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.



The Ion has officially opened its coworking space on the second floor of the Midtown building. Rendering courtesy of Common Desk

The Ion Houston announces opening of its coworking space

calling all coworkers

The Ion Houston's coworking space — roughly four times the size of a typical Walgreens drugstore — opened this week ready to welcome its pre-leased tenants and potential coworkers alike.

The coworking space, Common Desk, occupies 58,400 square feet on the second floor of The Ion. That represents about one-fifth of the 266,000-square-foot Ion complex.

Amenities at Common Desk include craft coffee from local purveyors, unlimited conference room bookings, access to all shared areas on the second floor, private chat booths, full kitchens, and break areas.

Other tenants at The Ion include Chevron Technology Ventures and Microsoft. The Ion opened earlier this year, occupying the former Sears store in Midtown following a $100 million conversion. It's part of the 16-acre Innovation District, being developed by Rice University and the City of Houston.

"We can't wait for our new Common Desk tenants and members across their network to experience the magic that's being made here," Jan Odegard, executive director of The Ion, says in a news release. "Just as The Ion, alongside developer Rice Management Company, set out to build an innovation community and hub different from anything the nation has ever seen, Common Desk set out to build its biggest and most innovative space yet."

Dallas-based Common Desk specializes in flexible office space. Its location at The Ion is the company's largest flex office space to date.

"Common Desk has joined the ranks of some of the nation's top companies to cultivate an authentic, game-changing community destined to transform Houston's innovation ecoscape," says Dawson Williams, head of growth and partnerships at Common Desk.

Members of the Common Desk location at The Ion also can use the company's three other coworking spaces in Houston, as well as it locations in Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and North Carolina.

Common Desk's coworking space has several options for leasing. Photos courtesy of Common Desk

From new tech jobs in Houston to an entrepreneurship minor at Rice University, here are some short stories in Houston innovation. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

Rice creates entrepreneurship minor, Houston tech jobs grow, and more innovation news

Short stories

While much of the city's news — along with the rest of the country — has been focused on COVID-19, headlines are starting to resemble some sense of normalcy again.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, there's a mix of news items pertaining to the coronavirus, as well as news items outside of the pandemic — from a new minor program at Rice University to Baylor College of Medicine testing for a COVID treatment.

Rice University introduces entrepreneurship minor

Rice University plans to offer undergraduate students an opportunity to minor in entrepreneurship. Courtesy of Rice University

Three of Rice University's programs — the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Jones Graduate School of Business, and Brown School of Engineering — are teaming up to provide undergraduate students an opportunity to minor in entrepreneurship.

"Entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses and industries are critical to Houston and Texas' future prosperity and quality of life," says Yael Hochberg, Rice finance professor who leads Lilie, in a release. "Rice students continuously seek to lead change and build organizations that can have real impact on our world. In today's new and uncertain world, the skills and frameworks taught in the new minor are particularly important."

According to a news release, the minor's curriculum will provide students with professional skills within entrepreneurship, such as problem solving, understanding customers and staff, communication, and more. The program will be housed in Lilie, which features a coworking space, graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship courses, the annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, and other courses.

Houston named No. 12 for tech jobs

Houston's tech jobs are growing — just not at an impressive rate, according to a new report. Christina Morillo/Pexels

CompTIA has released its Cyberstates 2020 report that identifies Houston as No. 12 in the country for tech jobs. However, the Bayou City was ranked No. 38 for job percent growth. Austin and Dallas appear in the top 10 of each of the Cybercities rankings.

According to the report, Houston has a net total of 235,802 tech jobs, an increase of 826 jobs between 2018 and 2019. This figure means a growth of 25,904 jobs between 2019 and 2010. The full report is available online.

While Houston misses the top 10 metros, Texas ranks No. 2 for net tech employment and net tech employment growth. The Lone Star State came in at No. 4 for projected percent change in the next decade. The state was also recognized as No. 2 for number of tech businesses.

