We’ve focused in past posts on university innovation centers, hubs of entrepreneurship. But what if a city decided to focus on innovation and entrepreneurship, making these values the driving force behind several major initiatives – and after you went to a school that was in this city, you could naturally gravitate to an innovation hub geared to promote inventive ideas?

Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to make Houston the “Smart City of the World.” And several local universities are right behind him.

Technology & Innovation Task Force

During the city of Houston’s 2017 budgetary cycle, city government was forced to deal with a large deficit by implementing austerity measures. Afterwards, a council member introduced a budget amendment to create a Technology & Innovation Task Force that would make strategic recommendations to the Mayor and City Council about attracting and retaining technology and innovation startups.

Members of that Task Force included representatives from Rice University, the University of Houston, and Texas Southern University, as well as Station Houston, a nonprofit acceleration hub, NASA, and Houston Technology Center.

Alliance with Microsoft

Houston announced a first-ever partnership with Microsoft in May 2018. This alliance’s goals include improving innovation and digital literacy in the city, as well as furthering smart city initiatives.

Five middle schools and high schools will become “tech advancement laboratories,” providing education for parents, veterans and workers who are transitioning careers. Initiatives focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, DigiGirlz camps geared toward high school girls, and BizSpark, a program providing free software and support to start-up businesses, are just some of the ways Microsoft will further digital literacy.

Cameron Carr, director of internet of things strategy and scale solutions for Microsoft, notes that after events like Hurricane Harvey, drones could be used to find people needing assistance or to determine impassable areas.

Houston’s Smart City website also lists public safety projects like firefighting drones and transportation projects that would capture traffic data in real time.

A Smart City Advisory Council was additionally formed as a result of this partnership with Microsoft, to develop a roadmap of strategies for smart city efforts going forward.

Houston Exponential

Just a month earlier, the nonprofit Houston Exponential named former IBM executive Russ Capper as its executive director. Houston Exponential came into being by combining the Houston Technology Center with the city’s Technology and Innovation Task Force and the Greater Houston Partnership’s Innovation Roundtable.

Houston Exponential’s goal is to “accelerate the growth of Houston’s innovation ecosystem….by creating pathways for innovation to flow at scale.”

The Ion

The revitalization of the historic Sears building in Houston’s designated innovation district is set to begin in May 2019. This is a major step forward in creating this Midtown district, which is located on a Metro transit line and near an intersection of freeways, as well as being within three miles of five universities.

The Ion is designed to create curated collisions and collaborations between Houston’s entrepreneurial, corporate, and academic communities. Businesses at all stages of the innovation lifecycle will be supported. Public programming, including entrepreneurial workshops, job training, and industry lectures, will be overseen by Station Houston.

Educational events and demonstrations are planned as well, and restaurants and entertainment will also be in the mix as a draw.

Regarding the new name for this 270,000 square foot building, Rice University President David Leebron notes, “We chose the name Ion because it’s from the Greek ienai, which means ‘go’. We see it as embodying the ever-forward motion of discovery, the spark at the center of a truly original idea. It also represents the last three letters in many of the words that define the building’s mission, like inspiration, creation, acceleration and innovation.”

Rice Management Co. (RMC) owns the 16 acres that form the innovation district. Rice University is contributing $100 million toward the inaugural project. But it is not the only school involved.

A network of local universities, including the University of Houston, UH-Downtown, the University of St. Thomas, Houston Community College, Texas Southern University, Houston Baptist University, San Jacinto College and the South Texas College of Law, will all provide multiple forms of academic programming within The Ion.

Ion Smart Cities Accelerator

Finally, it was announced just this past month that Microsoft and Intel will create a partnership in Houston called the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator. Station Houston and the collaborative manufacturing workspace TXRX Labs will be part of this alliance as well.

This partnership’s business program is designed to support companies creating solutions for areas like disaster response. Beginning in August, the Accelerator will provide six months of structured curriculum and six months of pilot programs, allowing companies that are creating internet of things applications to test their products in real-life situations.

The Accelerator plans to move from Station Houston’s Building to the Ion, once that revitalized structure opens in late 2020.

Smart City = Technology Innovation

When Houston was knocked out of the running for Amazon’s next headquarters, Mayor Sylvester Turner resolved to do more to invite and create technology innovation in his city.

Months after the Amazon headquarters finalists were announced, the Mayor said as part of his remarks on Houston partnering with Microsoft: “Houston is rapidly developing the technology innovation field as its next big industry. Now you know what I meant when I said in my annual state of the city speech that we didn’t get Amazon…so we will make our own.”

Let us know what you think about this post in the comments. In our next post we’ll take a closer look at the innovation currently taking place in Houston universities.