Houston innovation hub names interim leader

eye on the ion

Jan Odegard has been named interim executive director of the Ion. Photo courtesy of The Ion

A developing innovation hub rising in Midtown Houston has named an interim executive director following the sudden exit of its former leader.

Jan Odegard has been named interim executive director of the Ion after Gabriella Rowe announced her resignation. Odegard has served as senior director of Academic and Industry Partnerships at The Ion for six months and as the executive director of Rice University's Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology since 2002.

"I am excited to help move forward and ensure the Ion is a success," Odegard says in a press release from Rice. "My interim role is made easier by the fact that everyone involved in the Ion, including Rice Management Co., is focused on making it a success for all Houstonians."

Rice Management Co. is leading The Ion project, a renovation of an old 270,000-square-foot Sears building. The goal is to create an innovation hub for startups, entrepreneurs, academics, corporations, and more.

"We're already supporting business owners, the community and entrepreneurs," Odegard says in the release. "Our building is slated to open in early 2021, but the Ion is more than a place. It is the programming, partnerships and resources we are creating to support Houston's innovation and tech economy, and above all, it is the people who are coming together to take part and join us."

In an interview with InnovationMap, Rowe shared details of her resignation and says that she will continue focusing on technology and equity.

"I am stepping back from the Ion role in order to focus my time exclusively with the issues of equity and access in growing our tech ecosystem and economy," Rowe says, "because I think that is going to be an instrumental part of the recovery of Houston moving forward."

This week's Houston innovators to know are Jan Odegard of The Ion, Josh Feinberg of Otso, and Patrick Schneidau of Truss. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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The month is, thankfully, flying by, and InnovationMap has another set of Houston innovators to know this week that are all reacting to COVID-19 and its unique set of challenging consequences across industries — from commercial real estate to software.

Jan E. Odegard,  senior director of Academic and Industry Partnerships at The Ion

Jan E. Odegard is the senior director of Academic and Industry Partnerships at The Ion. Photo courtesy of The Ion

When it comes to envisioning normal life after COVID-19, Jan Odegard realizes things will probably change for good. In a guest column for InnovationMap, he writes that, as a society, "we may never work and learn the same again." The Ion is trying to prepare the city for this affected future.

"As senior director of Academic Programming, my job will be to implement those ideas and move new programs forward," he writes. "To do this, the team is developing and pivoting programs we had on the drawing board and are engaging in conversations with academic stakeholders, workforce development programs and executives with innovation-driven hiring needs."

Click here to continue reading.

Josh Feinberg, co-founder of Otso

Josh Feinberg is the co-founder of Otso and Tenavox. Photo courtesy of Otso

Josh Feinberg hates security deposits. It's a sum of money sitting in an account, not earning interest and not doing either the landlord or the tenant any good.

That's why Feinberg and his co-founder, Marissa Limsiaco, created Otso. The duo previously founded Tenavox, an online portal for commercial real estate listings for brokers to generate leads, and have now launched this fintech platform that provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits.

Feinberg tells the Houston Innovators Podcast that, while he originally envisioned Otso to be a new deal product for landlords to offer an alternative to cash deposits, he saw the tool as an opportunity for small businesses struggling to pay rent that have a shortage of liquidity. He tossed out the original marketing plans and pivoted to present Otso as that liquidity solution for small business tenants.

Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Patrick Schneidau, CEO of Truss

Patrick Schneidau is the CEO of Truss. Photo courtesy of Truss

Patrick Schneidau, CEO of Houston-based Truss, was trying to figure out his startup's role amid the COVID-19 crisis, and says he felt called to do something to help families separated due to strict emergency visitation rules at hospitals.

"You read all the stories of loved ones not being able to be together during this time," Schneidau says. "That was the area we wanted to focus on."

Schneidau describes the software as a secure portal for small groups to interact via smart devices. Physicians can interface with family members via video chat or recorded messages, as well as answer any questions.

Click here to read more.

