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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University of Houston engineer's research hopes to help detect cancer cells faster and easier

future of health

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

High-tech art exhibit pops up alongside Houston innovation hub

immersive art

A traveling art immersion experience has officially opened its doors in Houston. The tech-enabled show picked a particularly innovative spot, too.

The new "Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Houston," opened Thursday, October 14, at Lighthouse Artspace Houston, a converted, 16,500-square-foot warehouse space (1314 Brittmore Rd.) directly next to The Cannon's West Houston innovation and entrepreneurial hub in The Founders District. The show has sold more than 3 million tickets sold nationwide, the show has outsold Taylor Swift.

Not to be confused with the current Van Gogh interactive offering, this stunning — and original — show animates some of the most iconic works for Van Gogh, who is considered one of humanity's most important and notable artists.

Equally a star player in the production is the music, some by Italian composer Luca Longobardi, along with a classic from Edith Piaf, and even a tune from Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke.

Masterpieces come alive via some 60,600 frames of video, totaling 90,000,000 pixels and more than 500,000 cubic feet of projections. But as anyone who's studied the master's works can attest, that detail is necessary to truly capture his creations.

Giant walls dance with images of workers in fields, which then wipe to floral settings, or memorable imagery from Van Gogh's instantly recognizable pieces such as Mangeurs de Pommes de Terre (The Potato Eaters, 1885), Les Tournesols (Sunflowers,1888), La Chambre à coucher (The Bedroom, 1889), and the unforgettable Nuit étoilée (Starry Night, 1889).

Even the floor — lined with circles to stand or sit on for social distancing — is a piece of art. Visitors can stroll (highly recommended), space permitting, or sit, awash in Van Gogh's dreamscape.

"It's really interesting you comment that this could be Van Gogh's dream," Vito Iaia, co-founder of Impact Museums and the event's co-producer, tells CultureMap. "This is what Massimiliano Siccardi, the protection artist who created the work you see on the walls, believes went through Van Gogh's head — right before he died."

Part art exhibit, part animated film, "Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit Houston" marries the work of three different artists: Van Gogh (of course), aforementioned projection artist Siccardi, and Rowan Doyle, the creative director who created the scenic elements surrounding the venue.

Those scenic elements include:

  • Sunflower pickup truck: A vintage Ford truck, parked outside the venue, gets a splash of sunflower yellow.
  • Van Gogh Chapel: Meant to be a love letter to Houston and specifically Rothko Chapel, this design is meant to be a contemplative space before entering the main gallery.
  • Van Gogh Timeline: As the name implies, this installation features pivotal moments of Van Gogh's career, with symbols harking to his short life.
  • Texas sunflower sign: Sunflowers dot the Texas state display, perfect for IG selfies.

A bar and gift shop also add to the experience.

At once stirring, playful, and poignant — even emotional — the experience is fitting for now, despite the artwork dating back to the late 1800s.

"People ask why Massimiliano chose Van Gogh right now," says Iaia. "And part of the answer is there's probably no better time to tell Van Gogh's story than right now. This is a reflection of what he went through as a troubled soul and the struggles people are going through today."

But it's not all dark. "The bright side is, this is a great way to remember his work. The reception has been amazing. It's giving him a new life."

Prepare for a serene, honest moment, but don't be surprised to be affected — especially with the final imagery. "People are driven to joys, or tears, or thought," says Iaia. I had someone come out and say, 'I just saw God.'"

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.