Houston innovation hub names interim leader

eye on the ion

Jan Odegard has been named interim executive director of the Ion. Photo courtesy of The Ion

A developing innovation hub rising in Midtown Houston has named an interim executive director following the sudden exit of its former leader.

Jan Odegard has been named interim executive director of the Ion after Gabriella Rowe announced her resignation. Odegard has served as senior director of Academic and Industry Partnerships at The Ion for six months and as the executive director of Rice University's Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology since 2002.

"I am excited to help move forward and ensure the Ion is a success," Odegard says in a press release from Rice. "My interim role is made easier by the fact that everyone involved in the Ion, including Rice Management Co., is focused on making it a success for all Houstonians."

Rice Management Co. is leading The Ion project, a renovation of an old 270,000-square-foot Sears building. The goal is to create an innovation hub for startups, entrepreneurs, academics, corporations, and more.

"We're already supporting business owners, the community and entrepreneurs," Odegard says in the release. "Our building is slated to open in early 2021, but the Ion is more than a place. It is the programming, partnerships and resources we are creating to support Houston's innovation and tech economy, and above all, it is the people who are coming together to take part and join us."

In an interview with InnovationMap, Rowe shared details of her resignation and says that she will continue focusing on technology and equity.

"I am stepping back from the Ion role in order to focus my time exclusively with the issues of equity and access in growing our tech ecosystem and economy," Rowe says, "because I think that is going to be an instrumental part of the recovery of Houston moving forward."

Gabriella Rowe has stepped down from her role as executive director of The Ion. Courtesy of Station Houston

Houston innovation hub leader shares details on recent resignation

on to the next

A Houston tech ecosystem leader has announced her resignation from her position in order to seek out a new role.

Gabriella Rowe, who served The Ion as executive director until earlier this week, has confirmed she has resigned from her position. The Ion is Rice Management Company's innovation center rising in Midtown, and Rowe was named executive director in October of last year. She was previously the CEO of Station Houston since August 2018, which was later merged with Austin-based Capital Factory.

Rowe, who was selected for Mayor Sylvester Turner's new Health Equity Response task force that was established to help the city respond to COVID-19, says she hasn't yet announced what her next move is, but she tells InnovationMap will continue focusing on technology and equity.

"I am stepping back from the Ion role in order to focus my time exclusively with the issues of equity and access in growing our tech ecosystem and economy," Rowe says, "because I think that is going to be an instrumental part of the recovery of Houston moving forward."

While Rowe will have no official role at The Ion moving forward, she imagines her to-be-announced opportunity will work hand-in-hand with the mission of The Ion, which is expected to deliver next year.

"The Ion is going to be an incredibly successful project that is going to have all the positive effect on the long term future of Houston that it is designed to do. I feel confident that it's set up to do that and has the people in place to carry it forward," she says.

Rowe says her foray into Houston's tech ecosystem began when she was head of school of The Village School in West Houston. Now, her driving factor is creating a city where those students could grow their tech education and skills and have plenty of care opportunities in Houston.

"From the very start, this has been for me about building a tech ecosystem in Houston that can support the development of the tech economy that would give our Houston talent an opportunity to stay here in this city and partake in this global opportunity," she says.

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator has selected its next cohort. Courtesy of The Ion

Houston accelerator announces newest cohort to tackle cleantech

Smart cities

As the world celebrated the 50th annual Earth Day on April 22, a Houston innovation organization announced a new group of startups for its accelerator program that will focus on cleantech solutions within the city of Houston and beyond.

The Ion's accelerator, which recently renewed its focus on resiliency, announced its second cohort with six startups that will create solutions for Houston's air quality, water purification, and other cleantech needs.

"Through leveraging the power of our local Ion community, The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator is committed to solving challenges Houstonians face every day," says Christine Galib, senior director of accelerator programs at The Ion and the director of the accelerator, in a news release. "We connect participating startups with mentors, partners, and stakeholders, so they gain access to the resources they need to build, validate, and scale their technologies. Together, we are building a safer, smarter, and more accessible city for all Houstonians."

