New to town

Two companies expand into the Houston market by way of UH's Technology Bridge

The University of Houston has transformed its Energy Research Park into the Technology Bridge to better connect research-based startups to the market. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

A few years ago, the University of Houston renamed its Energy Research Park to the Technology Bridge. They wanted to create a program and workspace for companies inside the university to enter into the Houston innovation ecosystem. Turns out, the program also created a bridge for innovative companies entering the Houston market.

Two companies announced that they will open operations in the Technology Bridge — the first Houston offices for both, according to a news release.

Chemicals company Oleon is a subsidiary of France-based Avril, a financial and industrial company. Before the UH location, Oleon's only United States operation was a sales office in South Carolina. The other company is California-based Saratech, an engineering, software, services, and 3D printer sales company. Saratech has offices across the country, including an Austin office. The Houston office will focus on 3D printing.

According to Tom Campbell, executive director of the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation, choosing a university to open a new office in a new market makes a lot of sense. There's a ready-made network of professors and students ripe with talent for internships and new and developing research.

Saratech's senior vice president, Rick Murphy, agrees that the new office can be mutually beneficial to UH and his company. Saratech already has a relationship similar to this with the University of California-Irvine.

"We are looking at universities to help with that, so industry can start educating their engineers to take advantage of this technology," Murphy says in the release.

Oleon also has previous relationships with universities in Europe and Asia. The company, which specializes in natural chemistry — specifically using fats and oils in various applications from cosmetics to automotive, plans on sustaining a lot of growth in Houston. The move represents the first of many instances of growth in the market.

"It is baby steps here, but the U.S. is a huge market," Dave Jacobs, general manager of operations for Oleon Americas, says in the release. "About 50 percent of the oil and gas market is here."

The Technology Bridge houses 23 startups and has 30,000 square feet of incubator space and over 700,000 square feet of space suited for laboratories, pilot-scale facilities, and light manufacturing. The bridge sits on the former Schlumberger campus just south of UH.

To Campbell, the bridge adds its own niche of research and lab space to the Houston innovation ecosystem as a whole, and both these companies' new offices are on par with the greater goals of the bridge.

"It's about economic development," Campbell says in the release. "A strong innovation economy is a rising tide that floats all boats."

Public universities can be negatively affected during a government shutdown — especially within its research department. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

As the partial government shutdown loomed, academic institutions explored ways this might affect their research operations. Although we expect delays in processing proposals and award payouts, the impact on the institution may have been much less than expected. Consequently, most of the impact occurred at the individual principal investigator, or PI, level. That is where research that required federal resources came to a halt.

This is also the case for researchers at the Borders, Trade, and Immigration (BTI) Institute at the University of Houston. As a result of the shutdown, they were unable to start any new projects. Sadly, the government furloughed their program manager at the Department of Defense- Science and Technology Office of University Programs.

Education initiatives and multiple other research projects pending review were stuck along the "assembly line," as approvals did not happen during the month of January.

Consequently, BTI is a granted institution. Current projects were able to continue with slight delay due to the requirement to have meetings with the DHS representatives for their projects.

This scenario echoed across the research enterprise, as other researchers found themselves in similar situations.

Business as somewhat usual

Moreover, Nicholas Bond, climatologist and associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, felt the pinch of the shutdown and chronicled his experiences of how it impacted his research on climate and oceanography of the North Pacific.

Academic institutions across the country became burdened with the task of assuming unexpected financial responsibilities. In mid-January, the lapse in governmental funding forced The Ohio State University to temporarily cover the costs of unbilled expenditures to the tune of about $3 million. Harvard University continued to pay stipends for fellowships. They did this despite the fact that the shutdown included the federal funding agency.

Many faculty members, including our own, were able to continue working on their projects with the expectation of administrative delays. No new funding opportunities were issued, panel reviews were postponed and no new grants or no-cost extensions were awarded. For the most part, it was business as (somewhat) usual.

The big picture

It may be safe to say that the partial shutdown acted more as an inconvenience to the research enterprise than anything. Which is great news! Especially for the University of Houston, who has recently ignited the campus with the announcement of the 50-in-5 initiative. This ambitious program will increase the research and scholarly output by 50 percent over the next five years.

While this article focuses on the inconvenience of administrative delays, it's critical not to skim the surface. It may seem minute when compared to recipients of public assistance fearing not receiving benefits, but short-term implications are likely.

Keep in mind that most often, grants are not awarded by a single payment from the agency. Timelines are established between agencies and the institutions, and funds are released accordingly. Because of this, it's likely that research programs and educational initiatives across the academic research enterprise will not receive their funds on schedule.

What the future holds

Imagine, if you will, a conveyor belt. A system designed to allow items to move through a process with maximum efficiency. Because of the partial shutdown, research proposals that were in queue for review or funding experienced interruption along the conveyor belt.

Once disruptions to processes within federal agencies happen, it becomes inevitable that there will be delays further down the line.

Claudia Neuhauser, associate vice chancellor/vice president for Research and Technology Transfer for the UH System, warns of the "ripple effect" of the downstream delays and the potential impact on expenditures. We'll have to wait until the end of the year when annual reports are prepared for answers.

For now, it's a question of what the aftereffect will be.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Nitiya Spearman is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.