Rice University will launch online classes next week for small business leaders planning their recovery. Courtesy of Rice University

Rice University launches online programming for entrepreneurs dealing with COVID-19 closures

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Houston small businesses and startups have a long road of recovery ahead of them, and Rice University and some of its partners want to help local entrepreneurs prepare for it.

Rice University's Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies has partnered with the Ion — along with the Center for Houston's Future and Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship — to launch the Back In Business Initiative. The program will begin with three courses in the week of April 20 to 24. The three courses are:

"Glasscock's mission has always been to provide education to the residents of Houston," says Robert Bruce, dean of the Glasscock School, in a news release. "We specialize in providing responsive, practical information that will help our constituents when and how they need it most. To assist our struggling Houston small business community during this crisis, we created this trilogy of courses to help analyze their current situation, use creative problem-solving and provide meaningful communications to help them weather this situation."

More classes will be added as needed. The classes have a $25 registration fee, and anyone can enroll online.

"Today's health crisis may have changed many aspects of our daily lives, but it has not affected our commitment to providing the right tools and education to help our community succeed," says Jan Odegard, senior director of academic and industry partnerships at the Ion, in the release. "We all have a role to play in meeting the challenge of COVID-19 and we are excited to be partnering with the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies to support Houston small businesses in this time of uncertainty."

The university also touts OpenRICE as a resource for businesses. The online education platform is available to the Houston community for free. Rice also has a 20 percent discount for all professional studies courses and programs enrollment — with the ability to postpone for up to a year without a fee. This deal runs through April 30.

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Photos: Here's a sneak peek at The Ion Houston's construction progress

eye on the ion

The Ion Houston is expected to open its doors this year, and the building's exterior is close to completion. Now, the construction team is focusing on interiors and then tenant build outs.

The 270,000-square-foot coworking and innovation hub owned and managed by Rice Management Co. is slated to be a convening building for startups, corporations, academic partners, investors, and more. The building is organized as follows:

  • The underground Lower Level will act as academic flex space with a few classrooms and open-concept desks for The Ion's accelerators, including: The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator, DivInc, the Rice Alliance's Clean Energy Accelerator, and the Aerospace Innovation Hub and Accelerator. There will also be an event space and The Ion's own programming.
  • On the first, street-level floor, The Ion's restaurant tenants will reside with access from both the greenspace as well as into the building. The Ion's first three restaurant tenants include: Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.
  • Additionally, the first floor will be home to a venture studio and the prototyping lab. There is additional space available for other tenants.
  • On the second floor, there will be 58,000 square feet of coworking space managed by Common Desk. Note: For floors 2 and up of the Ion, tenants will have access cards that allow them entrance. The first and lower floors will not require access cards.
  • The third floor of the building will house eight to 10 tenants each with 5,000 to 10,000 square feet of space. Chevron was announced as the first tenant and will reside on this floor.
  • On the fourth and fifth floors, The Ion will house one to two larger tenants on each level. These levels of the building were added on to the existing structure. The fourth floor features two balconies that tenants will have access to. Microsoft is signed on to have its space on half of the fifth floor.
The Ion is still planning on an open date in late spring or summer. For leasing information, click here. Scroll through the slideshow of construction images and renderings to see the progress of the building.

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

The building's exterior is almost complete and kept much of the original building's facade. The new materials brought in match the existing color scheme.

Texas winery taps Houston tech company for innovative AR experience

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The Lone Star State is home to a vibrant and innovative wine scene, but, just like most hospitality businesses, winemakers missed the opportunity to engage with their patrons amid the pandemic. With a new idea of how to engage its customers, Messina Hof, an award-winning Texas winery, rolled out a new tech-optimized, at-home experience.

The winery partnered with VISION, a Houston-based production group, to create an augmented reality app. Combining the efforts of Messina Hof's in-house label design team and the animation capabilities of VISION, the app took four months to design.

"It was a labor of love for both parties to be able to experiment with this; it was uncharted territory," says Karen Bonarrigo, owner and chief administrative officer of Messina Hof.

The three wines released — Emblaze (Sweet Red), Vitality (Dry White), and Abounding (Dry Red) — each tells a story through the AR experience.

