Station Houston has a new hire. Christine Galib was named as the director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

When Christine Galib moved to Houston, she knew two things: it was going to be hot, and there were going to be tacos. But when Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, she learned something else: the resiliency of the city — and its people — was a thread that interwove the fabric of the metro.

And now that the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, a program that would allow participants to find solutions to real-world problems in Houston, has now hired Galib as its first program director. Through her position, she'll be able to guide participants from all over the country find solutions to two of the city's biggest problems: transportation and mobility.

"Houston is international, resilient, and inspirational, powered by innovation, energy, and diversity that forms a strong foundation for our unique entrepreneurial ecosystem," Galib says in a news release announcing her hiring. "I am excited to serve Houston through leveraging and creating collaborations, partnerships, and solutions to differentiate Houston as a smart city that is building for its future."

Station Houston will host the accelerator through its first cohort, but it will move to The Ion when the innovation hub opens in 2020.

"When we look at The Ion being created as a center for entrepreneurship and innovation in Houston, there's no other city in the world has this type of level of collaboration and transparency of major players in the innovation space coming together to create, not only the physical space, but also the programming and mindset and the environment and the culture to sustain it," she tells InnovationMap.

"It was a pretty easy decision for me to be on board with the vision. It's not just a vision for a future which is far off … It's a vision for the future that we're actually creating today."

Galib, a former instructor at Rice University and the University of St. Thomas who has experience as a financial analyst on Wall Street, will spearhead the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator. For her, leading the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator allows her to take part in creating a forward-thinking, solutions driven program that will help usher in that culture into Houston's entrepreneurial atmosphere — collaboration is key.

"When I think of Houston and innovation, I think this collaborative approach to making something that is going to stick — sustainable change that sticks — and then making a future that is not just different but better for everybody," Galib says.

The accelerator, which was announced by Mayor Sylvester Turner at a Microsoft IoT in Action event, is now accepting applications for its first cohort. Galib says access is one of the biggest assets applicants are given if given the opportunity to join the accelerator.

"One of the goals is inclusion," Galib says. "You can't have a smart city and have that smartness benefit only one or two percent of the people. The inclusive nature of the accelerator in this entrepreneurial ecosystem is a major selling point."

Participants of the 10-month program will participate in structured curriculum and programming focused on mobility and resiliency and are tasked with creating feasible solutions to those problems within the city.

Galib, along with Station Houston, will offer participating entrepreneurs and startups with the resources they need to validate their solutions and prepare them for deployment, as well as create programming for participants and lead the research and analysis for the accelerator.

Galib is excited to attract talent into the first cohort and see what they do throughout their tenure in the accelerator.

"(We want to identify and recruit) talent to come to Houston and to stay in Houston, to be part of a family of entrepreneurs in innovation," she says. "I had no family here when I came here, and one of the reasons why I stayed here was because I found people who really got me excited about being a Houstonian."


Christine Galib will lead the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator program. Photo via StationHouston.com

Houston has seen four new accelerators enter the market this year. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Breaking down Houston's 4 new startup accelerator programs

Excelling in accelerating

It's official — 2019 is the year of accelerators in Houston. Four different accelerator programs have announced plans to launch Houston programs this year so far — and they are all bringing something different to the table.

All four of the programs represent global programs or big companies recognizing the potential in Houston, which, according to Yael Hochberg, head of the Rice University Entrepreneurship Initiative, is a key part of the equation.

"When you're talking about a place like Houston, what we need here right now is interest from the outside," Hochberg says. "We need some certification by people from the outside that in fact this is a destination for innovation and entrepreneurship."

Houston's most successful accelerator has been homegrown — right out of the Texas Medical Center. TMCx is on its ninth cohort since it launched in 2014.

Also founded in Houston, SURGE Accelerator had a different fate. It launched in 2011 and closed in 2016. Hochberg says there are a number of reasons for the program's demise including disengaged corporations.

"I do feel there's a lot of opportunity around this, and I don't think we should look at SURGE as some sort of indicator of what will happen to an accelerator in the city," she says. "If anything, I would look at TMCx and look at the potential that we see from that."

The biggest benefit to these accelerator programs, Hochberg says, is the new influx of startups that come to Houston. It's not only the accelerators' cohorts, but just the feasibility of the success and resources available. More startups translates to more investments.

