3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Sam Dike of Rice Management Company, Barbara Burger of Greentown Labs, and Joe Alapat of Liongard. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from clean energy to software — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Sam Dike, manager of strategic initiatives at Rice Management Company

Sam Dike of Rice Management Company joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the past, present, and future of Houston's rising Ion Innovation District. Photo via rice.edu

A few years ago, Rice Management Company 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," says Sam Dike, manager of strategic initiatives at Rice Management Company, on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "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." Click here to read more and stream the podcast.

Barbara Burger, board member at Greentown Labs

Barbara Burger, former president of Chevron Technology Ventures, has been named to the Greentown Labs board of directors. Photo courtesy of CTV

Greentown Labs announced that it has appointed Barbara J. Burger — former vice president of innovation and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, Chevron's startup investment arm — to its board of directors.

In her previous role at Chevron, she spearheaded the energy company's support of Greentown Labs since 2013 and the opening of its Houston incubator. After announcing her retirement in December, she has continued being active at Greentown and hosts semi-annual Women of Greentown Houston dinners.

“I am honored and excited to join the Greentown Labs Board of Directors,” says Burger in the release. “Combatting the effects of climate change requires bringing a wide range of innovative solutions to scale. There is work for incumbents and startups alike in this enormous challenge that WE all face. Greentown Labs plays an essential role in providing facilities, tools, programs, and an inclusive community to nurture and grow innovation that matters.” Click here to continue reading.

Joe Alapat, co-founder and CEO of Liongard

Houston IT company forms new partnership

Houston-based Liongard has fresh funding to work with. Courtesy of Liongard

Liongard, an IT software provider, has raised an additional $10 million in funding, according to a news release, will go toward providing the best customer service for Liongard's growing customer base.

The technology is providing managed service providers, or MSPs, improved visibility across the IT stack and an optimized user experience.

“Since working with our first MSP partners, we’ve seen time and again the power of visibility into IT data, reducing the time they spend researching customer issues and allowing them to respond faster than their peers,” says Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard, in the release. “This investment enables us to continue to achieve our vision of delivering visibility into each element of the IT stack.” Click here to continue reading.

Sam Dike of Rice Management Company joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the past, present, and future of Houston's rising Ion Innovation District. Photo via rice.edu

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.



The Ion has a new partner. Photo courtesy of The Ion

ExxonMobil named founding partner of Houston innovation hub

new collab

A Texas energy giant has joined The Ion as a founding partner, the innovation hub announced recently.

ExxonMobil, which announced its new Houston HQ move from Irving, Texas, earlier this year, celebrated the announcement at the Ion Activation Festival last month. The partnership is effective immediately, according to a June 13 news release.

“ExxonMobil has been a leader in energy technology for over a century. Collaboration is essential to both augment our capabilities and accelerate the development of scalable solutions,” says Linda DuCharme, president of ExxonMobil Technology and Engineering Company, in the release. “Our partnership with The Ion will enable us to tap into the extraordinary talent in Houston.”

ExxonMobil joins existing Ion founding partners Aramco, Chevron Technology Ventures, Baker Botts, and Microsoft, as well as affiliate partners bp and Intel. The company joins the Ion "to help develop solutions for the world’s emerging energy issues," per the release.

“To have one of the strongest brands in oil and gas globally join us is a testament to the Ion’s momentum and mission,” says Jan E. Odegard, executive director of the Ion. “We’re thrilled to welcome ExxonMobil’s thought leaders and this caliber of mindshare to the Ion family. As the Ion expands its programming and footprint, we are confident in the impact we’ll create together.”

The Ion is a 266,000-square-foot building developed and managed by Rice Management Company and anchors the 16-acre Innovation District in Midtown.

The Ion has joined the ranks of an international network of hotspots for innovation. Photo courtesy of The Ion

Houston's emerging innovation district gets global recognition from prestigious program

tech hotspot

The Ion Houston has a new feather to add to its cap. Rice Management Company's Midtown innovation hub has been recognized on a global scale.

The Global Network of Innovation Districts has added The Ion District to its network of innovation hubs, and the Ion is the first district in Texas to join. Affiliated with the Brookings Institute, the global organization consists of thought leaders and innovation district developers. With the addition of the Ion, there are 22 members in the Global Network, including the Pittsburgh Innovation District, Cortex Innovation Community in Missouri, Tech Central in Sydney, and Knowledge District Zuidas in Amsterdam.

