Eleven business leaders were selected for a new entrepreneurship-focused council for Rice University. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University has named 11 successful business leaders with ties Houston to its inaugural council focused on entrepreneurship.

Frank Liu, a Rice alumnus and founder of the Rice University Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or Lilie, recruited the entrepreneurs to the council, and each has agreed to donate time and money to the university’s entrepreneurship programs, according to the university.

Members of the council, known as the Lilie’s Leadership Council or LLC, individuals have experience in a variety of fields, from the industrial and automotive sectors to local government and public radio.

"I owe much of my entrepreneurial success to opportunities I had while at Rice University,” Liu says in a statement. “I can't imagine the heights students today can achieve with the resources that now exist through Lilie. Over the last several years, as the No. 1 ranked Graduate Entrepreneurship program in the country, we have seen exponential growth in student engagement, and we have witnessed the life-changing technologies—tackling big problems in industries like energy and healthcare—bred within Lilie classes and programs. I am thankful for the commitment of Lilie's Leadership Council for propelling these founders from the classroom to the community and building the next generation of Houston's economy.”

LCC's inaugural cohort includes:

  • Sandy P. Aron: president of Hunington Properties who has served on the boards of the St. Francis Episcopal Day School of Houston, Congregation Beth Israel of Houston and Jones Partnership at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business
  • John Chao, vice president and managing director of Westlake Innovations and board member of Westlake Corp. The Rice alumnus previously served as COO of New York Public Radio and partner in the strategy and finance practice at McKinsey & Co.
  • Shoukat Dhanani, CEO of Sugar Land-based Dhanani Group Inc., a family owned and operated business conglomerate
  • Lorin Gu, founding partner of Recharge Capital and the founding chair of the Global Future Council at the Peterson Institute of International Economics
  • Earl Hesterberg, former CEO of Group 1 Automotive and former group vice president of North America marketing, sales and service for Ford Motor Co., who is currently chairing the capital campaign at Kids Meal Inc. in Houston.
  • Robert T. Ladd, chairman and chief executive of Stellus Capital Investment Corp. who is also chairman of the board of trustees of Rice and a member of the advisory council for the UT Health's McGovern Medical School
  • Frank Liu, co-founder and co-owner of Lovett Industrial and the founder and owner of Lovett Commercial, Lovett Homes and InTown Homes
  • Charlie Meyer, CEO of Lovett Industrial who formerly served as managing director at Hines Interests in Houston and director of construction and development for NewQuest Properties. He currently serves on the board of directors for Generation One and NAIOP Houston.
  • Hong Ogle, president of Bank of America Houston and Southeast/Southwest Division Executive for Bank of America Private Bank who serves on the board of Greater Houston Partnership and Central Houston Inc. and chairs the Bank of America Charitable Foundation in Houston.
  • Annise Parker, Houston’s 61st mayor who is currently CEO of the Victory Fund, a nonprofit devoted to electing pro-equality, pro-choice LGBTQ+ leaders to public office
  • Gary Stein, CEO of Triple-S Steel Holdings who serves on the American Institute of Steel Construction Board and the MD Anderson Cancer Center Board of Visitors

Over the summer, Lilie and Rice's Office of Innovation also announced its 2023 cohort of Innovation Fellows. The program, open to Rice faculty and doctoral and postdoctoral students, provides support to move innovation out of labs and into commercialization and up to $20,000 in funding.

Earlier this year, Lilie also launched a new startup accelerator program for students called the Summer Venture Studio, which ran from May through August.
Ten individuals from Rice University have been named to the second cohort of the Innovation Fellowship program. Photos via Rice.edu

10 Houston researchers named to fellowship to advance innovation

owls taking flight

A program with a mission to translate research into innovative startups has named its 2023 cohort of fellows.

Rice University's Innovation Fellows program, which is run by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Office of Innovation, has announced the 10 innovators that will be joining the program this year. The program, open to Rice faculty and doctoral and postdoctoral students, provides support — funding, mentorship, and more — to move innovation out of labs and into commercialization.

“The Rice Innovation Fellows program is a critical part of our efforts to support innovation and entrepreneurship,” Rice President Reginald DesRoches says in a news release. “These exceptional individuals represent some of the most innovative and promising research being conducted at Rice, and we’re thrilled to support them as they work to bring their ideas to the world.”

According to the release, the 10 members of the 2023 cohort are:

  • Martha Fowler, a doctoral student from the bioengineering lab of Omid Veiseh
  • Carson Cole, a doctoral student from the chemistry lab of Jeff Hartgerink
  • Fatima Ahsan, a doctoral student from the electrical and computer engineering lab of Behnaam Aazhang
  • Siraj Sidhik, a doctoral student from the materials science and nanoengineering lab of Aditya Mohite
  • Roman Zhuravel, a postdoctoral student from the physics and astronomy lab of Guido Pagano
  • Samira Aghlara-Fotovat, a doctoral student from the bioengineering lab of Veiseh
  • Clarke Wilkirson, a doctoral student from the mechanical engineering lab of Peter Lillehoj
  • Yuren Feng, a doctoral student from the civil and environmental engineering lab of Qilin Li
  • Yang Xia, a doctoral student from the chemical and molecular engineering lab of Haotian Wang
  • Thao Vy Nguyen, a doctoral student from the chemical engineering lab of Sibani Lisa Biswal

Each of Rice's Innovation Fellows will receive up to $20,000 in funding, as well as access to the university's network for mentorship and training.

