Overheard: Houston's energy sector welcomes Greentown Labs

eavesdropping in Houston

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

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,

The funds will go toward the Kinder Institute's civic data initiatives. Photo via news.rice.edu

Kinder Institute expands its urban data initiatives following $2.25M of fresh funds from the Houston Endowment

Money moves

The Houston Endowment has renewed its support of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research with a $2.25 million three-year grant to expand its services relating to urban data collection and use.

"We are immensely grateful to Houston Endowment for its continued support of Rice and the Kinder Institute," Rice President David Leebron says in a release. "This renewed funding will allow the institute to continue its critical data-driven work to better understand the challenges that Houston and other cities are facing and create lasting solutions. Contributing to our home city and others in this way is central to Rice's mission and its strategic plan, and we are extremely appreciative of this generous support."

In addition to supporting the Kinder Institute's data tools, the funding will contribute to the Houston Urban Data Project 2.0. The institute is involved in the project as is the Houston Community Data Connections, or HCDC. According to the release, the UDP will work to align and enhance urban and community data initiatives, develop training and research support for a larger user base, and raise awareness of the institute's research through outreach.

The HCDC, which was established in September of 2017, is already equipped to analyze 143 areas in Harris County with over 9,000 users, almost 16,000 site sessions, and over 45,000 page views, per the release. The program has seen 120 research and data requests since launch. Meanwhile, the UDP has 200 datasets in Houston and has 400 users who have accessed the site 6,000 times since it launched in the Spring of 2018

"The UDP and HCDC have laid the foundation for a shift in how data is used and decisions are made in the public, philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, and this funding will allow the Kinder Institute to build on this work," says Bill Fulton, director of the institute, in the release. "This project will help drive effective, data-driven decision-making for the region and will make the Kinder Institute the data hub for the entire region and a model for other cities around the world."

The purpose of the program will be two initiatives: Building Better Cities, which will focus on government efficiency and urban systems, and Building Better Lives, geared at quality of life and urban disparity among Houston residents.

"At Houston Endowment, our vision is a vibrant region where all have the opportunity to thrive," says Ann B. Stern, president and CEO of Houston Endowment, in the release. "We believe that making good data available to the public leads to better-informed decision-making on the part of our public officials and allows residents to more effectively advocate for their communities' needs. This is why the UDP and HCDC are so important for the future of our region."

The Kinder Institute, founded in 2010, is a research and advocate organization for urban development in Houston, and the Houston Endowment, established by Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones in 1937, has assets of $1.8 billion and contributes around $70 million annually.

The Rice Management Company has broken ground on the renovation of the historic Midtown Sears building, which will become The Ion. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Overheard: The Ion breaks ground in Midtown's former Sears building

Hard hats on

The Ion — a to-be entrepreneurial hub for startups, universities, tech companies, and more — is, in a way, the lemonade created from the lemons dealt to the city by a snub from Amazon.

In 2018, Amazon narrowed its options for a second headquarters to 20 cities, and Houston didn't make the shortlist.

"That disappointment lead to a sense of urgency, commitment, and imagination and out of that has come something better than we ever could have imagined," David Leebron, president of Rice University, says to a crowd gathered for The Ion's groundbreaking on July 19.

However disappointing the snub from Amazon was, it was a wake-up call for so many of the Houston innovation ecosystem players. The Ion, which is being constructed within the bones of the historic Midtown Sears building, is a part of a new era for the city.

"Houston's on a new course to a new destination," says Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Here are some other overheard quotes from the groundbreaking ceremony. The 270,000-square-foot building is expected to be completed in 18 months.


The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University


The Sears opened in 1939. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

“We have the capacity — if we work together — not only to make this a great innovation hub, but to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit.”

— David Leebron, president of Rice University. Leebron stressed the unique accomplishment the Ion has made to bring all the universities of Houston together for this project. "When we tell people the collaboration that has been brought together around this project, they are amazed," he says.

“The nation is seeing what we already know in the city of Houston. That this city has the greatest and most creative minds. We are a model for inclusion among people and cultures from everywhere. We are a city that taps the potential of every resident, dares them to dream big, and we provide the tools to make those dreams come true.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner, who says he remembers shopping in the former Sears building as a kid, but notes how Houston's goals have changed, as has the world.

“When this store opened in 1939, it showcased a couple of innovations even back then: The first escalator in Texas, the first air conditioned department store in Houston, the first windowless department store in the country.”

— Senator Rodney Ellis, who adds the request that The Ion have windows.

“Many people ask us, ‘why not just tear down the old building and start new?’ We actually see this as a very unique opportunity for companies and entrepreneurs to be located within a historic building, while benefiting from an enhanced structure, state-of-the-art technology, and Class A tenant comforts.”

— Allison Thacker, president of the Rice Management Company. She describes the environment of being a beehive of activity.

“[As program partner for The Ion,] our mission is to build the innovation economy of Houston one entrepreneur at a time.”

— Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Rowe describes Station's role as a connector between startups, venture capital firms, major corporations, and more.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.