Whose House?

UH transitions research park into incubator for early-stage, research-based startups

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

In Houston, you can throw a rock and hit a University of Houston graduate, says Tom Campbell, executive director of IP at UH. That citywide presence means alumni have a huge part to play as the city grows its innovation ecosystem.

"It's a really cool statistic that most of the people who go to UH end up coming back or staying in the area. If we're going to build an innovation economy in Houston, it's going to be built by Cougar hands," says Campbell.

But that's not the only presence the university has in the innovation ecosystem. Over the past year, UH has transitioned its Energy Research Park — the 74-acre site that was formerly the Schlumberger headquarters — into the Technology Bridge. The strategic transformation was in part due to the fact that the research was no longer focused on energy, but Campbell says UH had another reason too.

"One of the reasons we changed the name from the Energy Research Park to the Technology Bridge is that we wanted to highlight that transition or bridge between the academic world and the market," he says.

UH's Tech Bridge has high-end wet lab space that currently houses 23 companies, plus shared and event spaces are available. The incubator is fee-based and takes no equity in the company. About half the startups are life sciences companies, while the other half being focused on physical sciences, Campbell says.

What makes UH's Tech Bridge different from anything else in Houston is that it's targeting early-stage, research-based startups. Rather than being a competitor to Houston's other workspaces or accelerators, the Tech Bridge is more of a feeder into these other establishments.

"What we've got here at the University of Houston is, I call it, distinctly different but complementary to the overall innovation ecosystem," Campbell says.

Whole different ball game
Another way UH differs from everything else out there is in its capabilities. Not being a for-profit, UH doesn't have the pressure to produce profits.

"The beauty of the role a university can play is that, unlike a venture fund, which may be looking at a three-year return window, a university can play a longer game," Campbell says. "And, by nature, universities are always playing a longer game because they are investing in this longer term research."

Though not being pressured for quick ROIs or exits, Campbell and his team have a whole other set of goals — namely, getting UH-related companies from the lab or the classroom and into the public.

"There's two things going on here," Campbell says. "We're educating the next generation of entrepreneurs via our faculty and students — that's the people side of it — and we're also trying to pull those ideas out — and that's the idea side of it."

Establishing connectivity
Startups spend an average of one and a half to two years at the Tech Bridge, Campbell says, and throughout that time, they are required to establish a connection to the university. While some startups come from campus as students, alumni, or faculty, it's not required to have a prior UH connection. However, Campbell says they must form a connection to the school while being housed in the facility. That can come from hiring interns, adjunct teaching, or something else that links the startup to UH.

One way Campbell says the startups can be mutually beneficial to the school is collaborating with UH's Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship. Technology Bridge startups can have access to business advice, while business students have the ability to get real-world experience.

"What we found is with a lot of the research-based technology we do is that we have very technically minded faculty or students who don't necessarily have the business background," Campbell says. "Well, UH also has the No. 2 ranked entrepreneurship program. So, we developed a collaboration program to bring together the technical and business sides of the University."

Preparing for The Ion
Along with all of Houston's higher education institutions, UH will have a presence in the Rice University-backed innovation hub called The Ion. While the details of the arrangement of the education partners aren't yet established, Campbell says it's UH's focus to be present in the new facility, whether through its startups or its innovation team's office hours.

The Ion will give the schools a unique opportunity to collaborate in a way they've never before had the chance to do.

"Universities kind of by nature compete against themselves," says Campbell. "We spend a lot of time meeting with internal and external people and explain that a strong innovation economy in Houston is a tide that floats all ships."

The thing that Campbell strives to make clear to the city is that UH has something different to offer the ecosystem.

"We're relatively small group in that ecosystem, and we're different," he says. "We're an apple in a box of oranges. One of the challenges I have is trying to get people to understand is that this is a little bit of a different approach."

Houston is the ninth worst U.S. metro for ozone pollution, but the future isn't foggy. Electric vehicles can improve air quality by 50 percent. Getty Images

Let's clear the air about Houston's air pollution: A recent report from the American Lung Association ranks Houston the ninth worst U.S. metro area for ozone pollution and the 17th worst in the broad category of long-term particle pollution.

Yet the future might not be so cloudy for Houston's atmosphere.

A newly published study in the journal Atmospheric Environment indicates that replacing at least 35 percent of Houston's gas- and diesel-powered cars and trucks with electric vehicles by 2040 could improve air quality by 50 percent. And if electric vehicles replaced 75 percent of traditional cars and trucks by 2040, air quality could improve by 75 percent, according to the study.

This conversion to electric vehicles would enable residents of the Houston area to "breathe easier, live longer, and enjoy a better economy," the researchers say.

"The population in 2040 Houston will see a huge increase, but we can apply new technology to reduce emissions, improve air quality, and think about health," says one of the researchers, Shuai Pan, a postdoctoral associate in civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University.

Pan earned a doctoral degree in atmospheric science from the University of Houston in 2017.

Kevin Douglass, president of the Houston Electric Auto Association, tells InnovationMap that the study does a good job of emphasizing "the alarming situation that Houston is in with reference to its air quality and how electrification of the transportation system is a … way to improve the bad-air-quality situation."

The nonprofit Houston Electric Auto Association comprises EV owners, hobbyists, educators, and enthusiasts who promote the benefits of these vehicles.

Douglass says he's confident about the progression of the EV evolution in Houston.

"It only took a decade to go from horse-drawn carriage to automobile in the U.S.," he says. "One and a half decades from now, in 2035, at least half of the cars on the road will be electric. Thirty years from now, the vast majority of vehicles will be electric and autonomous."

Houston — which the nonprofit Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative praises as one of the 10 friendliest U.S. cities for EVs — already is on the road toward enhancing air quality by putting more electric vehicles (EVs) on the road. In fact, a 2018 report from the Environment Texas Research and Policy Center predicts the number of EVs in Houston will rise to 65,000 by 2030.

An estimated 9,500 EVs were being driven by Houston motorists in 2018, according to a presentation given in May by Michael Conklin, external engagement manager at Houston-based utility CenterPoint Energy. And by 2028, that number could reach 110,000, the presentation says.

"Electric cars aren't the future — they're already here, and they work," Douglass said in 2018. "As more people learn about them, they will enjoy owning and driving them."

Among Houston's highest-profile EV champions is Mayor Sylvester Turner, who's leading the charge to shift the city-owned fleet away from traditional vehicles and toward hybrids and EVs.

"Transportation is responsible for 48 percent of Houston's greenhouse gas emissions — the highest per capita of all U.S. cities — and something we must address to move our city forward," Turner, co-chair of the Climate Mayors organization, said in 2018.