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Houston university accelerators launch latest cohort virtually due to the coronavirus

University of Houston's RED Labs and Rice University's OwlSpark, which operate in tandem every summer, have had to re-imagine their accelerator programs in light of COVID-19. Photo courtesy of OwlSpark and RED Labs

It'll be a different kind of summer for two early-stage, university-affiliated accelerator programs that work in tandem to grow a cohort of startups.

University of Houston's RED Labs and Rice University's OwlSpark are re-imagining their programs this summer to make the most out of a virtual accelerator, which begins today, May 21, with 17 teams of startups.

"No doubt that COVID-19 will have a big impact on our program," says Kerri Smith, managing director of OwlSpark. "In the long run, there will always be the likely requirement of human-to-human interaction in the startup world — particular when it comes to generating business, meeting with customers, and securing investments — but from the training aspect, I think we are going to be able to provide something of value."

Smith says she has worked with Kelly McCormick, managing director of RED Labs, in preparing for this virtual programming in order to maintain the same level of support for the startups by using tools like Zoom, Skype, the Google Suite, and more.

McCormick, who is also an instructor at UH, has had the opportunity to test out having guest speakers in her class last semester and found that the virtual aspect was an opportunity to reach speakers that would otherwise be unavailable to come to campus.

"With challenges comes opportunities, and I think we're going to be able to deliver the same impactful content that we want to, just in a different way," McCormick says.

One challenge for the cohort will be conducting the customer engagement part of the experience virtually. Founders, Smith says, will have to focus on online customer discovery. Similarly, the startup pitch training will have to pivot to focus on pitching to a webcam.

"We've worked hard to design an experience around the reality that they are currently navigating, because it's a different reality right now," Smith says.

"Our primary goal is to create a culture of advocacy among our two cohorts, but also to help them develop some personal resiliency," Smith continues. "Challenging times reveal character in people and helping them develop some personal resiliency skills is going to come along with some of the things we are working with this summer."

The two programs were planned to have a new home in The Cannon Tower downtown this summer, which would have allows for face-to-face networking and collaboration. McCormick says they've planned virtual trivia, socials, and lunches to try to recreate the camaraderie of working together in a remote capacity.

"There's potential that we'll have some events in person, but that's really based on the guidance of our universities," McCormick says. "We'd love to have some opportunities in person, but it's really a matter if what's safe, and we're not going to require it."

Also new this year for Class 8 is a pilot program that incorporates startups from another university. Eight of the 17 teams in the cohort are from UH, while the other nine are representing Rice. However, through a partnership with the McFerrin Center for Entrepreneurship at Texas A&M University, three of Rice's teams hail from A&M.

"It's an experiment to expand the program by inviting other university teams," Smith says, adding that the partnership also allows the accelerator to tap into A&M's network of advisers. "Depending on the data at the end of the summer and the experience and value add, we'll evaluate whether or not that's something we want to continue doing."

The new virtual nature of the program allows for remote access for those founders based in College Station, as well as the founders who, due to campus shutdowns, were sent home mid semester in light of COVID-19.

The recruiting process was also done virtually, and McCormick says she did see a decrease in applications compared to last year — but the quality of the applicants was strong.

"There were definitely some difficult decisions," McCormick says. "The teams that did apply were a high caliber. They were really dedicated to going through the program — whatever it might looked like."

The program takes place over 12 weeks and concludes with a pitch event called the Bayou City Showcase. At this point, the event, which is usually live-streamed and held in front of an audience, is planned to still take place, however, McCormick and Smith say they aren't sure if there will be a physical event or if it will be online only.

Below is a list of descriptions for the 17 teams and the solutions they are providing.