The program is supported by Intel, Microsoft, and TX/RX and has began its programming for the new cohort. The six startups selected for the program are:

  • Houston-based Eigen Control uses machine learning and chemical engineering models to combat rising CO2 emissions. Distillation process plants emit so much CO2 — and Eigen Control's processes are working to change that.
  • Houston-based Annapurna Solutions has cloud-based solutions for hazardous and solid waste management.
  • Mexico City-based S2G Energy focuses on sustainable and optimized solutions for businesses and governments with its energy-management-as-a-service technology.
  • Houston-based re:3D is a 3D-printing nonprofit that is democratizing small-scale manufacturing. Its Gigabot can use recycled and reclaimed materials for more sustainable and affordable production. The company, which has offices in Puerto Rico and Austin, donates a printer to someone making a difference with every 100 printers it sells.
  • Austin-based LifePod Corps is a nonprofit that provides disaster relief through renewable and sustainable technologies built and delivered by military veterans.
  • Houston-based Water Lens has created a real-time water data analytics platform for industries that use a lot of water — like oil and gas, agriculture, power generation, coal mining, and food processing. The technology allows for quicker, more reliable results.

The accelerator's leaders chose its theme for the cohort based on the City of Houston's Resilient Houston Strategy and Climate Action Plan. The program has identified these six startups as movers and shakers within these Smart Cities challenges.

"We are thrilled to collaborate with these startups to further develop Houston as one of America's smartest and most resilient cities," says Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, in the release. "By leveraging our resources and networks, the accelerator and Cohort 2 improve living conditions for all Houstonians. In this way, we stimulate our local economy with new jobs and economic opportunities."

Last year's inaugural cohort was announced in August and focused on resilience and mobility. After a demo day in December, the cohort continued its work in Houston through 15 pilot programs the startups had with the city. The third cohort is expected to launch toward the end of 2020, but the next theme has not yet been decided.

The Ion's accelerator program has pivoted to more prominately feature startups with resiliency solutions. Photo courtesy of The Ion

Houston accelerator renews focus on resiliency amid COVID-19 crisis

get smart

The Ion's accelerator program has taken the current COVID-19 outbreak as an opportunity to focus on resiliency. The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, as it's now known, will launch it's second cohort virtually at the end of the month.

"Resiliency has always been a core pillar of our accelerator — in my opinion, you really can't have a smart city unless you're a resilient city," Galib tells InnovationMap. "Language is so important to our culture, and we had not had that word in the accelerator, and so now we do."

The change is effective immediately and comes just ahead of the accelerator's second cohort, which will focus on air quality, water purification, and clean tech. Just like the first cohort, the selected startups will participate in a few months of programming — this time, all online — before entering into pilot programs with the city of Houston.

Later in this spring, the accelerator plans to call for remote education and online technologies. With schools closed, Galib says she's seen a need for tech optimization for both students and teachers.

"By harnessing smart technologies, cities become more resilient in the face of crises," says Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, in a news release. "The innovation of the Ion Smart & Resilient Cities Accelerator will empower and create the smart technology we need to keep our city's operations moving and our residents safe as we inevitably face sociological challenges and natural disasters. We are excited to play a role in improving our city's fabric and quality of life."

The first cohort resulted in a collective fifteen projects across nine startups. The program is backed by the city of Houston, Microsoft, Intel, and TXRX. The third cohort is expected to launch toward the end of 2020, and Galib says she's not sure what the focus will be yet.

"As we look toward the Ion's opening in January 2021, I look at the accelerator program and its capacity to accelerate entrepreneurship spirit," Galib says. "I truly see the next few months as a chance for us to double down on our efforts to find entrepreneurship everywhere in Houston so that we see every entrepreneur from all walks of life."

