Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion."

To focus on the Ion's Academic Partner Network, Jan E. Odegard has been appointed senior director of industry and academic partners. Odegard's background includes research and leadership at Rice University in computing. Odegard will also oversee The Ion's labs, which include human/robotics interaction lab, an immersive reality lab and an industrial prototyping lab.

Deanea LeFlore has been named senior director of community and corporate engagement. Like Rowe, LeFlore had a similar role at Station Houston before this new position. Before that, she spent most of her career working for the city of Houston and served under four Mayors over 17 years.

Lastly, Chris Valka, has been hired as senior director of operations, overseeing finance, accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management. Prior to this position, Valka served in the president's cabinet overseeing a similar spectrum of responsibilities at the University of St. Thomas.

"As we prepare for The Ion's opening in early 2021, we are excited to welcome Deanea LeFlore, Dr. Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka, to our growing team," says Rowe in the release. "I am excited to see what this diverse group of experts will bring to our efforts to build an inclusive innovation hub in a tech-forward environment that promotes all that is great about Houston."

The 270,000-square-foot Ion building broke ground in July of last year and is slated to open in 2021. Recently, the organization announced its first programming partner — Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, and select courses have already begun.

Rice University's Glasscock school of Continuing Studies is the Ion's first academic partnership to be announced. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion names inaugural academics partner, course programming for Houston hub

Teaming up

A burgeoning entrepreneurship hub has taken a major step forward in its development with the announcement of its first academic partner and coursework for the partnership.

The Ion has teamed up with Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies to bring programming to the to-be hub, which is expected to open in early 2021.

"We are thrilled to extend our programming to the Ion constituents and Houston's innovation ecosystem," says Robert Bruce Jr., dean of Rice's Continuing Studies school, in a news release. "Continuing education, whether that takes the form of an advanced certificate or a single course, is an important part of the innovation lifecycle, and we are excited to provide this to Houston's entrepreneurs."

The school will offer a mix of online and hybrid courses and certificate programs for personal and professional development. Select courses are slated to begin on January 13, and sign-ups for the courses are live online.

"We know business leaders have many goals and responsibilities and we look forward to supporting them to achieve new levels of success through our responsive and proven programming," Bruce adds.

Some of the first semesters programming is expected to focus on computer and data science education, corporate financial planning, leadership courses, project management, and more, according to the release. Mary Lynn Fernau, the Glasscock School's director of executive and international programs, will manage the partnership.

"As The Ion seeks to increase access to flexible career development in tech and entrepreneurial programming, our partnership with the Glasscock School serves as a model for what professional activation at The Ion can look like at its best," says Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, in the release.

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator program's inaugural cohort is moving into its next phase, and some participating startups earned some cash along the way. Courtesy of Station Houston

Startups take home cash prizes at inaugural Houston accelerator demo day

ion smart cities

The Ion Smart Cities Accelerator wrapped up the first phase of its inaugural program with a demo day this week as the startups move onto the pilot phase.

Over the past three months, the 10 selected startups have been working with mentors and the Station Houston resources to hone their companies within the program's new dedicated space, which includes a prototyping lab. At the demo day, which represents the conclusion of the first part of the Intel- and Microsoft-backed program, the startups presented their companies, what they've accomplished, and where they are headed.

Two companies received $5,000 checks from sponsors. GoKid, a carpooling optimization tool, received a prize from Brex, a credit card for startups. The other big winner was Aatonomy, a self-driving communities technology, which was awarded by Gulf States Toyota.

Ion Accelerator Demo Day F. Carter Smith

The second leg of the journey begins in January with pilot programs for the next six months. According to Christine Galib, director of Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, the companies have 15 pilots in the Houston area that hope to positively affect the lives of Houstonians.

"Our startups' technology focuses on connecting people. And this is what makes Houston truly the smartest city in America," says Galib. "To truly be the smartest city in America, we must continue to focus on how we connect people, and why we connect people, as well as to provide the processes and partnerships for these connections — not only to occur by chance, but also to be sustainable."

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, echoed the importance people had on the smart cities equation.

"The great success that this accelerator has experienced over the last three months has really been because of people," she says.

Among those people who received a special shoutout from Rowe were the program's inaugural set of mentors. Several of these mentors introduced each of the startups as they presented.

