Featured Innovator

This entrepreneur is changing the landscape of Houston's innovation ecosystem

Grace Rodriguez is the co-founder and executive director of Impact Hub Houston. Courtesy of Grace Rodriguez

It's been a winding road for Grace Rodriguez to get to where she is today, but she wouldn't have it any other way. Rodriguez's career has spanned from managing a collective of DJs called Kracker Nuttz and consulting to one of the co-founders of Station Houston — and now the co-founder and executive director of Impact Hub Houston.

Impact Hub is a worldwide collaborative of resources for entrepreneurs, thought provokers, and supporters, and Rodriguez has been working for a while now to get Houston's chapter off the ground. As of April 17, Impact Hub Houston has launched its first popup location at Sharespace (1120 Naylor) where the organization will be until May 17. The popup concept is so that the nonprofit can really get to know all corners of Houston's innovation ecosystem, Rodriguez says.

Additionally, Impact Hub Houston announced last month that it has launched its fundraising campaign called 321 Impact. The money donated will go to the programming, events, and development of the organization.

Rodriguez spoke with InnovationMap about her goals for the organization and her thoughts on the ecosystem as a whole.

InnovationMap: When you say you want to help "do gooders do greater," what does that mean for you?

Grace Rodriguez: For me, I want to help people at the idea stage — people who are beginning to build something. Talking to entrepreneurs, they say that's usually the hardest part. Once you get something going and you have some traction, it's easy to keep improving that. But, getting started is where people need the most help. With Impact Hub, we want to figure out how do we intentionally approach the problem of helping an entrepreneur go from 0 to 1, and 1 to 2, and then 2 to 10, and so on. And respond to their actual problems — versus what we think they need. There's a lot of personalization that needs to happen for early-stage entrepreneurs, and I'm hoping that this is the role in the Houston ecosystem that Impact Hub Houston can provide.

IM: What's Impact Hub's bigger picture goals?

GR: Our real vision is to help Houston become a role model for how the world solves the most pressing issues. We want to show the rest of the world that Houston has the talent, expertise, insight, and resources to solve issues around the world. Within that is the idea that Houston is an international city. A lot of times when people get together and talk about improving the perception of Houston, but honestly outside of the United States, Houston is seen as a major player on the world stage.

Another part of our mission is to move beyond discussing diversity toward actually creating equitable environments where people plug in and actively advocate for each other. A lot of people talk about how Houston is the most diverse city in the country and how it's a strength of Houston, but when you go to meetings with decision makers from the innovation ecosystem, you don't see that diversity represented. We want to make sure we are intentional about creating equitable environments and that diversity is included in the shaping of policy and institutions moving forward.

IM: How do the hubs work together?

GR: The interesting thing about Impact Hub is it isn't a franchise or like WeWork. It functions a lot like the United Nations. Each organization opts into the network, and you can form it anyway you want to — nonprofit or for-profit or a hybrid — and as large or as small you want to be. We are all connected by the common guideline of working alongside the United Nations to help advance the 17 sustainable development goals.

IM: What pain points do you see Houston entrepreneurs struggling with and how can the city address them?

GR: Over and over again, access to funding is a big issue — and access to someone who has the answers they need is another issue too. I feel like a lot of the conversation within the Houston innovation echo chamber has been around venture capital funding, but there's so many more types of capital that entrepreneurs can have access to. There's bootstrapping, angel investment, lending groups, and crowdfunding.

I've met a lot of Houston entrepreneurs who had to go to Austin for MassChallenge or Capital Factory and who didn't find that support or money here in Houston. And because they found it in Austin, they're considering moving there. This is how we lose our best and brightest. It's been happening and it keeps happening because we haven't focused on our city. Instead of being Austin, we need to figure out how to be Houston better. Until we start some really rough self reflection, then I don't think we'll ever be a better Houston. We'll continue trying to be "Silicon Bayou" versus being whatever Houston needs to be.

IM: I know with Impact Hub, you're trying to be transparent. But overall, do you feel like Houston's innovation ecosystem has a hard time being transparent?

GR: The challenge in Houston is trying to be shiny and polished. And, to me, shiny and polished is Dallas. No one in Houston wants to be Dallas. Let's accept the fact that we are an R&D city. We are a city that researches and develops and experiments new things. Let's lean hard into that and not say we're going to be perfect, and if we do that, then the need to try to appear perfect can go away. Being transparent on the things we are trying makes us become a role model for other cities. I feel like the feeling that we have to be polished and perfect for the rest of the world to be interested in us is the biggest hindrance to our progress. I already know the rest of the world is interested in us.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

For newly named CEO of Topl, it's game on. Courtesy of Topl

From a business perspective, Kim Raath, founder and CEO of Topl, sees the challenges and expected recession caused by COVID-19 as an opportunity — and a test.

"A bunch of companies — like Airbnb — were built in the 2008 recession," Raath says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I'm excited to see if we make it through here, I think we can survive anything."

Topl was founded by Rice University graduates — Raath, James Aman, and Chris Georgen — to track impact in various industries, such as carbon footprints in oil and gas or fair wages for farmers in agriculture, via a robust blockchain network. The company closed a $700,000 seed round last year and is looking toward another round of investment this year — yes, even amidst the current situation.

Raath just recently took over as CEO for the company following the completion of her Rice Ph.D in statistics and a Master's in economics, and it was a perfect time for the founders to sit down and realign their company. Aman will continue to focus on the tech, Georgen will focus on the customer, and Raath will steer the ship.

"It was definitely a cool experience for us as founders to go through together, but I'm glad that all three of us came out of this excited about what we're doing moving forward," says Raath.

And then, the coronavirus hit, which, to Raath, has proven to be an added obstacle and an exciting time to be in the track and trace world of blockchain.

"A lot of these COVID-19 trackers that everyone is watching, the data is being pulled into these trackers in the same way you could be tracking your chocolate, diamonds, anything," says Raath. "I'm excited to see the virtual and digital side of this — people are realizing you can use data to visualize things — and at the same time use that data for informed decision making."

She's observed that people are actually thinking of the effects on supply chain — in more than just the business sense.

"I don't think any of us thought this much about supply chain. Most of us just went to the grocery store, and we had all these options," Raath says.

Raath, like many startup founders, have had to make some tough calls and some huge cuts to her business, which has been scrappy and bootstrapped most of its existence anyways. In the episode, she offers her fellow startup leaders some advice about making these cuts as well as reminds them, as well as herself, that everyone is in the same boat right now — ask yourself what you can do to stand out and survive.

"Everyone is in the same place — including your competition right now," Raath says. "You don't have control of the uncertainty — but no one does. What do you have control over right now and how can you act on that control. That's what my focus has been."

Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.