What Houston can expect from its rising innovation district

Houston innovators podcast episode 140

Sam Dike of Rice Management Company joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the past, present, and future of Houston's rising Ion Innovation District. Photo via rice.edu

Last month, the Ion Houston welcomed in the greater Houston community to showcase the programs and companies operating within the Ion Innovation District — and the week-long Ion Activation Festival spotlighted just the beginning.

The rising district — anchored by the Ion — is a 16-acre project in Midtown Houston owned and operated by Rice Management Company, an organization focused on managing Rice University's $8.1 billion endowment.

"We're chiefly responsible for stewarding the university's endowment and generating returns to support the academic mission of the university," says Samuel Dike, manager of strategic initiatives at RMC, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Part of those returns go to support student scholarships and student success — as well as many of the other academic programs."

"The university sees a dual purpose behind the investing," Dike continues, in addition to focusing on generating returns, RMC's mission is "also to be a valuable partner in Houston's ecosystem and pushing Houston as a global 21st century city."

RMC saw an opportunity a few years back to make an investment in Houston's nascent innovation and tech ecosystem, and announced the plans for the Ion, a 266,000-square-foot innovation hub in an renovated and rehabilitated Sears.

"In some ways innovation is not necessarily about creating something completely new — it's oftentimes building upon something that exists and making it better," Dike says. "I think that's what we've done with the building itself.

"We took something that had really strong bones and a strong identity here in Houston," he continues, "and we did something that's often atypical in Houston and preserved and repurposed it — not an easy logistical or financial decision to make, but we believed it was the best for Houston and for the project."

Now, the Ion District includes the Ion as the anchor, as well as Greentown Houston, which moved into a 40,000-square-foot space in the former Fiesta Mart building, just down the street. While RMC has announced a few other initiatives, the next construction project to be delivered is a 1,500-space parking garage that will serve the district.

"It is not your typical parking garage," Dike says. "The garage will feature a vegetated facade with ground-floor retail and gallery space, as well as EV charging spaces and spaces to feature display spaces for future tech. It's going to be a nice addition to the district."

The new garage will free up surface parking lots that then will be freed up for future construction projects, Dike explains.

He shares more about the past, present, and future of the Ion and the district as a whole on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



Adam Putterman, co-founder of OURS, shares how he jumped on the opportunity that is innovating the future of relationship health. Photo courtesy of OURS

How this Houston innovator plans to disrupt the $5 trillion health and wellness market

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 139

When in graduate school, Houstonian Adam Putterman's interest in couples counseling was officially piqued. A newlywed, Putterman always thought couples sought out professional help as a way to save a relationship that was failing, but studies were showing the positive effect of proactive couples counseling.

Putterman says he connected with a professor who wrote a book on the topic, which explained that the average relationship was much worse than it had ever been.

“We have so many higher expectations than ever before, but so much fewer support systems and ways to invest in your relationships,” he says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

This information stuck in his head until he met his would-be co-founders Liz Earnshaw and Jessica Holton. Together, the trio established OURS, a modern relationship health platform for couples to receive customized virtual support.

More than ever before, people are warming up to the idea of seeking professional health care for more than just their bodies, Putterman says.

"We've seen a massive shift in the perception of counseling and therapy — and, more importantly, all the aspects of health that are not just your body," he explains. "It's no longer just going to the gym, it's meditating, coaching for a professional field. We've found that people are taking that mindset and applying it to their relationship as well."

After launching its beta in 2020, OURS worked in stealth to develop its product, which officially launched in May. The platform costs $400 for a four-week program that includes six personalized interactive sessions with an OURS guide at the helm of the experience. These one-hour technology-powered sessions are based around an innovative new technology, called Loveware, and include dynamic and meaningful conversations between a couple that are built around the magic that comes from being in the room with an expert.

Right now, the program targets premarital counseling, but Putterman says OURS is working to provide support for all stages of a relationship

"Proactive and preventative is always better. It's easier to do and it's more impactful," he says. "That's one of the reasons why we're focused on premarital counseling — one of the happiest, earliest moments in any relationship."

Along with emerging from stealth last month, OURS announced $5 million in early stage funding from investors including TMV, Serena Ventures, Lakehouse Ventures, Collaborative Fund, GreyMatter, and pioneering angel investors such as Andy Dunn.

