Looking into venture capital deal growth, new coworking coming to town, and more Houston innovation news. Getty Images

Houston has seen some big headlines this month when it comes to innovation news — and you could have missed something.

From a report on venture capital funding last year and new coworking coming to town to a Houston investor selling her accelerator company, here's the latest batch of short stories in Houston innovation.

Houston sees spike in venture capital deals in 2019

Houston saw more venture capital funding in 2019 compared to 2018. Chart via crunchbase.com

Overall, 2019 was a good one for Texas venture capital deals. Austin had a record turnout of money invested in startups. Austin companies raised over $1.8 billion, which put the state capitol in the top 10 cities based on money raised, according to a report by Crunchbase.

And this Texas VC roundup on Crunchbase focused a lot of the Austin funding and didn't harp too much on the other Texas cities. But Houston's numbers are also record breaking. The Bayou City raised nearly $400 million last year — with the bulk of that being recorded in Q2 of 2019.

Houston's recorded $399.6 million in VC deals surpasses 2018's recorded funding by almost $20 million, but if you look at PitchBook and the National Venture Capital Association's data, the amount is higher. According to Pitchbook, the total funding raised in 2019 in Houston deals surprasses $600 million across 98 deals.

Houston investor-founded accelerator acquired

Houston investor ​Diana Murakhovskaya has sold her New York-based accelerator program. ​Photo courtesy of The Artemis Fund

New York-based Monarq Incubator, a venture capital-focused accelerator program for women, has been acquired by Female Founders Alliance. Monarq was co-founded by Diana Murakhovskaya, one of the three co-founders of Houston-based, female-focused The Artemis Fund.

Since its founding in 2017, Monarq accelerated 32 companies that have then gone on to raise more than $10 million in venture capital. The combined company, according to a news release, now represents the largest network of women and non-binary venture-scalable founders.

"FFA and Monarq share more than just a mission – we share founder DNA," says Leslie Feinzaig, CEO of Female Founders Alliance, in the release. "Our two communities and accelerator programs were built by women founders, for women founders. We are uniquely able to build programming that accelerates the success of women in our space, and now along with founder cred, we have scale and a national footprint. I am so excited for what we can achieve in this next stage of FFA."

The acquisition means a heightened focus on The Artemis Fund for Murakhovskaya.

"Now that I am full time focused on raising and investing with Artemis, it's great to know that our community and founders will have a home and provide us with a great source of deal flow," she says in an email to InnovationMap.

A new coworking company to enter Houston with Galleria-area office

New Galleria-area coworking is coming later this year. Photo via serendipitylabs.com

Serendipity Labs Coworking, which has over 100 coworking spaces across the United States and United Kingdom, announced its plans to enter six new markets this year. Houston is among the new locations for the coworking company.

Expected top open in the fall, the Houston coworking space will be a 28,331-square-foot space on the 20th floor of the Marathon Oil Tower at 5555 San Felipe St. in the Galleria area. According to the release, Cameron Coworking, a division of Cameron Management, will be the development partner for the Houston market.

"By partnering with asset owners of office, retail and residential buildings and then managing the Labs, we bring our operational expertise and marketing power, and we assure the upscale service standards of one of the top national flexible workplace networks will be met at every location," says John Arenas, chairman and CEO of Serendipity Labs, in a news release.

MassChallenge Texas opens applications for second cohort

Applications are open for MassChallenge Texas' second Houston cohort. Courtesy of MassChallenge

At an event on January 29 in both Houston and Austin, MassChallenge Texas opened applications for its 2020 cohorts

The 4-month accelerator program is set to begin in June and online applications close March 9. Prizes include six months of free office space and up to $250,000 in equity free investment. Click here for more information.

Houston entrepreneur named to 2020 class of Presidential Leadership Scholars

Houston startup founder, Reda Hicks, has been named a Presidential Leadership Scholar. Photo via presidentialleadershipscholars.org

For this sixth year, the Presidential Leadership Scholars announced its class of veterans, educators, physicians, public servants, and corporate professionals to participate in the program. Reda Hicks, founder of GotSpot was named as one of the 60 scholars. The program began this week in Washington D.C..

"I cannot wait to work with, and learn from, these exceptional leaders," Hicks shares on LinkedIn. "And through the program, I will be working on RescueSpot, a community resiliency application of GotSpot Inc."

Another Houstonian was selected too — Ganesh Betanabhatla, who is the managing partner and chief investment officer at Ramas Capital Management.