“We're incredibly excited to welcome this exceptional group of researchers into the Innovation Fellows program,” says Yael Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and faculty director for Lilie, in the release. “We look forward to working with them as they bring their groundbreaking research to market and make a real impact on the world.”

Last year's inaugural cohort in raised more than $1 million in venture capital funding and over $3 million in additional nondilutive funding, as well as earning more than $500,000 in revenue.

Some of the 2022 cohort's accomplishments included Helix Earth Technologies winning the inaugural TEX-E Prize and Sygne Solutions securing second place and $200,000 at the 2023 Rice Business Plan Competition.

Paul Cherukuri, Rice’s vice president for innovation, who recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast, explains how this is one avenue Rice has for getting innovation off campus and into industry.

“With commercialization of research at the forefront of what Rice University wants to do,” says Cherukuri, "the Innovation Fellows program is the first in a constellation of programs and resources developed by the Office of Innovation to help impactful new ventures overcome the hard tech ‘valley of death’ and transition from the campus to the community, so we can help create the next generation of game-changing company for Houston, Texas and the world,."

Check out these conferences, pitch competitions, networking, and more in the month of November. Photo via Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for November

Where to be

Hold onto your hats, Houston. If you thought October was a busy month for business events, November even more exciting and full of pitches, conferences, summits, and more. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for November when it comes to innovation-related events.

This article will be updated as more business and tech events are announced.

FEATURED: November 9 — Houston Innovation Awards Gala

Find out what Houston startups and innovators go home with the big win at InnovationMap and Houston Exponential's gala. Learn more about this year's finalists by clicking here.

The event is Wednesday, November 9, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

November 1-3 — Urban Manufacturing Alliance's Houston Gathering

Learn about the unique challenges and opportunities within manufacturing in the current economy, as well as network with Houston manufacturing professionals.

The event is Tuesday, November 1, to Wednesday, November 3, at West Houston Institute. Click here to register.

November 2 — Greentown Labs Climatetech Summit

Hear from the climatetech industry's leaders at Greentown Labs' annual event. The morning features panels and pitches, followed by lunch, networking, and an expo. The summit continues on November 3 in Boston, and both days will be streamed for viewers.

The event is Wednesday, November 2, at 8 am, at Greentown Houston and streaming online. Click here to register.

November 4 — Enventure's 10-Year Anniversary

Join Enventure as we celebrate its 10th Anniversary — from the organization's accomplishments to a look toward what the future brings to Enventure.

The event is Friday, November 4, at 7 pm, at III by Wolfgang Puck. Click here to register.

November 5 — Tech Fest Live in-person Experience at the Ion

The Ion as partnered with Tech Fest Live to bring your family to an engaging Family Tech Day experience, designed with middle and high school students in mind.

The event is Saturday, November 5, at 9:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

November 8 — Texas Life Science Forum

The Texas Life Science Forum, co-hosted by BioHouston and Rice Alliance, is the premier life science and healthtech event in Texas that brings together members from industry, emerging life science companies, academic and investors. Hear pitches from innovative and early stage life science companies, network and enjoy exciting panels, keynotes and speakers.

The event is Tuesday, November 8, at 8:30 am, at Rice University. Click here to register.

November 9 — The Future of Industrial Automation Lunch & Learn with Yokogawa

In this Lunch & Learn, Elbert van der Bijl (Director of Marketing & Solutions Consulting for Yokogawa North America), will talk about the journey from industrial automation to industrial autonomy (IA2IA). He will also speak about how new technologies are being embraced to be able to make this transition. The presentation will highlight some key developments like Open Process Automation (OPA), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), and mobile Robotics and how they will play a role in the future of Industrial Automation.

The event is Wednesday, November 9, at 11:30 am, at The Cannon-West Houston. Click here to register.

November 10 — Greater Houston Partnership's State of the Port

Join the Greater Houston Partnership at the annual State of the Port featuring Ric Campo, Chairman of the Port Commission of the Port of Houston Authority. Campo will discuss innovations taking place at Port Houston and Project 11. The highly anticipated Project 11 will deepen and widen the Houston Ship Channel and increase economic impact, jobs and address supply chain challenges.

The event is Thursday, November 10, at 10:30 am, at The Omni Riverway. Click here to register.

