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."

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Building Houston

 
 

Veronica Wu, founder of First Bight Ventures, recently announced new team members and her hopes for making Houston a leader in synthetic biology. Photo courtesy of First Bight Ventures

Since launching earlier this year, a Houston-based venture capital firm dedicated to investing in synthetic biology companies has made some big moves.

First Bight Ventures, founded by Veronica Wu, announced its growing team and plans to stand up a foundry and accelerator for its portfolio companies and other synthetic biology startups in Houston. The firm hopes to make Houston an international leader in synthetic biology.

“We have a moment in time where we can make Houston the global epicenter of synthetic biology and the bio economy," Wu says to a group of stakeholders last week at First Bight's Rocketing into the Bioeconomy event. "Whether its energy, semiconductor, space exploration, or winning the World Series — Houstonians lead. It’s in our DNA. While others look to the stars, we launch people into space.”

At First Bight's event, Wu introduced the company's new team members. Angela Wilkins, executive director of the Ken Kennedy Institute at Rice University, joined First Bight as partner, and Serafina Lalany, former executive director of Houston Exponential, was named entrepreneur in residence. Carlos Estrada, who has held leadership positions within WeWork in Houston, also joins the team as entrepreneur in residence and will oversee the company's foundry and accelerator that will be established to support synthetic biology startups, Wu says.

“First Bight is investing to bring the best and the brightest — and most promising — synthetic biology startups from around the country to Houston," Wu continues.

First Bighthas one seed-staged company announced in its portfolio. San Diego-based Persephone Biosciences was founded in 2017 by synthetic and metabolic engineering pioneers, Stephanie Culler and Steve Van Dien. The company is working on developing microbial products that impact patient and infant health.

Wu, who worked at Apple before the launch of the iPhone and Tesla before Elon Musk was a household name, says she saw what was happening in Houston after her brother moved to town. She first invested in Houston's synthetic biology ecosystem when she contributed to one of Solugen's fundraising rounds. The alternative plastics company is now a unicorn valued at over $1 billion.

“I founded First Bight because of what I see is the next great wave of technology innovation," she says at the event. "I founded it in Houston because the pieces are right here.”

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