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.

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Building Houston

 
 

A Rice University scientist will be working on the team for NASA's latest Mars rover. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Rice University Martian geologist has been chosen by NASA as one of the 13 scientists who will be working on a new Mars rover.

Perseverance, the rover that launched in July and is expected to land on Mars in February. It will be scouting for samples to bring back to study for ancient microbial life, and Kirsten Siebach — an assistant professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences — will be among the researchers to work on the project. Her proposal was one of 119 submitted to NASA for funding, according to a Rice press release.

"Everybody selected to be on the team is expected to put some time into general operations as well as accomplishing their own research," she says in the release. "My co-investigators here at Rice and I will do research to understand the origin of the rocks Perseverance observes, and I will also participate in operating the rover."

It's Kirsten Siebach's second Mars rover mission to work on. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Perseverance is headed for Jezero Crater, a 28-mile-wide area that once hosted a lake and river delta where, according to scientists, microbial life may have existed over 3 billion years ago. Siebach is particularly excited hopefully find fossils existing in atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolved in water — which usually exists as limestone on Earth.

"There are huge packages of limestone all over Earth, but for some reason it's extremely rare on Mars," she says. "This particular landing site includes one of the few orbital detections of carbonate and it appears to have a couple of different units including carbonates within this lake deposit. The carbonates will be a highlight of we're looking for, but we're interested in basically all types of minerals."

Siebach is familiar with rovers — she was a member of the team for NASA's Curiosity rover, which has been exploring Mars since 2012. For this new rover, Siebach knows what to expect.

"Because there is only one rover, the whole team at NASA has to agree about what to look at, or analyze, or where to drive on any given day," Siebach says in the release. "None of the rovers' actions are unilateral decisions. But it is a privilege to be part of the discussion and to get to argue for observations of rocks that will be important to our understanding of Mars for decades."

Siebach and her team — which includes Rice data scientist Yueyang Jiang and mineralogist Gelu Costin — are planning to tap into computational and machine-learning methods to map out minerals and discover evidence for former life on Mars. They will also be using a Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry, or PIXL, to analyze the materials.

The return mission isn't expected to return until the early 2030s, so it's a long game for the scientists. However, the samples have the potential to revolutionize what we know about life on Mars with more context than before.

"Occasionally, something hits Mars hard enough to knock a meteorite out, and it lands on Earth," she says in the release. "We have a few of those. But we've never been able to select where a sample came from and to understand its geologic context. So these samples will be revolutionary."

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