November 10 — BGV Pitch Tour Houston

The BGV Pitch Tour is coming to Houston November 10th in partnership with Omaze and the aid of our amazing 6 Change Agents to throw a BGV Pitch Competition. Thee BGV Change Agents are amazing Black and/or Brown women-identifying founders who are actively working to uplift and grow the city's ecosystem for Black and Brown founders in their area.

The event is Thursday, November 10, at 6 pm, at The Cannon-West Houston. Click here to register.

November 15 — Lilie's Community Celebration

Celebrate the end of the semester and take a peek into what all the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship community has going on.

The event is Tuesday, November 15, at 6 pm, at the Lilie offices at Rice University. Click here to register.

November 17 — Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator 2022 Demo Day

Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator is hosting a Demo Day to showcase its Class 2 startups who are ready for investment, pilots and accelerating the energy transition.

The event is Thursday, November 17, at 1:30 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

November 19 — Pearland Innovation Hub Pitch Competition

Come attend this event open to the community to hear pitches from local small business owners, network, and learn about the Pearland Innovation Hub.

The event is Tuesday, November 17, at 4 pm, at Pearland City Hall. Click here to register.

November 30 — Commercial ZEV Event

This event by Houston-based Evolve is your chance to drive zero-emissions commercial vehicles and learn how you can convert your fleet to save on costs.

The event is Wednesday, November 30, at 8:30 am to 5 pm, at NRG Park. Click here to register.

These three startups walked away from a pitch competition with thousands of dollars in equity-free prizes. Photo courtesy of Rice University

3 alumni-founded startups claim cash prizes at Rice University pitch competition

winner, winner

Three startups founded by Rice University graduates have won investment prizes at an annual pitch competition.

The annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, or NRLC, welcomed a panel of judges to hear from six alumni-founded startups in the finals last week. The prizes on the line totaled $65,000 in equity-free funding. The event, which is separate from the student version of the competition, is hosted by Rice’s Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The big winner of the 2022 competition was Rhythio Medical, a preventative heart arrhythmias treatment startup. The company won first place, which included $30,000 in equity-free funding, as well as the Audience Choice Award that came with $1,500.

Taking second place, Synopic, which facilitates faster and more accurate surgical procedures through improved endoscopic vision technology, won $20,000 in equity-free funding. Lastly, Green Room, a platform that streamlines taxes and payments for touring artists, clinched third place and $15,000.

The event, named for Rice professor emeritus and entrepreneurship program founder H. Albert Napier, was sponsored by Mercury Fund, T-Minus Solutions and Chevron Technology Ventures. This year's finalists were selected by judges made up of Rice alumni. Three judges — Danielle Conkling, director at Silicon Valley Bank, Paul Manwell, senior director at Google, and Joanna Nathan, manager of new ventures at Johnson & Johnson — listened to and evaluated each company's five-minute pitch and followed up with questions.

Rhythio Medical was founded by CEO Kunal Shah, class of 2022, and Savannah Esteve, who also serves as head of product. The technology includes a surgically injected wire that makes an irregular heart work like a healthy one. It works alongside a traditional implantable cardioverter defibrillator, however, the wire but works to prevent arrhythmias, while ICDs treat arrhythmias with a painful shock to the patient’s heart. The company lists the Texas Heart Institute and the University of Texas at Austin as its research partners.

Six Rice University student-led startups pitched and were awarded $75,000 in equity-free funding. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University student startup challenge names winning teams

winner, winner

Rice University's six student startup teams competed for thousands of dollars in investment prizes, and one company came out on top — but a few other companies walked away with fresh funding too.

The 2022 H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge doled out $75,000 to student-founded companies at Rice last week. Helix Earth Technologies, which has developed a filter that helps limit water waste in power plants, and its founder, Rawand Rasheed, a doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at Rice University, won first place ans $35,000. The company been testing its technology on the power plants on campus.

The second-place team was EpiFresh, which created a protein-based coating doubles the shelf-life of fruit and vegetables, won $25,000. Guildata, which provides global health organizations with data that shows the greatest return on investment, won third place and $10,000.

The competition also included three additional awards:

  • Guildata won the $1,000 RISE@Rice: The Sen Social Pioneer Prize
  • SkySpace won the $1,500 Frank Liu Jr. Prize for Creative Innovations
  • Aqualight Materials won the $2,500 Chevron Tech Ventures Climate Innovations Prize
  • Berman Foods, an artisanal plant-based cheese and spread provider, won the $1,500 Norman E. Leebron Audience Choice Award

This year's competition saw participation from almost 200 students and a record 84 teams. The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship whittled those entries down for judges, which included Thomas Ball, co-founder and managing director at Next Coast Ventures; Lisa Besserman, managing director at Expa; and Xiaodi Zhang, chief product officer at 1stDibs. On April 20, six finalists pitched in the championship round in five-minute pitches followed by seven minutes of questions.

Additionally, all competitors received personalized mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and subject matter experts. The program started in 2017 with 15 student-run companies vying for a win. This year's NRLC was sponsored by Mercury Fund, T-Minus Solutions, and Chevron Technology Ventures.

