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

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

According to a new report, Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business has all the ingredients or a top MBA program. Photo courtesy of Rice

Houston university's MBA program claims coveted top spot of annual ranking

top of class

Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business has raked in yet another top spot on an annual list of top MBA programs.

A new ranking from Poets & Quants, which covers news about business schools, puts Rice at No. 3 among the world's best MBA programs for entrepreneurship. That's up from No. 15 on last year's list.

The Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis grabbed the top spot in this year's ranking. Elsewhere in Texas, the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business lands at No. 14, the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth at No. 35, and the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in University Park at No. 36.

Poets & Quants judged the schools on 16 metrics related to their entrepreneurship initiatives.

Poets & Quants says Rice's Jones Graduate School of Business "itself is less than three decades old. But entrepreneurship was baked into its DNA from the get-go. The late Ed Williams and current professor Al Napier are credited with starting the entrepreneurial focus. But it wasn't until 2013 when Jones plucked Yael Hochberg from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management that the program really started to surge."

Rice's entrepreneurship offering combines academic courses and associated programs led by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lilie) with programs offered by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

"The ability to be a student while working on your startup in class, under the expert guidance of our world-class faculty, gives our Rice entrepreneurs a competitive advantage over any others out there," Hochberg, head of the Rice Entrepreneurship Initiative and academic director of the Rice Alliance, says in a news release.

The Rice Alliance's OwlSpark Accelerator supplements the MBA program. The accelerator serves as a capstone program and launchpad for students seeking to start their own businesses. Meanwhile, the Rice Business Plan Competition, the largest intercollegiate student startup competition in the world, lets students pitch their startups in front of more than 300 judges. And the Rice Alliance Technology Venture Forums allows students to showcase their startups to investors and corporations.

"The ability for students to launch their nascent startups, obtain mentoring from members of the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem, and then pitch to hundreds of angel investors, venture capitalists, and corporations provides a unique opportunity that cannot be found on many campuses or in many regions," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance.

Startup success is linked to tactical habits and relationships we foster. Photo via Getty Images

How Houston companies can best learn and navigate startup etiquette

houston voices

We often rely on frameworks, skillsets, and mindsets – many of which we can acquire in the classroom – to prepare us for a successful career. Even at Lilie, we emphasize the importance of entrepreneurial thinking and design processes. Yet we hear repeatedly that this notion of "luck" propelled notable individuals through startup careers and exits.

But after talking with Merci Victoria Grace, Partner at Lightspeed Ventures, I'm confident success isn't mandated by the fortuitous sprinkling of this magical "luck" dust. Rather, success is linked to tactical habits and relationships we foster. Merci, with a degree in fictional writing (doesn't exactly scream Silicon Valley titan), co-founded a venture-backed company at the age of 22. From there, she held various PM roles (Couchsurfing, Gigwalk) and went on to be the first Head of Product at Slack. Most recently she has been on the other side of the table in venture capital.

It wasn't luck that drove her career, rather her grit and other actionable habits. She has been immersed in Silicon Valley for the entirety of her career, and she had some nuggets of wisdom for those who are flirting with the idea of working at an early stage tech company.

Do some soul searching. Corporate v. startup?

A career growing in larger, more established corporates will certainly look different than a career growing at various startups. In order to set yourself up for success, you must ensure your personality is one that would jive within a startup.

Your learning style:

  • Corporates: You like to be told what to do, and taught how to do it. You like to follow processes and standards that are already established and widely accepted. You like to work within the bounds of the current structure. You are not bothered by politics and bureaucracy that may hinder innovation.
  • Startups: You learn by doing. It is easier for you to figure "it" out as you go as opposed to being told what to do. In fact, you may not like being told what to do at all! You aren't intimidated by ambiguity, but rather you like to chart uncharted territory and set up the processes as you go.

Your appetite for growth:

  • Corporate: You want to know what is expected of you, and agree to offer the explicit skills you bring to the table. There are usually no surprises in your job functionalities. And while there are resources and budgets for professional development, growth can be hampered by clearly defined boundaries preventing you from acquiring responsibilities outside of those bounders.
  • Startups: You may not like predictability or routine. You seek out new projects and challenges because you know these stretch opportunities help you grow. You aren't intimidated by doing things that are seen as "outside of your job description." Rather, you are willing to do what it takes for the greater good of the team, and you appreciate the learning opportunity associated with the task.

