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 named three new tenants — and they are bringing something tasty to the innovation district. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Ion Houston reveals 3 new restaurant tenants

Eye on the ion

The Ion revealed its first three restaurants tenants. When it opens this summer, Midtown's innovation-focused mixed-use development will be home to Late August, Common Bond, and STUFF'd Wings.

Currently under construction at the site of the former Sears at Main and Wheeler, The Ion serves as the anchor for an innovation district led by Rice Management Co. The 288,000-square-foot building will host a variety of uses, including co-working spaces, maker resources, classrooms, event spaces, and eateries.

First announced last week, Late August will be a new project from Lucille's Hospitality Group chef-owner Chris Williams and Dawn Burrell, the Olympian-turned-chef who earned a James Beard Award semifinalist nomination for her work at Kulture and will be competing on the new season of Top Chef. In homage to the building's history as a Sears department store, the restaurant's name references the time of year when Sears mailed its famous catalog.

Burrell's menu will "explore the soul of Afro-Asian flavors" with lunch, brunch, and dinner items. She will preview some of the dishes and ideas in a series of pop-ups named for her Pivot meal kit delivery service.

"Our goal with Late August is to honor the origins of the property, while also tapping into its future," Williams said in a statement. "Under chef Dawn's leadership, I'm confident that the food will not only match the ethos of its surroundings, but also bring a fresh take to Houston's immensely talented culinary scene."

Common Bond On-the-Go Ion will repurpose the cafe's new drive-thru format for the complex. Expect all of its signature croissants, cookies, and pastries, along with breakfast dishes, cold sandwiches, and salads. The cafe will offer both indoor and outdoor seating.

"We look forward to bonding over good food, extraordinary pastries, and great coffee with Houston's entrepreneurial community — as well as all Houstonians who visit and utilize The Ion's resources — within its state-of-the-art collaborative environment," says Common Bond CEO George Joseph.

Third Ward food truck STUFF'd is getting a brick-and-mortar space. Photo courtesy of The Ion

STUFF'd Wings will provide a brick-and-mortar home to the Third Ward-based food truck in a 2,400-square-space that's adjacent to The Ion. As its name implies, the restaurant's wings are stuffed with options that include three different kinds of boudin and mac and cheese. The restaurant will allow proprietors Prisoria and Jarrod Rector to expand their with smoked wings, milkshakes, and other new creations.

"The new restaurants coming to The Ion and District showcase Houston's deep culinary culture and local flare that Houstonians identify and connect with," adds Rice Management Company's Sam Dike.

The Ion previously named Texas coworking company Common Desk 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 and Transwestern to oversee property management for all of The Ion through its building, tenant, vendor, compliance, client, and administrative services.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston small biz tech platform launches entrepreneur-focused credit card

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When you're a small business owner, every service you sign up for or institution you open an account at should be a helpful partner on your business journey. At least, that's how Hello Alice sees it.

The Houston company has partnered up with Mastercard and First National Bank of Omaha to provide small business owners a suite of financial services with their line of credit. The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard will offer users expert business advice, business insights, cashback, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

“We designed the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard to meet the needs of small business owners where they are, breaking longstanding barriers to mentorship, access to credit, and overall financial health for those who have traditionally been denied access,” says Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, in a statement.

“In times of economic boom and bust, access to capital remains the leading challenge for all small business owners, and particularly for New Majority owners, which is why we continue to focus our efforts on expanding the capital continuum beyond our existing grants and loans programs,” the duo continued.

Offered as a traditional credit card, the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard provides users with credit-building opportunities. Business owners with a limited or poor credit history also have the opportunity to a secured version of the credit card that still provides full benefits from the program.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our communities, yet too often face significant obstacles in securing the resources they deserve, particularly if the owners come from underserved communities,” says Linda Kirkpatrick, president for North America at Mastercard, in the release. “The launch of the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard is an important step in our mission to build a more inclusive digital economy by providing small businesses with the financial tools and capital they need to thrive, while also advancing our half-billion-dollar commitment to help close the racial wealth and opportunity gap for Black communities.”

