The Ion has implemented a new program that will spark workforce development in Houston. Photo courtesy of the Ion

Houston's The Ion announced this week that it will partner with New York-based Per Scholas as its new workforce development partner.

The partnership is part of the Ion District's Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that was approved by Houston City Council in late 2021. The $15.3 million agreement aimed to ensure that the 12-block innovation hub developed by Rice University, which is home to the Ion, would benefit all Houstonians, expanding tech jobs while also committing to preserving affordable housing and creating opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses.

Per Scholas was founded in 1995 and works to advance economic mobility for individuals through its tuition-free training programs, which focus on in-demand tech skills. According to the company, more than 80 percent of those who complete Per Scholas training programs find full-time employment within a year of graduating, and about 85 percent of Per Scholas graduates are people of color.

“Per Scholas is thrilled to join the Ion District and offer our tuition-free tech skills training in Houston,” Plinio Ayala, president and CEO of Per Scholas, said in a statement. “There is such synergy in our approach to innovation and equity. I’m confident that together, we’ll increase opportunity and unlock potential for both individuals and companies that call Houston home."

Per Scholas currently has a campus in downtown Dallas and virtual operations in Houston. It operates out of 20 locations in the U.S.

In addition to announcing the new partnership, the Ion District also released an update on its CBA one year after its launch.

“We’re committed to making Ion District and Ion a catalyst for opportunity, not just for the tech community but city-wide,” Sam Dike, who oversees the CBA’s implementation, said in a statement. “We are proud of the progress thus far. It’s a testament to the community stakeholders who came together to recommend the greatest areas of impact and need. However, this is just the beginning.”

According to the announcement, Ion District is now home to more than 300 businesses. In the next year, the district aims to continue to implement the inclusive hiring, community building, housing affordability and other practices outlined in the CBA.

The organization outlined a few accomplishments in the statement, including:

  • Escrowing $5 million at Unity National Bank, the only certified Minority Depository Institution (MDI) in Texas
  • Contracting opportunities for Ion District Garage, worth $16.9 million, to 19 minority- and women-owned businesses
  • Investing in women and minority tech accelerator and innovation programs, including three DivInc accelerator cohorts
  • Commencing first year of funding for selected housing counseling providers which were: Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, Houston Area Urban League and Tejano Center for Community Concerns, to serve the Third Ward, Kashmere Gardens, and Magnolia Park neighborhoods
  • Opening multiple local restaurants at the Ion and in the Ion District that are owned and operated by minority and women chefs and operators
  • Selecting a consulting firm to recommend strategic pathways to achieve MWBE objectives
  • Conducting 10 public outreach events with over 500 minority- and women-owned firms attending
  • Hosting over 130 community-focused events, including Activation Festival, BlackStreet, and additional monthly programming and events accessible to the community

Earlier this month The Ion announced 10 new tenants that were either relocating or expanding their presence in Houston, bringing the total space leased to 86 percent, according to a news release.

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

3 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 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 family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.