Ion Smart Cities Accelerator opens applications for second cohort

Aatonomy, a member of the first cohort, walked away with a cash prize at Demo Day. F. Carter Smith/Station Houston

The second cohort for the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator Program has opened applications online. The first cohort, focused on resilience and mobility, is currently in pilot mode. Cohort II will be focused on water purification/quality, air quality, and clean technology.

The applications will close on Monday, February 17, and startups that are selected will be notified the week of March 2.

The program, which was announced in June, is backed by Microsoft and Intel and named its first cohort last fall. The demo day for the first cohort took place last month. The accelerator has its own space and prototyping lab in downtown Houston, which opened in September.

From a water-absorbing tower to sensor-enabled rubber ducks, here are some flooding solution ideas coming out of Houston. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

These Houston entrepreneurs and startups are searching for flooding solutions

Flood tech

The feeling is all too familiar for Houstonians. Tropical Storm Imelda hit Houston with devastating flood waters just two years after Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

With any obstacle or challenge, there is room for innovation. Over the past year, InnovationMap has covered various flood tech startups in Houston. Here are six innovations that can make a difference the next time a storm decides to take its toll on Houston.

Self-deploying flood protection for buildings

FloodFrame's technology can protect a home or commercial building from flood water damage. Photo via floodframe.com

A self-deploying flood damage prevention device caught Tasha Nielsen's eye on a trip to Denmark, and then launched the U.S. iteration of FloodFrame to bring the technology here.

FloodFrame works by using buoyancy. A lightweight cloth is wrapped around a tube is installed underground outside the perimeter of your home or business. One end of that cloth is attached to a box that is also installed underground. As flooding begins, an automatic system will release the lids to deploy the inflation of the tube that will protect the structure. When the flood comes in, the system will float on top of the flood — kind of like a pool noodle — and protect the structure from the water.

FloodFrame adds a level of security during flooding events and can be considered more cost-effective when compared to the high cost of renovating or rebuilding after flooding.

"Right now we are focused on residential but I think there's a huge potential for it to go commercial. A lot of commercial buildings are self insured, and commercial developers, industrial developers, this would be a drop in the bucket for the overall cost of the entire project," Nielsen tells InnovationMap. "For homeowners, it's kind of a bigger expense, but I think there is the potential for homebuilders to include it as an option in the entire package of a new house because when you put it in to a mortgage, it's only another like $0.50 a month."

A waterproof container for your car.

After the floods from Hurricane Harvey totaled her car, Rahel Abraham wanted to find a solution. ClimaGuard/Facebook

Floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey seriously damaged about 600,000 vehicles in the Houston area, which included Rahel Abraham's 2008 Infiniti G35. Now, Abraham's brainchild forms the backbone of her Houston-based startup, ClimaGuard LLC. The company's waterproof, temperature-resistant, portable Temporary Protective Enclosure (TPE) can entirely cover a compact car, sedan, or midsize SUV. It comes in three sizes; the cost ranges from $349 to $499.

To protect a vehicle, someone sets a TPE on the ground, a driveway, or another flat surface, then drives the vehicle onto the bottom part of the product, and connects the bottom and top parts with the zipper. Abraham likens it to a clamshell preserving a pearl.

"My goal is not to make it to where it's an exclusive product — available only to those who can afford it — but I want to be able to help those who it would make even more of an economic impact for," Abraham tells InnovationMap.

A network to find shelter.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks tells InnovationMap. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Now Hicks is growing GotSpot in hopes that short-term rental space and emergency housing can be smooth sailing no matter the circumstances. Recently, the company was named a finalist for MassChallenge Texas in Austin.

A water-absorbing tower. 

Fil Trat would be able to absorb water, filter it, and release it into the body of water when the time comes. Courtesy of Gensler's ByDesign

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, many Houstonians began to think of solutions for the next time Mother Nature struck with her full-force of flooding. Gensler designers Chelsea Bryant, Jordan Gomez, Luisa Melendez, Barbara Novoa, Benjamin Nanson, Maria Qi, and Melinda Ubera created a solution as a part of Gensler's By Design program called Fil Trat. The tower can absorb, filter, and store flood waters until the bayou is ready for the water to be released — cleaner than it was before.

During Harvey, thousands of people were displaced, but Fil Trat has a solution for that too. The tower's floors would alternate between filtration floors and shelters, which could house up to 24 families per floor.

While the suggested Houston locale would be by Buffalo Bayou, the group suggests putting the tower in other coastal cities at risk of devastating flooding.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks that can track weather developments.

