Without a doubt, the challenges of 2020 have shown us that it pays to innovate. Daring to find a solution or to find smarter ways to do business, can launch new businesses, new industries and lift communities.
Sure, Houston has an impressive history of innovation. Think back to the 1960s: The Astrodome was the first-ever domed stadium, once dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World when it was completed in 1965. Dr. Denton Cooley performed the first human heart transplant in 1968; the first artificial heart transplant in 1969. That same year, NASA’s Mission Control celebrated as Neil Armstrong radioed from the surface of the moon, “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Solitary dreamers didn’t accomplish putting a man on the moon, heart transplants or the debut of domed stadiums on their own. Building the Astrodome took three architecture firms, three engineering firms and a general contractor – plus the input and effort of an army of others – to become a reality. Any business or project leader will tell you: it takes a village.
Those types of iconic collaborations and innovations, though monumental and brag-worthy, did not create an innovation ecosystem in which entrepreneurs and fledgling businesses could flourish. It’s been more than 50 years since Houston was considered a center of innovation. Ways of doing business have changed. Some industries are shrinking, while new industries and business avenues are emerging. The business landscape is evolving.
Around the time of Amazon’s high-profile hunt for its HQ2 in 2017, local business leaders realized Houston didn’t offer a supportive environment for entrepreneurs, startups and emerging businesses. For Downtown proponents, this awareness is not about missing out on companies like Amazon that could import jobs and attract a temporary spotlight to Houston. It’s about missing out on fostering and facilitating local, homegrown startups that would generate organic job growth and have strong ties to the local community.
Mayor Sylvester Turner challenged the local business community to help shape the vision for Innovation Districts, and today three separate innovation campuses have been announced along a greater Innovation Corridor anchored by Main Street, stretching from Downtown to the Texas Medical Center.
While well-publicized innovation campuses such as Rice University’s ION and the Texas Medical Center’s TMC3 were announced in 2018, these concepts are still in the works and they are dedicated to specific research and technology fronts. The ION facility is set to open in 2021 and TMC3 is slated for 2022.
Downtown was also in the process of establishing a thriving innovation ecosystem, and through the visionary leadership of Central Houston and funding through the Downtown Redevelopment Authority (DRA), a plan was hatched that could be put into action quickly.
Asking “What if?”
Robert Pieroni, director of economic development for Central Houston, explains how and why Downtown’s innovation hub got started: “We said ‘what if…?’”
Other major cities have witnessed how cultivating a critical mass of business startups and research in a single area yields opportunities for advancement for those concepts as a result of the powerful collisions and frequent exchange of ideas that stem from ongoing innovation programs.
“What if we set out to enable and empower local entrepreneurs instead of bringing in entrepreneurs from other places,” Pieroni asked Central Houston and DRA staff and board members. “That’s how you produce true job creation, rather than importing jobs from other cities.”
All included in one building
A threefold vision of inclusion differentiates the Downtown innovation hub from others in Houston. Downtown Lauchpad was conceived to be: 1) a vertical village with a range of support programs, resources, advisors and meeting space; 2) a place for a startup to scale, expand and mature all in one high-rise; and 2) a home where all types of Houstonians with all types of business models are embraced.
“We had inclusivity in mind from the beginning, because we have one of the youngest, fastest growing and most diverse populations in the world,” says Pieroni.
So, in 2018, Pieroni’s team used DRA grants and City of Houston support to recruit Boston-based MassChallenge, a top-10 nationally ranked accelerator that’s also a nonprofit. “We brought MassChallenge to Houston to be our spark plug and bring the world to Houston to innovate,” says Pieroni. “We then signed up gener8tor, another top-10-ranked accelerator out of Madison, Wisconsin to hyper-focus on local founders and entrepreneurs.”
With two well-established accelerator programs onboard, DRA opened a request for proposals (RFP) in September 2019 seeking a Downtown property with the capacity to house these accelerators and other similar programs. Within a month, Amegy on Main was selected as the location and construction began on Downtown Launchpad in early December 2019, just three months after the RFP went out. Downtown Launchpad opens its doors this fall, and workshops and programming for cohorts and startups have already begun.
Layers of the Launchpad
Today, Downtown Launchpad lives on the 10th floor of Amegy on Main. The 17,000-square-foot space functions in conjunction with The Cannon, which occupies the top two floors of the building (and also operates entrepreneurial networking locations in West Houston and the Galleria area). The Cannon’s Downtown location, known as The Cannon Tower, hosts a network of entrepreneurs, investors and advisors who can connect – or collide – with Downtown Launchpad founders.
