Rand Stephens, managing director of Avison Young's Houston office, discusses COVID-19's effect on office and innovation spaces. Photo courtesy of Avison Young

Houston real estate expert shares why now's the time for the city's innovation ecosystem to emerge

Q&A

Rand Stephens has been in Houston since the '80s, and he's seen the city evolve from having an economy heavily dominated by oil and gas to a city focused on diversification of industry.

Now, as a technology and innovation ecosystem is emerging with new startup and lab space being developed, Houston is on a good path — even in light of the effects of the pandemic.

"I think that Houston is a very vibrant place and it always has been. It's very entrepreneurial, and it will adjust to the new environment," says Stephens, who's principal at Avison Young and the founding managing director of the company's Houston office.

Stephens discussed the importance of new developments and the effect of the pandemic on the commercial real estate industry in an interview with InnovationMap.

InnovationMap: Why is the timing right for Houston's innovation ecosystem to emerge?

Rand Stephens: Since the '80s, there's been a real emphasis within the city to diversify. Trying to do new things is always difficult because a lot of it has to do with timing — it has to make sense economically. Innovation is a hot thing right now, more so than ever. As a city or company, if you're not constantly innovating, you're going to get left behind.

From a real estate standpoint, we've really had an abundance of low-cost space in an environment that is very entrepreneurial.

IM: Why are emerging innovation campuses like The Ion and Texas A&M Innovation Plaza near the Texas Medical Center so important?

RS: Houston is an incredible diverse city. We have unlimited talent from an engineering standpoint, and I think those types of projects bode well for keeping and attracting top tech talent. I think that's really the key.

You have to have this kind of infrastructure to support the innovation. The more that we can do to make the city walkable and to provide connectivity to the different parts of the city, is important. It's all about the experience. And, I don't think people like getting in the car and fight traffic — I think it's that simple.

IM: Has COVID-19 affected the momentum of innovation development?

RS: It has. But, what I've seen, and it's totally anecdotal, but people are coming to grips with COVID. They are coming to grips with the risks, and, as time goes on, they will see it as a less risky disease as a vaccine and treatment become available.

These innovation spaces are going to be important for collaboration. You lose the spontaneity of innovation and collaboration if you're not around people. But, we're already seeing people in Houston returning to work.

IM: In general, how is the pandemic affecting commercial real estate?

RS: COVID is impacting the office market the most — and I think it will long term as well. There's been a trend for a long time now to use less square footage per person. I think corporations have evolved from looking at their office spaces as a place to put people to work to really trying to create an experiential environment to use the office to re-enforce their culture and brand in order to recruit top talent. COVID has accelerated that trend now.

My gut feeling on that is it's going to depend on the business. Different types of industries function differently, and the size of the business is going to depend on that too. I think the trend of using less square footage per person isn't going to go up. I don't think we're going to see companies taking more space for social distancing. I think what they'll do is give people more flexibility. I think corporates are going to say, "let's ammenitize our space and put people in places where it's experiential and a cool place to work." And I think people are OK with that.

IM: What makes Houston a good city for innovation?

RS: There are three or four reasons off the top of my head, but one is the entrepreneurial spirit and that's pervasive everywhere. Then, we have amazing infrastructure here, with talent and education. Another thing that is key is affordability. Relatively speaking, it's a very affordable city to do business in. The fourth thing would be the diversity and inclusion we have here. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country — and a lot of people don't know that. And I have found it to be an incredibly inclusive city. I think if you move here and you have good ideas and work hard, there's nothing to hold you back here.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

From University of Houston researchers working on COVID-19 treatment and prevention to an online startup accelerator's demo day, here's what Houston innovation news trended this week. Photo via uh.edu

5 most popular innovation stories in Houston this week

what's trending

Editor's note: Houston's innovation ecosystem spans across industries and institutions from hospital systems to college campuses — each play its role. In this week's roundup of top Houston innovation news, stories about startups pitching during an online demo day, a new ranking finds a Houston hospital to be the best at serving the local community, and more trended this week.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

This week's Houston innovators to know includes Juliana Garaizar of Greentown Labs, Derek Armstrong of Armstrong Innovations, and Megan Siliainoff of Med Meg Creative Services. Courtesy photos

It's a new month and Houston's innovation ecosystem is continuing to grow amid the coronavirus pandemic. This week's Houston innovators to know roundup reflects that growth with a new-to-town incubator's newly names leader — plus an entrepreneur creating an virtual reality app to escape and a communications expert's advice on navigating COVID-19. Continue reading.