"All of you opened your calendars, your time, and your wisdom to help these startups, but also to help our city," Rowe says to the crowd, which included the program mentors. "And to express a universal desire to make Houston the best possible city it can be, accessible to all Houstonians in every way as we grow to be that innovation economy and city of the future."

The Digital Fight Club made its Houston debut on November 20 at White Oak Music Hall. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Photos: Houston innovation leaders weigh in on cybersecurity, tech, and more at inaugural event

total knock out

What do you get when you cross the information of an innovation panel with the ferocity of a boxing match? A verbal sprawling among innovation leaders that can only be known as the Digital Fight Club.

Houston's DFC came about with the help of Accenture, which had been a partner at the Dallas events, and InnovationMap, who teamed up as presenting sponsors for the event. DFC's founder, Michael Pratt, came up with the idea for Digital Fight Club as a way to liven up technology-focused events and networking opportunities.

The setup of the event is five fights, 10 fighters, and five judges. Each fighter has just a couple minutes to take their stand before the event moves on.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

The hour of fighting is coupled with a VIP event ahead of the showdown and an after party where further networking can continue on. At Houston's VIP event, InnovationMap got to check in with partners, fighters, and referees about how they thought the event was going to pan out. Check out the VIP event video here.

The panel of referees included Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston; Denise Hamilton, CEO of Watch Her Work; Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital; Lance Black, Director at TMCx; and Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

The refs asked two questions per fight, and were able to vote on the winners of each round — as was the audience through an interactive web-based application. The break down of the fights, topics, and winners are as follows:

Fight #1: Future Workforce of Robotics/AI. Matt Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems, vs Pablo Marin, senior AI Leader, Microsoft. Hager took the win with 77 percent of the vote.
Fight #2: Whose responsibility is cybersecurity. Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate vs Tara Khanna, managing director and Security Lead at Accenture. Khanna won this round, snagging 66 percent of the votes.
Fight #3: Oil & Gas Industry and the Environment. Michael Szafron - commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, vs Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone. Szafron received 76 percent of the voites, securing the win.
Fight #4: Digital in our personal lives. Grace Rodriguez, CEO of ImpactHub, vs Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs. Rodriguez won with the largest margin of the night — 85 percent.
Fight #5: Future of Primary Care Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, vs Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist. Goyal received 72 percent of the votes to take home the win.

The fights were heated, and some of the fighters had knockout quotes, from Hager's "AI is mostly bullshit" to Khanna's "Compliance doesn't mean you're secure." For more of the knockout quotes, click here.

The fight is on

Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Mike Pratt, who hosted the event, founded the Digital Fight Club in 2016.

The local community has raised some concerns about Rice Management Company's Ion project's effect on the Third Ward. Courtesy of Rice University

Third Ward community expresses concerns with The Ion project that's underway

Mixed feelings

The city of Houston has been buzzing about Rice Management Company's Ion Innovation Hub — a 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub project expected to deliver in 2021 — but there's one group isn't so thrilled with the plans: The Third Ward community.

In a public community meeting on November 12, community members gathered at the Wesley AME Church to plan a Community Benefits Agreement that would legally bind The Innovation District's development team and the Rice Management Company to move forward with the local residents' indicated best interests. According to the Houston Coalition for Equitable Development without Displacement, a newly formed group to work on the CBA, it would be the first of its kind in Houston.

The coalition is supported by Third Ward is Home Civic Club, the Emancipation Economic Development Council, the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats - Harris County, and the Houston Society for Change.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, presented the project's plans to the crowd, recognizing that innovation ecosystems across the country have issues with diversity.

"When you look around the tech ecosystems in the United States today, there are a couple things that stand out," Rowe says. "First and foremost is that they are extremely white and extremely male."

But since Houston is still developing its innovation infrastructure, Rowe says, the city has more opportunities to take the lessons learned from these other ecosystems and be more proactive about including diverse efforts.

One of the things The Ion is planning to incorporate to engage the community is a free coworking space — the only free coworking space in Houston, Rowe says. The Ion plans also include two public parks and community events, and both will be free and open to the public.