  • an affordable, portable, imaging system capable of diagnosing diabetic retinopathy for low-resourced and underserved communities
  • an agricultural platform for use in urban settings that enables horticulturists to measure and record plant growth, detect disease, and recommend corrective actions
  • a suite of imaging and software tools that detect bleeding vessels in real-time surgery enabling surgeons to precisely locate and prevent life-threatening hemorrhages
  • an imaging device that enables healthcare professionals performing endovascular procedures to accurately visualize vascular access in a patient
  • a screening device that predicts biological hazards in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics without the use of animal models
  • an exercise platform for use in analyzing, critiquing, and correcting the form of individuals and athletes performing stationary exercises
  • an interactive content platform that uses data analytics to enable creators and viewers to more selectively choose content
  • a non-invasive skincare system that profiles the molecular concentration of the skin and creates customized formulations of products
  • a centralized pharmaceutical resource that enables women to make personalized and more informed decisions in contraceptive care
  • an advanced, improved diagnostic tool for optometrists
  • a user friendly toothbrush that monitors oral health
  • a portable cooling device that provides relief for symptoms of menopause
  • a physical therapy device that aids individuals with arm injuries in recovering their mobility quickly
  • a software that uses existing wifi to detect and alert help when an individual falls in their home
  • an improved air filter that decreases the amount of time users have to change the filter
  • a program that helps individuals invest in dividend producing stocks
  • a device that attaches to wheelchairs and raises the user so they can reach higher surfaces

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Building Houston

 
 

New partnership chair, Amy Chonis, gave her address at the 2021 GHP Annual Meeting. Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

With 2020 in the rearview, the Greater Houston Partnership is looking into the new year with a new board chair. In the GHP's 2021 Annual Meeting, the organization introduced how important developing the innovation community is in Houston.

In her remarks, this year's Partnership Chair Amy Chronis, who is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte, shared what she hopes to inspire in her tenure. Her statement can be boiled down to three major points.

It's time to modernize Houston's economy

Chronis says it's time to focus on tech and innovation — and that requires support from all aspects of the city.

"Here in Houston, we must be laser-focused on building a strong, diverse, 21st century economy," she says. "Over the past few years, entrepreneurs, investors, academic institutions, local government, and the corporate sector have come together to unite, grow, and promote Houston's startup ecosystem. The progress since 2016 is staggering."

Since 2016, Chronis says, venture capital investment in Houston has increased almost 250 percent to a record $714 million dollars raised in 2020. Additionally, she calls out 30 new startup development organizations that have sprung up around town — like the East End Maker Hub, The Cannon, The Ion, Greentown Labs, and so much more.

Chronis also calls out the importance of educational institutions, such as Rice University and the University of Houston.

It's the industries that drive innovation

There is a growing need to diversify Houston's economy away from just oil and gas, Chronis says it's Houston's core industries — energy, life sciences, aerospace, along with manufacturing and global logistics — that have made transformative steps.

"We've got momentum, but we still need to double down with work to do," Chronis says, identifying energy, life sciences, and aerospace as three pillars to drive success.

Regarding energy, Chronis touts Greentown Labs opening in Houston — but warns it's increasingly important to have big corporations promote the energy transition.

"From the super majors to the service firms and the increasing presence of renewable companies, Houston is at the forefront of driving the Energy 2.0 sector," she says.

When it comes to health care, Chronis remarks on the Texas Medical Center's success with the TMC Innovation Institute and the development of TMC3, a 37-acre research commercialization campus.

"What's special about TMC3 is that it will create collaboration and innovation at scale," she adds. "It will be a catalyst that will advance Houston's position as the Third Coast for Life Sciences."

Lastly, Houston must maintain its moniker as the Space City — and the city has a lot of opportunities to do that with the development of the Houston Spaceport at Ellington Airport and the NASA Johnson Space Center.

"Houston is already home to a rich talent pool of nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals and more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, but the potential is so much greater," Chronis says.

Houston needs to focus on four areas to "drive a technological renaissance"

Chronis concludes her speech with some calls to action. She first acknowledges that corporations ask themselves about how they are promoting and valuing innovation.

"We must be committed to inspiring, cultivating and rewarding technological innovation," Chronis says. "How is your company partnering with startups, higher education institutions and other stakeholders to drive innovation?"

Next, Chronis calls out Houston's global diversity as a differentiator when it comes to attracting companies to Houston, and she cites HPE as an example.

"We know there are hundreds of tech companies in the Valley, and up and down the West and East coasts that are striving to build global diversity within their companies," she says. "There is no better place than Houston to do this."

Third, Chronis calls for everyone — from corporates to educations — to empower the next generation of innovators.

And, finally, she says it's time to spread the word about Houston.

"We are modern, sophisticated, and at our core, an incredibly global city. Global in a way that sets us apart from most U.S. metros," she says. "So, as we embark on this work to drive Houston's technology renaissance, we must ensure perceptions of Houston are aligned with reality."

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