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

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and Don Whaley of OhmConnect Texas. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

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