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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Houston synthetic biology VC grows team ahead of foundry launch

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Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

NASA taps Houston companies for revolutionary spacesuit project

gear up

Two startups — including Houston-based Axiom Space — have been tasked with helping NASA gear up for human space exploration at the International Space Station and on the moon as part of a spacesuit deal potentially worth billions of dollars.

NASA recently picked Axiom and Collins Aerospace to help advance spacewalking capabilities in low-earth orbit and on the moon by outfitting astronauts with next-generation spacesuits. While headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, Collins has a significant presence in the Houston Spaceport.

This deal will help support landing the first woman and the first person of color on the moon as part of NASA’s return to our lunar neighbor. The equipment also will help NASA prepare for human missions to Mars.

Under this agreement, NASA, Axiom and Collins “will develop advanced, reliable spacesuits that allow humans to explore the cosmos unlike ever before,” Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, says in a news release. “By partnering with industry, we are efficiently advancing the necessary technology to keep Americans on a path of successful discovery on the International Space Station and as we set our sights on exploring the lunar surface.”

Axiom and Collins were chosen under an umbrella contract known as Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS). The contract carries a potential value of $3.5 billion.

Michael Suffredini, co-founder, president, and CEO of Axiom, says his company’s “innovative approach to xEVAS spacesuits provides NASA with an evolvable design that enables cost-efficient development, testing, training, deployment, and real-time operations to address a variety of EVA needs and operational scenarios for a range of customers, including NASA.”

Axiom’s partners on this project are KBR and Sophic Synergistics, both based in Houston, along with Air-Lock, David Clark Co., Paragon Space Development, and A-P-T Research.

NASA says Axiom and Collins will own the spacesuits, and are being encouraged to explore non-NASA commercial applications for data and technology they co-develop with the space agency.

The EVA & Human Surface Mobility Program at the Johnson Space Center is managing the xEVAS contract.

NASA astronauts have needed updated spacesuits for years.

“The decades-old spacesuit designs currently in use on the International Space Station are well past their prime. NASA had been working on new suits and showed off a patriotic prototype of a moonwalking outfit — called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU — back in 2019,” according to CNET.

A 2021 report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General called out delays in developing the spacesuits that would make a proposed 2024 human moon landing unfeasible, CNET says. Now, Axiom and Collins, instead of NASA, will create the spacesuits. Demonstration-ready spacesuits are supposed to be ready in 2025.

The spacesuit deal is the latest in a string of milestones for Axiom.

Axiom recently broke ground on its new headquarters at Houston Spaceport. There, the company will build Axiom Station, the world’s first commercial space station.

Axiom also recently welcomed home the crew of Axiom Mission 1 after their successful completion of the first all-private astronaut mission to the International Space Station. The crew came back to earth in a SpaceX capsule. The company has signed agreements with several countries, including Italy, Hungary, and the United Arab Emirates, for future space missions.

Axiom recently tapped Italian Air Force Col. Walter Villadei as its first international professional astronaut. He currently is being trained in Houston and will serve as a backup on Axiom Mission 2.

Founded in 2016, Axiom employs more than 500 people, most of whom work in Houston. The company expects its workforce to exceed 1,000 employees by 2023.

To date, Axiom has raised $150 million in venture capital.

Houston sportstech-focused lab wraps up inaugural cohort, opens apps for fall

houston innovators podcast episode 141

Houston is having a moment when it comes to sports. Fresh off the announcement of Houston being selected as a FIFA World Cup host in 2026 and just a year away from hosting another NCAA Final Four, the city is also home to a growing sportstech hub.

And one new Houston company, Pokatok, is hoping it can help support the local sports innovation community. Pokatok, which is part of the same business family as InnovationMap and Gow Media, was founded to create momentum in local sportstech activity, Kate Evinger says on this week's Houston Innovators Podcast.

"Our mission is to help be a partner with all the exciting things happening in Houston — from the startup entrepreneurship side to the things we're seeing in the sports community — to continue to elevate and uplift the voices here in addition to bringing folks in from all over the world to celebrate the human experience in sports and to continue driving innovation in this space," she says on the show.

One of the ways the company is spurring sports innovation is through Pokatok Labs, a scale-up program for seed and series A startups in the sportstech space. Evinger, who leads the program as director, says the inaugural cohort has wrapped up — and the team is already accepting applications for the fall program, which will run September 20 through November 18.

"We are looking for anything and everything under the sun within sportstech — even if you're the founder of a company that may have ties to sports but you're not sure, we're happy to have that conversation," Evinger says. "It could be nutrition, health and wellness, athlete performance, fan engagement, or smart venue."

Evinger shares more about Pokatok Labs and the potential she sees for Houston to continue evolving as a hub for sports innovation on the podcast.

Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.