"When you have startup activity and good startups, then money, private investment money will follow," Hochbergs says. "Private investment money doesn't just show up."

But bringing in these programs puts the pressure on the city to focus on the environment it's providing new companies and talent. Innovative companies thrive in major metros with things like protected bike lanes, city living, sustainability — and Houston needs to work on these things, Hochberg says, adding that Houston's ability to boast on its single-family homes is less and less attractive to younger demographics.

Building the city up with these types of infrastructure is going to be key when it comes to retaining these startups that accelerators bring in.

"We can create accelerators from here until tomorrow," Hochberg says. "People will send a couple of people down for two days a week to Houston sit at the accelerator, but they'll keep their company somewhere else and not actually move to Houston. Maybe if you're lucky, they'll open up like a little satellite office. We don't want that."

So, what exactly are the differences between these four new startup accelerators? Here's a breakdown of each.

MassChallenge Texas

Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

MassChallenge Texas first announced its Houston program in January. The Boston-based accelerator program is currently in its final phase of deciding its inaugural cohort. The program is for early stage companies, and is industry agnostic. Jon Nordby, former director of strategy at Houston Exponential, leads the Houston program as managing director.

Launch: July 2019
Location: Downtown Houston
Number of cohort companies: 25
Length: 6 weeks — July through August
Origin: Boston
Requirements: The program looks for applicants that haven't raised more than $500,000 in equity-based funding and have generated less than $1 million in revenue over the past year.
Equity requirements: None.
Prizes on the line: Free office space, mentorship, and, usually, monetary prizes. (Currently, the organization hasn't confirmed cash prizes for the inaugural cohort.)

Founder Institute

Houston's new Founder Institute chapter has teamed up with Alice. Image courtesy Founder Institute

Founder Institute Houston is the earliest stage accelerator that's not associated with a university. Companies must be in the pre-funding stage of growth, and, while 30 companies will be chosen per cohort, only a fraction will complete the full 14 weeks. The Silicon Valley-originated concept now has chapters in almost 200 cities around the world. FI announced its new chapter in Houston in March after first launching in Austin.

Launch: May 2019
Location: Downtown (out of Station Houston)
Number of cohort companies: 30
Length: 14 weeks
Origin: Silicon Valley
Requirements: Company must be pre-funding.
Equity requirements: 4 percent
Prizes on the line: Cash prizes, discounts, access to worldwide alumni network, etc.

Plug and Play Tech Center

Ahead of entering the Houston market later this year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play hosted three days of programming surrounding innovation in energy and health care. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Plug and Play Tech Center confirmed they were entering the Houston market earlier this month. The Silicon Valley organization has 30 locations all over the world and plans to open five new locations in the United States over the next six months to a year — one being Houston.

Launch: Fourth quarter 2019
Location: Currently scouting for a location.
Number of cohort companies: 20
Length: Three months, twice a year.
Origin: Silicon Valley
Requirements: The program is stage agnostic, but cohorts are focused on a specific industry. Houston's likely to be health and energy/sustainability, though nothing is set in stone.
Equity requirements: None
Prizes on the line:In-house venture capital opportunities, corporate connections, etc.

Ion Smart Cities Accelerator

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

In April, the city announced that Microsoft and Intel were backing a Smart Cities Accelerator program that would accelerate companies with solutions to some of Houston's key problems. The first cohort will be focused on solutions within resilience and transportation, but each cohort will have a different set of issues. With these rotating themes, every cohort will be different.

Launch: September 2019
Location: Station Houston (then later The Ion, when it opens)
Number of cohort companies: 10
Length: 10 months
Requirements: The first set of companies will be chosen for their ability to solve problems within mobility and transportation in Houston. (Other cohorts will have other topics.)
Prizes on the line: Pilot programs and permanent business from the city of Houston.

Midway's GreenStreet in downtown will be the site of MassChallenge Texas' Houston program. Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

International accelerator launches next program in downtown Houston

Masschallenge accepted

Houston entrepreneurs will have a new accelerator program to choose from — and this one has an international presence.

MassChallenge Texas, which launched in Austin last year, has expanded to include a Houston program that will operate out of downtown's GreenStreet, which is owned and operated by Houston-based Midway Cos. Applications for the 2019 cohort open in April, and the six week program runs from July through August.