4 startups pitch at virtual demo day for Houston accelerator program

The second cohort of The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator hosted a day full of thought leadership and startup pitches. Photo by Shobeir Ansari, Getty Images

In light of COVID-19, it is more relevant than ever to discuss and support startups with sustainability and resiliency in mind. At The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Cohort 2 Demo Day, a virtual audience was reminded of that.

"So, 2020 has certainly been a year of unprecedented uncertainty and change for Houston, for Texas, for our country, and for our world," says Christine Galib, director of the accelerator. "The past few months in particular have been especially difficult as the global pandemic and civil unrest continue to spotlight systemic and structural scars on the face of humanity."

The virtual event was streamed on July 1 and hosted several thought leaders and presenters before concluding with pitches from four of the cohort companies. Continue reading.

These 5 tools help increase productivity while working from home, says Houston expert

There are myriad productivity tools startups can explore while working remotely. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

While most of the country is still in quarantine mode, some states have started to open up. Even still, businesses have learned a lot about their operations during their shutdown. Some companies are opting to continue operations virtually; having employees working remotely. Many companies have come to the realization that remote work offers many benefits. In any case, remote work is something that startups are doing now more than ever.

There are myriad tools and apps at your disposal you might have never heard of. If you're just now discovering the benefits of remote work, you've probably never heard of these productivity tools. Here, you'll get a good run through of some great remote work apps that were designed to help you stay efficient. Continue reading.

University of Houston researchers studying COVID-19 prevention and treatment

The University of Houston, a Tier One research institution, has a few ongoing projects focusing on treating or preventing COVID-19. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

Researchers across the country are focusing on all things COVID-19 — from biotherapies and treatment to vaccines and prevention. A handful of researchers based out of the University of Houston are doing their best to move the needle on a cure or reliable vaccine. Continue reading.

Houston hospital ranks among the top health care institutions in the nation

Memorial Hermann has been recognized for its overall performance in serving both individuals and the community. Photo via memorialhermann.org

Houston hospitals have been evaluated by a new ranking to determine the institutions that are doing their best to serve their patients and the community as a whole.

Brookline, Massachusetts-based think tank, The Lown Institute, has revealed its national rankings on its Lown Institute Hospitals Index — which evaluated hospitals based on civic leadership (based on inclusion and access), value of care, and patient outcomes (which evaluates safety and satisfaction).

The Texas Medical Center's Memorial Hermann Hospital ranked as No. 9 on the list that evaluated over 3,000 hospitals in the country. The hospitals are also given a grade on each of the three categories. Memorial Hermann received an A for civic leadership, an A- for value of care, and an A+ for patient outcomes — for an overall A+ grade. Continue reading.

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10 can't-miss Houston business and innovation events in August

where to be

This month, Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events — from Zoom panels to conferences — and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — like demo days, workshops, conventions, and more.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

August 4 — Bayou Startup Showcase

Join Rice University and the University of Houston to celebrate the launch of the newest startups from OwlSpark and RED Labs. The Eighth Annual Bayou Startup Showcase will have founders from Class 9 showcase their summer progress. Come listen to pitches, network and get a first look at Houston's newest startups.

The event is on Wednesday, August 4, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Rd). Click here to register.

August 5 — Ask-Me-Anything Event With Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Tackling Roadblocks as a Solopreneur

A Hello Alice alum and first-generation Cuban American, Carin Luna-Ostaseski has truly achieved the unexpected, launching her one-woman operation through crowdfunding and becoming one of the first Hispanic entrepreneurs in history to create a scotch whisky brand. During the virtual event, she'll answer all of your questions, offer tips on navigating uncharted territory in business, and share details on the newly launched Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund by SIA Scotch that's awarding $10,000 grants to small business owners of color.