Your career aspirations:

  • Corporate: You most certainly want to be successful, but are willing to take the more traditional route in climbing the corporate ladder. At larger companies, they tend to hire for the role they need to fill, and some tend to do less promoting from within. That makes exponential growth in a short period of time more difficult.
  • Startups: You want to gain leadership experience as soon as possible. You are willing to enter on the ground floor of a startup because you know that being an early employee will allow for rapid growth within the company (if the program is growing). And if that early-stage company is successful, your stint is viewed as a badge of honor which will open up future opportunities.

Startups are for me. Now go gain control of your destiny!

Merci shared insight into how early-stage companies function and how to land a gig at one. There are norms and etiquette we should respect, as well as a mindset we must adopt if we are to be successful within these early-stage companies.

How to get your foot in the door:

  • Use your network! Hiring is HARD, and hiring good talent is even harder. Founders (who are most likely the hiring managers) are juggling many moving parts, and I can guarantee the hiring process is their least favorite part. So, they are going to turn to the people they know because there is a base of trust. So, keep your contacts warm and follow up with them as they are launching new ventures.
  • Don't know many entrepreneurs? Keep tabs on TechCrunch, AngelList, and ProductHunt. Check out companies starting to get traction. Cold email them (…usually name@domain.com…) and ask to connect. Contact them via LinkedIn, Twitter, or other social networks. They are more receptive than you may think.
  • Be direct. Founders are busy, so tell them why you are interested in working with them. And let other folks in your network know as well. Have them keep feelers out.
  • In your conversations, try to identify their pain points. What is keeping them up at night? What are the biggest roadblocks they or the company is facing? And then figure out how your skill set will add value there. Feel it out, but it may require prepped work such as strategy you could present.
  • When connecting and making introductions, use these email tactics:
    • Double opt-in: ask permission to introduce Sally to Kim. Don't just assume Kim is okay with connecting to Sally because Kim is your friend, and so is Sally. Kim doesn't owe Sally anything. Usually, people say yes, but you should ask.
    • Forwardable email: while your job hunt is consuming your time, don't put the burden on others. If you are Sally and you want Joe to introduce you to Kim, send Joe a thorough email that explains who you are and why you want to talk to Kim. Then, Joe can easily forward that on to Kim. Easy peasy.

Qualities to elude:

  • Working at a startup can be messy. Founders don't have time to micromanage you (or even manage you at all!). Demonstrate that you have the ability to pick up social cues and can execute on [the right] projects and priorities without having to be asked.
  • Have a propensity for action. Act as opposed to asking for permission. You have to be socially intelligent for this to work (see point above), but if you have an idea, try it out, get data, and then propose next steps.
  • Don't complain. Ever. ESPECIALLY not in an interview.
  • Be a team player. Everything is your job. Nothing should be beneath you.
  • Take responsibility for mistakes or missed goals. Startups are ever-evolving and pivoting and learning from failures, you should too.

Be encouraged that there is no magic to the equation. Success within startups and early-stage companies stems from hard work, strong networks, and ensuring there is a good "product-market fit" for you within this world.

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This article was written by Caitlin Bolanos, senior associate director of Lilie, and originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

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The larger the deal, the higher the chances of failure, says this Houston expert. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert looks into behavioral analytics in private equity, growth equity, and venture capital

houston voices

Study after study puts the failure rate of mergers and acquisitions somewhere between 70 percent and 90 percent (2011, HBR). One KPMG study narrowed the band of M&A failures to 75 percent to 83 percent (2015, KPMG). One constant in the research is that the larger the deal, the higher the chances of failure.

A FAILED MERGER, ACQUISITION, OR DIVESTITURE CAN BE UNDERSTOOD IN 2 WAYS:

  • Qualitative – what the companies had in mind that caused them to merge in the first place doesn't work out that way in the end.
  • Quantitative – shareholders suffer because operating results deteriorate instead of improve.