The program looks for applicants that haven't raised more than $500,000 in equity-based funding and have generated less than $1 million in revenue over the past year, a release says. The cohort will support 25 startups with free GreenStreet office space, mentorship, investment opportunities, and more, all the while taking no equity in the companies.

By expanding to Houston, MassChallenge Texas is continuing its commitment to strengthening and growing the innovation ecosystem across the Lone Star State, working to make Texas the best place in the world to innovate.

Almost two years ago, the city released a report in which a task force investigated matters pertaining to innovation in Houston.

"In this report, we realized that Houston has a thriving innovation economy, but its potential is limited by the absence of a flourishing startup community," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a release. "A key recommendation was to create critical mass in a few key areas with access to 'legacy industry' and institutional players as well as an unparalleled array of amenities."

On par with this dedication to developing innovation in Houston, the Downtown Redevelopment Authority has approved an economic development grant to operate the program. The grant will cover up to $2.5 million of operation costs to be distributed to the organization over five years, the release says.

"MassChallenge is an opportunity that we pursued in earnest," says Bob Eury, president of Central Houston and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, says in the release. "[The grant is] an investment that we believe will garner long-term results for the GreenStreet development, Downtown and the Houston region."

MassChallenge also has locations in Boston, Israel, Mexico, and Switzerland, as well as vertical programs focused on digital health and fintech. Its Texas program was the second location in the United States and the seventh in the world. Since the April 2018 launch in Austin, MassChallenge Texas and its partners have worked to accelerate 84 companies from 5 continents, 11 countries, and five Texas cities and doled out $500,000 to startups.

"The success of the inaugural MassChallenge Texas accelerator proves that the MassChallenge model works in Texas," says John Harthorne, CEO of MassChallenge, in the release. "Houston has a strong emerging entrepreneurial ecosystem and is home to technology-advanced legacy industries—such as energy, life sciences and aerospace — that can be leveraged to help startups at their earliest stages. We are excited to bring MassChallenge to Houston."

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Former Shopify exec joins Houston scale-up e-commerce software company

joining the team

Houston-based e-commerce software and services company Cart.com has hired a former Shopify executive as its chief people officer.

Before joining Cart.com, Lani Doyle was chief HR officer at Strategic Solutions Group, a provider of health care software. Previously, she was vice president of HR and people operations at 6 River Systems, a provider of software and robotics for warehouses. Prior to that, Doyle was head of talent development and operations at Shopify, an e-commerce platform for businesses that posted revenue of $7.1 billion in 2023.

Cart.com is one of the fastest-growing companies in commerce today, and I’m excited to partner with our teams to help drive growth and scalability,” Doyle says in a news release. “I am eager to contribute to shaping our culture and developing programming that supports and elevates high-performing teams, ensuring we achieve our ambitious goals.”

Omair Tariq, founder and CEO of Cart.com, describes Doyle as a “strategic leader” who will help develop the startup’s continually growing team. The company, founded in 2020 in Houston, employs more than 1,600 people.

“Her deep expertise in HR strategy and talent development will be instrumental as we accelerate our growth trajectory and foster a dynamic workplace culture,” says Frank Parker, chief operating officer of Cart.com.

In February, Cart.com made another high-level executive move by promoting Joe Barth from senior vice president of fulfillment to chief logistics officer.

Cart.com has more than 6,000 customers. The company handles more than 75 million orders per year from 14 fulfillment centers in the U.S.

Earlier this year, Tariq joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to share a bit about his company's growth and its relocation from Austin back to Houston.

"I think Austin served its purpose. It certainly allowed us to be in the limelight in all the right ways, and I'm grateful for it," Tariq says on the show. "But once we got to a point, once we closed our series C round and became a unicorn ... I think we're now at a scale where the infrastructure that Houston provides is probably something that will be more attractive and useful for us in the long term."

Autonomous freight co. with Houston-Dallas pilot opens early access program

join the fleet

Texas has been a key testing area for autonomous freight technology for years, and one major player in the space has made its latest move to put the pedal to the metal on self-driving trucking.