“GIID’s Global Network is utilizing best practices of world-renowned innovation districts to accelerate regional economies. Their focus on placemaking, startup services, and community engagement are some of the critical components that lead to successful districts,” says Bryson Grover, investment manager of real estate development at Rice Management Company, in a news release. “With GIID, we will continue to think creatively about how the built environment and specialized programming can inform future development and allow equitable access to an ever-changing workforce.”

The Ion, a 266,000-square-foot space in the renovated Midtown Sears building, is the anchor of the district, which also includes Greentown Labs. According to the release, the next building is under construction, with three more projects to begin in the next year. Overall, the build-out of the Ion District will deliver three million square feet of development across 16 acres over the next decade.

“The Ion and the Ion District represent a major commitment and investment in the success of Houston as a center of innovation and a foundation of Houston’s economic future. From the very beginning of our planning, we visited innovation hubs and districts around the country and around the world to make sure that we drew on their experiences and best practices,” says Rice President David Leebron in the release. “And by participating in the Global Network now, the Ion District will contribute to and benefit from a global exchange of knowledge among the very best innovation districts, which complements Rice’s broader international engagements and strategies.”

GIID is a nonprofit dedicated to research on and connecting innovation districts in new geographies of innovation, per the release. Headquartered in New York, the organization was founded in 2018 to help position innovation districts as engines of economic development and spur productive, inclusive, and sustainable environments.

“We’re thrilled for The Ion and Ion District to join our network, especially as it commences its next steps on development later this year,” says Julia Wagner, president of GIID, in the release. “Our team has extensive experience working with unique real estate ventures that aim to transform how communities learn, work, and live. We look forward to playing a part in Houston’s transformation, and as we have documented in innovation districts around the world, having a leader like Rice drive the creation of the district is a key ingredient of its continued and growing success.”

Aramco Americas has been named a founding partner at The Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Energy company joins Ion Houston as founding partner

new collaboration

A leading energy company has announced a new partnership with an innovation hub in the heart of Houston.

Aramco Americas, the U.S. subsidiary of Aramco, has joined as a founding partner of The Ion. Through the partnership, the two organizations will create educational programming, events, workforce development opportunities, energy transition leadership, and more. The partnership will take place over the next three years.

“The addition of Aramco as a founding partner of The Ion is another step forward in the realization of our vision of The Ion as a globally connected innovation hub that brings new possibilities to the people of Houston,” says Rice University President David Leebron in a news release. “We know the aspiring innovators and entrepreneurs of Houston will benefit from Aramco’s engagement, for which we are grateful.”

Aramco has named Jim Sledzik, managing director of Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures North America, to The Ion Leadership Advisory Roundtable to lead the partnership and help shape programming and offer insights on strategic direction. Aramco will also participate in The Ion Prototyping Lab, which opened earlier this year, and The Ion Investor Studio.

“Aramco’s commitment to innovation is reflected throughout our business operations,” says Nabeel I. AlAfaleg, president and CEO of Aramco Americas, in the release. “Partnerships like The Ion accelerate innovation, champion new ideas, and build a culture to address global energy challenges.”

Aramco joins the Ion’s other founding partners: Baker Botts, Microsoft, and Chevron Technology Ventures.

“I am excited to welcome Aramco as a Founding Partner to expand Houston’s technology and innovation ecosystem,” says Jan E. Odegard, executive director of The Ion, in the release. “Aramco’s involvement not only enables us to continue expanding our support toward inclusive and sustainable economic growth, but expand our reach globally, amplifying Houston as a high-growth technology ecosystem for energy, health, manufacturing, space, and transportation.”

The Ion is a 266,000-square-foot building developed and managed by Rice Management Company and anchors the 16-acre Innovation District in Midtown.

Planning to open in the coming months, The Ion Houston has made great progress on its construction. Scroll down to view the slideshow. Photo by Natalie Harms

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

eye on the ion

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

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

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

Exterior nears completion

Photo by Natalie Harms

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

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

where to be

Houston's busy business event season is in full swing, and there are ton of local innovation and entrepreneurship-focused programming across the city. Here's a rundown of what all to throw on your calendar for October when it comes to innovation-related events.

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

October 4 — Softeq Venture Studio Happy Hour

The Softeq Venture Studio is excited for you to meet the newest startups accepted into its 2H 2022 Cohort. Meet the teams and learn more about how they secured $125K in funding.

You'll have the chance to meet the startup founders, learn about the problems being solved, and learn more about how the Softeq Venture Studio de-risks growing startups.

The event is Tuesday, October 4, at 5 pm, at Yardhouse (City Centre). Click here to register.

October 5 — State of the Airports

Houston Airports is one of North America's largest and busiest multi-airport systems in the world and plays an important role in the greater Houston region's position as a great global city.

