foot building's fifth floor.

"Over the last several years, Microsoft has made it clear it is committed to Houston," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press release. "With the work Microsoft is already doing with the City and The Ion to support entrepreneurs, workforce development and energy transition, it is only fitting its new home should be in our City's hub for innovation. This news is an exciting next step in our partnership with Microsoft as we continue to grow Houston's innovation ecosystem and become a leader in the global energy transition."

Microsoft has an existing partnership with The Ion and is a founding sponsor of its Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator. Earlier this year, the technology leader has also committed $1 million to skills programming.

"The Ion is fast becoming a hub for Houston's startup community and driving forward innovation in energy transition technologies," says Ravi Krishnaswamy, corporate vice president of Azure Global Industry at Microsoft, in the release. "My team and I are excited to get to work there, supporting Microsoft's vision of powering a sustainable future and accelerating energy transition with the expertise of partners, customers, and industry."

According to the press release, Microsoft will also be a programming partner for The Ion and will host advancement opportunities and events, including a monthly executive forum and virtual symposiums, and support future accelerators for advanced manufacturing, digital skilling, and smart and resilient city innovation.

"The Ion and Microsoft will provide the necessary tools and knowledge needed to become more resilient, strengthen our workforce and create new innovations to accelerate the energy transition," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director, in the release. "We were delighted this summer when we announced Microsoft's sponsorship of The Ion programming and are now even more ecstatic to welcome a division of Microsoft to its new home. My team and I look forward to showcasing our great programs that are enabled by corporate sponsors like Microsoft to the entrepreneurs, academics, corporations and community in Houston and around the world."

Microsoft's partnership with The Ion, which is set to open in just a few months, is due in part to the city's collaboration with Microsoft.

"Having Microsoft as a major tenant is a huge step forward in realizing the vision for The Ion as a dynamic hub bringing together key elements of innovation in Houston," Rice President David Leebron says in the release. "We are very grateful to Microsoft and Mayor Turner for advancing this vision."

Rice University President David Leebron was joined by dignitaries for the Oct. 30 opening ceremony of the Rice University National Security Research Accelerator laboratories in Dell Butcher Hall. Photo via Rice.edu

Rice University opens new accelerator labs focused on national security innovation

new on campus

A collaboration between Rice University and the United States Army has taken entered into a new phase with the opening of the Rice University National Security Research Accelerator laboratories in Dell Butcher Hall.

RUNSRA, which launched in 2019 with support from Army Futures Command and the Army Research Laboratory, premiered its new home on the Rice campus at a hybrid event. Most attendees tuned in via webcast while university president, David Leebron, and Provost Reggie DesRoches hosted U.S. Army Futures Command Lt. Gen. Thomas Todd III and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas.

"The accelerator is the first-of-its-kind, collaborative research facility designed to deploy and develop new technologies for economic and national security," DesRoches says at the event. "The facility includes space for visiting Army Research Lab and (Department of Defense) scientists. We see this as a new model for truly collaborative research that brings together research teams from across the country and across agencies to work on mission-critical technologies."

"We are the only university in the world with a deployed software-defined network already in place," DesRoches continues. "The materials we will discover here with our ARL partners will be rapidly prototyped into devices and deployed."

Walter Jones, executive director of RUNSRA, is a the former executive director of the Office of Naval Research and former director of plans and programs at the Air Force Research Laboratory and joined Rice in June. The goal of the lab and the program is to research technologies to advance the Army's modernization.

"The accelerating pace of technology will continue to change our world," says Todd. "It will require us to re-examine how we compete and, if required, how we win on the future battlefield. And it will require us to develop new technologies that let us compete and win by expanding what is possible, which starts at a place like Rice University.

"I know that tremendous benefit will come from this research accelerator," Todd continues. "And truly, it's meant to be what it says, an accelerator of technologies into the hands of soldiers."

Watch below to view the press conference and ribnbon cutting.

The Rice University National Security Research Accelerator www.youtube.com

The Welch Foundation has announced a $100 million gift to Rice University to establish The Welch Institute focused on materials science. Photo courtesy of Rice

Houston-based foundation commits $100M to Rice University to create new institute

material science matters

A private foundation that funds chemical research within the state of Texas is dedicating funds to a new venture — an institute focused on advanced materials at Rice University.

The Welch Foundation announced today a $100 million gift to Rice University to establish The Welch Institute. The institute will foster the study of matter, the design and discovery of new materials, and nanotechnology, and it will be led by an independent board of directors and scientific advisory board.

"The Welch Institute will focus on the development of advanced materials for the good of society and to advance the vision of Robert A. Welch, who believed in basic chemical research as a powerful force for transformative breakthroughs and improving the quality of life," says Welch Foundation Chair and Director Carin Barth in a news release. "It will bring together top minds across all disciplines to catalyze innovation and center leadership in the field right here in the Houston area."

Material science has an impact across industries — from energy, water, space, telecommunications, manufacturing, transportation, and more.