Aurora Innovation (NASDAQ: AUR) announced a new program with Uber Freight. Premier Autonomy, which will provide "early access to over 1 billion of Aurora’s driverless miles to Uber Freight carriers through 2030," is launching to deploy autonomous freight vehicles on the Uber Freight network.

Uber Freight, an end-to-end logistics company managing over $18 billion of freight, is also reportedly going to be among Aurora's first customers for its Dallas-to-Houston freight route that anticipates driverless hauls beginning at the end of 2024.

“Uber Freight and Aurora see a tremendous opportunity to democratize autonomous trucks for carriers of all sizes, enabling them to drive more revenue, scale their fleets, and strengthen their bottom lines,” Lior Ron, founder and CEO of Uber Freight, says in a news release. “Autonomous trucks will make moving goods more efficient, and this industry-first program will help facilitate and accelerate the adoption of autonomous trucks with our carriers. We’re proud to work alongside the amazing team at Aurora to bring this technology into the hands of carriers and ultimately usher in a new era of logistics.”

The new program, a first for the industry, allows customers to purchase and begin implementing Aurora Driver, a self-driving system that can work with multiple vehicle types, including freight trucks and passenger vehicles. Aurora provides driver-as-a-service products for trucking and ride-hailing industries and has a slew of partners in addition to Uber and Uber Freight, including FedEx, Toyota, Volvo Trucks, Volvo Autonomous Solutions, and more.

“With Uber Freight, we can provide hundreds of carriers priority access to autonomous truck capacity that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Working with carriers of all sizes is one of the many ways we will transform the industry and see thousands of driverless trucks on the road,” Ossa Fisher, president of Aurora, says in the release. “It’s exciting and validating that companies like Uber Freight are reserving our long-term capacity for their customers. We all see collective value in this offering.”

With enrollment into the new Premier Autonomy Program, customers receive a subscription to the Aurora Driver for autonomous freight hauling, the opportunity to access over 1 billion driverless miles through 2030, and access to autonomous trucks via a planned, seamless integration of the Aurora Driver into the Uber Freight platform, according to the news release.

Since 2020, Uber Freight and Aurora have hauled millions of pounds of cargo through their pilot program that operated on the Dallas-Houston route.

Houston startup designs new platform for better navigating health care

patient portal

Taking control of your health can be a difficult path to walk on your own. A new startup, created by eight female Rice University students, is aimed at wading through the health care system.

The Healthcare Navigator is a platform that helps users to learn about not just treatment options, but also the financial bearings thereof.

“About 88 percent of Americans aren’t health literate,” founder and president Kayla Grimes says in a news release. “It’s very hard for them to navigate health care in the way to get the best benefit for it, so what our platform will do is essentially give them the tools and resources to confidently navigate the health care system. We also help with price transparency specifically.”

The multidisciplinary team includes women majoring in pre-med, computer science, medical humanities, art and business. According to Grimes (a rising senior business major), the seed for the idea’s success was planted two years ago when she was volunteering for the National Patient Advocacy Foundation.

“They told me, ‘If you do this right, this could actually change everything in health care,’” she remembers.

Now she and her team have an app, as well as an accessible website, composed of several features all meant to make it easier to save money — and users’ health. The features are:

  • Cost Compass, which compares procedure costs across local hospitals, enabling users to shop around and save money.
  • Care Genius AI, an AI chatbot that helps users to negotiate medical bills and answers health care system questions.
  • Patient Power Modules, which are interactive educational videos that make understanding the health care system easy and engaging.
  • Pocket Doc, which helps consumers find the best providers for them based on location, ratings and quality metrics.
  • Pulse Check Alert keeps users informed on important health care news and patient insights.
  • Care Manager streamlines users’ health care needs and goals in one convenient place.

Grimes says that she hopes that users will skip Google reviews and go straight to their Pocket Doc, which includes information on hospitals, clinics, urgent care centers and freestanding emergency rooms.

“We have that in the system, so that you can actually see useful metrics instead of just going on Google reviews and reading their readmission rate — we’re going to explain what’s a good readmission rate and what’s a bad readmission rate,” she says. “That’s the whole point: We’re not just going to give you these metrics, we’re also going to give you some benchmarks, so you can make the decision for yourself.”

When dealing with your health, knowledge is certainly power, and Healthcare Navigator is bestowing a new kind of power on its users.