Austin Rolling, Gabriella Rowe, and Aaron Knape are this week's Houston innovators to know. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

In this weekly roundup of Houston innovators, we find an entrepreneur who created the tech solution he wished he'd had as a salesman, an innovation leader with big goals for The Ion, and a startup founder who's in for a very busy March.

Here are this week's Houston innovators to know.

Austin Rolling, CEO and co-founder of Outfield

austin rolling

Photo courtesy of Outfield

As an experienced salesman, Austin Rolling knows the challenges salespeople face on a daily basis. Rolling, who worked in a number of positions in both inside and outside sales with such big name companies as Whirlpool and Beats by Dre. He tells InnovationMap about how he wished he had better tools for communication and keeping organized.

"Fast forward some years later, my co-founder and I decided to work on a solution that could help support outside sales agents and I was able to use my domain expertise as an outside sales rep to ID the realm of solutions for various customer segments," Rolling says.

Rolling runs Outfield, a Houston-based software company gives field reps an intuitive interface to manage their territory and accounts on-the-go as well as instantly communicate with the rest of their team effortlessly across all devices. Click here to read more.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion

Courtesy of Station Houston

Now that Station Houston has merged with Capital Factory, Gabriella Rowe, who previously served Station as CEO, has completely transitioned into her role as executive director of The Ion. On last week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Rowe discussed the merger and how her goal for The Ion is to make the facility a vehicle for innovation development, but also create a diverse and inclusive environment reflective of Houston's own diversity.

"We're creating an opportunity for Houstonians," Rowe says on the episode, explaining why she's focused on bringing in a wide range of programming and education into The Ion.

In the episode, Rowe also discusses the Ion Smart Cities Accelerators, which has 10 companies from its inaugural cohort in pilot mode across Houston and has launched applications for its second cohort, as well as why she thinks Houston's innovation ecosystem is sure to succeed this time around. Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Aaron Knape, co-founder and CEO of sEATz

Courtesy of sEATz

Like most lifelong Houstonians, Aaron Knape has a long history with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. But this season, he'll be involved in a whole new way. Knape's startup, sEATz, an in-seat delivery app, will be live in certain sections of the rodeo at NRG Stadium.

"It's really great to be able to be a part of the rodeo as far as a provider to help enhance that experience in the stadium," Knape says. "It goes back to our model of we want to serve a venue and the fans in that venue — not necessarily a specific sport or concert."

SEATz had a busy football season, servicing the likes of The Texans, the University of Houston Cougars, and more, but turns out, football is not over. Through its partnership with Delaware North, the food and beverage provider for UH's TDECU Stadium, sEATz has added the XFL's Houston Roughnecks fans to its roster of users. Click here to read more.

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Energy company with U.S. HQ in Houston acquires local business

M&A

A renewable energy retailer based in the United Kingdom is once again expanding its presence in Texas with another strategic acquisition.

Octopus Energy US, which is based in Houston, announced that it has signed an agreement to acquire Houston-based energy provider Brilliant Energy LLC in a $2.23 million deal. With the acquisition, Octopus Energy will take on the 9,000 residential customers currently supplied by Brilliant Energy. These users will be transitioned onto Octopus Energy's technology platform Kraken.

"Brilliant Energy is a company that has always stood for quality and unique brand experiences. It complements our strong dedication to bringing unparalleled customer experience to our users," says Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US, in a press release. "This is a major moment for us, as we work to bring our 100% renewable energy supply and outstanding technology to more Texans and their homes."

The acquisition is the latest move from Octopus Energy's plans to invest $100 million into the U.S. energy market and target 25 million U.S. energy accounts by 2027, according to the release.

Last fall, Octopus acquired Houston-based Evolve Energy in a $5 million deal. Evolve was founded by Lee, and he transitioned into his role as Octopus CEO following the deal.

Octopus Energy, which was founded around five years ago, reached Unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation in April 2020.