This initiative is the latest announcement from Hello Alice’s Equitable Access to Capital program, which is focused on increasing access to the capital — as well as financial products, tools, and education — small businesses need to grow sustainably and power the national economy. By 2025, according to Hello Alice, approximately $70 million in grants could fund credit enhancements for approximately 30,000 business owners, unlocking up to $1 billion in credit access.

“FNBO has been committed to helping small businesses succeed for 165 years, and we are proud to partner with Hello Alice and Mastercard in this vital initiative to elevate all small businesses,” says Jerry J. O’Flanagan, executive vice president of Partner Customer Segment at First National Bank of Omaha.


The new credit card will provide credit and financial advice, support, and education to small business owners. Image via helloalice.com

Houston Methodist to open health innovation center in the Ion

coming soon

The Houston Methodist healthcare system has teamed up with the Ion innovation hub to open a health care innovation center.

The 1,200-square-foot tech hub is expected to open later this year. It initially will be geared toward activities like entrepreneurial programming, networking, mentoring, and pitching.

The space will be modeled after Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation Technology Hub, which opened in 2020. In fact, the new hub will be a smaller “twin” of the existing hub, according to a news release.

Jan Odegard, executive director of the Ion, says the collaboration with Houston Methodist “will advance the Ion’s ability to support entrepreneurs and innovators that are already at the Ion as we embark on a new focus in health care innovation.”

Amid the rise of artificial intelligence and other tech advancements, along with the health care sector’s continuing drive to cut costs, one forecast indicates the value of the global market for digital health care will jump from $216.4 billion in 2022 to $441 billion by 2026. That would represent an increase of 104 percent.

Houston Methodist is the Ion’s first health care partner. The Ion already has partnerships in the aerospace and energy sectors.

“We are advancing the evolution of the hospital’s role in health care through digital transformation,” said Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist. “Having a footprint at the Ion will not only provide the Ion’s network and Houston community with a window into what we are doing for patients, consumers and providers, but also gives The Ion community and rising innovators an opportunity to bring its own ingenuity and ideas to life with ours.”

Houston Methodist operates eight hospitals in the Houston area.

The 266,000-square-foot Ion anchors a 16-acre innovation district in Midtown. Rice Management Co. developed the district on behalf of Rice University.

“By enhancing opportunities for our network of academics, businesses, entrepreneurs, and innovators to collaborate across the Ion District and globally, we’re creating a more resilient future economy for our region,” says Bryson Grover, investment manager of real estate at Rice Management.

The space will be modeled after Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation Technology Hub, which opened in 2020. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

4 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local startup founders across industries — from electric vehicles to app development— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jeff James, co-founder and CEO of PickleJar

Jeff James and his company, PickleJar, are streamlining and strengthening the connection between performer and audience. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

Jeff James had the idea for a platform that allows musicians to engage with their audiences — specifically when it came to receiving tips. Right when he started working on the idea for PickleJar, an app-based, performer-focused platform where fans can conduct cashless tips, the pandemic hit.

"As the pandemic lingered on, we realized the project wasn't just about tipping or on-stage engagement, it's about something greater than that," James says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's all the different ways how artists are being disenfranchised. We really set out on a mission to help artists make more money."

As distracting as the pandemic was at first to PickleJar, which officially launched in May of 2021, the company ended up having a huge opportunity to be a revenue stream for artists when they needed it most. The duo decided they had to build the company — even during the pandemic and uncertain times. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Madison Long and Simone May, co-founders of Clutch

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, has fresh funding after closing its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on.

"We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.” Click here to continue reading.

Tarun Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces

Houston-based Spark Spaces is looking to build out luxury spots for electric vehicle charging. Rendering courtesy of Spark Spaces

Tarun Girish wanted to upgrade EV drivers' charging experiences. His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base. Click here to learn more.