Baylor College of Medicine tests existing drug for COVID-19 cure

A Houston institution is looking into an existing vaccine for coronavirus treatment. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Baylor College of Medicine researchers — along with colleagues at four other institutions — are testing to see if the bacille Calmette-Guerin vaccine, known as BCG, can work against COVID-19.

"Epidemiological studies show that if you're BCG vaccinated, you have a decreased rate of other infections," says Dr. Andrew DiNardo, assistant professor of medicine – infectious diseases at Baylor, in a news release.

The vaccine has been found to help protect against yellow fever and influenza, and, according to DiNardo, the vaccine could show 30 to 50 percent improvement in immune response in patients with the coronavirus. The team is currently looking for subjects to participate in a clinical trial to test the vaccine.

While research is preliminary, the theory is that BCG changes the way the body responds to a pathogen, according to the release.

"Think of DNA like a ball of yarn," DiNardo explains in the release. "Some pieces of the ball of yarn are open and able to be expressed. Other pieces are wrapped up tight and hidden away, and those genes are repressed. It's a normal way for cells to turn certain genes on and off. BCG opens up certain parts of this ball of yarn and allows the immune system to act quicker."

Plug and Play announces physical space in Houston

Plug and Play Tech Center's local team will work out of the Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Since entering the Houston market last year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play Tech Center has hosted numerous events, named its first cohort, and hired Payal Patel to lead the local operations. However, the local operations still, until recently, lacked a plan for a physical space in town.

"Plug and Play intends to set up its permanent office in Houston in Rice's Ion development," says Patel in a statement. "We have engaged in preliminary discussions with Rice Management Company to secure office space for the building's expected Q1 2021 opening."

Until then, says Patel, who is director of corporate partnerships for Plug and Play in Houston, the Plug and Play team will have its base at Station Houston, which recently merged with Austin-based Capital Factory. At present, the local team is hiring to build up its team and has five open jobs on HTX Talent, a job portal for Houston tech.

UH professor named a Guggenheim fellow

A University of Houston professor has been honored with a prestigious award. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

A University of Houston mechanical engineer has been selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Pradeep Sharma is the only recipient in the engineering category.

The M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of mechanical engineering and chairman of the department, Sharma uses mathematics and technology to breakdown physical phenomena across a number of disciplines.

The Guggeinheim Foundation has funded more than $375 million in fellowships to over 18,000 individuals since its inception in 1925. This year, the organization selected 173 individuals.

"It's exceptionally encouraging to be able to share such positive news at this terribly challenging time," Sharma says in a news release from UH. "The artists, writers, scholars and scientific researchers supported by the fellowship will help us understand and learn from what we are enduring individually and collectively."

Houston health system to participate in coronavirus plasma study

HCA Houston Healthcare is participating in a plasma treatment program. Getty Images

HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division has announced that it will be participating in a national study to see if plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can help current COVID patients in severe conditions.

"We are proud to take part in this important study. We are asking for the help of our community to spread awareness about plasma donation for patients facing COVID-19 not only in Houston, South Texas and Corpus Christi, but also around the world," says Mujtaba Ali-Khan, chief medical officer at HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division, in a news release.

Per the study, the following HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division Hospitals will be participating:

  • HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Conroe
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Kingwood
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Southeast
  • HCA Houston Healthcare West
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball
  • HCA Houston Healthcare North Cypress
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Northwest
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Mainland
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Medical Center
  • Corpus Christi Medical Center
  • Rio Grande Regional Hospital
  • Valley Regional Medical Center

"This trial is just the first step, but hopefully it will help us determine if plasma transfusions can be a treatment for critically ill patients with COVID-19," says Carlos Araujo-Preza, MD, critical care medical director at HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball, in the release.

Dr. Araujo-Preza safely discharged his first plasma patient last week. The patient is recovering from home following their treatment.

The hospital system is looking for eligible volunteers to donate plasma via the American Red Cross to help treat current patients.

Early stage energy venture firm calls for startups

Industrial software

BBL Ventures is looking for energy companies to pitch. Getty Images

Houston-based BBL Ventures, which looks to connect tech startups to industrial and energy corporations, is seeking energy tech startups to pitch.