These six finalists of The H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge Championship will pitch on April 20. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University startup pitch competition names 6 finalists

pitch perfect

Six student-founded startups are headed to the finals of a Rice University pitch competition — and this round is where the money is on the line.

The H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, open to undergraduate or graduate students in the spring as well as alumni in the summer, started in 2017 with 15 student-run companies vying for a win. The 2022 edition saw participation from almost 200 students and a record 84 teams. The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship whittled those entries down and, after the first round of judging on March 24, six teams are headed the the finals.

The startups will make their pitches in-person at Rice University on Wednesday, April 20, starting at 5:30 pm and compete for over $75,000 in equity free funding.

These are the six student-led startups that will pitch at the finals are:

AutoEdge

AutoEdge is an artificial intelligence-powered quality assurance platform that assists small and medium manufacturers to quickly detect defects and provide clear actionable items to fix inefficiencies.

Founders:

  • Alfredo Costilla Reyes, Post-Doc – Computer Science, 2023, The DATA Lab led by Professor Ben Hu
  • Kwei-Herng Lai, M.S. – Computer Science
  • Daochen Zha, M.S. – Computer Science

Berman Foods

Berman Foods is a artisanal plant-based cheese and spread creator that uses nutritious ingredients.

Founder: Delaney Berman, MBA, 2022

​EpiFresh 

Another food-focused startup, ​EpiFresh is emphasizing fresher ingredients and less waste. Their healthy and sustainable protein-based coating doubles the shelf-life of fruit and vegetables, reducing waste by delaying decay as it moves from the farm to your fridge.

Founders:

  • Neethu Pottackal, PhD – Materials & Nanoengineering, 2024, Professor Pulickel Ajayan’s Lab
  • Aasha Zinke, Materials & Nano Engineering, 2024

​GradGenius

GradGenius is designed to provide users — those looking for a higher education opportunity — a one-stop-shop experience to selecting schools based on personal interests.

Founders:

  • David Akpakwu, MBA, 2023
  • Chinedum Peter Ezeakacha, MBA, 2023

Guildata

Guildata provides global health organizations with data that shows the greatest return on investment, by reduction in morbidity and mortality, for public health interventions in a non-disease centric approach.

Founders:

  • Stephanie Pons, MBA, 2022
  • Kurt Reece, MBA, 2022
  • Ryan Jensen, MBA, 2022

Helix Earth Technologies

Helix Earth Technologies is helping save our planet by helping power plant operators reduce their plant water use and subsequently reducing their overall operating costs.

Founder: Rawand Rasheed, PhD – Mechanical Engineering, 2023, Professor Daniel Preston’s Lab

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Houston researcher scores prestigious NSF award for machine learning, power grid tech

grant funding

An associate professor at the University of Houston received the highly competitive National Science Foundation CAREER Award earlier this month for a proposal focused on integrating renewable resources to improve power grids.

The award grants more than $500,000 to Xingpeng Li, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and leader of the Renewable Power Grid Lab at UH, to continue his work on developing ways to use machine learning to ensure that power systems can continue to run efficiently when pulling their energy from wind and solar sources, according to a statement from UH. This work has applications in the events of large disturbances to the grid.

Li explains that currently, power grids run off of converted, stored kinetic energy during grid disturbances.

"For example, when the grid experiences sudden large generation losses or increased electrical loads, the stored kinetic energy immediately converted to electrical energy and addressed the temporary shortfall in generation,” Li said in a statement. “However, as the proportion of wind and solar power increases in the grid, we want to maximize their use since their marginal costs are zero and they provide clean energy. Since we reduce the use of those traditional generators, we also reduce the power system inertia (or stored kinetic energy) substantially.”

Li plans to use machine learning to create more streamlined models that can be implemented into day-ahead scheduling applications that grid operators currently use.

“With the proposed new modeling and computational approaches, we can better manage grids and ensure it can supply continuous quality power to all the consumers," he said.

In addition to supporting Li's research and model creations, the funds will also go toward Li and his team's creation of a free, open-source tool for students from kindergarten up through their graduate studies. They are also developing an “Applied Machine Learning in Power Systems” course. Li says the course will help meet workforce needs.

The CAREER Award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF. It's given to about 500 researchers each year.

Earlier this year, Rice assistant professor Amanda Marciel was also

granted an NSF CAREER Award to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston expert shares 3 leadership challenges inspired by jazz improvisation

houston voices

Crises, whether supply chain disruptions, natural disasters, or the arrival of an upstart rival, are a revealing moment for leaders. Such scenarios can push companies to the brink of meltdown or usher in dramatic organizational transformation. Whether an organization withers or thrives during a crisis is shaped by its resourcefulness—how it uses its existing resources.

The pandemic decimated many industries, but the performing arts industry faced especially grave challenges: rampant unemployment, limited prospects for revenue, and an existential crisis over the relevance of the arts in dire times. Initially, musicians could not congregate to practice, performance halls were shuttered, and classical music was the last thing on the public’s mind.