Deloitte's M&A Trends 2020 reports that 38 percent of PE firms cite revenue and growth improvement strategies as their primary strategy or focus area for driving value in their portfolio companies.

In the same report, EFFECTIVE INTEGRATION is key for the success of the deal. It accounts for 20 percent of a successful transaction, tied for top place with ACCURATELY VALUING A TARGET.

Post-M&A integration is defined as the implementation of changes in functional activities, organizational structures, and cultures of the two organizations to expedite their consolidation into a functional whole. Of course, this all involves people.

Moreover, Aon Hewitt research shows that:

  • There is a 23 percent increase in "actively disengaged employees" after a change event – even if no one's job is affected.
  • It takes about three years to return to pre-merger engagement levels.

With these figures, it is startling that there is not more focus on talent. Executives attribute 72 percent of their company's value to their employees, yet a mere 12 percent of companies align their talent strategy with their business strategy (Predictive Index, The 2020 State of Talent Optimization).

HOW ARE INVESTORS IN THE PRIVATE MARKET CHANGING THE TIDE?

According to Mike Zani, CEO of The Predictive Index, "When you look at the world of PE, growth equity, and to a lesser extent, VC, we are starting to see more talent officers, someone on staff to assist with strategic HR challenges with their portfolio." For example, Vista Equity has a consulting division that is solely focused on the talent and people analytics of its portfolio companies. They go beyond just finding the right executives, they have proprietary analytics tools to add value.

THERE ARE THREE USE CASES FOR ANALYTICS WITHIN THE PRIVATE MARKET:

1. Due Diligence

"One of the most powerful ways behavioral analytics are used for due diligence is understanding the strengths and blind spots of the future leadership team. It's about applying analytical rigor to the people side of the business to create a nuanced understanding of individual and team dynamics so you can be intentional about how to enable and de-risk the execution of future growth plans. We surface people challenges and opportunities early in the process so our clients can put strategies in place for effective change management and talent optimization." Heather Haas, President, ADVISA.

After signing a letter of intent, a consultant can assess the leadership team with behavioral, cognitive, and organizational assessments. In the process of evaluating leadership fit, consultants may identify gaps between the leadership abilities needed and those present in the executive team, and investors must focus attention on closing those gaps. It is much easier to suggest fixing them before the deal is closed, where investors can work with the company to create leadership development or hiring plans. If investors discover that the executive team lacks financial or operational excellence 6 months after close, it is going to be much harder to communicate that in a positive, forward-looking way.

Predictive Index isn't the only tool used for due diligence. Specialty consulting firms that provide due diligence support with people analytics include GH Smart, Green Peak Partners, Korn Ferry, and Deloitte. They use a host of tools ranging from Hogan assessments to proprietary software. "Out of the 150 PE clients with The Predictive Index," Zani says "about 1/3 are using it in due diligence regularly."

2. Post-Deal Value Creation

Effective M&A integration accounts for 20 percent of the success of a deal. As I mentioned in the last post, behavioral analytics can provide insights that allow each person to easily understand how their new team members are wired. This can drastically reduce the time it takes to build cohesion among the group and make for more effective collaboration as project teams are regularly assembled and reassembled. Put simply, instead of using our energy to try to figure each other out, we cut through the noise so we can run faster.

3. Scale

The use of behavioral analytics for hiring is nothing new. With an infusion of cash, one of the first thing a company does in response to growth goals is to hire. People data can help companies scale quickly and with confidence. Max Yoder, CEO and Founder of Lessonly shares about Predictive Index, "Now, every time we hire, we use the assessments as another tool in our toolkit. The results will never decide whether a person gets hired or not, but they do provide guidance as to whom should be in sales, whom should be in client experience, whom should sit in a quiet space, and whom thrives on commotion."

Even with such impressive results, still there are two schools of thought when it comes to how much control private market firms want to have over the operations of their portfolio companies. General Catalyst, the PE firm that invested in Predictive Index, in particular, says they don't want to be the management team. Kirk Arnold, Executive In Residence, General Catalyst says "We're very founder supportive. We invest in entrepreneurs and innovators and work to support them. We share feedback and insights with those teams – and encourage them to The Predictive Index toolset to help them scale effectively. But we don't force any of our teams to invest in any particular tool or strategy. We believe great businesses are built by great teams, and we believe that PI can help companies excel in team building – but we look to the leadership team to make those investment decisions based on their needs and culture.

