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

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.

Houston-based Mainline has announced new partnerships with a few universities. Jamie McInall/Pexels

Houston esports company taps nearby universities for partnerships

Game on

A Houston esports platform has announced that four universities — including one in town — have made moves to optimize the company's technology.

Texas A&M University, the University of Texas - Austin, Louisiana State University, and Houston's own University of St. Thomas have made a deal with Mainline. The company, which just closed a $9.8 million series A round, is a software and management platform for esports tournaments.

The four schools will use the software to host and grow their on-campus esports communities, according to a news release.

"These are top universities seeing the value of esports on-campus and making a choice to support their students' desires to play and compete — much like in traditional sports," says Chris Buckner, CEO at Mainline, in the release. "Adoption of Mainline is validation of the opportunity to engage students and the broader community with a compelling esports platform, as well as strengthen a school's brand, provide additional partnership opportunities and market their initiatives"

While UST has is still in the process of utilizing Mainline for its esports platform to grow its program and will use the software for its first tournament in 2020, A&M first used Mainline's software this past spring, but has doubled down on its commitment to esports.

"Texas A&M recognizes the significant esports presence on campus and the importance of supporting this thriving student community. Mainline allows us to maintain the brand continuity of the university, and to drive incremental inventory and value for sponsors," says Mike Wright, director of public relations and strategic communications at Texas A&M Athletics, in the release.

The platform provides its clients with an easy way to manage, monetize, and market their tournaments.

At UT, the school's administration, along with its Longhorn Gaming Club, is currently running two tournaments on Mainline: Rocket League and League of Legends.

"Texas has had a long established esports community on campus, and our partnership with Mainline will enable us to more closely work with Longhorn Gaming to better support this audience to benefit our students and partners," says Mike Buttersworth, director of the Center for Sports Communication and Media at UT, in the release.

Meanwhile at LSU, the university is running an esports Rocket League qualifying tournament on the Houston company's platform to select a three-student team to represent the school at the inaugural "Power Five Esports Invitational" in New York in January, according to the release.

"This kind of tournament is a first for our campus, and Mainline is making it easy for us to be able to host this qualifying tournament for our students to ultimately represent our university at the Power Five Esports invitational," says Robert Munson, senior associate athletics director at LSU.

As for Mainline, these four schools are just the beginning for universities using the platform.

"Mainline is continuing this collegiate momentum with another 10 powerhouse universities expected to come aboard our platform by the end of 2019, and 50 more by the spring 2020," says Buckner.

Rice University is one of the best colleges in the U.S. for your money. Photo courtesy of Rice University

3 Houston schools highlighted on new ranking of best colleges

Report card

College tuition is a concern for many Americans, but here in Houston, there are options that make it a little easier on the wallet. Money magazine recently unveiled its Best Colleges for Your Money for 2019-20, and three local universities made the cut.

Money's annual report is an analysis of the country's institutions of higher education, "ranging from elite colleges and public universities to smaller specialized colleges."

In order to determine the best colleges, Money compared each school based on three points, all weighted equally to find the final score:

  • Quality of education: Graduation rates, student-to-faculty ratio, Pell Grant recipients, etc.
  • Affordability: Net costs, time it takes to earn a degree, amount of money borrowed, and student-loan default and repayment rates after graduation.
  • Outcomes: Post-graduation salaries, socioeconomic background of the student body, and mix of majors.

Houston schools
Topping the local list is Rice University at No. 24 out of 744 schools. On average, tuition at Rice will cost $66,000 for the 2019-20 school year, but students will only pay an average of $25,800 after grants.

The school also has an outstanding ratio of debt ($11,200) to early career earnings ($69,200).

In the 236th spot is the University of Houston. UH's tuition is estimated to be $26,100 for the upcoming year, but students pay an average of $16,700 after financial aid.

UH's students have a reasonable ratio of debt to early career earnings: $19,250 to $55,000, respectively.

University of St. Thomas was the only other local school to appear on the list. At No. 431, St. Thomas has an estimated tuition of $48,600 for the upcoming year, but students pay an average of $20,500, thanks to grants.

The school's ratio of debt to early career earnings is similar to UH's: $22,500 to $49,500, respectively.

Texas and beyond
Texas A&M ranked best in Texas at No. 18. On average, tuition will cost $29,700 for the 2019-20 school year, but Aggies will only pay an average of $20,900 after grants.

The College Station school also had a solid ratio of debt ($18,520) to early career earnings ($59,000).

In total, Texas has 21 institutions on the list, including The University of Texas at Austin (No. 28), The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (No. 193), and The University of Texas at Dallas (No. 271).

Meanwhile, the top five best colleges for your money are: University of California - Irvine, City University of New York - Baruch College, Princeton University, University of California - Los Angeles, and University of California - Davis.

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This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

This week's innovators to know are all female leaders in different industries within Houston innovation. Courtesy photos

3 female Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Female leaders play a huge role in the Houston innovation ecosystem. This week's innovators to know are all women — and are each representatives for different industries. From health care and nonprofits to education, meet this week's who's who of Houston innovation.

Janna Roberson, executive director of Urban Harvest

Courtesy of Urban Harvest

For the first time — thanks to Houston nonprofit Urban Harvest — Houston has caught up with the times for providing access to healthy foods in exchange for government subsidies.

"Double Up is new to Houston, this is the first time we have had a Double Up kind of program here in the metroplex, ever," says Janna Roberson, executive director of Urban Harvest. "It is something that is very common in a lot of states."

Read more about the organization here.

Beena George, chief innovation officer at the University of St. Thomas 

Courtesy of UST

Beena George is the inaugural chief innovation officer at the University of St. Thomas. The former UST business school dean takes on the role at an interesting time for higher education. In the next few years, the industry expects a sizable drop in enrollment, which means UST is tasked with positioning itself in a way that creates value for its students.

"There has been a lot of changes in the industry and in society in general that's requiring higher education institutions to react in a different way," she says. "Some of the things that we've always been doing — creating new programs, moving online, new campuses — now it's even more important to bring that to prominence and figure out how it fits with your university. Things have changed, so the rate at which you're innovating has to increase."

Read more about Beena George here.

Ayse McCracken, founder of Ignite Healthcare Network

Courtesy of Ignite

It's astounding to Ayse McCracken that, while so much of the health care industry is comprised of women, the C-suites of medical companies were mostly male. She wanted to create an organization that helps women climb those corporate ladders — and innovation and startups were a way to do it.

"As we saw this innovation economy and startup space begin to evolve in the city, it seemed that our contribution to this was that we could help incubate and find companies that had high likelihood of success," says McCracken, who is the founder of Ignite Healthcare Network — a group of female health care executives who, among other things, hosts an annual pitch competition.

Read more about Ayse McCracken here.

Former University of St. Thomas business school dean, Beena George, is taking on a new role at the university: Chief innovation officer. Courtesy of UST

Houston educator plans to lead her university into the future with her new role

Featured innovator

High school graduation numbers are decreasing, and, by 2025, far fewer college freshmen will be starting school. Some project as high as a 15 percent drop, says Beena George, inaugural chief innovation officer of Houston's St. Thomas University.

UST is looking forward to and anticipating changes and challenges within higher education like this, and one of the steps the university has been to create George's position.

"My role is to ferment that culture of innovation," George says. "Not just sit here and think of ideas."

As the school gets ready to welcome students back onto its Montrose campus, the former business dean gets ready to serve in her new role for the first semester. She spoke with InnovationMap about her career, goals, and the role UST plays within the Houston innovation ecosystem.

InnovationMap: What have you learned throughout your career that has prepared you for the role?

Beena George: I've always been interested in solving problems. If I saw something that was an opportunity, and we didn't take advantage of it, I'll keep thinking about it. I've been thinking about what makes me enjoy this role and stage in my career, and I think it's because most roles tend to be mostly operational, but this is thinking of new things and doing things differently and checking your own assumptions. That is what really engages me in my role. My career has given me different opportunities to use this, but not so much as now. When teaching, you have that opportunity every day — engaging students differently. Then as dean, it was about looking at new opportunities and programs for the business school, like our Master of Clinical Translation Management program.

IM: How did this clinical translation program come about?

BG: The idea of clinical translation is essentially to move a discovery from the lab to the patient's bedside — it's the commercialization of life sciences. The program trains students to shepherd a discovery from the lab to the commercial setting so that it's available to patients.It's a combination of business, life sciences, regulatory affairs. It's a one-year online program with some residency periods. It's the only of its kind in Houston and is one of less than 10 in the United States and, to my knowledge, the only of its kind in a business school.

IM: What does innovation mean to the University of St. Thomas and this inaugural position?

BG: I think innovation isn't entirely new on college campuses, but now is a time when higher education is in flux. There has been a lot of changes in the industry and in society in general that's requiring higher education institutions to react in a different way. Some of the things that we've always been doing — creating new programs, moving online, new campuses — now it's even more important to bring that to prominence and figure out how it fits with your university. Things have changed, so the rate at which you're innovating has to increase.

IM: What’s on your to-do list for this first year and within five years?

BG: Since this is a new role, my first goal for the next two to three months is the process of discovery — internally and externally. One of the cool things that's happening in Houston is all these partnerships and collaborations. That's what I'm trying to do — learn about the groups here and outside and make these connections. The other part of it is bringing information in from the outside. There are so many different ways of doing things. For instance, in higher education, it's been historically tied to credit hours. We know now there are many different ways to look at education. That's the kind of conversation I look to get started.

IM: You mention collaboration, and I think that’s key when it comes to higher education institutions within the innovation ecosystem, but how do you see that teamwork affecting the city as a whole?

BG: So I have been so glad to see that, because I've always believed that there has to be some competition — it ensures that everyone performs at their best. But there are some industries where you have to go beyond competition to the next level and manage competition and collaboration at the same time. We have two networks — Texas Medical Center and the academic partnership created by The Ion — and talk about what's happening on your campuses and how we can work together in Houston. There's also the 60x30 Texas, which has different advisory councils that offers that same conversation of collaboration to work together to meet our goals. Those types of conversations are important and having those types of venues to do that can have only a positive effect on Houston.

IM: How is UST finding new ways to prepare its students for the workforce?

BG: One thing that has gained a lot of attention here on campus is providing students with more experiential learning opportunities — more internships and apprenticeships and bringing the industry into the classroom. Carlos Monroy, a professor at UST, and his student worked on a project for the city. This is something that allows us to remain connected to the industry and it gives our faculty the idea of what the Industry needs and they can focus on that in the classroom.

IM: UST recently announced a major “renewal” plan. How is this going to affect innovation efforts on campus?

BG: I think the whole process is about innovation. What we have is an opportunity to recreate ourselves for the next millennium and create a sustainable operating model that will continue to provide for our students. I think it will affect everything.


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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Family-owned composting startup redesigns how Houston disposes of waste

don't worry, be happy

Jesse Stowers has always strived to do his part for the environment. From recycling and making eco-conscious choices, the Stowers were doing everything right, but was it enough?

The family of five was throwing away two trash bags of waste a day that would later end up in landfills until Stowers stumbled on composting as a solution. In May, he launched Happy Earth Compost, a company set on making Houston more sustainable.

If you're unfamiliar with composting, get ready for a crash course. Composting is a sustainable method of decomposing organic solid wastes and turning that waste into compost, a substance that helps plants grow. Food scraps and household items like rice, pasta, meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, coffee grounds, spoiled food, and tea bags are just a few of the many things that can be composted rather than thrown away.

"Your food waste and compostable waste is anywhere from 25 to 50 percent depending on the family," explains Stowers. According to Happy Earth Compost, one human creates an estimated 1,642 pounds of trash each year.

When looking at striking statistics, it's clear composting has a direct impact on the future of our environment. In Houston, 81 percent of waste ends up in landfills that pile high, and the city exceeds the national waste average by 25 percent. While the smell of landfills may make you wince, the repercussions of exhausting those landfills are even more displeasing.

Not only are the plots of land permanently lost from agricultural and home development, but the landfills also emit methane gas, a greenhouse gas that's 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to The Independent.

What started as the Stowers family's resolution to be eco-friendly became a full-blown business plan. After Stowers attempted to compost at home for his own family, he soon partnered with New Earth Compost in Fulshear, Texas, as a drop-off location for the waste and did a test drive of the service with his neighbors back in March. Happy Earth Compost now serves 350 homes in the Greater Houston-area and has plans to expand to College Station.

Happy Earth Compost has created a service, with pricing ranging from $15 to $35, that provides Houstonians with the bins to compost and picks up the waste from your door. The buckets can be picked up weekly, bi-weekly or monthly while the company does all of the labor and dirty work to help you compost. A new $5 drop-off option is also available for Houstonians who are willing to drive to one of the applicable farmers' markets.

Subscribers can also get free compost to use in their gardens, what gardeners often call "black gold" because of its value and benefits, says Stowers.

Members receive equipment and instructions upon registration. Photo courtesy of Happy Earth

The family-owned business' typical week involves picking up buckets from 300 houses, dropping off compost, cleaning those buckets, and starting the process all over again.

"It's not the most glamorous thing, but it's getting people set up to do it. We're trying to make things easy for everybody by doing the hard work on our end," he says.

Ease is a key feature that helps the service stand out to Houstonians. Composting in Houston no longer requires the personal labor of investing in a compost bin, balancing the mixture of materials, measuring the temperature of your compost, and ordering worms to help accelerate the process (you read that right).

At various farmers' markets around Houston, Stowers is quick to point out the convenience of the program he's created. "It's hard to convince people to compost. It's easier to convince them to try something that's beneficial and simple," he explained.

Jenna Arbogast, a Happy Earth Compost customer, had dabbled in composting on her own but never committed to maintaining it at home. "When I found out about Happy Earth Compost, I so excited that someone was taking the initiative to extend this city-wide. Being that we are such a large city, we have such a great opportunity to heal our environment," says Arbogast. "I really love contributing to something as a collective. Even though I could compost at home, I really wanted to support this initiative," she says.

To Arbogast, who has been using the service for three months, convenience and transparency have made Happy Earth Compost a joy to work with. "You get all the benefits of composting without the maintenance, and you're supporting a good cause," she says.

Since its May launch, the Happy Earth Compost Instagram has grown by over 1,900 fans. The Stowers family has been amazed by the response and hopes to expand to more households in Houston.

"I think there's definitely a movement to be more sustainable to actually consider what we're doing and take care of our stuff, including the earth," says Stowers. He envisions a future where composting is taught to future generations as a fundamental need for the environment.

"It may not cost us now, but it will cost us eventually. What can we do now to make a difference now?" asks Stowers.


Jesse Stowers started his family business in May. Photo via happyearthcompost.com

10+ can't-miss virtual business and innovation events in Houston for August

Where to be online

Another month, another roundup of events Houston innovators should attend — and yes, they are still all virtual. From Houston Exponential launching its new virtual database and networking platform to informative workshops and panels, here's what you need to attend this month.

August 5 — IP Agreements Every Startup Should Know About

Every startup should protect their Intellectual Property (IP) as means to protect their developing products and/or concepts, but often do not know where to start. Join The Ion and Baker Bots as we explore different IP agreements your startup should consider.

Details: This event takes place online on Wednesday, August 5, from 1 to 2 pm. Learn more.

August 5 — Texas Founder Hotseat: Pitch Texas Investors & Experts Online

Do you have a startup, or a strong idea for a startup? Could you use blunt, honest feedback on your startup ideas? On this live and interactive online event you can pitch your ideas to a panel of Houston startup investors and experts for ratings and feedback, all from the comfort of your home. Even if you don't want to pitch, you are invited to hear startup ideas and watch how the experts analyze businesses.

Details: This event takes place online on Wednesday, August 5, at 4 pm. Learn more.

August 6 — Bayou City Showcase

Celebrate the launch of the newest startups from Rice University's OwlSpark and University of Houston's RED Labs. Sixteen startups from Class 8 of the program will be pitching and demonstrating during an expo.

Details: This event takes place online on Thursday, August 6, from 2 to 4:30 pm. Learn more.

August 11 — LGBTQ+ In Tech Summit

Capital Factory is hosting its first virtual LGBTQ+ In Tech Summit. The organization is dedicated to increasing diversity in the entrepreneurial and tech community while making our coworking space an inclusive environment for all. Attendees can look forward to a special keynote guest, insightful fireside chats, discussion sessions, a startup showcase, Epic Office Hours, and panels on relevant topics facing the tech ecosystem.

Details: This event takes place online on Tuesday, August 11, from noon to 5 pm. Learn more.

August 12 — Managing Your Digital Presence in a Post-COVID Era

Your startup's digital presence is more important now than ever. In a world where everything has gone virtual, your digital presence is the first thing your potential customers will see prior to contacting you. If you are struggling to create your digital marketing strategy, you're not alone. But fear no more, Allie Danziger of Integrate, is here to help.

Details: This event takes place online on Wednesday, August 12, at 11 am. Learn more.

August 13 — HTX TechList Launch

Join Houston Exponential for a live launch of Houston's innovation discovery platform, HTX TechList, featuring speakers from Start-Up Nation Central, Mayor Sylvester Turner, the Greater Houston Partnership, and a demo by Houston Exponential. Join live virtual breakout sessions moderated by members of the innovation ecosystem influencer. Editor's note: InnovationMap is a media partner for the event.

Details: This event takes place online on Thursday, August 13, at 11 am. Learn more.

August 14 — How Women in Tech Can Affect Change in the Workplace 

The Suffragist movement has long been known for its effectiveness in creating grassroots efforts that created laws to give women the right to vote. 100 years later women are still fighting for equal rights and inclusion. Women's votes will have a tremendous impact on the 2020 election. It's time to organize the collective power of our votes to fight for equality in the workplace.

Details: This event takes place online on Friday, August 14, at 11 am to 12:30 pm. Learn more.

August 18 — Intro to the Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything

Are you an entrepreneur starting a new company? Recently moved your company to Texas? Want to find out how to connect with other entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors in the startup ecosystem? Join Capital Factory VIRTUALLY to hear an overview from experienced entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and community partners at Intro to Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything.

Details: This event takes place online on Tuesday, August 18, at 2 to 3:30 pm. Learn more.

August 19 — Igniting Innovation: Business Roundtable

Join serial entrepreneur Dr. Juliet Breeze as she moderates a conversation with experienced healthcare executives to explore what the impact of the pandemic has meant to their businesses. They'll share insights regarding ways in which they're adapting and positioning for survival and continued success.

Details: This event takes place online on Wednesday, August 19, at 1 to 2 pm. Learn more.

August 25 — HAN + Carta Cap Table Workshop

The Houston Angel Network has teamed up with Carta, the experts in capitalization table management and valuation software. Carta helps companies and investors manage their cap tables, valuations, investments, and equity plans. During this workshop Carta will discuss cap table basics, common mistakes, and tips for responsible equity management. There will also be a real life cap table scenario where both founders and investors can ask their questions about the often little understood mechanics of cap tables and how they evolve with each fund raise.

Details: This event takes place online on Tuesday, August 25, at 11:30 am to 12:30 pm. Learn more.

August 26 — Equity in Tech: How We Can Do Better

The tech industry is incredibly powerful — not only through the products created, but with its economic force (forecasted to reach 1.7 trillion in the US in 2020). With great power comes great responsibility. Tech can – and must – do better to create and nurture diversity, equity and inclusion within the industry.

Details: This event takes place online on Wednesday, August 26, at 11:30 am to 1 pm. Learn more.

New locally owned food delivery app rolls into Houston area

orange you glad?

A new delivery app aims to give diners a locally owned alternative to the big national names. Meet OrangeCrate, an app that does things a little differently.

Unlike the national brands, each OrangeCrate affiliate is locally owned and has a specific geographic territory. Franchisee Cody Lee has brought the company to two areas of Houston, Fort Bend County and the greater Memorial area. Lee launched in Fort Bend on June 1 and will bring Memorial online August 24.

"We're just like UberEats or DoorDash, but we're locally owned and locally operated, so I have a lot of control and flexibility versus some of the bigger name brands," Lee tells CultureMap.

That flexibility starts with the cost restaurants pay to use OrangeCrate. While national operators might charge as much as 30 percent to deliver a meal, Lee says OrangeCrate's fees are typically half that, usually between 10 and 15 percent.

Customer fees start at $2.99 and go up depending on how far away from the restaurant they live. Most orders also have a $10 minimum.

In terms of control, Lee trains each driver personally and monitors them when they're working. Unlike other services, drivers may only make one delivery at once, and they're only allowed to make OrangeCrate deliveries while they're on the company's schedule.

"I can chat with them and understand if there's an issue and minimize the impact to the customer," Lee says. "There's a lot of control where I can maintain a lot of variables to ensure the customer experience."

From a user's perspective, the experience will feel familiar. Order and pay via OrangeCrate's website and app. A driver — wearing masks and gloves, of course — will arrive with a bright orange bag containing the food order.

Lee says that so far his biggest challenge has been building awareness of the brand and convincing restaurateurs that he's a viable alternative to the more familiar names. From his perspective, restaurants that promote his company can save money on delivery fees and expand their reach, which is particularly important at a time when some people don't feel comfortable eating in restaurants.

"Most people know the bigger guys," Lee says. "It's important to hear Orange Crate, and that we're a local option; we're also a cheaper option. They get the same or better service for their customers."

In Fort Bend County, Lee has started with a roster of mostly national and regional chains like Chili's, 5 Guys, and Chuy's, but he says he's trying to add as many local restaurants as possible. In the Memorial area, he hopes to launch with between 50 and 60 establishments.

"My focus is on local restaurants and earning their business," Lee says. "I will only be adding local restaurants as we go forward."

So far, Lee has seen enough growth that he's optimistic about the service's future. He's got his eyes on Galveston and The Woodlands as potential market for expansive, with Inner Loop neighborhoods in his long term plans.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.