Now, Putterman says the company is using that funding to further develop its team and product. OURS is headquartered in Houston, and Putterman is based here, but the company operates entirely remotely.

He share more of what OURS is working on now and in the near future. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Amanda Ducach, founder of SocialMama, is gearing up for a total rebrand and new product launch. Photo courtesy of SocialMama

Houston founder transitions startup to femtech platform focused on women's reproductive health and wellness

houston innovators podcast episode 138

When Amanda Ducach founded her social media platform, SocialMama, she was looking for a way to connect mothers going through similar challenges. The idea was to provide camaraderie and friendship as a solution to the usually lonely and isolated journey of motherhood. However, after the platform's success among its users — and the added burdens a global pandemic provided — Ducach realized she needed to offer more to the community she created.

Ducach explains that even before the pandemic, the data was showing that women needed more. On this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, she describes the biocycle social approach, a health practice that focuses on supporting women socially, psychologically, and physically to fully attain better health and wellness.

"That's what's so unique about what we're doing," Ducach says. "Most of the platforms, products, services, or organizations are all really fragmented. It's really hard to find a female health resource that also cares about social building and physicality — you really need all three."

Additionally, Ducach wanted to build a platform for all women — whether or not they identify as mothers yet. She wanted to expand to include everyone from fertility to menopause. The core focus for the company is to help address loneliness — something exacerbated by the pandemic.

"Before COVID, no one cared about loneliness," she shares. "I've been pitching for a long time and people just didn't care."

So, Ducach got to work on creating a whole new platform. After being participating in the 2021 Techstars Austin cohort, she's been working with her team over the past 10 months in stealth to fundraise and build the empathetic artificial intelligence-based platform. It's a whole new product, she says, and it's coming with a whole new name too — just one she can't yet disclose. The current plan is to launch in September following a seed round of funding.

From the very beginning, Ducach says, she wasn't obsessed with user growth, as you might think someone with a mobile app would be. She says instead, she looks closely at the data — how users were engaging with the app and what the product-market fit

"It's really important that when you lead anything in technology is to look at the data," she says. "As technology founders, you have to build as lean as you can so you can make changes and get out a new version of the product."

Now that data is fueling the AI of the new platform and a whole new phase of the company.

"When you have a compatibility-friendship-based product, you have crazy amounts of data. We could have went and sold that — like an unethical company and like a lot of companies we've unfortunately seen do recently. Instead, we used the data to improve our product to create positive health outcomes for our users," Ducach says.

Ducach share more of what she's working on ahead of the launch of the new platform and what it's been like starting and running a consumer-focused app in Houston. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


John "JR" Reale joins the Houston Innovators Podcast again for the second episode in a two-part series discussing Houston innovation, the Texas Medical Center, investment trends, and more. Photo via TMC.edu

Houston's future as a health tech innovation hub shines bright with TMC3, says innovator

houston innovators podcast episode 137

The Texas Medical Center's innovation hub might not look like it did a few years ago. It's evolved — changed things that needed changing and expanded in spaces that needed more opportunities, says John "JR" Reale.

TMC Innovation — home to a health tech accelerator, biobridges with international partners, a robotics lab, a biodesign program, an investment fund, and more — was established in 2014 has expanded to serve the community as needed.

"There is a culture of experimentation and learning here that's really cool," Reale says. "Since I've been working with the team, I think we've experimented without the fear of failure and just kept working on and evolving the model to figure out how we could be the best partner we could be for founders."

Reale recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast in a two-part series of interviews. The first part, which ran last week, covered Reale's innovation journey and his work as managing director of Integr8d Capital. In this week's episode, Reale dons his executive in residence at Texas Medical Center Innovation hat to discuss the future of health care innovation at the TMC.

"Since the fall of 2019, I've been leading the TMC Venture Fund, which is I think just an awesome platform to partner with great founders who have a vision for the future of health care," Reale says. "TMC provides such a great partnership and opportunity for health care innovators to access the Texas Medical Center and to build their business."

The fund was originally launched in 2017 to fill a gap in capital that existed for health tech startups — particularly the ones going through the accelerator program. The fund recently doubled in size to $50 million, a testament that the model is working, Reale says.