The Ion promises to bring free coworking, park space, and events to the area. Courtesy of Rice University

After the presentation, the estimated 150 community members in the crowd had the opportunity to address Rowe. While one local resident expressed concern with the non-inclusive verbiage The Ion is using — describing the area as "Midtown" over the pre-gentrification descriptor of Third Ward — other concerns surrounded the lack of diversity of the decision makers on the project.

"For me, that's where we need to start, which is in diversity," says Rowe, who mentions she has diversity among her programming team. "I look to all of you to come to get included in our team as we're growing."

Another concern that was raised was the job opportunities on the construction site itself. While Rowe didn't mention any specific job opportunities in construction, she did say she had been asked by the Rice Management Company to tap local artists to design the fences surrounding the site.

The meeting pivoted toward a discussion about the CBA and the importance the agreement would have moving forward. Assata Richards, founder of Sankofa Research Institute and local activist, and Mary Claire Neal, a Rice University student and leader of the Students for a Just and Equitable Innovation Corridor, and Carl Davis, chair of the Houston Society for Change and a representative of the church, have teamed up to move forward with the agreement.

Texas Appleseed, a group of volunteer lawyers, has agreed to help create and enforce the agreement, and Jeffrey Lowe, associate professor in the department of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, has also advised the organizations.

"We've been told what's going to happen, but there's no binding agreement to make sure that it's going to happen," Richards says. "Those are just nice wishlists."

Moreover, the initiatives that have been suggested, enforceable or not, aren't enough, Richards adds, again stressing the importance of the CBA.

"We're going to be smarter this time. We're going to work with the people who have the power and make the decisions," Richards says. "You're doing all this development and come and tell me that you want art outside the building? We're talking millions of dollars of construction."

While the terms of the CBA are still in the works, some of the requests mentioned in the meeting include jobs, preservation of communities of color, affordable housing initiatives, access to affordable groceries, and opportunities for minority and African American-owned businesses.

The Ion Innovation Hub Proposed Site Plan The Ion Innovation Hub Proposed Site Plan was included in notes pre-released ahead of the Houston Planning Commission's November 14 meeting. Photo via HPC

Neal proceeded with a presentation of actionable ways students and community members can get involved and make their voices heard. Her presentation included new concerns following the release of the master plan of The Innovation District, which the Houston Chronicle released earlier this week. The plans included a parking area that will be the next construction project following The Ion. The variance request is headed to the planning commission on Thursday.

"That's a two-day turnaround and it's the first opportunity for us to do something," Neal says. The group is intending to at least acquire a delay in the variance request moving forward.

The meeting wrapped up with a call to action for local residents as well as students. Since The Ion will include local academic institutions, student and alumni input is crucial.

"We want you to hold up and pause and think carefully on how this development is going to benefit and affect the community," Richards says.

This week's innovators to know in Houston all have new and exciting things to announce. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Who are Houston's innovators to know? Well this week, here's who made headlines, from a well-known Houston software entrepreneur and investor rolling out a new line of business for his company to a new podcast network with Houston roots.

Gabriella Rowe, executive director of operations at The Ion

ION Accelerator ribbon cutting event, with Mayor Sylvester Turner and business partners.

Photo by Carter Smith/Station Houston

The entrepreneurial hub dubbed the Ion that's expected to premiere in Houston's innovation district in 2021 has a new operating organization and the Rice Management Company has tapped Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe to run it.

"To ensure that The Ion is a catalyst for the continued growth of the innovation ecosystem, we've been collaborating with Gaby and her team as well as civic leaders, Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County commissioners and Midtown Houston," says Allison Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the RMC, in a news release. "We know that under Gaby's leadership The Ion will become an innovation hub for not only all Houstonians, but for anybody looking to thrive and collaborate in an entrepreneur-first, tech-forward environment." Read more.

Rakesh Agrawal, founder and CEO of SnapStream

Photo courtesy of SnapStream

Houston-based SnapStream has expanded its services, and CEO and Co-founder Rakesh Agrawal appears on the third episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his company's growth and the role he plays in the Houston innovation ecosystem.