"Innovation is the foundation of progress. More than ever, the discovery of new knowledge is in turn the precursor of innovation. That is why universities and the work we do are key components of the innovation ecosystem," said Rice University President David Leebron at the press conference. "We expect the Welch Institute to serve the needs of all mankind, but we also expect it will secure a stronger future for the people of Houston."

The institute has a huge opportunity to lead the way in material science in the United States — as most of the current research and innovation within this field is happening on foreign land.

"While [material science] is fundamental to every conceivable aspect of our lives, the United States may be falling behind in terms of advancement in this field," says Gina Luna, board member of The Welch Foundation and acting president of The Welch Institute, at the press conference. "Of the top 10 material science institutes in the world today, not one of them is in the U.S. We believe the Welch Institute can change that."

Luna adds that the organization will bring together experts together in Houston, "where we just know how to get things done," she adds.

Rice is an ideal home for the initiative, says Pulickel M. Ajayan, chair of Rice's department of materials science and nanoengineering, and Houston stands to benefit from the program as well.

"This new institute will serve as an international hub for materials research, so that people from all around the world can come here and spend time and see Houston and Rice as a destination for materials research," he adds.The Welch Foundation has granted over $1 billion in funds and has endowed 48 chairs at 21 Texas universities, says Peter Dervan, chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of The Welch Foundation and Bren Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology.

"We want to develop the Institute while maintaining all of our legacy grant programs and awards, which have served Texas scientists so well over the years," he adds,

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Comcast donates tech, funds to support diversity-focused nonprofit

gift of tech

A Houston organization focused on helping low-income communities by providing access to education, training, and employment has received a new donation.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program announced the a donation of a $30,000 financial grant and 1,000 laptops to SERJobs. The gift is part of a new partnership with SERJobs that's aimed at educating and equipping adults with technical skills, including training on Microsoft Office and professional development.

“SERJobs is excited to celebrate 10 years of Comcast's Internet Essentials program,” says Sheroo Mukhtiar, CEO, SERJobs, in a news release. “The Workforce Development Rally highlights the importance of digital literacy in our increasingly virtual world—especially as technology and the needs of our economy evolve. We are grateful to Comcast for their ongoing partnership and support of SERJobs’ and our members.”

For 10 years Comcast's Internet Essentials program has connected more than 10 million people to the Internet at home — most for the first time. This particular donation is a part of Project UP, Comcast’s comprehensive initiative to advance digital equity.

“Ten years is a remarkable milestone, signifying an extraordinary amount of work and collaboration with our incredible community partners across Houston,” says Toni Beck, vice president of external affairs at Comcast Houston, in the release.

“Together, we have connected hundreds of thousands of people to the power of the Internet at home, and to the endless opportunity, education, growth, and discovery it provides," she continues. "Our work is not done, and we are excited to partner with SERJobs to ensure the next generation of leaders in Houston are equipped with the technical training they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.”

It's not the first time the tech company has supported Houston's low-income families. This summer, Comcast's Internet Essentials program and Region 4 Education Service Center partnered with the Texas Education Agency's Connect Texas Program to make sure Texas students have access to internet services.

Additionally, Comcast set up an internet voucher program with the City of Houston last December, and earlier this year, the company announced 50 Houston-area community centers will have free Wi-Fi connections for three years. Earlier this year, the company also dedicated $1 million to small businesses struggling due to the pandemic that are owned by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.

President Joe Biden appoints Houston green space guru to lofty national post

new gig

Aprominent and nationally acclaimed Houston parks presence has just received a hefty national appointment. President Joe Biden has named Beth White, Houston Parks Board president and CEO, the chair of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), the organization announced.

The NCPC, established by Congress in 1924, is the federal government’s central planning agency for the National Capital Region. The commission provides overall guidance related to federal land and buildings in the region. Functions include reviewing the design of federal and local projects, overseeing long-range planning for future development, and monitoring capital investment by federal agencies.

Fittingly, White was initially appointed to NCPC as the at-large presidential commissioner in January 2012, per a press release. She was reappointed for another six-year term in 2016. Most recently, White served as the commission’s vice-chair.

“I’m honored to chair the National Capital Planning Commission and work with my fellow commissioners to build and sustain a livable, resilient capital region and advance the Biden Administration’s critical priorities around sustainability, equity, and innovation,” White said in a statement.

Before joining Houston Parks Board in 2016, White served as the director of the Chicago Region Office of The Trust for Public Land, where she spearheaded development of The 606 public park and was instrumental in establishing Hackmatack Wildlife Refuge.

Renowned in the Windy City, she also was managing director of communications and policy for the Chicago Housing Authority; chief of staff for the Chicago Transit Authority’s Chicago Transit Board; and assistant commissioner for the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development. She was the founding executive director of Friends of the Chicago River, and currently serves on the Advisory Board for Urban Land Institute Houston.

The graduate of Northwestern and Loyola universities most recently received the Houston Business Journal’s 2021 Most Admired CEO award, per her bio.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.