Michael Lee is CEO of Octopus Energy US. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston ranks among fastest growing tech hubs amid the pandemic, report finds

When Americans think of tech hubs, Silicon Valley or even Austin may initially come to mind. However, Houston appears to be making a play for tech-hub status.

Citing data from career platform LinkedIn, the Axios news website reports that Houston has seen a healthy influx of tech workers since the start of the pandemic. In fact, Houston ranks second among 14 major U.S. labor markets for the number of relocating software and IT workers between March 2020 and February 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Miami grabs the No. 1 spot for the gain in software and IT workers (up 15.4 percent) between the two periods, with Houston in second place (10.4 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth in third place (8.6 percent), according to the LinkedIn data.

"Young engineers and recent college graduates see Miami, Houston, and Philadelphia — not San Francisco, New York, or Seattle — as the hot new places to jumpstart a technology or creative economy career," Axios notes.

At the bottom of the barrel sits the San Francisco Bay Area, which suffered a loss of 34.8 percent when comparing the arrival and departure of software and IT workers. Interestingly, Austin experienced a loss of 8 percent in this category.

The shift from traditional tech hub to emerging tech hub is likely to continue as employers and employees alike further embrace remote work. A survey commissioned in April by the nonprofit One America Works found 47% of tech workers had moved during the pandemic. In addition, 3 in 10 tech workers anticipate living somewhere different than they did during the pandemic.

The CompTIA tech trade group says the Houston metro area is home to 243,908 tech workers. The Houston area's tech workforce grew 12.3 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to the group.

"Houston has been a center for world-changing innovations in energy, life sciences and aerospace for over a century. With science and engineering breakthroughs ingrained in the fabric of Houston's economy, the region has become a thriving hub of digital technology talent and companies thanks to our access to customers and expertise," says a report released in March by the Greater Houston Partnership.

One employer taking advantage of that talent is Bill.com. In 2019, the digital payments company opened a Houston outpost — the company's first office outside Silicon Valley.

"Though the city's technology industry is still developing, it offers a breath of fresh air compared to overcrowded late-stage tech markets like Austin and Denver. Ultimately, the breadth and depth of Houston's talent pool and the neighboring educational pipelines made it an ideal location for a second home," Vinay Pai, senior vice president of engineering at Palo Alto, California-based Bill.com and a Rice University graduate, wrote in April 2020 on LinkedIn.

Energy giant makes Houston sole headquarters in massive move

HQ move

Power player NRG Energy is laser focused on Houston. The Bayou City will be the energy giant's new sole headquarters; the company will no longer split between Houston and Princeton, New Jersey.

The move to a single headquarters simplifies business operations, as a large number of the company's employees and customers reside in Texas, the company noted in a press release and report.

The company, having recently acquired Direct Energy, will maintain regional offices in the markets that it serves and "evaluate real estate needs and consolidate as appropriate," the report adds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner welcomed the news in a statement, relaying that he and his team have had "substantive conversations" with NRG president and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez. "I believe the decision is confirmation that Houston is a smart city for business," said Turner.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also chimed in, adding in part:

With this move, NRG joins 50 other Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas, including 22 in the Houston area alone. America's leading businesses continue to invest in Texas — and grow jobs in Texas — because of our welcoming business climate, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and our young, growing, and skilled workforce.
I thank NRG Energy for designating Texas — the energy capital of the world — as their corporate headquarters, and I look forward to our continued partnership as we ensure a more prosperous future for all who call the Lone Star State home.

Turner noted that more than a year ago, the City of Houston committed to purchasing 100 percent renewable energy through a renewed partnership with NRG Energy as the City's retail electric provider. "The plan is helping us build a more sustainable future, save over $9 million on our electric bill, and reduce emissions," he said.

NRG Energy boasts some 3,000 employees in Houston alone. In its report, the company reported a net loss of $83 million due the impact of Winter Storm Uri.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.