"A lot of people go to this question of, 'What's wrong with the Houston ecosystem?' If there's anything that's a fundamental characteristic of Houston that we need to change that would really help the startup and innovation ecosystem is that often in Houston, the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing," Agrawal says on the podcast. Read more.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, co-founder of Lemonada Media

Photo via Twitter

It's safe to say that Stephanie Wittels Wachs didn't have start and run a podcast network in her life's master plan. Nonetheless, the Houstonian can check that box after she launched Lemonada Media with her business partner, Jessica Cordova Kramer. The network is about creating provoking, uncensored content about life and humanity.

"This is everything I've done in my whole life," she tells InnovationMap. "It sort of combines my writing and my education background and my artistic background and some voiceover background and my activism. It's everything." Read more.

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Booming Houston suburb hauls in top spot among growing U.S. cities

making moves

The Houston metro area's population is poised to continue booming over the next decade, so it should be no surprise that U-Haul calculated one Houston suburb as one of the top U.S. cities for growth.

In its annual report, released January 7, the company details migration trends across the U.S. Analyzing data from 2019, the moving and rental company placed Spring-The Woodlands at No. 14 among the 2019 U-Haul Growth Cities.

To determine the country's top 25 growth cities, U-Haul analyzed more than 2 million rental transactions over the calendar year. It then calculated the net gain of one-way U-Haul trucks entering an area versus those leaving an area.

Unlike U.S. Census Bureau or real estate data, the company says its U-Haul Growth Cities offers a snapshot of an area's retention rates versus strictly growth.

"While U-Haul migration trends do not correlate directly to population or economic growth, the company's growth data is an effective gauge of how well cities and states are attracting and maintaining residents," it explains in a release.

Three other Texas cities were perched on the list: the Austin suburb of Round Rock-Pflugerville (No. 5), the San Antonio suburb of New Braunfels (No. 11), and the Dallas suburb of McKinney (No. 17).

The top spot this year went to Raleigh-Durham, where arrivals accounted for nearly 51.4 percent of all one-way U-Haul traffic. In its explanation as to why the North Carolina hub is growing, the company points to the region's booming tech sector, which is says rivals that of Austin.

"We have tons of businesses coming here, bringing new residents in U-Haul trucks," said Kris Smith, U-Haul Company of Raleigh president, in a release. "Raleigh-Durham is rivaling Austin for attracting tech businesses and young professionals. We're seeing Silicon Valley talent and companies flock to the area. With a competitive cost of living, good wages, and job growth, Raleigh-Durham is experiencing a boom in population."

But when it came to the top growth state, neither Texas nor North Carolina got the No. 1 spot. That honor went to Florida, which took the crown from Texas, the winner in 2018. The Sunshine State claimed seven cities among the top 25, including five in the top 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston is full of innovative people looking to make an impact — whether it's in the health tech, fashion, or science industries.

This week's innovators to know represent different industries within Houston, but they are all looking to leave a legacy in making a difference.

Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck

Photo courtesy of BrainCheck

Yael Katz has seen the company she co-founded grow tenfold in its almost five years, and now she's watching that growth from a corner office with a great view of Houston.

BrainCheck, a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health, has moved into a new office space in the West University area following a series A round of fundraising.

"It's pretty exciting to have reached this milestone where we need more space," Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, tells InnovationMap. "We were pretty much bursting at the seams in our old office." Read more.

Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair

Photo courtesy of Goodfair

With the rise of fast fashion — in which huge clothing lines rapidly produce cheap clothing for consumers, humans are cycling through clothing at a detrimental rate.

According to a report from Business Insider, the fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Houston-based Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild." Read more.

Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

Libby Neder Photography

On the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Dorit Donoviel speaks of space health needs in ways that sound like futuristic science fiction. However, the director of the Translational Research Institute of Space Health is actively seeking solutions for issues and needs for living in space.

TRISH works hand in hand with NASA's Human Research Program to identify the program's biggest concerns, and then tap into professors, researchers, and scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, and other partners in order to innovate solutions.

"Everyone tosses the word 'innovation' around, but that means, to us, taking risks in science. Health care, in particular, is very risk averse, but the space industry is taking risks every single day when they put people in a rocket and hurl them into space," Donoviel says on the podcast. "If we're going to mars, for example, we are going to put people at risk." Read more.

These 3 Houston research projects are aiming to fight or prevent cancer

Research roundup

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."