State of the Airports features Houston Airports Director, Mario Diaz, who will share the latest information and growth plans for Houston's three airports. Diaz will also address the important role the Houston Airports plays in bolstering Houston's position as an international air gateway.

The event is Wednesday, October 5, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, at the Marriott Marquis. Click here to register.

October 11 — State of Space

Earlier this month, Space City celebrated the 60th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation delivered at Rice Stadium, "We choose to go to the moon." Many decades ago, these words showed the world that Houston holds a place as the epicenter for the world's biggest space endeavors and while space exploration has changed tremendously since those famous words, Houston's reputation in aviation and aerospace only grows stronger.

Join the Greater Houston Partnership for State of Space on Tuesday, October 11, to hear from some of the sharpest minds in aerospace and aviation technology who continue to chart a vibrant future for Houston centered around NASA's Johnson Space Center and one of the world’s only truly urban commercial spaceports.

Speakers include:

  • Featured speaker and panelist: Vanessa Wyche, Director, NASA’s Johnson Space Center
  • Stephen Altemus, President & CEO, Intuitive Machines
  • Peggy Guirges, General Manager of Space Systems, Collins Aerospace
  • Panel Moderator: Arturo Machuca, Director, Houston Spaceport and Ellington Airport

The event is Tuesday, October 11, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm, at Impact Hub Houston (1801 Main street 10th Floor). Click here to register.

October 12 —  Making an Impact in the Houston Tech Ecosystem

You may have heard that Jay Steinfeld was the founder and CEO of Global Custom Commerce, which operates the world’s top online window coverings retailer Blinds.com. Boot-strapped in 1996 for just $3,000 from his Bellaire garage, Global Custom Commerce was acquired by The Home Depot in 2014. Jay remained its CEO and later joined The Home Depot Online Leadership Team. After stepping away from these roles in early 2020, he has increased his involvement on numerous private company boards and serves as a director of the public company Masonite (NYSE: DOOR). He also teaches entrepreneurship at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and supports numerous charities. Jay is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year and has earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Houston Technology Center. Active as an industry speaker on corporate culture, core values, how to scale a start-up, and disruption, he has more than 100 published articles.

But did you know that many of Jay’s former employees have started businesses of their own, formed angel investment funds, developed and led some of Houston’s best technology teams, and grown into pillars of the HouTech community?

Come hear what’s sure to be an intriguing panel discussion with Jay and several ex-Blinds.com’ers as they discuss company culture, core values, lessons learned, and thoughts on the HouTech ecosystem and take questions from the audience.

The event is Wednesday, October 12, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 13 — October Transitions on Tap

Transition On Tap is Greentown Labs' monthly networking event devoted to fostering conversations and connections among the climate and energy transition ecosystem in Houston and beyond. Entrepreneurs, investors, students, and friends of climatetech are invited to attend, meet colleagues, discuss solutions, and engage with our growing community. If you’re looking for a job in climatetech or energy, trying to expand your network, or perhaps thinking about starting your own energy-related company, this is the event for you.

The event is Thursday, October 13, 5 to 7 pm, at Greentown Houston. Click here to register.

October 14 — Tech, Tools and Tips: Digital Training Day at Impact Hub Houston

Struggling with a process in your business? There's probably a tech tool for that. Impact Hub Houston invites YOU to attend an extended edition of its Tech, Tools, and Tips Series hosted in partnership with Frost Bank.

The goal for this session is to provide small business owners with an overview of various digital tools that can help your day to day operations. By attending this event, you will learn about various digital tools and also have an opportunity to network with other small business owners.

The event is Friday, October 14, 8:30 am to 12:30 pm, at the Omni Riverway. Click here to register.

October 14-16 — Incubate Galveston + the Ion Hackathon 2022

A hackathon is a social design sprint that brings together the community to work in teams creating innovative solutions. Basically, it’s a party, and a 48-hour race between teams competing to develop solutions to problem-sets for cash prizes. Participants will work in small teams that have a collection of experts, entrepreneurs, students, and community members to tackle the below identified challenges:

  • Increase food access in urban core neighborhoods
  • Create opportunities for green initiatives, including environmental education, coastal resilience, and conservation
  • Propose home refurbishment programs and housing
  • Develop capacity for education and workforce skills development
  • Solve the plastic pollution issue in Galveston: Plastic trash in the water supply, on the beaches, and in the waterways of Galveston and surround areas affects the community in many ways (e.g., beaches look dirty, the plastic has chemicals harmful to health, and microplastics get into the environment and remain there for long periods of time. How can we solve this problem, removing and reducing waste and its downstream impacts, and make our community safer and cleaner? The plastic pollution problem can be address in the way of innovative preventive steps, innovation treatments, and public education, etc.
  • Offer creative solutions to other challenges

The event is Friday, October 14, to Sunday, October 16, at the Marmo Plaza. Click here to register.