The event is on Thursday, August 5, at 1:30 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 10 — FTE Show: Creating a Digitally Enabled Innovation Community that Works with Jon Lambert and Lawson Gow

The way entrepreneurial communities interact and collaborate today cannot keep pace with the ever increasing speed of innovation. What are best ways to leverage physical and virtual hub interactions to create a digitally enabled innovation community with that works? Join The Cannon Founder Lawson Gow and CEO Jon Lambert as they share specifics around what they are trying, where they are getting traction and where they are most challenged.

The event is on Tuesday, August 10, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 10 — HealthTech Beyond Borders

This online event created to offer business opportunities and global collaboration focused on innovation and technology in medicine between companies in Chile and the United States. Join the International Summit to explore the future and impact of new technologies in the health sector.

The event is on Tuesday, August 10. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 11 — Open Project Night: Building an Equitable, Inclusive and Resilient Houston

Impact Hub Houston is proud to bring you a monthly opportunity to come together to work on solutions for some of Houston's most pressing issues. Our city is full of changemakers across all ages, cultures, skillsets, and industries. This is your chance to conned and collaborate for the greater good.

The event is on Wednesday, August 11, at 5 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 11 — Women in AI USA: WaiACCELERATE 2021 Demo Day

Ethical leadership & business acceleration program, WaiACCELERAT USA, aims to bridge the gender gap in the industry and targets female innovators looking to start a business in the fields of AI, Machine Learning and Data Science. With the final Pitch Event "ACCELER-AI-TE!" organized in VR, we will celebrate 40+ impact and commercially-proof early-stage startups and their founders

The event is on Wednesday, August 11, at 6 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 12-13 — EVOLVE 2021: How AI is Transforming Industry

Join industry leaders from the world's largest and most innovative companies for this 2-day hybrid event featuring both technical and business presentations focused on the real-world value of Artificial Intelligence. Evolve will provide a unique, interactive experience where you will learn from and engage with thought leaders from across North America.

The event is on Thursday, August 12, to Friday, August 13. It's free and happening at Houston Marriott Sugar Land and online. Click here to register.

August 17 — Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything with Wogbe Ofori

Are you an entrepreneur starting a new company? Recently moved your company to Texas? Want to find out how to connect with other entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors in the startup ecosystem? Join Capital Factory to hear an overview from experienced entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, investors, and community partners at Intro to Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything. Get a chance to introduce yourself and ask any questions on entrepreneurship and other related topics.

The event is on Tuesday, August 17, at 2 pm. It's free and happening online Click here to register.

August 18 — Tips for Working with a Gen Z Intern

Ampersand CEO, Allie Danziger, will speak to business owners and founders on the benefits of hiring an intern for your growing business, and tips for managing a remote, or in person, intern. It has to be a lot more than just "getting coffee" in order to maximize the experience on both sides and Allie will talk through tips on clear communication, ideal assignments, best way to structure the relationship and more. She will answer attendees questions, live, and discuss real-life scenarios the aspiring professionals and business partners in Ampersand have faced.

The event is on Wednesday, August 18, at 11 am. It's free and happening at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Rd). Click here to register.

August 19 — LatinX in Tech presented by Accenture

Capital Factory is dedicated to increasing diversity in the tech community and making its co-working space an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds and identities. Attendees can look forward to a keynote address from a serial entrepreneur or investor, insightful discussion sessions, a startup showcase pitch competition, and informative panels.

The event is on Thursday, August 19, at noon. It's free and happening online Click here to register.

August 25 — The Cannon + Dell Pitch Party

Calling all member startups that are fundraising or are planning to open a round in 2021. The Cannon has partnered with Dell to host a virtual Pitch Party. Prizes will include up to $10k in Dell Equipment and the opportunity to pitch in the winners round later this year. If you would like to learn more and be considered to pitch, please fill out the application here.

The event is on Wednesday, August 25, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

Rice University bioengineers create insulin-producing medical device

health tech

A team of bioengineers at Houston's own Rice University have created an implant that can produce insulin for Type 1 diabetics. The device is being created by using 3D printing and smart biomaterials.