"Digital transformation, automation, emerging technologies and sustainability have never been more important to these industries than in this challenging macro environment," says Patrick Lewis, founding managing partner of BBL Ventures, in an email. "We are launching a 6-week challenge campaign to find BEST in class solutions to BIG pain points in the energy and industrial sectors."

In the email, Lewis lists over a dozen challenges or pain points from the organization's corporate partners. The goal would be to find startups with to solutions to any of these identified pain points. Winners of the pitch competition are eligible for POCs, pilots, and funding.

For more information and to submit a pitch, visit BBL's website. BBL is also introducing the program with a virtual kick-off panel on May 21 at 2 pm. Registration is available online.

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4 tips for pay negotiation amid inflation from this Houston expert

guest column

With the consumer price index rising 9.1 percent since last year, many Americans are evaluating new employment opportunities with better pay. However, employees would be wise to consider the risks of accepting a new position in the face of inflation and a possible recession, which could leave employers unable to sustain higher wages and generous benefits.

As a safer option in the longterm, employees may wish to ask for a raise from their current management, yet many do not know how to start the conversation. By understanding best practices for negotiations, employees can improve their chances of obtaining a pay raise without undermining relationships.

Understand the risks of job-hopping

Conventional wisdom suggests that job hopping can result in higher salary increases than an annual raise. During the pandemic, many employees took advantage of labor market shortages to secure new positions for higher pay. However, job hopping presents risks, particularly in an uncertain economic environment. Companies may institute “last in, first out” layoffs, leaving recent hires unemployed.

Even in strong economic conditions, job-hoppers face uncertain outcomes. When employees leave a company, they may leave behind teammates, mentors, client partnerships and friendships years in the making. These relationships can redevelop in a new organization, but employees may find themselves in an unfamiliar setting, facing unrealistic expectations or unexpected challenges that were not clear during the interview process.

Prepare ahead of time

Before approaching management with a request for a raise, employees should understand their own financial needs and how much additional compensation would improve their finances. If inflation has caused financial strain, employees should gather recent data on inflation, including the consumer price index, to share with management. The more information employees can offer about changing economic conditions, the more management will understand and accept their position.

Focus on the positive

Employees should begin a conversation about salary with praise for the organization and a reiteration of their commitment to the team. By beginning on a positive note, employees set the tone for a mutually productive conversation. Although employees may view salary negotiations as adversarial across the table, productive negotiations are a conversation with both employee and employer on the same team.

Likewise, while employees may worry about looking greedy, employees should not let that fear prevent them from opening the conversation. Employers also understand that employees work to meet their financial needs. While employers may face budget constraints or other considerations in salary allocation, strong management also recognizes the importance of nurturing growth among employees, both in compensation and job responsibilities.

Nonetheless, employees should focus the discussion on broader economic conditions like inflation, not on their personal budget items. By acknowledging the economic environment outside of the employer’s control, employees can then respectfully request their salary be adjusted for inflation.

Employees with a record of strong results can also gather data or performance reviews to demonstrate their contributions to the team beyond the expectations of their role. In doing so, employees can frame a salary increase as a celebratory recognition of the mutually successful partnership between employee and employer and an investment in the relationship.

Be flexible if negotiations stall

If employers decline to adjust an employee’s salary for inflation, employees should not give up on negotiating additional compensation or benefits. Rather than a pay raise, employees can ask for reimbursement for gas mileage or additional remote days to cut down on their commutes. If management declines a pay raise based on timing, employees can acknowledge that management may face budgetary constraints, remaining flexible but firm. For instance, a compromise may involve revisiting the discussion in three to six months.

As employees face record-breaking inflation, it remains critical to consider the risks of departing one role for another. By implementing best practices in salary negotiations, employees can secure a salary increase that matches inflation, avoid the uncertainty of job-hopping and invest in the future at their current company.

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Jill Chapman is a senior performance consultant with Insperity, a leading provider of human resources and business performance solutions.

