Microsoft has announced it will be leasing space in The Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Microsoft and Rice Management Company — the owner and management of The Ion, a rising innovation hub in Houston — announced that the tech company will be leasing space on the 288,000 square-foot building's fifth floor.

"Over the last several years, Microsoft has made it clear it is committed to Houston," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press release. "With the work Microsoft is already doing with the City and The Ion to support entrepreneurs, workforce development and energy transition, it is only fitting its new home should be in our City's hub for innovation. This news is an exciting next step in our partnership with Microsoft as we continue to grow Houston's innovation ecosystem and become a leader in the global energy transition."

Microsoft has an existing partnership with The Ion and is a founding sponsor of its Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator. Earlier this year, the technology leader has also committed $1 million to skills programming.

"The Ion is fast becoming a hub for Houston's startup community and driving forward innovation in energy transition technologies," says Ravi Krishnaswamy, corporate vice president of Azure Global Industry at Microsoft, in the release. "My team and I are excited to get to work there, supporting Microsoft's vision of powering a sustainable future and accelerating energy transition with the expertise of partners, customers, and industry."

According to the press release, Microsoft will also be a programming partner for The Ion and will host advancement opportunities and events, including a monthly executive forum and virtual symposiums, and support future accelerators for advanced manufacturing, digital skilling, and smart and resilient city innovation.

"The Ion and Microsoft will provide the necessary tools and knowledge needed to become more resilient, strengthen our workforce and create new innovations to accelerate the energy transition," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director, in the release. "We were delighted this summer when we announced Microsoft's sponsorship of The Ion programming and are now even more ecstatic to welcome a division of Microsoft to its new home. My team and I look forward to showcasing our great programs that are enabled by corporate sponsors like Microsoft to the entrepreneurs, academics, corporations and community in Houston and around the world."

Microsoft's partnership with The Ion, which is set to open in just a few months, is due in part to the city's collaboration with Microsoft.

"Having Microsoft as a major tenant is a huge step forward in realizing the vision for The Ion as a dynamic hub bringing together key elements of innovation in Houston," Rice President David Leebron says in the release. "We are very grateful to Microsoft and Mayor Turner for advancing this vision."

A coworking company and a real estate firm have been tapped by The Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Rising Houston innovation hub announces real estate partners

eye on the ion

Last week, Rice Management Co. announced the latest partners for The Ion. A Houston-based real estate management firm and a Dallas-based coworking company have signed onto the project.

Texas coworking company Common Desk, which recently opened a new space in Houston's east downtown, was tapped to develop and manage The Ion's more than 58,000 square feet of experiential, flexible office space on the second floor of the building.

"For a project as special as The Ion, it was important that we selected a flexible office space operator that understood the building's ethos as a space for collaboration and innovation," says Ryan LeVasseur, managing director of Direct Real Estate at RMC, in a news release. "From the moment we met with the Common Desk team, it was clear they represented the right balance of sophistication and excitement and shared a commitment to creating a sense of community."

Additionally, Common Desk will be responsible for a coffee bar and maintaining a vibrant and engaging space for tenants, startups, and community members.

"We're thrilled to be a part of this prestigious project and are looking forward to offering individuals, small businesses, and high-growth companies the chance to experience the unique programming and innovative spirit of the building," says Dawson Williams, head of real estate at Common Desk, in the release. "We're excited to be a strategic gateway to helping Houstonians experience all The Ion has to offer."

RMC tapped Transwestern to oversee property management for all of The Ion through its building, tenant, vendor, compliance, client, and administrative services.

"Very few companies have Transwestern's breadth of experience and proven success of managing high-quality, talent-attracting workplaces," LeVasseur says in the release. "Add to that the company's deep roots in Houston, and we're confident we're working with the best team to ensure a flawless, attractive, activated, and efficiently operated hub for the growth of Houston's innovation ecosystem."

Based in Houston, Transwestern has over 400 properties locally across office, multifamily, health care, and other industries.

"Transwestern is excited to work alongside Rice Management Corporation as property and facilities manager for The Ion, while contributing to its mission of innovation, collaboration and inclusion," says Kevin Roberts, Southwest President at Transwestern, in the release. "As Transwestern continues to elevate our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, we are proud to stand alongside The Ion in supporting minority and women-owned businesses in enabling innovation that will shape the future of Houston."

Chevron has signed on to have space in The Ion. The company will also be a program partner. Photo courtesy of The Ion

Rising innovation hub announces Chevron as first tenant and program partner

eye on the ion

Chevron is the first tenant to sign a lease at The Ion, an innovation hub rising in Midtown Houston's former Sears building.

The Ion, a Rice Management Co. project expecting to premiere at 4201 Main St. in spring 2021, announced the new tenant and program partnership this week.