"When you look TMC Venture Fund as an organization and how we advance our broader business objectives and mission —I think we're doing that," he says, noting the example of Volumetric, which went through the TMC and was acquired for around $400 million last fall.

Of course, the big story at TMC is the new 37-acre research campus project, called TMC3. The first of the handful of buildings is expected to deliver next year, and the impact will be significant in the years following.

"(TMC3) is a big piece of what's going to unlock the opportunity to commercialize research more broadly on our campus," Reale says. "That's what's so exciting — the work that is happening improves people's lives."

Reale shares more about the impact he expects from TMC3 on the podcast episode, as well as what he's working on within the fund. Listen to the first interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


John "JR" Reale joins the Houston Innovators Podcast for a two-part series of interviews discussing Houston innovation, the Texas Medical Center, investment trends, and more. Photo via TMC.edu

Longtime Houston innovator talks investment trends and ecosystem evolution

houston innovators podcast episode 136

Over the years, John "JR" Reale may have transitioned to various roles within the Houston innovation ecosystem, but the people he was working with stayed the same.

"My focus is always on partnering with founders — I just get to do it with two amazing hats," Reale says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Those two hats are as executive in residence at Texas Medical Center Innovation and as managing director of Integr8d Capital, an early-stage fundless venture capital firm that invests with intentionality. Reale joined the podcast for a special two-part series. The first episode is out now and focuses on his career in innovation and investment. The second part, which comes out next week, covers health tech innovation and his work with Texas Medical Center.

Most people might know Reale as one of the co-founders of Station Houston, a hub for tech innovation and entrepreneurship that launched in 2015 and dissolved into a few entities like The Ion and Capital Factory in 2018. Reale says on the show that Station's success came at a crucial time for Houston.

"Our big insight was ultimately around two things. One, we had a great empathy about how lonely and challenging it is being a founder. It was about building an authentic community where folks wanted to be," Reale says on the show. "Later in 2016 and 2017, we had this idea of separating space for the services and the things that founders need — especially in a big city like Houston."

Reale says Station was focused on the founders and providing a centralized location for support — something that sprawling Houston didn't have before.

"Our mission was really simple," he says, "it was to serve entrepreneurs. We knew who we wanted to serve, and we knew it meant a lot of different things."

Around the time of Station, Mayor Sylvester Turner's office asked Reale to join a task force with Amanda Edwards and several other impactful parties. The mission there was to get everyone on the same page and not only see the city's potential for innovation, but work on developing it.

"We went through a journey as a task force," Reale says. "A lot of it was about learning together. One of the big insights were about meeting people where they were. You're bringing all different pockets of the community together, and it's not about dictating what people have to do."

When it comes to pointing to a turning point in Houston, Reale doesn't mince words.

"One of the most important moments for Houston was when we got kicked in the teeth with the Amazon HQ2 bid," he says. "Amazon came back with the shortlist of the 20 cities in North America — and Houston isn't on it. I remember being excited. It was arguably the most innovative company in the world saying 'no thank you.'"

Rather than feel defeated or disappointed, Reale says he was excited about the rejection. It was an opportunity to spur more work that needed to be done.

"That was the gut punch that folks needed to realize," he says. "Moments like that cause real reflection. Failure like that forces you to ask a different set of questions."

The pandemic has meant for another, though very different, turning point and opportunity — especially when it comes to investment.

"Over the last few years we've seen a positive impact of the pandemic — it's changed the barriers to capital coming into different geographies, and I think that's sustainable. We've created new norms and behaviors of where capital will go," he says.

There's still room to grow and opportunities to come to fruition — especially within the early-stage investment community, Reale says.

"I'd like to see more funds launch here with very intentional strategies — particularly seed and early-stage work. You usually find those to be more geographically close," he says. "That's an opportunity. And I'd like to see more awesome operators turned investors."

Reale shares more about Integr8d Capital and what he's working on now on the podcast episode, as well as in next week's episode. Listen to the first interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Pete O'Heeron leads FibroBiologics as CEO and chairman. Photo via Fibrobiologics.com

Houston cell therapy company prepares to IPO, move into new facility

Houston Innovators Podcast episode 135

Stem cells have had their time in the spotlight for a while, and now it's time for fibroblasts to have their moment, according to Pete O’Heeron, CEO, founder, and chairman of FibroBiologics, a Houston-based company that’s using fibroblast cell technology to treat a variety of chronic diseases.