Prior to becoming a Predictive Index Consultant, I spent five years integrating acquisitions. I only had access to PI for the very last year. It was so powerful in building dream teams that I wished I had known about it sooner. Areas I used PI heavily was in post-deal value creation as well as scaling. In my current practice, I spend about 20 percent of my time performing due diligence for start-ups as well as working with them to round out their team from a data-driven perspective.

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This article was written by Wendy Fong, founder and principal of Chief Gigs, and originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

Talent optimization goes beyond human resources practices, management consulting, and productivity tooling to describe a model that empirically aligns strategy and people practices. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Finding your tech talent through analytics

Houston Voices

You know the work that needs to get done, and you know the environment that you want to build. How do you find the people who will build it with you? Historically, we relied on relationships, intuition, and track record when we evaluate potential team members. This is the same approach we use to find our mates, and well, the divorce rate speaks for itself.

Perhaps you know your potential partner from a previous job when you both worked for a public company, and they were a high performer. Even when we have worked with someone before and they had a great track record, things can go awry. Humans are messy beings. When factors that affect motivation (such as equity percentages, the potential for exit, working 80-plus hours a week) change, performance can be affected. The people who do really well as a cog in the wheel do not necessarily have the same drive to BUILD the wheel. So how do we pick the team members who will best suit the work and environment?

Did you know that 95 percent of people think they're self-aware, yet only 10 to 15 percent actually are (Tasha Eurich)? If people don't know themselves, how can you possibly know your potential partner's fit?

Behavioral assessments aren't new. If you've ever worked for a large company, you've likely taken one. What is different now is that The Predictive Index is harnessing the power of behavioral analytics to predict success and help us visualize teams in a whole new way. We can now look at people's work style in under 6 minutes and quickly give you data on how people will perform in their role and with your team to drive alignment in your organization.

As a founding board member and active investor in Valhalla Investment Group, we recently implemented the practice of using behavioral analytics in our due diligence. We then look at individual and team results to identify any gaps between strategy and the team's ability to execute the strategy. We specifically look at a team's appetite for risk, approach to change, and response to pressure.

The results for one startup we were evaluating came back with a potential red flag. Five of the six in the executive team were exploring leaders in the "Innovation and Agility" quadrant. These leaders are independent and comfortable with risk. We had one who was a very strong stabilizing leader in the "Process and Precision" quadrant. This person is very precise and cautious with risk. We immediately reached out to the CEO to schedule a Zoom to ask how the team works with what could be seen as an "outlier" and how they deal with the friction. The CEO understood the strengths and cautions of his team and explained that while this person is different, they are very much needed. They provide balance and contribute to areas that are blind spots for the rest of the team. The way the CEO handled the question showed us that he was self-aware enough to manage such differences and gave us the confidence to invest in this startup.

HOW IS THIS RELEVANT FOR YOUR STARTUP?

Founders

Wouldn't it be great to know potential partners' appetite for risk, how they deal with deadlines, their proactivity or reactivity to issues before you meet them? Or how they respond to pressure? Founding partners can be evaluated to ensure their behavioral drives align with the startup strategy.

For example, if the strategy is to fail fast to obtain product-market fit and grow market share quickly, founders would need to be innovative, risk-tolerant, comfortable with ambiguity, and they'd need to thrive under pressure. Conversely, if your startup serves a highly regulated environment, your founding team needs to be well-organized, careful with rules, and cautious with risk.

Team dynamics and inclusivity 

Without insight into team dynamics, results are left to chance. Behavioral analytics can provide insights that allow each person to easily understand how their new team members are wired. This can drastically reduce the time it takes to build cohesion among the group and make for more efficient and effective collaboration as project teams are regularly assembled and reassembled. Put simply, instead of using our energy to try to figure each other out, we cut through that noise so we can run faster.

Lastly, by creating a job profile and looking for candidates who fit the profile, we can cut out the biases that relationship-based recruiting can introduce to an organization.

"The alignment of business strategies and talent strategies is known as talent optimization."