Sensor-enabled rubber ducks might be the solution to keeping track of major weather events. Courtesy of Project Owl

Nearly two years after Hurricane Harvey battered the Houston area, a flock of electronic "rubber ducks" flew above homes in Katy in a broader endeavor to keep first responders and victims connected during natural disasters.

Developers and backers of Project Owl, an Internet of Things (IoT) hardware and software combination, conducted a pilot test of this innovation June 1 — the first day of this year's hurricane season. In the Katy test, 36 "ducks" took flight.

"So, our technology can be deployed to help communities that have been destroyed after natural disasters by providing quickly accessible communications network to coordinate and organize a response," Bryan Knouse, co-founder and CEO of Project Owl, tells InnovationMap.

The DuckLink network comprises hubs resembling rubber ducks, which can float in flooded areas if needed. It takes only five of these hubs to cover one square mile. This network sends speech-based communications using conversational systems (like Alexa and Facebook Messenger) to a central application. The app, the Owl software incident management system, relies on predictive analytics and various data sources to build a dashboard for first responders.

Restored native wetland coastal prairies.

Memorial Park Conservancy is gearing up to unveil one if its first projects within its 10-year master plan redevelopment. Photo courtesy of MPC

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water. Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership, has been taking every opportunity to raise awareness on the importance of prairie restoration.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Memorial Park Conservancy's master plan redevelopment project, which is being supported by the Kinder Foundation, includes a lot of prairie restoration plans is expected to deliver by 2028.

The project is a collaborative effort between MPC, Uptown Houston TIRZ, and Houston Parks, Kinder Foundation, and Recreation Department to redevelop the 1,500-acre park. An ongoing part of the transformation will be stormwater management upgrades. MPC has budgeted $3 million to this asset of the renovation. While a part of the plan is tributaries for run-off water, bringing back prairie and wetlands will do a great deal to help abate stormwater.

"We're taking ball fields, parking lots, and roads and converting them back to what was here — native wetland coastal prairie," MPC president and CEO Shellye Arnold tells InnovationMap. "This serves important stormwater purposes."

A handful of Houston startups will be bouncing back and forth to Austin for the second annual MassChallenge Texas accelerator. Getty Images

These are the Houston companies headed to MassChallenge Texas in Austin

Texas road trip

It's the second cohort for Boston-based MassChallenge Texas in Austin, and this year's 74 selected finalists are well represented by Houston.

"Coming from an extremely competitive application pool, the startups in our second Austin-based cohort represent an incredibly high bar of creativity and talent, all of who are poised to make an impact," says Mike Millard, managing director of MassChallenge Texas, in a release. "This year's program will offer the finalists innovation at scale with direct access to resources through our programs in Houston and Austin, and our community around the state. Through these channels, startups will have more opportunities to test and validate their ideas with partners while creating meaningful engagements to help them get to pilot or pivot as fast as possible."

While there is the upcoming MassChallenge Texas inaugural Houston cohort, these seven companies opted for a spot in the Austin-based cohort where the stakes are higher and cash prizes are on the line — $500,000, the largest equity-free cash prize in Texas, to be precise. (Houston's inaugural set of prizes reportedly don't included money.)

These are seven of the Houston-related companies that will be trekking back and forth to Austin from June until October.

crewcollar

Getty Images

It's crewcollar's mission to optimize hiring for industrial and blue-collar jobs, simplifying the entire process from curated job posts to paperwork filing. The company is based just outside of Houston in Missouri City.

"We are super excited to be joining MassChallenge Texas, and know that this experience will help us take it to the next level," says M. Siler, CEO and founder, in a release.

GotSpot Inc.

Courtesy of GotSpot

Houston-based GotSpot is Reda Hicks solution to finding temporary space quickly and easily — in a way that benefits all sides of the transaction. The model is like AirBnb, but for retail, meeting, and even emergency space. The corporate lawyer has grown the platform over the past few years and the MassChallenge opportunity is another move in the right direction. Click here to read more about Hicks and GotSpot.

Grant Source

Photo via grantsourceapp.com

Grant Source is like the magic genie to help organizations find funding through grants and opportunities. The Houston startup has a database of opportunities and can help match businesses with appropriate grants to apply to — all within the Grant Source mobile app.

Guzo

Getty Images

Guzo is the tool every traveler has dreamed up. The Houston-based app connects travelers — not just in the planning phase — but throughout the travel process. The company was created by two brothers — Joshua and Gordon Taylor — and is the recreation of Croozen, formerly a long-distance carpool app.