"Our first tenant at The Ion is one of the most recognizable brands in the world," says Ryan LeVasseur, managing director of Real Estate at Rice Management Co., in a news release. "We're thrilled to welcome Chevron into the Innovation District. They'll be the first of many companies, local startups, and business owners who make a home at and around The Ion as we continue to develop this groundbreaking, mixed-use space."

Chevron's Houston-based corporate investing arm, Chevron Technology Ventures, will be leading the space. The location can also be used by employees for networking, professional development and other opportunities within the innovation ecosystem.

"We are thrilled to support The Ion as a key component of Houston's growing innovation ecosystem," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in the release. "We have a long history in Houston with its role as the global energy capital. We believe The Ion will help to ensure that Houston retains that distinction and plays a leading role in the energy transition through innovation."

Founded in 1999, CTV has been an integral part of the Houston innovation ecosystem with its investment efforts and Catalyst Program. Recently, the group added two new startups to the accelerator.

CTV and Chevron in general have an existing relationship with The Ion and its team team, and Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director of The Ion, says he's excited for the relationship continue.

"By becoming our first tenant and a founding program partner, Chevron has shown it is committed to ensuring The Ion is Houston's premier destination for innovators, entrepreneurs, and academics to collaborate on workforce development, build tech-enabled businesses, and support the community," says Odegard in the release. "We're grateful to welcome such an esteemed organization to our space with which we share the same mission and values."

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

Houston innovation hub names interim leader

eye on 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."

Gabriella Rowe has stepped down from her role as executive director of The Ion. Courtesy of Station Houston

Houston innovation hub leader shares details on recent resignation

on to the next

A Houston tech ecosystem leader has announced her resignation from her position in order to seek out a new role.

Gabriella Rowe, who served The Ion as executive director until earlier this week, has confirmed she has resigned from her position. The Ion is Rice Management Company's innovation center rising in Midtown, and Rowe was named executive director in October of last year. She was previously the CEO of Station Houston since August 2018, which was later merged with Austin-based Capital Factory.

Rowe, who was selected for Mayor Sylvester Turner's new Health Equity Response task force that was established to help the city respond to COVID-19, says she hasn't yet announced what her next move is, but she tells InnovationMap 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."

While Rowe will have no official role at The Ion moving forward, she imagines her to-be-announced opportunity will work hand-in-hand with the mission of The Ion, which is expected to deliver next year.

"The Ion is going to be an incredibly successful project that is going to have all the positive effect on the long term future of Houston that it is designed to do. I feel confident that it's set up to do that and has the people in place to carry it forward," she says.

Rowe says her foray into Houston's tech ecosystem began when she was head of school of The Village School in West Houston. Now, her driving factor is creating a city where those students could grow their tech education and skills and have plenty of care opportunities in Houston.

"From the very start, this has been for me about building a tech ecosystem in Houston that can support the development of the tech economy that would give our Houston talent an opportunity to stay here in this city and partake in this global opportunity," she says.

Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion Houston names 3 new execs to its team

new hires

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion."

To focus on the Ion's Academic Partner Network, Jan E. Odegard has been appointed senior director of industry and academic partners. Odegard's background includes research and leadership at Rice University in computing. Odegard will also oversee The Ion's labs, which include human/robotics interaction lab, an immersive reality lab and an industrial prototyping lab.

Deanea LeFlore has been named senior director of community and corporate engagement. Like Rowe, LeFlore had a similar role at Station Houston before this new position. Before that, she spent most of her career working for the city of Houston and served under four Mayors over 17 years.

Lastly, Chris Valka, has been hired as senior director of operations, overseeing finance, accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management. Prior to this position, Valka served in the president's cabinet overseeing a similar spectrum of responsibilities at the University of St. Thomas.

"As we prepare for The Ion's opening in early 2021, we are excited to welcome Deanea LeFlore, Dr. Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka, to our growing team," says Rowe in the release. "I am excited to see what this diverse group of experts will bring to our efforts to build an inclusive innovation hub in a tech-forward environment that promotes all that is great about Houston."

The 270,000-square-foot Ion building broke ground in July of last year and is slated to open in 2021. Recently, the organization announced its first programming partner — Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, and select courses have already begun.

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Houston startup founded by former NASA architect moves into new space amid booming business

go outside

In 2014 Garrett Finney, a former senior architect at the Habitability Design Center at NASA, brought his expertise in what he describes as "advocating for human presence living in a machine" to the outdoors market.

After being less-than enchanted by the current RV and camper offerings, the Houstonian developed a new series of adventure vehicles that could safely and effectively get its users off-grid — even if still Earth-bound — under the company he dubbed TAXA Outdoors.

The vehicles would follow much of the same standards that Finney worked under at NASA, in which every scenario and square inch would be closely considered in the smartly designed spaces. And rather that designing the habitats for style alone, function and storage space for essential gear took precedence. According to Finney, the habitat was to be considered a form of useful adventure equipment in its own right.