The building's 11th floor features a dedicated conference center/event space. The lobby of the building offers meeting rooms, a game room, workstations, a coffee bar and a deli for the convenient use of all Launchpad founders and members of the Cannon Tower. The idea is to induce a “right place, right time effect.”
MassChallenge and gener8tor kicked off cohorts earlier in the spring virtually. To help early stage companies get going, gener8tor also conducts a seven-week pre-accelerator program called gBETA, which is geared toward local entrepreneurs who are refining their business models and strategizing growth.
Seeking to provide another layer of services and support for entrepreneurs, Central Houston reached out to Impact Hub, a globally recognized nonprofit incubator that already had a presence in Houston and focuses on empowering startups to improve a wide spectrum of social injustice issues. “They will play an important role in the space offering education/continuing ed programs that will draw all types of business concepts and all Houstonians,” says Pieroni. Programming will include ongoing community events, including thought-provoking discussions, expert-led talks, hands-on learning opportunities and facilitated community conversations.
“With programs, such as coding, data science, software engineering, essentially we hope to up-skill and reskill people from our community who might become the first employees of the companies that will be floating within the vertical village,” says Pieroni. “We’re excited to build a continuum of lifecycle. With just the one main floor of Downtown Launchpad, we expect to accelerate 100 companies annually. With a 10-year lease, Downtown Launchpad could pipeline more than 1,000 startups into the Downtown ecosystem over the next 10 years.”
Co-location, Co-location, Collisions
Co-locating with The Cannon provides a convenient, pre-networked space for graduates and program attendees who need professional office space and resources. Lawson Gow, founder and president of The Cannon, says adding a Downtown location as their third site was a no-brainer. “We viewed Downtown as a hotspot for startups and tech companies, and of course, big corporations,” says Gow. “We wanted to provide a location with an existing cluster and natural attraction of those affinity groups, so because of those resources a Downtown location was a priority.”
Gow remarks that after looking at various locations, two things emerged that locked in the location in Amegy on Main. “We saw Amegy as a like-minded real estate partner that could understand our vision and had a great history of giving back to Houston. And I discovered Central Houston were amazing resources. They were extremely supportive of what we were doing and almost immediately they were thinking more innovatively about this accelerator concept.”
“We are fortunate to have a forward thinker like Robert [Pieroni] running with this vision alongside us, because this could really transform the entire city,” says Gow. “I certainly don’t want to play favorites with The Cannon locations, we plan to offer amazing innovation hubs across the entire expanse of the Houston area, but this collaboration within Amegy on Main is a real “Dream Team” alliance, assembling an all-star cast in one space.”
Getting a Critical Mass
Nonprofit accelerator MassChallenge coaches, connects and lifts promising startups without taking an ounce of equity. MassChallenge coached more than 50 startups in their first Houston cohort – an intensive entrepreneurial bootcamp. The group hopes to work with 100 startups next year.
MassChallenge’s ability to draw startups from all over the world and connect them with Downtown Houston’s business community and resources – like SMEs from related industries, legal, finance, accounting – brings crucial exposure to Houston and Downtown Launchpad,” says John Nordby, managing director for MassChallenge. “This benefits the local startup ecosystem by bringing in startups from all over the world, which brings in diverse perspectives and problem-solving strategies from a wide range of industries. These startups also have a lot of the same challenges as most startups, in terms of identifying customers, building teams and finding product-market fit, so being able to share varying perspectives is very valuable to them.”
Knowledge flows both ways
Nordby explains that as that expert community is developed and curated there is a mutually beneficial infusion of knowledge. “The local business experts are mentoring the startups about how best to access their industries and what’s really important to them,” he says. “And at the same time, the startups are educating those local industry experts on how these startups are developing and maybe how they treat their teams, and so on. The local experts in turn take that startup culture and creativity back to their organizations, which can shift how they think about working with startups or how they think about things like open innovation and internal innovation.
While MassChallenge is relatively new to Houston, Nordby is no new kid in town. He’s a native Houstonian and University of Houston grad who worked with Houston Exponential and the Greater Houston Partnership prior to joining MassChallenge.
Through his past roles he discovered how innovation ecosystems developed in other cities that were at a similar stage of innovation compared to where Houston is now. “We learned that when a city hasn’t had an innovation mindset in place for decades (like Seattle or San Francisco) that it’s challenging, but crucial to change the perception of innovation in your corporate community,” says Nordby.