"One of the things that got Gordan and I excited in the beginning of Croozen was just the idea of someone else in the car with you and that shared experience," Joshua Taylor tells InnovationMap in a previous interview about revamping Croozen as Guzo. "Looking past that, just being focused on the car was hindering us. Let's divorce the car and focus on travel as a whole."

Lazarus 3D

Photo via laz3d.com

Practice makes perfect, and surgeons should be as close to perfect as possible, right? Lazarus 3D uses 3D printing to make realistic body parts and organs so that surgeons can rehearse their surgeries before ever slicing into a patient. The company is conveniently located in the Texas Medical Center.

Pilot Plus

Photo via pilotplus.com

The trucking industry needs a rebrand. It's a tireless job that's go-go-go, and the unappealing nature of the career isn't ideal. Pilot Plus puts the humanity back in the process that benefits the driver and makes for bragging rights for the company employing the trucker. The logistics company allows for a system of drivers that work together for the long haul so that drivers can actually spend time resting in their own homes.

Topl

Courtesy of Topl

Topl's MassChallenge bio lists their HQ in the Netherlands, but the blockchain startup founded by three Rice University alumni has some of its operations right here in town. Topl has a goal of using blockchain technology to connect the dots and enhance transparency in various applications from retail to even being able to track the success of investments or scholarships.

"We are a generation that wants a story," Kim Raath, president at Topl, tells InnovationMap in a previous interview. "We want an origin, and don't want to be fooled. And, because you might be able to reduce the cost by having this transparency, you might be able to bring down the cost on both sides."


Reda Hicks (left) of GotSpot Inc, Ghazal Qureshi (center) of Idea Lab Kids, and Abbey Donnell of Work & Mother are this week's innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston female entrepreneurs to know this week

Who's who

Another Monday means another set of innovators to know. This one focuses on a few female startup leaders changing the game in the commercial real estate and education industries.

Reda Hicks, founder and CEO of GotSpot Inc.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

Turns out, Hurricane Harvey was the big push Reda Hicks needed to create her startup, GotSpot Inc., the Airbnb of commercial real estate.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

Hicks, a lawyer by trade, now juggles startup life, being a wife and mom, and her full-time legal career. Read the rest of the story here.

Ghazal Qureshi, founder of Idea Lab Kids

Ghazal Qureshi wanted to engage her own kids in educational activities. Now, her programing has expanded worldwide. Courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

At first, Ghazal Qureshi just wanted to find her kids a quality after school educational program. When she couldn't, she decided to make something herself. Now, it's a franchised company with locations worldwide.

"From the beginning, we were never restricted by trying to make money. It was a passion project only," Qureshi says.

IDEA Lab Kids, an education program focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math, has 18 locations in Houston, and, two years ago, she expanded the brand into a franchise business — the Idea Lab International Franchise Company. Read the rest of the story here.

Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother

Abbey Donnell's startup, Work & Mother, provides a new way for new moms to pump breast milk during the workday. Courtesy of Work & Mother

When Abbey Donnell heard horror stories from some friends who recently returned to work after giving birth, she had an idea. What if new moms had a stylish, spa-like lactation experience during the workday that was less inconvenient and, well, awkward.

"There were constant stories about [women] being told the use the IT closet, or the conference room, or the bathroom or their cars," Donnell says. "Some of them were pretty big oil and gas firms companies that should've had the resources and space to do better than that."

Donnell founded Work & Mother, a boutique pumping and wellness center, and opened the first location in downtown Houston in 2017 and is planning its second downtown location. Read the rest of the story here.

Reda Hicks create GotSpot — a digital tool that helps connect people with commercial space with people who need it. Courtesy of GotSpot

How a Houston corporate lawyer is making short-term commercial space easier to find

Featured Innovator

It only took a natural disaster for Reda Hicks to make her startup idea into a reality.

"I had been thinking on what it would be like to help people find space to do business in and how businesses find a way to stay in business a long time," Hicks says. "But, I was afraid of the tech."

Hicks, who has practiced law for almost 15 years, wanted to create a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it. When Hurricane Harvey hit, Hicks was kicking herself for not acting on her idea sooner.

"It was really Harvey and having so many people desperate to find space for emergency purposes that made me realize there are so many contexts in which people need space right away for something specific," she says. "Certainly the primary user is the entrepreneur trying to grow their business, but there are so many other reasons why a community would need better access to the space it already has."