"Ceilings should be useful. They're not just for putting lights on," he says. "Even when there's gravity that's true."

Today TAXA offers four models of what they call "mobile human habitats" that can be towed behind a vehicle and sleep three to four adults, ranging from about $11,000 to $50,000 in price.

TAXA's mobile human habitats range in size and price. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

And amid the pandemic — where people were looking for a safe way to escape their homes and get outside — the TAXA habitats were flying off the shelves, attracting buyers in Texas, but mainly those in Colorado, California, and other nature-filled areas.

"January, was looking really good — like the break out year. And then the pandemic was a huge red flag all around the world," Finney says. "[But] we and all our potential customers realized that going camping was the bet. They were with their family, they were getting outside, they were achieving sanity having fun and creating memories."

According to TAXA President Divya Brown, the company produced a record 430 habitats in 2020. But it still wasn't enough to match the number of orders coming in.

"We had we had almost a year and a half worth of backlog at the old facility, which we've never experienced before," Brown says.

To keep up with demand, the company moved into a 70,000-square-foot space off of U.S. 290 that now allows multiple operations lines, as well as a showroom for their vehicles and enough room for their staff, which tripled in size from 25 to 75 employees since the onset of the pandemic.

The first priority at the new facility is to make up the backlog they took on in 2020. Next they hope to produce more than 1,000 habitats by the end of 2021 and 3,000 in the coming years.

"It's a pretty significant jump for us," Brown says. "We really believe there's a huge market for this."

With the new facility, the TAXA team hopes to catch up with the explosive sales growth. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

This is how much credit card debt the average Houstonian carries, says report

MONETARY MISFORTUNE

Residents of Houston are nursing New Year's hangovers of another kind — credit card debt.

According to a LendingTree study of the 50 largest U.S. metro areas, Houston consumers rank fourth for the highest median amount of credit card debt to ring in the new year: $3,720. In second place is Austin ($3,911), with Dallas at No. 7 ($3,560). San Antonio holds down the No. 14 spot ($3,414).

Hartford, Connecticut, claims the dubious distinction of ranking first in this category, with median credit card debt of $3,994.

Matt Schulz, LendingTree's chief credit analyst, says people with good credit and high income typically are more inclined to carry bigger credit card balances, since they usually have access to higher credit limits. But he notes that a significant number of younger consumers carry a high amount of credit card debt.

"When you're young and don't have a lot of financial experience, that scary combination can lead to more debt, especially for those living in big, expensive cities," according to LendingTree.

By another yardstick, Texas' four major metros fare much better in the LendingTree study.

Houston ranks 38th for the share of credit card users with debt (81.1 percent). Austin ranks No. 21 (84.7 percent), followed by Dallas at No. 37 (81.2 percent), and San Antonio at No. 48 (75.7 percent).

LendingTree researchers used an anonymized sample of more than 40,000 My LendingTree users from the first 15 days of December 2020 to estimate the percentage of credit card users carrying debt into 2021. They also relied on that data to compile median credit card debts.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators who have tons to share — from recent venture capital data and observations to public relations and marketing tips for startups.

Kathryn Worsham Humphries, co-founder of All You Need

What does your company plan on bringing into the new year — and how do you plan to communicate your efforts? Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

It's a new year — and it's time for a new marketing and public relations plan for your startup. Thankfully, that's exactly what Houstonian Kathryn Worsham Humphries and her New York-based business partner Carla M. Nikitaidis specialize in with their new company, All You Need. The duo penned a guest column for InnovationMap last week with tips for refocusing on your target audience and prioritizing authenticity.

"Remember, these challenging times will pass," they write. "There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future." Read more.

Heath Butler, network partner at Mercury Fund

Mercury Fund's Heath Butler joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss Houston, venture capital, and more. Photo via mercuryfund.com

After 14 years at human resources company Insperity, Heath Butler has a specialty when it comes to thinking about the future of work. Butler was recently promoted within Mercury and the the move represents another aspect the firm is focusing on — something Butler discusses on last week's Houston Innovators Podcast episode.

"The world continues to be shaped by how the workforce and the workplace — and the actual work gets — done, and that couldn't have been put to the forefront more than during COVID," Butler says. "The promotion really reflects my focus on building out a very broad and deep theme for the firm around the future of work." Read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential

HX has released a report on Houston venture capital. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany and her team at Houston Exponential have crunched the numbers again to look at what sort of venture capital deals Houston startups brought in last year.

According to her report based on Pitch Book data, the Bayou City dredged up $715 million across 117 VC deals in 2020 — a year marked by challenges and opportunities from the pandemic and the oil price drop.

In the report, Lalany found that 2020 VC trends in Houston included fewer, larger deals and a rise in angel investment. Read more.