The Ion has joined the ranks of an international network of hotspots for innovation. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Ion Houston has a new feather to add to its cap. Rice Management Company's Midtown innovation hub has been recognized on a global scale.

The Global Network of Innovation Districts has added The Ion District to its network of innovation hubs, and the Ion is the first district in Texas to join. Affiliated with the Brookings Institute, the global organization consists of thought leaders and innovation district developers. With the addition of the Ion, there are 22 members in the Global Network, including the Pittsburgh Innovation District, Cortex Innovation Community in Missouri, Tech Central in Sydney, and Knowledge District Zuidas in Amsterdam.

“GIID’s Global Network is utilizing best practices of world-renowned innovation districts to accelerate regional economies. Their focus on placemaking, startup services, and community engagement are some of the critical components that lead to successful districts,” says Bryson Grover, investment manager of real estate development at Rice Management Company, in a news release. “With GIID, we will continue to think creatively about how the built environment and specialized programming can inform future development and allow equitable access to an ever-changing workforce.”

The Ion, a 266,000-square-foot space in the renovated Midtown Sears building, is the anchor of the district, which also includes Greentown Labs. According to the release, the next building is under construction, with three more projects to begin in the next year. Overall, the build-out of the Ion District will deliver three million square feet of development across 16 acres over the next decade.

“The Ion and the Ion District represent a major commitment and investment in the success of Houston as a center of innovation and a foundation of Houston’s economic future. From the very beginning of our planning, we visited innovation hubs and districts around the country and around the world to make sure that we drew on their experiences and best practices,” says Rice President David Leebron in the release. “And by participating in the Global Network now, the Ion District will contribute to and benefit from a global exchange of knowledge among the very best innovation districts, which complements Rice’s broader international engagements and strategies.”

GIID is a nonprofit dedicated to research on and connecting innovation districts in new geographies of innovation, per the release. Headquartered in New York, the organization was founded in 2018 to help position innovation districts as engines of economic development and spur productive, inclusive, and sustainable environments.

“We’re thrilled for The Ion and Ion District to join our network, especially as it commences its next steps on development later this year,” says Julia Wagner, president of GIID, in the release. “Our team has extensive experience working with unique real estate ventures that aim to transform how communities learn, work, and live. We look forward to playing a part in Houston’s transformation, and as we have documented in innovation districts around the world, having a leader like Rice drive the creation of the district is a key ingredient of its continued and growing success.”

Aramco Americas has been named a founding partner at The Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Energy company joins Ion Houston as founding partner

new collaboration

A leading energy company has announced a new partnership with an innovation hub in the heart of Houston.

Aramco Americas, the U.S. subsidiary of Aramco, has joined as a founding partner of The Ion. Through the partnership, the two organizations will create educational programming, events, workforce development opportunities, energy transition leadership, and more. The partnership will take place over the next three years.

“The addition of Aramco as a founding partner of The Ion is another step forward in the realization of our vision of The Ion as a globally connected innovation hub that brings new possibilities to the people of Houston,” says Rice University President David Leebron in a news release. “We know the aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs of Houston will benefit from Aramco’s engagement, for which we are grateful.”

Aramco has named Jim Sledzik, managing director of Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures North America, to The Ion Leadership Advisory Roundtable to lead the partnership and help shape programming and offer insights on strategic direction. Aramco will also participate in The Ion Prototyping Lab, which opened earlier this year, and The Ion Investor Studio.

“Aramco’s commitment to innovation is reflected throughout our business operations,” says Nabeel I. AlAfaleg, president and CEO of Aramco Americas, in the release. “Partnerships like The Ion accelerate innovation, champion new ideas, and build a culture to address global energy challenges.”

Aramco joins the Ion’s other founding partners: Baker Botts, Microsoft, and Chevron Technology Ventures.

“I am excited to welcome Aramco as a Founding Partner to expand Houston’s technology and innovation ecosystem,” says Jan E. Odegard, executive director of The Ion, in the release. “Aramco’s involvement not only enables us to continue expanding our support toward inclusive and sustainable economic growth, but expand our reach globally, amplifying Houston as a high-growth technology ecosystem for energy, health, manufacturing, space, and transportation.”

The Ion is a 266,000-square-foot building developed and managed by Rice Management Company and anchors the 16-acre Innovation District in Midtown.

Rice University has set a goal to become carbon neutral in the next several years. Photo via rice.edu

Rice University announces its plans to be carbon neutral by 2030

seeing green

A Houston school has announced its mission to achieve carbon neutrality in the next eight years, and university executives described how exactly they will get there.

Last week, Rice University President David Leebron and Provost Reginald DesRoches wrote a letter describing the university's community as eager to participate in initiatives to stave off climate change on campus.

"Given the commitment of Rice faculty to research and scholarship that supports human knowledge and progress, it is unsurprising that this issue has been addressed from many disciplinary perspectives," the letter reads. "Our faculty, students and staff have a strong desire to contribute to solutions and to see their university as an active participant in the global effort to address climate change and other pressing environmental issues."

Leebron and DesRoches's letter explains how Houston is at the forefront of the energy industry and must continue to lead the sector by developing, implementing and transitioning to clean technologies

"The success of both Rice and Houston are closely intertwined, not only with respect to our future competitiveness but also in our shared vulnerability to the impacts of climate change on the Gulf Coast," the letter continues.

The university outlines four initial strategic focus points, including research, endowment, student leadership, and campus changes.