GotSpot Inc. soft launched last June with 17 listings. The company now has 37 and new listings are generated daily. Hicks has won two pitch competitions and is headed to Silicon Valley in March for Women's Startup Labs.

"In 2019, we're going to be working with local business partners, like the chambers. We'll be working on building out a team. I'll be hitting the road in March headed to Silicon Valley for Women's Startup Labs."

She spoke with InnovationMap on her career and what it takes to be a mom, a wife, a corporate lawyer, and a startup founder — all rolled into one.

InnovationMap: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

Reda Hicks: I feel like I kind of grew up the way a lot of small town, lower middle class kids do. The options you're aware of were either people you know or what you see on TV. Growing up there were no people in my life who were entrepreneurs. Even as a professional, it never even occurred to me. It's more about seeing a problem I wanted to be solved more than I just wanted to own my own business.

IM: How does GotSpot work?

RH: I have two types of users. One is the person who has the space — a shop on Main Street or conference rooms you're not using — and you're looking for a way to monetize that space. We call those our spot holders. It's so easy to go on the platform and create your profile and generate a listing. On the other side, I have spot seekers who can go on the site and search the available listings they are interested in booking for hours, days, or weeks at a time. It's not fully automated right now. The booking process and the calendar is all ran by me. In the next two to three months, we'll have it up and running like that, and it will feel a lot like Airbnb.

It's strictly website based right now, and I did that intentionally. Spot holders don't want to build their profile on their phones. But the site is mobile friendly.

IM: What are some early challenges you faced?

RH: My biggest challenge honestly was having a problem and wanting to solve it, but not knowing where to start — especially because I'm not a tech person. From a subject matter and contacts perspective, I felt like I had the resources. My first question was, "Who can I call?" It's a testament to Houston. No one I called said no. We talk often about how we are a new ecosystem, but we also are an extremely generous and connected city. What I see and what I hope continues is that we are an ecosystem that builds by leveraging all the awesome that's already here.

IM: Where did the name come from?

RH: I reached out to three military spouses I know and asked them to help. We spitballed a bunch of ideas. I wanted it to be simple and clear, because so many brands come up with a cute name but it takes forever to explain. We literally pulled out a thesaurus and thought of all the words that mean "space" and "finding," and that exercise is where GotSpot came from.

IM: What makes GotSpot different from anything else out there?

RH: There are a few different marketplaces out there for commercial space, but they tend to be more specialized. But another way GotSpot is different is I'm being very intentionally community driven. I look at GotSpot as your digital sidekick to grow your business — whether it's helping you pay your rent by creating a new way to make money or helping you say yes to more opportunities. But I'm also collecting information on how that same space can be used for the community. Harvey is a part of my origin story. Every time I onboard a new space, I ask if you are willing to be activated in case of an emergency, and if so, how can you be used — industrial space or washer and dryers. In other communities, there are other kind of emergencies. And, I also know half the nonprofits in Texas don't keep their own space any more, because donors don't want their money to go to overhead. I ask my space holders if they are willing to give a discount to nonprofits.

IM: What expertise from your career as a corporate lawyer do you bring to your startup career?

RH: A couple of things. I've spent my whole career working in large corporations. I really understand how the inside of a company works and how to think creatively and mitigate risks. It's so interesting because when I start talking to people about GotSpot, I have to be honest about how this is my first entrepreneurial experience. So when I say that, people tell me, "well, you're going to have to have really good counsel." And I tell them, "well, actually, I am really good counsel." The demeanor of who I'm talking to — whether it's an adviser or a potential investor — fundamentally shifts.

IM: What's been the most challenging aspect of still working full time and having a family?

RH: Probably the thing that has been the most challenging has been access to resources as a female founder. What I mean by that is there's all this great programing and things happening around town are always in the evening. It's hard to make happy hours. What I'm starting to see is more programing is a diversity of when that programing is available. I'm privileged in that I can do my job from anywhere during the day, but if all of the golden opportunities are on a weekday at 5 pm, my mommy duties win. Always.

IM: How has Houston been as a home for your startup?

RH: I think one aspect of the secret sauce is how open and can do of a city it is. It is not the traditional thing you think of when you think of startups. But we know better. In the startup space, what I love, is that I am kind of seeing it like we're building the plane as we're flying it. We have some people who have been around for a long time, but even some of our incubators are startups on their own. We have the ability, since we're still building it now, to have an ecosystem that reflects our city. We have a long ways to go, there are still some things that we are working through — capital is one of them.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

cheers

The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.