The two types of cells are the only ones that can be used in cell therapy for a regenerative treatment, meaning that specialists can take healthy stem cells and fibroblasts from a patient and inject them into a part of the body that needs it the most. And, according to O'Heeron and his team, fibroblasts can do it more effectively and cheaper than stem cells.

"(Fibroblasts) can essentially do everything a stem cell can do, only they can do it better," says O'Heeron on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast. "We've done tests in the lab and we've seen them outperform stem cells by a low of 50 percent to a high of about 220 percent on different disease paths."

With over 150 patents issued or pending, O'Heeron's team has the most intellectual property surrounding fibroblasts in the world and, while there is a lot of activity in the stem cell space, they are the leader when it comes to fibroblasts, he says. FibroBiologics is the name of the entity O'Heeron is hoping to take public by the end of the year, but the business originated as SpinalCyte, specializing in spinal treatment, before evolving into FibroGenesis as the technology began treating more parts of the body.

"With fibroblasts being the most common cell in the human body, you have to assume its involved in every process of the human body," O'Heeron says. "There's literally not biological process in the body where fibroblasts are not involved."

The strongest treatments under FibroBiologics's umbrella are for degenerative disc disease, orthopedics, multiple sclerosis, and cancer. With these applications progressing, O'Heeron has imminent IPO plans for the company.

"We're in the process of getting the company public so that we can have access to the resources to do larger scale human trials. So, I think over the next year you'll see us launch at least two large scale human trials with fibroblast with the intention of submitting to the FDA for commercialization," O'Heeron says.

The company is in the process of building out a new 14,000-square-foot-space that will allow FibroBiologics to house its office, lab, and manufacturing space under one roof for the first time.

"These are fantastic robust cells, and we want to be able to control the quality and potency of them and how they ship out and how we're able to transfer those cells to the end user," O'Heeron says.

He shares more about the company and the impact he expects fibroblasts to have on cell therapy treatment. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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7+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events in July

where to be

Houstonians are transitioning into a new summer month, and the city's business community is mixing in networking and conference events with family vacations and time off. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for July when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

July 10 — Have a Nice Day Market at the Ion

Stop by for a one-of-a-kind vendor market - #HaveANiceDayHTX - taking place at the Ion, Houston's newest urban district and collaborative space that is designed to provide the city a place where entrepreneurial, corporate, and academic communities can come together. Free to attend and free parking onsite.

Have a Nice Day is a creative collective with a goal of celebrating BIPOC makers, creators, and causes.

The event is Sunday, July 10, 4 to 8 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 12 — One Houston Together Webinar Series

In the first installment of the Partnership's One Houston Together webinar series, we will discuss supplier diversity an often underutilized resource for business. What is it and why is it important? How can supplier diversity have long-term impact on your business, help strengthen your supply chain, and make a positive community impact?

The event is Tuesday, July 12, noon to 1 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 14 — Investor Speaker Series: Both Sides of the Coin

In the next installment of Greentown Labs' Investor Speaker Series, sit down with two Greentown founders and their investors as they talk about their experiences working together before, during, and after an equity investment was made in the company. Attendees will get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most important relationships in a startup’s journey and what best practices both founders and investors can follow to keep things moving smoothly.

The event is Thursday, July 14, 1 to 2:30 pm, online. Click here to register.

July 15 — SBA Funding Fair

Mark Winchester, the Deputy District Director for the Houston District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration, will give a short intro of the programs the mentors will discuss. There will be three government guaranteed loan mentors and two to three mentors co-mentoring with remote SBIR experts.

The event is Friday, July 15, 10:30 am to 1 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

July 16 — Bots and Bytes: Family STEAM Day

Join the Ion for a hands-on learning experience to learn about tech and robotics and gain insight into the professional skills and concepts needed to excel in a robotics or tech career. This event will be tailored for 9-14-year-olds for a fun STEM experience.

The event is Saturday, July 16, 10 am to 1 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 19 — How to Start a Startup

You have an idea...now what? Before you start looking for funding, it's important to make sure that your idea is both viable and valuable -- if it doesn't have a sound model and a market willing to pay for it, investors won't be interested anyway.