As tough as these circumstances appeared to be, what collaborator Kristen Nault and I learned during a multiyear study of two prominent orchestras surprised us: Not only was it possible to survive trying times, but it was also possible to emerge better because of them. The leadership key? Becoming nimbler by thinking more like jazz ensembles and less like classical orchestras.

Business leaders often call this agility, but for a musician, this is the realm of jazz improvisation. Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that helped leaders facing disruptions act like talented jazz musicians. Leaders in any industry can apply these practices during their organization’s next crisis.

The Resource Paradox During a Crisis

An organization’s most significant challenge during a crisis is that it typically needs resources — including time, money, expertise, equipment, and connections — at a time when activating resources has become more difficult. When faced with high levels of uncertainty, a leader’s first instinct might be to pare down investments to lower the risk of worst case outcomes. Ironically, such defensive behaviors can contribute to the organization’s demise. Threat rigidity sets in, with the leader doubling down on old habits and control mechanisms that make it difficult to harness the full potential of resources.

Instead of fearing crises, leaders can learn to embrace their hidden benefits. And by following the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention,” organizations can unlock the full power of their existing resources to respond to a challenge. Research on resourcefulness finds that when leaders take this approach, they can foster collective creativity to help groups solve problems in adverse times.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses discovered ways to access more knowledge (to understand how to repurpose products and services), capital (to invest in IT infrastructure), and connections (to identify new markets for revised products and services). Resourcefulness helped businesses pivot: Bakeries pivoted to selling raw ingredients for home chefs, clothing companies to producing face masks, vacuum manufacturer Dyson to designing a ventilator in 10 days, and distilleries to manufacturing hand sanitizer.

A Tale of Two Symphonies — and Leadership Approaches

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a multiyear research study with two of the world’s premier symphony organizations, the Houston Symphony and the Revenite Symphony (a pseudonym because the organization requested confidentiality).

When we began our research, it was an open question as to whether Revenite and the Houston Symphony would survive. Both organizations had struggled financially before the pandemic, with millions of dollars in losses and even more significant budget deficits. Both organizations were also steeped in customs and traditions, which, as any business leader knows, makes change difficult. Yet, crises often produce one valuable resource needed to instigate considerable change: urgency. Urgency makes it possible to rapidly implement changes that might otherwise have taken years (or not happened at all). A lack of urgency dooms many change management initiatives, making its abundance during a crisis an opportunity not to be overlooked. As we interviewed and observed symphony executives, staff members, and musicians, we discovered that the leaders of each organization took very different approaches to addressing the crisis and mobilizing their resources to respond.

Revenite announced a suspension of operations near the start of the pandemic. Its leadership could not envision how to pivot its labor and fixed assets, such as its performance hall, to capture new sources of revenue. As one Revenite executive told me, “I don’t think we had a sense of what the pathway toward restarting the business was going to be. … There were too many unknowns.”

After furloughing all of the musicians and most of its staff, Revenite focused on surviving. The organization radically slashed costs to 25 percent of the pre-pandemic budget and tried to get the remaining skeleton workforce to increase productivity to keep the symphony chugging along. Leaders sought to wait things out until the pandemic subsided. This defensive strategy led Revenite to constrict resources when the organization needed them most.

Afraid to go broke, the organization retreated — at a significant cost. Revenite lost any relevance to its community at this time of great need. Several difficult-to-replace musicians quit the industry. Trust between leadership and all employees, already strained from the furloughs, further deteriorated as Revenite’s leaders centralized control of the organization and focused on squeezing the remaining labor force to do more. Many employees felt burned out from working long hours with little purpose. No one, including executives, understood the “why” behind the work. As one executive said to me, “I’m working to sustain a thing that has no inherent meaning other than its survival. That’s a really weird place to be. … Our mission is to perform orchestral music.”

In contrast, the Houston Symphony made an early commitment during the pandemic to remain open. It abandoned the long-term planning that symphonies typically engage in (measured in years) and shifted to figuring out the next few weeks — for its concert program, staffing, safety practices, and marketing efforts.

At first, congregating in the performance hall was not allowed due to regulations and safety concerns. So instead, the Houston Symphony turned its musicians’ homes into performance venues. The musicians teamed up with musically talented (but not professional) family members, including partners and children. Instead of relying on a huge production team, the makeshift videos in its Living Room Series of performances were created by a minimal number of staff members. Other orchestras that livestreamed performances tried to re-create the symphony experience on Zoom, with 70-plus musicians appearing in tiny square boxes. The Houston Symphony realized that it would inevitably disappoint its customers by trying to transform a rich in-person experience into a mediocre online one. Instead, it reimagined the delivery of its content by inviting customers to learn about musicians and their families in an intimate setting while listening to enjoyable music.