"By making these commitments we are placing investments in the environment as one of the university’s highest funding priorities," the university explains. "Many of the actions we describe below will require significant financial investment and we will need to determine how best to secure necessary resources and prioritize them among other university endeavors."

The Rice Management Co. Board of Directors meeting in December approved the addition of a sustainability statement. Additionally, RMC and Rice received board approval to become a signatory to the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment.

On campus, the university will implement several sustainability practices, including:

  • Rice will aim to have its new construction project achieve gold certification level in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating program.
  • Rice will invest in water efficiency and conservation projects to reduce overall consumption of potable water while also leveraging alternative water sources such as captured rainwater.
  • Rice's sustainability, facilities and finance teams will partner with the Rice Management Co. to identify viable emissions reduction opportunities.

From a research perspective, many faculty members are working on sustainable projects and Rice is offering new funding opportunities for this research.

"In late 2021, the Office of Research launched a 'Sustainable Futures' seed fund through the Creative Ventures Fund program to support interdisciplinary research on the broad range of environmental challenges for which Rice could be a leader," according to the university. "This fund promotes the development of new research or academic partnerships that extend across multiple schools to engage faculty in new and creative scholarship."

The Office of Research received 23 proposals in response to its initial call for proposals, and, according to the release, funding will be increased to support more projects. The Office of Research will announce its second call for proposals later this year.

The letter concludes on a hopeful outlook on Rice University's plans to meet carbon neutrality and help Houston lead the energy transition.

"The actions we collectively take or fail to take as a society this decade will directly impact the well-being and prosperity of future generations as well as ourselves. As a university committed to the discovery, transmission and application of knowledge, we must assure that we are contributing to addressing the most fundamental challenges of our time," reads the letter. "Rice University and Houston have a unique role to play in building that future and we intend to be significant participants and leaders in this ambitious undertaking."

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

3 Houston innovators to know this week

WHO'S WHO

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. "


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Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.

Houston startup equips medical teams with data-driven hiring tool

staffing up

A surgeon spends over a decade in school and residency perfecting their medical skills, but that education doesn't usually include human resources training. Yet, when it comes to placing candidates into surgical programs, the hiring responsibilities fell on the shoulders of surgeons.

Aimee Gardner, who has her PhD in organized psychology, saw this inefficiency first hand.

"I worked in a large surgery department in Dallas right out of graduate school and quickly learned how folks are selected into residency and fellowship programs and all the time that goes into it — time spent by physicians reviewing piles and piles of like paper applications and spending lots and lots and of hours interviewing like hundreds of candidates," Gardner tells InnovationMap. "I was just really shocked by the inefficiencies from just a business and workforce perspective."

And things have only gotten worse. There are more applicants hitting the scene every year and they are applying to more hospitals and programs. Future surgeons used to apply for 20 or so programs — now it’s more like 65 on average. According to her research, Gardner says reviewing these applications cost lots of time and money, specifically $100,000 to fill five spots annually just up to the interviewing phase of the process.

Five years ago, Gardner came up with a solution to this “application fever,” as she describes, and all the inefficiencies, and founded SurgWise Consulting, where she serves as president and CEO.

"We help provide assessments to help screen competencies and attributes that people care about," Gardner says. "(Those) are really hard to assess, but really differentiate people who really thrive in training in their careers and people who don't."

Aimee Gardner is the CEO and president of Houston-based SurgWise. Photo via surgwise.com

These are the non-technical skills, like the professionalism, interpersonal skills, and communication. While SurgWise began as a service-oriented consulting company, the company is now ready to tap technology to expand upon its solution. The work started out of Houston Methodist, and SurgWise is still working with surgery teams there. She says they've accumulated tons of data that can be leveraged and streamlined.

"We're now pivoting from a very intimate client approach to a more scalable offering. Every year we assess essentially around 80 percent of all the people applying to be future surgeons — those in pediatric surgery, vascular surgery, and more,” Gardner says. “We’ve used kind of the last five years of data and experiences to create a more scalable, easy-to-integrate, and off-the-shelf solution.”

Gardner says her solution is critical for providing more equity in the hiring process.

“One of our goals was to create more equitable opportunities and platforms to assess folks because many of the traditional tools and processes that most people use in this space have lots of opportunity for bias and a high potential for disadvantaging individuals from underrepresented groups," she says. "For example, letters of recommendation are often a very insider status. If you went to some Ivy League or your parents were in health care and they know someone, you have that step up from a networking and socioeconomic status standpoint."

Personal statements and test scores are also inequitable, because they tend to be better submissions if people have money for coaching.

SurgWise hopes to lower the number of programs future surgeons apply to too to further streamline the process. She hopes to do this through an app and web tool that can matchmake people to the right program.

“Our ultimate goal is to create a platform for applicants to obtain a lot more information about the various places to which they apply to empower them to make more informed decisions, so that they don't have to apply to a hundred places," Gardner says. "We want to essentially create a match-style app that allows them to input some data and tell us 'here's what I'm looking for here are my career goals and any preferences I have.'”

While that tool is down the road, Gardner says SurgWise is full speed ahead toward launching the data-driven hiring platform. The bootstrapped company hopes to raise early venture funding this summer in order to hire and grow its team.

“As we continue to consider this app that I talked about and some of the other opportunities to scale to other specialties we're gonna start looking for a series A funding later this summer.”