Omid Veiseh, an assistant professor of bioengineering, and Jordan Miller, associate professor of bioengineering, have been working on the project for three years and have received support from JDRF by way of a grant. Veiseh has a decade of experience developing biomaterials that protect implanted cell therapies from the immune system an Miller has spent more than 15 years specializing in 3D print tissues with vasculature, or networks of blood vessels.

"If we really want to recapitulate what the pancreas normally does, we need vasculature," Veiseh says in a news release. "And that's the purpose of this grant with JDRF. The pancreas naturally has all these blood vessels, and cells are organized in particular ways in the pancreas. Jordan and I want to print in the same orientation that exists in nature."

The challenge with Type 1 diabetes is balancing insulin intake, and studies estimate that less than a third of Type 1 diabetics in the U.S. are able to achieve target blood glucose levels consistently. Veiseh and Miller are working toward demonstrating that their implants can properly regulate blood glucose levels of diabetic mice for at least six months. To do that, they'll need to give their engineered beta cells the ability to respond to rapid changes in blood sugar levels.

"We must get implanted cells in close proximity to the bloodstream so beta cells can sense and respond quickly to changes in blood glucose," Miller says, adding that the insulin-producing cells should be no more than 100 microns from a blood vessel. "We're using a combination of pre-vascularization through advanced 3D bioprinting and host-mediated vascular remodeling to give each implant several shots at host integration."

Another challenge these experts are facing is a potential delay that can happen if the implant is too slow to respond to high or low blood sugar levels.

"Addressing that delay is a huge problem in this field," Veiseh says. "When you give the mouse — and ultimately a human — a glucose challenge that mimics eating a meal, how long does it take that information to reach our cells, and how quickly does the insulin come out?"

By incorporating blood vessels in their implant, he and Miller hope to allow their beta-cell tissues to behave in a way that more closely mimics the natural behavior of the pancreas.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from energy to health care — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Will Womble, CEO of Umbrage

Startup founder on how Houston has evolved as a software hub — and why there's no better place to be

Will Womble joins this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy

Will Womble describes his company, Umbrage, as fiercely loyal to Houston. The business, which publicly launched earlier this year, supports companies large and small with their software design, development, and more. Womble says he saw a void in Houston for this type of company, and he's attempting to fill it.

"What makes us different is speed to market — we're all onshore. We're all Houston-based, with the exception of five of our 40 employees," Womble says. "Houston was our focus and mission."

Womble has seen Houston evolve as an innovation ecosystem over the years, and now the game has changed. Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert's company, ALLY Energy, has made an acquisition. Photo via Katie Mehnert

ALLY Energy announced it has acquired Clean Energy Social, a jobs and networking community for the clean energy industry. The deal expands ALLY's platform into the solar, wind, power, oil and gas, power and utilities, biofuels, hydrogen, geothermal, carbon capture, and other sectors that make up the energy transition.

"It's time to tackle the enormous challenge of the energy transition by connecting companies and candidates to resources so we can reduce the time and capital it takes to recruit and reskill," says Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of ALLY Energy, in a news release. "We can speed up decarbonization by centralizing resources into one digital experience. This acquisition is a much-needed human capital investment to advance net-zero goals." Click here to read more.

James Reinstein, president and CEO of Saranas

Saranas closed its series B round this week. Photo via Saranas.com

Saranas Inc. announced that it closed a $12.8 million series B investment led by Wisconsin-based Baird Capital, the venture capital and global private equity arm of Baird, a global company with a location in Houston. Austin-based S3 Ventures also supported the round. The company will use the funds to continue its clinical trials, per a news release.

"We are pleased to announce this round of funding led by Baird Capital," says Saranas President and CEO James Reinstein in the release. "It underscores the importance of real-time monitoring of bleeding complications and our opportunity to accelerate the commercialization of Early Bird. We look forward to expanding our clinical evidence through prospective clinical trials and launching next generation products, including Bird on a Wire, to address a much broader range of endovascular procedures." Click here to read more.