When the Houston Symphony moved to livestreaming full concerts without an in-person audience, it could reach new geographic markets not possible with in-person-only events. It charged an admission fee for the virtual concerts (which was uncommon) and attracted donations from a wider variety of patrons. This brought in additional resources, such as revenue, new supporters, and media attention, as well as an enhanced reputation among industry peers.

Importantly, these decisions also created extra time for the organization to figure out how to safely and effectively return its patrons to the performance hall, which Houston did long before most other symphonies. However, the organization went further, using the pandemic to usher in a more profound transformation.

Instead of making deep cost cuts and unsustainable workforce reductions like Revenite did in the name of resourcefulness, the Houston Symphony took a strategic approach to resourcefulness. Leaders focused not on simply surviving but on strengthening the organization’s long-term outlook — financially, operationally, and in terms of its mission:

  • The need to be more mindful of costs during severe financial distress helped leaders balance the budget, a goal that had proved elusive in years past. The entire organization made a newfound commitment to follow a pathway of greater fiscal responsibility into the future.
  • The organization expanded its donor base beyond Houston and reached customers worldwide with the paid livestreaming product. Although at face value a livestreaming ticket yielded fewer proceeds than an in-person concert, many attendees were first-time patrons. Additionally, a large portion of these people donated money in addition to buying the livestream tickets.
  • The symphony maintained livestreaming performances after returning to a full, in-person concert schedule — earning incremental revenue with little added effort.
  • In a striking change, the organization introduced its patrons, who traditionally heard Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to a more diverse set of composers. Prepandemic, the pressure to fill 3,000 seats deterred the Houston Symphony from experimenting with new composers: When programs featured unfamiliar works, filling the theater with ticket buyers was a challenge. But that pressure disappeared when the performance hall was restricted to less than 50 percent capacity. The organization brought in much-needed new voices, and its audiences responded positively — so much so that the symphony upped its efforts. In the year before the pandemic, fewer than 1 percent of the symphony’s classical concerts featured musical pieces composed by members of underrepresented populations or women. In the 2023 fiscal year, and with Houston’s hall at full capacity, that number expanded to 72 percent.

Learning to Get Jazzy: Three Strategies for Leaders

Many organizations, whether a symphony, manufacturing company, or professional services firm, are metaphorically structured like an orchestra. They have conductors (leaders) and rely on sheet music (routines and practices) to coordinate different parts (teams, divisions, or functional areas) of the enterprise. Organizational leaders aim for reliable and standardized performances, much like conductors aim to make the matinee performance of a symphony the same high quality as the evening one. Through many rehearsals (that is, the repetition of behaviors), it is possible to make incremental improvements, but leaders seek output that, by design, is predictable and relatively static. Operating like a symphony orchestra allows organizations to thrive in environments of stability and low uncertainty. But during a crisis, this type of model can be disastrous.

Our research found that the Houston Symphony significantly changed its operating model. It pulled ahead of peers in the industry when leaders changed the operating metaphor to that of a jazz ensemble. As one executive told me, the collective team saw the power of flexibility: “Leadership has come from the admin and staff side and the musician side. … We’ve combined different kinds of music and programs that [we] would never do before. I would say that as a large organization, we’re operating more like a small organization.”

That is the kind of result that many business leaders navigating disruptive crises only hope to nurture within their teams.

How did the Houston Symphony’s leaders inspire the organization to become so nimble? Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that enabled them to adapt.

1. Keep the music playing.

Like a jazz ensemble, the Houston Symphony tried to keep the music playing, literally and figuratively. While Revenite stopped playing music and functioning as an organization, the Houston Symphony kept playing … anything. For example, the livestreamed Living Room Series was a far different product than a fully staffed professional production with 70 musicians in a 3,000-seat venue. However, those performances brought in new patrons and donors, and nurtured the symphony’s relevance in the community. This experiment also helped build the organization’s experience with livestreaming, which proved to be an important launching point for a more comprehensive virtual offering. Leaders, staff members, and musicians discovered their hidden capabilities around playing different types of music, utilizing novel technologies, and coordinating in new ways.

Without clarity on how the pandemic would unfold, the Houston Symphony focused on short-term decisions, asking “What can we play this week?” instead of trying to have an answer for the rest of the year. This allowed the symphony to have the most relevant information to inform its operations — real-time information that could be used to make decisions today, instead of relying on shaky assumptions about an unknown future. Leaders of any type of organization can understand a crisis by experimenting and then taking stock of lessons learned instead of remaining frozen by fear and uncertainty.

2. Don’t wait to practice transparency.

Houston’s leaders fostered strong trust between management and all employees. As resources become scarce during a crisis, it’s easy for trust to erode if decisions lack transparency. Instead of shrouding decision-making in secrecy, the Houston Symphony invited representatives from the front-line staff to weigh in on critical decisions. Relationships with the musicians’ union strengthened. By revealing sensitive information and disclosing the dire predicament the organization faced early on, leaders built trust and sparked a sense of urgency. Both were required in order for the team to quickly make significant changes.