October 19 — How to Build an App without Code, Part 1: Info Session (In-Person & Online)

Join Heather Wilson, a UX Researcher, Service Designer and Google Design Sprint Facilitator, as she teaches you how to build an app without code!

Benefits of building an app without code:

  • building a custom app could take months to a year to develop
  • coding could present problems when your mobile strategy is pivoting
  • allows for customization and the ability to make changes as needed
  • high costs can be associated with building am app
The event is Wednesday, October 19, at 6 pm, online. Click here to register.

October 20 — 2022-2023 UH Energy Symposium Series

Rising electricity prices, increasing concerns about grid reliability, and achieving carbon-free electricity in the U.S. by 2035 have refocused attention on the role of nuclear in the energy transition. This comes after a decade of low investments, accumulating nuclear waste, an aging fleet of reactors, public opposition, and regulatory mandates that stalled nuclear’s growth and led to declines in production. Meanwhile, the nuclear industry has maintained its safety record, made remarkable progress in fusion and advanced nuclear reactors, and improved operating safety and efficiency.

The first topic of the 2022-2023 Energy Symposium Series, The Future of Nuclear in the Energy Transition, will address if and how headways in advanced nuclear reactors, fusion, and waste management can overcome the challenges of economic feasibility, efficient and safe waste disposal, and build public and regulatory support for the increased deployment of nuclear energy in the U.S. We are excited to bring our panel discussion of Critical Issues in Energy back on campus this year.

The event is Thursday, October 20, at 6 pm, at Hilton University of Houston - Conrad N. Hilton Ballroom . Click here to register.

October 26-27 — Fuze

Fuze is bringing together the builders and innovators in energy tech. Shutting down 5 blocks in downtown Houston for two days and covering three content tracks, the event is focused on discovering breakthroughs in energy technology.

The event is Wednesday, October 26, to Thursday, October 27, at 8th Wonder Brewery. Click here to register.

October 27 — Aerospace Investment & Engagement

Join the Houston Angel Network as they discuss the current and future state of aerospace innovation and investment, followed by pitches.

The event is Thursday, October 27, at 8 am to 1 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

October 27 — Space-Related Technology Development and the Houston Innovation Community

In these presentations, Mr. Montgomery Goforth and other aerospace subject matter experts will discuss the technology development challenges faced by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the surrounding Aerospace community in our ongoing efforts as the hub of human spaceflight. Presentations will focus on the ways in which these challenges, and the associated opportunities, can be leveraged by Houston’s innovation community.

The event is Thursday, October 27, at 4 pm at the Ion. Click here to register.

Houston company names lifetime achievement, finalists for annual energy industry awards

they've got grit

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and three energy executives have been named first-time winners of lifetime achievement awards as part of ALLY Energy’s sixth annual GRIT Awards and Best Energy Workplaces program.

ALLY Energy says the honorees have demonstrated “a distinguished career championing change in energy and climate in the private or public sector in the areas of technology, policy, and workforce.”

As mayor of Houston, Turner has led efforts to use renewable energy throughout the city.

The other winners of lifetime achievement awards are:

  • Elizabeth Gerbel, founder and CEO of Houston-based EAG Services and EAG 1Source, which provide consulting services for the energy industry.
  • Lorenzo Simonelli, CEO of Houston-based oilfield services company Baker Hughes.
  • Kevin Sagara, executive vice president and group president of San Diego-based utility company Sempra. He is chairman of Sempra-owned San Diego Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Gas Co.

The lifetime achievement honorees will be recognized October 26 during an event at The Bell Tower in Houston. So will the winners in the GRIT Awards and Best Energy Workplaces program. The keynote speaker will be U.S. Department of Energy official Shalanda Baker.

“This year’s GRIT Awards and Best Energy Workplaces finalists are a diverse cohort of game-changing entrepreneurs, gritty leaders, collaborative teams, and companies committed to combating climate change. The energy workforce is doing great things to transform our energy ecosystem, and we’re excited to spotlight exceptional talent and culture,” says Katie Mehnert, founder and CEO of Houston-based ALLY Energy, which provides a workforce development platform for the energy industry.

Among the dozens of award finalists are energy-related organizations or their representatives. These organizations include Baker Hughes, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, Marathon Oil, Rice University, Saudi Aramco, Shell, the University of Houston, Syzygy Plasmonics, and Wood Mackenzie.

A complete list of the finalists is available on the ALLY Energy website.