Talent optimization goes beyond human resources practices, management consulting, and productivity tooling to describe a model that empirically aligns strategy and people practices. It weaves talent improvement practices into the everyday workings of a company to nurture and employ a workforce that is specifically calibrated to the company's strategic objectives. The sooner we utilize people data to look at our organization, the sooner we can spot potential blind spots. Leaders can then address the issues and focus on what's most important for their startup.

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This article was written by Wendy Fong, founder and principal of Chief Gigs, and originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston expert addresses the growing labor shortage within health care

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Long before COVID-19 became a part of our new normal, the concerns around shortages in health care staffing were present.

To put this in real terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the latest projection of employment through the end of this decade is an increase of nearly 12 million jobs. A fourth of those — 3.3 million to be exact — are expected to go towards health care and social assistance roles.

Before the pandemic, the concerns centered around managing a growing retired population and a slowing in higher education nurse enrollment. Then amid the growing shortage concerns surrounding the support for aging baby boomers, we were all thrusted into a pandemic.

The stressors on health care professional staffing have doubled down and what the increased shortage has shown us is the need to intervene and change the traditional hiring practices. Speed to place a nurse on assignment doesn’t just ensure productivity — it is a matter of life or death.

Over the past several years, the evolution of technology has drastically changed how health care facilities operate and interact with their employees as well as patients. There was a point in time where the structure in health care staffing was rigid without flexibility or varieties of employment type. Conversations around travel positions, per diem, and permanent are all now commonplace as the recent shortages caused us to normalize the discussion around role type and use of technology to influence speed to hire.

This whole evolution was put to test when April 2020 came, and the initial brunt of the pandemic was in full swing. The entire world was in panic mode. During these quarantine times, we were in a state of a health care emergency with thousands of patients seeking health care. Unfortunately, hospitals could not keep up with this demand with their existing nurse professionals, and became severely overloaded and dangerous. Due to this the United States saw unprecedented labor shortages, impacting a large number of nurses and health care workers as it pertains to both their physical and mental health.

What we are seeing now is a period classified as the “The Great Rethinking,” where nurses and health care workers alike are speaking up for what they believe in and deserve. Salary transparency and flexibility are just the tip of the iceberg for this movement.

SkillGigs is unique in that we are giving the power back to registered nurses and health care professionals, while meeting the demand created by the pandemic. Our team has been fortunate to be a catalyst to direct the change in the future of work, and we look forward to continuing to innovate.

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Bryan Groom is the division president of health care at Houston-based SkillGigs.

What Houston can expect from its rising innovation district

Houston innovators podcast episode 140

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.



Houston energy giant expands implementation of Canadian startup's tech

big, big energy

CruxOCM, a startup with a significant Houston presence that specializes in robotic industrial process automation for energy companies, has secured even more business from energy giant Phillips 66.

The value of the deal wasn’t disclosed.

Houston-based Phillips 66 has agreed to expand it use of CruxOCM’s pipeBOT technology to cover even more pipelines. The pipeBOT technology is designed to improve the safety and efficiency of control room operations for pipelines and reduce control room costs.

CruxOCM and Phillips 66 launched a test of pipeBOT in 2020.

CruxOCM, based in Calgary, Canada, says pipeBOT is engineered to decrease manual controls through intelligent automation. With this technology in place, the fatigue of control room operators declines, because as many as 85 percent fewer manual commands must be entered, according to CruxOCM. Therefore, control room operators can focus on higher-level tasks.

“At CruxOCM, we empower control room operators with modern software that enables the autonomous control rooms of tomorrow, within the safety constraints of today. We look forward to continuing to strengthen our relationship with Phillips 66 for many years to come,” Adam Marsden, chief revenue officer at CruxOCM, says in a news release.

Founded in 2017, Crux OCM (Crux Operations Control Management) established its Houston presence last year. Also in 2021, the startup raised $6 million in venture capital in a “seed extension” funding round. Bullpen Capital led the round, with participation from Angular Ventures, Root Ventures, Golden Ventures, Cendana Capital, and Industry Ventures.

In 2019, Angular Ventures and Root Ventures co-led a $2.6 million funding round.