Trust also came from empowering employees to experiment and not punishing them for making mistakes. For example, the marketing team had to try different campaign messages until they found one that resonated with patrons. The development team turned the mere fact that the symphony was playing into a comeback story—one that donors eagerly supported. The operations team discovered ways to socially distance musicians and audiences and continually modified its plans as the pandemic evolved.

3. Collaborate on a postcrisis identity.

Finally, the Houston Symphony constructed a new postcrisis identity that reflected its leadership role in the community. Instead of trying to return to pre-pandemic norms, leaders expanded the organization’s mission to cater to a wider, more diverse set of community members. The organization committed to experimenting with new types of music and continued with livestreaming to introduce audiences worldwide to a larger repertoire of selections. Expanded educational programs helped it reach underserved communities, providing a stronger foundation to diversify the artistic talent base.

Having helped shape the Houston Symphony’s comeback during the pandemic, employees embraced this community centered vision and rallied to keep the transformation momentum going. Additionally, they all came to see their own skill sets differently. After effectively coping with major adversity and helping to build a stronger organization, employees came to see themselves as capable crisis navigators — which will help everyone during future crises.

A Second Act

As our research progressed into its second year, we grew increasingly certain that Revenite would fold. We turned out to be wrong. As the organization neared the brink of death, Revenite’s leaders stopped waiting for the crisis to abate and ushered in a dramatic turnaround. It began when leaders engaged in updating. Updating is a leadership competency in which prior beliefs are revised to better address problems. It’s often a struggle for leaders to change direction after committing to a course of action, but Revenite’s leaders managed to dislodge their previous views of the crisis as the organization withered. They managed to adapt, as any jazz musician must.

Although the relationship with Revenite’s musicians had been deeply tarnished, leaders restarted a dialogue. The full impact of the furlough and Revenite’s decision to suspend operations became clear. Leaders updated their assessments of employees’ emotional states, gaining a more vivid understanding of how they had suffered economically and emotionally. Musicians explained that they had felt disconnected from their love of performance and struggled to stay sharp without practicing as an entire orchestra. After learning about employees’ hardships, leaders finally felt an urgent need to course-correct.

Revenite’s leaders next updated their assumptions about financial resources. They finally acknowledged that cost cutting was not a viable business strategy or a pathway to transformation. Instead of viewing employees as cost centers, leaders shifted to seeing them as revenue generators. By becoming more strategic with their resourcefulness, Revenite’s leaders could mobilize their existing resources to respond to the crisis more effectively. Musicians returned from furlough and started helping to increase revenues through donor outreach and, eventually, concerts.

Leaders also started noticing more about how other entities were adjusting to the crisis. They found inspiration in the Houston Symphony’s ability to operate during the pandemic — and also learned from Revenite’s musicians’ efforts to create COVID-safe concerts to raise money for themselves during the furlough. These examples showed Revenite’s leaders that operating during a pandemic was possible — something they had thought was insurmountable earlier in the year. By the end of year two of the pandemic, Revenite was well on its way to returning to its precrisis strength.

When a crisis hits, getting jazzy will help leaders in any industry adapt and positively transform their organizations. Instead of fearfully retreating at the onset of a crisis, using resourcefulness as a set of strategic tools can help leaders turn a threat into an opportunity. By unlocking the hidden potential of existing resources, organizations can emerge from a crisis with better financials, stronger operations, higher team morale, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Scott Sonenshein, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Rice University, author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined (HarperCollins, 2017), and coauthor (with Marie Kondo) of Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life (Little, Brown Spark, 2020).

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for April

WHERE TO BE

From pitching competitions to expert speaker summits, April is filled with opportunities for Houston innovators.

Here's a roundup of events you won't want to miss out on so mark your calendars and register accordingly.

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

April 4 — Mission Control: Texas’ Leadership in Space, Technology, and Innovation 

Since its inception, the space industry has expanded across Texas and grown beyond scientific exploration into a tableau on which the terrestrial set have placed bets related to tourism, mining, communications, healthcare, food science, national security, technical innovations across all industries, and even human habitation beyond earth. The Texas Lyceum’s 2024 Public Conference (PubCon) will explore these opportunities and the journey to realize the promise of space and beyond for Texas and the nation.

Throughout the event, an expected 300 industry leaders and Texas legislators and staffers will participate in thought provoking discussions to inform our stakeholders and state leaders on the trajectory, challenges and opportunities in the Space Economy.

This event starts Thursday, April 4, from 2:30 to 9:30 pm at the Thompson Hotel. Click here to register.

April 4-6 — 2024 Rice Business Plan Competition

Hosted and organized by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, which is Rice University's internationally-recognized initiative devoted to the support of entrepreneurship, and Rice Business, the Rice Business Plan Competition offers an educational program mirroring real-world experience through this multi-day event for student startups from across the world.