"We wanted to try not only and push the technology as far as we can push it, but also try to really incorporate some heavy storytelling," says Dan Pratt, VISION Creative Director.

The idea to incorporate technology felt like a natural one to Bonariggo.

"The earth, water, and sunshine all go into developing what the profile is for each wine," explains Bonarrigo.

Each of the three wines have scannable labels that bring up a VR experience for app users. Photo courtesy of Messina Hof

VISION, who worked alongside Messina Hof to develop the project, blended the winery's rich family ties with the Old World history of winemaking.

When customers download the app and hold their camera over the label, a trailing vine emerges onto the screen and wraps around the bottle. As vines grow around each bottle, the three each visually signify a different natural element of winemaking — earth, water and the sun. As a rustic sign emerges, it prompts users to then click for recipe pairing recommendations.

Rather than a single-use experience, Messina Hof and VISION wanted to create an app that users could both engage with and learn from. The AR app allows users to view recipes and browse wines in one place.

"We knew we wanted the app to be functional for people to be able to interact with both when they're doing the AR experience, but then also to be able to continue to come back to it later," shares Bonarrigo. While AR wine labels have emerged in some California vineyards, she says, "it's definitely uncharted territory for the Texas industry."

Overseeing the food and wine pairing at Messina Hof is one of Bonarrigo's passions, so it was a natural choice to include recipes in the app. Messina Hof offers a concept called Vineyard Cuisine, coined from the Bonarrigo family cookbook, and incorporates wine in every meal at the vineyard.

"The idea of tying [the wine] to a recipe gave us the opportunity to be able to share new ways [our customers] could use wines in their everyday cooking," she explains.

She hopes the app's recipe feature will help families connect together.

"So often we get used to sitting down at the table, eating really quickly, and then moving on to the next thing, but there's so much connection that can happen with each other when we can slow down a little bit and have a conversation," she continues.

To Pratt, AR was the perfect way to emphasize and expand on the shared experience of wine.

"We wanted this to be an extension of that experience for people. You know, based on the love of wine and laughter with friends," he says.

For those who can't currently gather in a room together, Bonarrigo has hopes that Messina Hof can bring people together from afar.

"I think now more than ever the ability for our regular customers, even within Texas, to then share those wines with family members or friends that are outside the state seems more intuitive," she explains.

"We are so used to being creatures of habit in sharing our wine face-to-face with people that when we had the unexpected opportunity to not do that, we realized that we still have ways to be able to connect with customers through technology," says Bonarrigo.

She finds the "ease of access of being able to connect with them through the online web store" has kept Messina Hof in touch with customers throughout the pandemic, as well as digital happy hours and tasting events.

Messina Hof Harvest Green Winery & Kitchen, the newest location, opened in February, becoming the Greater Houston-area's largest winery. The space features an expansive tasting room and 83-foot wine bar, full-service restaurant, covered patio, two private tasting rooms, a wine production, barrel room, and wine warehouse.

"We knew that when we launched that location that we wanted to be able to have a series of wines at that location that was special, but also out of the box," says Bonarrigo.

Bonarrigo and her husband Paul have ushered in the expansion of Messina Hof over the last nine years. The family business began in 1977 when Paul's parents, Paul Vincent and Merrill, started an experimental vineyard. Messina Hof has locations in Bryan, Grapevine, Fredericksburg, and Richmond.

"This is our largest winery expansion endeavor that we've done," she says. "We wanted the wines to be extra special."

Similar to Messina Hof, companies across industries are seeking to explore interactive technologies to reach their customer base. "A number of our clients, and also new clients that we may not have been able to reach before, have certainly reached out to us to figure out new ways to reach an audience," shares Pratt.

Winemaking may be an Old World skill, but Messina Hof is excited to bring Texas wine into the future.

"So much of winemaking is science, and so much of it is art. There's always this push and pull as to which is more of a majority in the end product," explains Bonarrigo, who notes that Messina Hof has been using technology to innovate and optimize the growing process. The new AR app is a push toward bringing the experience her family loves into the homes of customers.

"This definitely gives a new talking point to wine," she says.