That sentiment may be difficult to measure, but Nordby suggests those cultural shifts will emerge over time as the established business community interacts with the startup community.
Velocity of Innovation
“Companies are innovating much more rapidly than they were 10 or 15 years ago. And, certainly we’ve seen that increase dramatically during 2020’s challenges,” says Nordby.
Nordby explains two types of innovation: internal and external. Nimble companies can innovate from within, while less agile companies end up seeking external assistance to implement innovation. “Most companies are good at identifying problems, but they’re usually not as good at finding and implementing solutions. If they can find ways to take ideas from their R&D benches and put them in motion, that’s great, but corporate environments are often too big and too slow to accomplish these internally, so they have to find external sources to help them innovate.”
For all the groups collaborating with Downtown Launchpad, that circumstance of the corporate environment is an advantage, because a thriving innovation hub has access to innovation at a higher velocity than corporate giants ever could.
“And certainly some large companies can problem solve better than others,” says Nordby. “But with the opportunity for corporate executives to walk into this hub, witness the innovative thinking that’s already happening, talk to advisors and experts, and potentially get connect to startups in the field they are seeking – that’s an incredible asset for any city, but Houston, in particular, is in need of this.
“Our industries, in general, have quite frankly lagged behind other industries in external innovation for so many years, he says. “Our economy has been so strong for so long. Who takes the time to fix problems when they’re making lots of money? A lot of Houston industries have had that luxury.”
Why make the effort to foster an innovation ecosystem? Synergy. Nordby explains that when you can combine giving corporations access to innovation at a high velocity with giving startups access to industry knowledge that validates and informs their ideas you get a powerful synergy. “That that’s when the funding comes in, you get more national attention, and your resources can snowball and pour into the ecosystem,” he says.
Support the Locals
While MassChallenge propels startups that are well organized and preparing to scale, Madison, Wisconsin-based gener8tor offers its gBETA program, through Downtown Launchpad. “Our gBETA pre-accelerator is a seven-week program that can equip founders and startups with a path forward and network to start up their business,” says Abby Taubner, a partner with gener8tor.
Eleanore Cluzel, director of gener8tor’s gBETA Houston program, heads up gBETA’s 7-week cohorts, workshops designed to help entrepreneurs refine their business models, meet mentors, strategize their growth, gain customer traction and pitch investors.
“People come in for the seven weeks and our goal is that as they move forward they have the resources and the network to help them succeed,” says Taubner. “Our hope that anyone can come to us, even if our seven-week program isn’t a fit for them, we want to help plug them in with people who can help them grow.”
Cluzel says she appreciates working with the close-knit community of Downtown Launchpad. “I always see support, availability and flexibility from everyone involved because everyone wants everyone to succeed,” she says. “You see people going the extra mile to ensure your success, and that’s so refreshing.”
“There has been so much amazing work in Houston paving the way,” says Taubner. “We have the privilege of being one of many resources available to the community, and we’re excited to see what we can do along with these organizations whose missions align with ours.”
Taubner highlights the lasting impacts of their programs. “Participants take away the lessons and philosophies from the coaching they’ve received and the network they’ve acquired during the program, plus we continue to meet with them on a monthly basis,” she says. “Each time we run one of these programs, the graduates of each class are well positioned to mentor the next class. It creates a positive cycle, so you’ll see the local community level-up each year.”
“Houston is a very, very big city,” says Cluzel, who is French, but has lived in Houston for seven years. “What I like about Downtown Launchpad is that all the resources for startup programs are in one place – like MassChallenge and Impact Hub. It’s great to have the one-stop shop for startups and founders to know where to reach us. It’s also helpful to interact with my counterparts from the other resources. We want to make sure we’re providing topnotch services that are complementary to each other, and therefore filling all the gaps for startups.”
What is social innovation? It’s about creating ideas for change and the intended social impact, whether that is housing for the homeless, a cleaner environment, improved access to health care, more effective education, reduced poverty, protection of abused children, deeper appreciation of the arts or some other social improvement.
Impact Hub’s mission is to inspire, connect and empower people working to solve some of society’s most pressing problems in the Greater Houston area and beyond. “Building a seamless pipeline for impact innovators and social entrepreneurs is vital,” says Grace Rodriguez, CEO/executive director of Impact Hub. “It takes a village to raise an entrepreneur; and now we have that village with the infrastructure and community to raise generations of diverse innovators. It’s another exciting step towards our goal to build an authentically inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem that looks like Houston and works for all in our region.”