Houston small biz tech platform launches entrepreneur-focused credit card

hello credit

When you're a small business owner, every service you sign up for or institution you open an account at should be a helpful partner on your business journey. At least, that's how Hello Alice sees it.

The Houston company has partnered up with Mastercard and First National Bank of Omaha to provide small business owners a suite of financial services with their line of credit. The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard will offer users expert business advice, business insights, cashback, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

“We designed the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard to meet the needs of small business owners where they are, breaking longstanding barriers to mentorship, access to credit, and overall financial health for those who have traditionally been denied access,” says Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, in a statement.

“In times of economic boom and bust, access to capital remains the leading challenge for all small business owners, and particularly for New Majority owners, which is why we continue to focus our efforts on expanding the capital continuum beyond our existing grants and loans programs,” the duo continued.

Offered as a traditional credit card, the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard provides users with credit-building opportunities. Business owners with a limited or poor credit history also have the opportunity to a secured version of the credit card that still provides full benefits from the program.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our communities, yet too often face significant obstacles in securing the resources they deserve, particularly if the owners come from underserved communities,” says Linda Kirkpatrick, president for North America at Mastercard, in the release. “The launch of the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard is an important step in our mission to build a more inclusive digital economy by providing small businesses with the financial tools and capital they need to thrive, while also advancing our half-billion-dollar commitment to help close the racial wealth and opportunity gap for Black communities.”

This initiative is the latest announcement from Hello Alice’s Equitable Access to Capital program, which is focused on increasing access to the capital — as well as financial products, tools, and education — small businesses need to grow sustainably and power the national economy. By 2025, according to Hello Alice, approximately $70 million in grants could fund credit enhancements for approximately 30,000 business owners, unlocking up to $1 billion in credit access.

“FNBO has been committed to helping small businesses succeed for 165 years, and we are proud to partner with Hello Alice and Mastercard in this vital initiative to elevate all small businesses,” says Jerry J. O’Flanagan, executive vice president of Partner Customer Segment at First National Bank of Omaha.


The new credit card will provide credit and financial advice, support, and education to small business owners. Image via helloalice.com

Houston Methodist to open health innovation center in the Ion

coming soon

The Houston Methodist healthcare system has teamed up with the Ion innovation hub to open a health care innovation center.

The 1,200-square-foot tech hub is expected to open later this year. It initially will be geared toward activities like entrepreneurial programming, networking, mentoring, and pitching.

The space will be modeled after Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation Technology Hub, which opened in 2020. In fact, the new hub will be a smaller “twin” of the existing hub, according to a news release.

Jan Odegard, executive director of the Ion, says the collaboration with Houston Methodist “will advance the Ion’s ability to support entrepreneurs and innovators that are already at the Ion as we embark on a new focus in health care innovation.”

Amid the rise of artificial intelligence and other tech advancements, along with the health care sector’s continuing drive to cut costs, one forecast indicates the value of the global market for digital health care will jump from $216.4 billion in 2022 to $441 billion by 2026. That would represent an increase of 104 percent.

Houston Methodist is the Ion’s first health care partner. The Ion already has partnerships in the aerospace and energy sectors.

“We are advancing the evolution of the hospital’s role in health care through digital transformation,” said Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist. “Having a footprint at the Ion will not only provide the Ion’s network and Houston community with a window into what we are doing for patients, consumers and providers, but also gives The Ion community and rising innovators an opportunity to bring its own ingenuity and ideas to life with ours.”

Houston Methodist operates eight hospitals in the Houston area.

The 266,000-square-foot Ion anchors a 16-acre innovation district in Midtown. Rice Management Co. developed the district on behalf of Rice University.

“By enhancing opportunities for our network of academics, businesses, entrepreneurs, and innovators to collaborate across the Ion District and globally, we’re creating a more resilient future economy for our region,” says Bryson Grover, investment manager of real estate at Rice Management.

The space will be modeled after Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation Technology Hub, which opened in 2020. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap