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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Texas named a top state for women-led startups

this one's for the ladies

Who runs the world? According to Merchant Maverick's inaugural Best States for "Women-Led Startups'' study, Texas is a great place for women to be in charge.

The Lone Star state cracked the top 10 on the list, earning a No. 6 spot according to the small business reviews and financial services company, which based the study on eight key statistics about this growing segment of the economy. Colorado (at No. 1), Washington, Virginia, Florida, and Montana were the only states to beat out Texas on the rankings—leading the Merchant Maverick team to conclude that "the part of the country that lies west of the Mississippi is great for startups led by women entrepreneurs."

Women-led startups in Texas received $365 billion in VC funding in the last five years, the report found. This is the seventh largest total among U.S. states. Too, about 20 percent of Texans are employed at woman-led firms, which is the fifth highest percentage among states. Roughly 35 percent of employers in Texas are led by women.

A few other key findings that work in female founders' favor: The startup survival rate in Texas is nearly 80 percent. And a lack of state income tax "doesn't hurt either," the report says.

Still there are shortcomings. On a per capita basis, only 1.27 percent of Texas women run their own business. The average income for self-employed women is also relatively low ranking among states, coming in around $55,907 and landing at 31st among others.

This is not the first time Texas has been lauded as a land of opportunity for women entrepreneurs. A 2019 study named it the best state for business opportunities for women. Houston too has proven to support success for the demographic. The Bayou City was named in separate studies a best city for female entrepreneurs to start a business and to see it grow.

Still, as many findings have concluded, the realities of the pandemic loom for all startups and small business owners. The Merchant Maverick study was careful to add: "The pandemic has changed the economic landscape over the past year, and often for the worse.

"This means that not every metric may be able to accurately gauge how a state might fare amidst the pandemic," the report continues. "To help factor in COVID's impact, we included some metrics that take 2020 into account, but it will be a while until we get a full picture of the pandemic's devastation.""

New downtown office tower will rise in bustling Discovery Green

new to hou

A new office tower will soon loom over the popular Discovery Green as the anchor of a new downtown district. Global development and construction firm, Skanksa, announced the new building at 1550 Lamar St. and its anchor tenant on January 13. The new 28-story, 375,000-square-foot Class-A office structure is dubbed 1550 on the Green, per a Skanska statement.

Global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright will relocate its Houston office in 2024 and acquire naming rights upon occupancy, according to a press release.

Bound by La Branch, Lamar, Crawford, and Dallas Streets, 1550 on The Green will feature extra-wide pedestrian zones with a canopy of trees, two tenant outdoor roof terraces, and wide views of the surrounding greenery.

International design firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group led the building's design; it is the company's first foray into Texas. BIG's design promises sustainability, energy efficiency, and an "airy" office environment for tenants, a release describes.

Some 7,000 square feet of retail space will greet first-floor guests. Michael Hsu Office of Architecture has been tapped to design the interior amenity spaces; those include a fitness center, rooftop event space and terrace, and community spaces.

The new 1550 on the Green tower is part of a new envisioned district that will be branded as Discovery West. The district will consist of 3.5 acres of mixed-use development boasting restaurants, retail, green space, and "world-class architecture," per a release.

Working with Central Houston Inc., Discovery Green, Bike Houston, the Kinder Foundation, as well as several brokers, Skanska and design firm of record, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, completed the master plan for Discovery West in early 2020.

Skanska has been noticeably active in the Houston office market, specifically with the development of Bank of America Tower, West Memorial Place I and II, and the future Discovery West. The company is behind the acquisition of a buzzy strip center in Montrose. Skanska also plans to multifamily to its Houston portfolio, the firm notes.

"As an organization that prides itself on building what matters to our communities, our team, made up of Houstonians, has been working alongside local stakeholders to develop a plan and a building that will transform this side of downtown Houston while still meeting the needs of the city," said Matt Damborsky, executive vice president for Skanska USA commercial development's Houston market, in a statement.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.