The event is Tuesday, July 19, 5:30 to 7:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 20 — Perfecting Your Pitch

Join the Ion for their series with DeckLaunch and Fresh Tech Solutionz as they discuss the importance and value of your pitch deck when reaching your target audience.

The event is Wednesday, July 20, 5:30 to 6:30 pm, at The Ion. Click here to register.

July 21 — Transition On Tap: Investor Readiness with Vinson & Elkins LLP

Attorneys from Greentown Labs’ Gigawatt Partner Vinson & Elkins LLP, a leading fund- and company-side advisor for clean energy financing, will present an overview of legal considerations in cleantech investing, geared especially toward early-stage companies and investors. The presentation will cover the types of investors and deals in the cleantech space and also provide background on negotiating valuation, term sheets, and preparing for diligence.

The event is Thursday, July 21, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

July 28 — The Cannon Community 2nd Annual Town Hall Event

Partner of The Cannon, Baker Tilly, has played an integral part in the success of Cannon member companies. Join the Cannon community for The Cannon's 5-year anniversary celebration!

The event is Thursday, July 28, 4 to 7 pm, at The Cannon - West Houston. Click here to register.

Texas-based dating app sponsors 50 female athletes to honor 50 years of Title IX

teaming up

Bumble is causing a buzz once again, this time for collegiate women athletes. Founded by recent Texas Business Hall of Fame inductee Whitney Wolfe Herd, the Austin-based and female-first dating and social networking app this week announced a new sponsorship for 50 collegiate women athletes with NIL (name, image, and likeness) deals in honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

Established in 1972, the federal law prohibits sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program or activity that receives federal money. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, the number of women in collegiate athletics has increased significantly since Title IX, from 15 percent to 44 percent.

That said, equity continues to lag in many ways, specifically for BIPOC women who make up only 14 percent of college athletes. The findings also share that men have approximately 60,000 more collegiate sports opportunities than women, despite the fact that women make up a larger portion of the collegiate population.

With this in mind, Bumble’s new sponsorship seeks to support “a wealth of overlooked women athletes around the country,” according to the beehive’s official 50for50 program page.

“We're embarking on a yearlong sponsorship of 50 remarkable women, with equal pay amounts across all 50 NIL (name, image, and likeness) contracts,” says the website. “The inaugural class of athletes are a small representation of the talented women around the country who diligently — and often without recognition — put in the work on a daily basis.”

To celebrate the launch of the program, Bumble partnered with motion graphic artist Marlene “Motion Mami” Marmolejos to create a custom video and digital trading cards that each athlete will post on their personal social media announcing their sponsorship.

“These sponsorships are an exciting step in empowering and spotlighting a diverse range of some of the most remarkable collegiate women athletes from across the country. Athletes who work just as hard as their male counterparts, and should be seen and heard,” says Christina Hardy, Bumble’s director of talent and influencer, in a separate release. “In honor of the 50th anniversary of Title IX, we are so proud to stand alongside these women and are looking forward to celebrating their many achievements throughout the year.”

“Partnering with Bumble and announcing this campaign on the anniversary of Title IX is very special,” said Alexis Ellis, a track and field athlete. “I am grateful for the progress that has been made for women in sports, and am proud to be part of Bumble’s ’50for50’ to help continue moving the needle and striving for more. I look forward to standing alongside so many incredible athletes for this campaign throughout the year.”

“I am so grateful to team up with Bumble and stand alongside these incredible athletes on this monumental anniversary,” said Haleigh Bryant a gymnast. “Many women continue to be overlooked in the world of sports, and I am excited to be part of something that celebrates, and shines a light on, the hard work, tenacity, and accomplishments of so many great athletes.”

Last year, the NCAA announced an interim policy that all current and incoming student athletes could profit off their name, image, and likeness, according to the law of the state where the school is located, for the first time in collegiate history.

The 50for50 initiative adds to Bumble’s previous multi-year investments in sports. In 2019, Bumble also launched a multi-year partnership with global esports organization Gen.G to create Team Bumble, the all-women professional esports team.

To see the 50for50 athletes, visit the official landing page.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.