In total, more than $1 million in investment and cash prizes are expected to be awarded at the 2024 Rice Business Plan Competition. Every single startup will walk away with at least $950 in cash prizes, no matter where they place in the competition.

The Elevator Pitch event is open to the public and on Thursday, April 4, from 6 to 9 pm at Jones Graduate School of Business. Click here to register.

April 6 — 12th Annual Houston Global Health Collaborative Conference

This meeting is an annual gathering of interdisciplinary professionals and students with a passion for global health innovation and advancement. This year's Conference Theme is Global Health Diplomacy: Shaping Policies for Health Impact and will feature subthemes of vaccine diplomacy, global surgery, the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, and the global nutrition crisis. Clinicians, researchers, healthcare workers, policymakers, and students across any field who are interested in global health are especially encouraged to attend.

This event is Saturday, April 6, from 7:45 am to 7 pm at the University of Houston College of Medicine. Click here to register.

April 10 — Bayou City Bio Pulse

Check out a showcase of life sciences in The Woodlands. This event will feature a vendor exhibition, presentations from business, academic and community development leaders, and a panel discussion on The Woodlands’ life sciences ecosystem. Spanning across five sites totaling over 80 acres, The Woodlands Innovation District is positioned to meet the needs of companies focused on in-house manufacturing (from biopharma to industrial biology), as well as contract development manufacturing organizations (CDMOs).

This event is Wednesday, April 10, from 8 am to 12 pm at the Woodlands Towers. Click here to register.

April 18 — Energy Underground: All Things Hydrogen

The Energy Underground is a group of professionals in the Greater Houston area that are accelerating the Energy Transition. Come together to learn and support each other's work in advancing the Energy Transition: make industry contacts, secure financing, share deals, recommend talent looking to enter the energy workforce, and anything else that leads to bigger, better energy companies.

This event is Thursday, April 18, from 12 to 1:30 pm at the Cannon West Houston. Click here to register.

April 19 — Build Day x Tour: Houston Hackathon

A partnership between ACT House, a human analytics leader, and Tech Equity Collective, a Google Initiative driving black innovation in tech formed an exciting new accelerator. Participants will build their own startup team, collaborate on ideas, and sprint on real work. The first place winning team will receive $10,000, the second place team will recieve $5,000 and the third place team will get $2,500.

This event is Friday, April 19, at 4 pm until April 20 at 4 pm. Click here to register.

April 21 — The Energy Corridor District's Earth Day Celebration

Come out for a day of fun and environmental awareness. Get hands-on and contribute to a communal art piece that symbolizes a collective commitment to Mother Earth. Pick up a brush or a marker and add your creativity to the canvas.

Take a moment to learn how the world's top energy companies are contributing to a more sustainable future. Get inspired and pick up some tips for your own eco-journey

This event is Sunday, April 21, from 1 to 4 pm at Terry Hershey Park. Click here to register.

April 22 — EO4Energy Workshop

The Geological Remote Sensing Group (GRSG) Americas, in partnership with the University of Houston, invites you to a workshop focusing on the role of Earth Observation (EO) and remote sensing in the Energy Industry.

As the industry moves towards sustainability, driven by Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) considerations, the significance of EO and remote sensing continues to grow. This workshop will encompass insightful case studies, introduce emerging technologies, and present advanced methodologies. Participants will engage with a diverse group of professionals from the energy, space, academic, and government sectors.

This event begins Monday, April 22, at 8 am at Hilton University of Houston. Click here to register.

April 25 — 2024 PIDX International US Spring Conference

In this industry event, explore the intersection of AI and Digital Standards. All experienced speakers across industries are invited to contribute articles, share use cases and theories, and connect with attendees from the Energy Industry.

The accumulated knowledge shared at the event will guide the forthcoming phase of PIDX Standards Development tailored for the Energy Industry.

This event begins Thursday, April 25, at 8 am at 501 Westlake Park. Click here to register.

April 26 — StartupLaunch USA: Ignite Your Entrepreneurial Journey

This is an immersive online learning experience tailored for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to kickstart their startup ventures in the United States. This event provides participants with the essential knowledge, skills, and resources needed to navigate the complexities of launching and scaling a successful business.

Through a series of interactive workshops, expert-led seminars, and practical case studies. Participants will learn how to develop innovative business ideas, validate market opportunities, and create viable business models that resonate with target audiences.

This event is Friday, April 26, from 1 to 6 pm at Museum of Natural Science. Click here to register.

April 27 — World Youth Foundation: STEAM Innovation Incubator

WYF's STEAM Innovation Industry Pathways, or SIIP, is a youth out-of-school-time monthly program designed to bridge the gap between academic learning, industry, and digital skilling.

Open to youth ages 6 to 24, SIIP is not your typical program—it's a gateway to a world of metaskilling, offering a dynamic range of skills from design thinking, strategic project management, soft skills development, digital skills development, and industry application.

This event is Saturday, April 27, from 10 am to 1:30 pm at Sunnyside Health and Multi-Service Center. Click here to register.