The Ion Innovation Hub is Ready for its Closeup

HOUSTON –  By Cynthia Lescalleet, for Realty News Report –  In a way, the Midtown building housing The Ion, an innovation hub, has stayed true to its roots as a resource meeting many needs.

Once a bustling department store chock full of goods for yesteryear’s one-stop shoppers, the repurposed property now offers a range of collaborative spaces, services, classroom and maker resources, and programming that supports today’s entrepreneurs, startups – and investors.

The Ion’s mission is to forge pathways between businesses, educational institutions, startups, incubators, venture capital and the community at large “to strengthen Houston’s economic resilience” — and to do so inclusively.

A former Sears, re-imagined and redeveloped by Rice Management Co., the 266,000-square-foot building anchors an innovation district now emerging on 16 acres of RMC-stewarded property in Midtown. A 1,585-space parking garage over street-level retail is under construction. It will serve The Ion as well as three future buildings, a mix of office space and possible multifamily units. Additional outdoor spaces will echo and extend The Ion’s half-acre plaza and open air public spaces. Start dates have not been announced, RMC officials said.

This week, The Ion, 4201 Main St. at Wheeler,  is hosting its Activation Festival, a public grand opening to showcase the innovation hub’s purpose, amenities and possibilities.

Ion Panel Discussion: Three Innovation Districts

Among the festival programming on Monday was a panel of experts from similar collaborative entities who shared their outcomes and tips for Houston’s nascent “innovation ecosystem.”

Brooklyn Navy Yard

As an example, the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York is now a 300-acre complex of 70 buildings and 450 businesses. The transformation of the property and purpose has been a 20-year endeavor, with more to come. The synergy between tenants – a mix of manufacturing and creative ventures — continues to net further collaborations, said Johanna Greenbaum, chief development officer at the Brooklyn innovation district. In addition to incorporating academic and training programs, the venture has an employment center to help place workers whose skills have incubated along with their employer’s growth.

Opportunity Hub – Atlanta

In Atlanta, meanwhile, the 10-year-old Opportunity Hub has targeted not just innovation but innovation equity, said Rodney Sampson, executive chairman and CEO. Among his talking points: less than 1 percent of tech engineers and executives are Black and less than 1 percent of venture capital goes to Black founded edge technologies.

Having spaces for innovation is not enough, he said. “Don’t just invest in a place but in programs and in people.”

Toward that, Sampson stressed the importance of fostering early exposure to the “innovation economy,” skill development and talent placement . They are the underpinnings of any future entrepreneurship and future access to capital, which leads to job creation and wealth.

The Ion

The Ion is “on to something” and open to best practices, said panelist Jan Odegard, executive director. Since re-opening the building to in-person use in mid-February, the Ion has held 90 events and programs attended by a cross-section of Houston’s diverse workforce.

The Ion, a development affiliated with Rice University, has restaurants and outdoor seating. Photo credit: Shannon O’Hara Photography

“It’s not what we have done but what we want to do” that has Ion leadership all in and for the long haul, he said. The Ion is being developed by Rice Management, which handles the Rice University endowment,.

Current tenants at The Ion include Microsoft, Chevron Technology Ventures, Schlumberger and Dow Chemicals plus startups like Liongard and early-stage companies like Koda Health and Clutch. The Ion District, meanwhile, is now home to Greentown Labs Houston and the recently announced education facility for Theatre Under the Stars. An affiliation with Exxon Mobil has  been announced, as well.

The innovation district sits at the mid-point of downtown and Texas Medical Center, further defining an entire innovation corridor along the MetroRail line on Main Street.

As the number of innovation centers and districts increase across the country, they are not cookie cutter endeavors, the panel noted. Cities bring their own DNA to their projects. Odegard pointed to Houston’s heavy industry and medicine as economic markers that innovators will continue to evolve into what else they could be or need.

In the meantime, the Ion’s Activation Festival invites the curious public to check out the space, the startup showcase, some events – and perhaps reminisce about their trips with grandparents to the old department store for school clothes, tools or household goods. As one RMC rep observed, few buildings can fuse nostalia and innovation.

May 9. 2022 – Realty News Report Copyright 2022

Photos: Courtesy The Ion. Photo credit: Shannon O’Hara Photography

File: The Ion Innovation Hub

The Ion – a podcast with Ryan LeVasseur of Rice Management

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