Accelerating the Future: Rice’s OwlSpark and University of Houston’s RedLabs Thrive in Downtown

There might be a rivalry between Rice University and the University of Houston on the gridiron every fall, as the two institutions battle in the Bayou Bucket Classic. But for the last four summers, students taking part in Rice’s OwlSpark entrepreneurship accelerator and UH’s RedLabs start-up accelerator and technology entrepreneurship program have worked together in a single space, learning from each other, providing valuable feedback and cheering each other’s successes.

This summer the groups converged in Downtown, jointly leasing a space on the 37th floor of 1600 Smith for their 12-week program. Kerri Smith, managing director of OwlSpark, says the move was a terrific decision.

“OwlSpark has always had an educational component to it, as well as being a start-up accelerator,” she explains, noting how participants – who must apply and be accepted – spend part of their summer session learning about creating business plans and working on presentations. “But being Downtown really changes up the feel of the program. It no longer feels like just an academic program.”
She says students who took part got to see first-hand what it meant to be in a professional setting. Many start-ups have a laid-back feel to them, but the Downtown geography exposed OwlSpark and RedLabs participants to suit-wearing business people, as well as the concept of being in an office setting every day. Smith says that component was invaluable to helping students with their mindset.

“They realize that they are actually conducting business,” she says. “And that changes up their approach.”

Both programs provide participants with the opportunity to grow start-ups. They’re schooled in how to solve problems of development and present their ideas or products to potential investors. They need to learn to identify a customer base, and examine what marketplace problem they and their businesses are working to solve. Smith says 55 percent of OwlSpark’s cohorts have gone on further develop their businesses. A start-up called Arovia began at OwlSpark. Its product, the spontaneous pop-up display, or SPUD, recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to further develop its portable, 24-inch foldable display. And Big Delta Systems, with technology that enhances the workings of lithium-ion batteries, now has offices near NASA and continues to innovate.

Smith says that being in the city center this summer, as well as working again alongside RedLabs, helps OwlSpark participants see how much innovation matters to Houston’s future, and to realize how important it is to build their business networks.

“Density generates opportunities,” she says. “The kinds of random collisions that happened for our participants this summer allow for knowledge sharing and can help bring on new collaborations.”
On a larger level, that’s exactly what those who support Houston as an innovation center want to see happen in the future. 

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