GALLERY: The Ion, former Sears building in Midtown, to become new hub for innovation, entrepreneurship

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The Ion is a structure designed to bring Houston's entrepreneurial, corporate, and academic communities together.

In Houston’s grandest quest to spur entrepreneurship, The Ion is opening later this year.

While throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the Ion hosted virtual programmings, such as Family Tech Night and startup events, officials said they hope the physical space will serve as a nucleus of collaboration, exploration and innovation by bringing together the entrepreneurial, corporate & academic communities.

“People that are involved in the ecosystem are really excited about the changes that they see,” said Deanea LeFlore, the senior director of partnerships at The Ion.

Breaking ground in July 2019, The Ion is a six-level redevelopment of the former Sears building centered between downtown and the Texas Medical Center. The 266,000-square-foot building features classrooms, labs and prototyping space, co-working and office space and restaurants.

The Ion at 4201 Main Street also features about 50,000 square feet for the public and a shared space for events and programming.

Investing in innovation

Despite the success in the fields of energy, space and medicine, Houston struggled to attract expansion projects technology companies. In many cases, those jobs went to in-state neighbors of Austin and Dallas.

Over the last few years, city, business, and educational leaders have noted the rejection and committed to expanding the innovation ecosystem.

Interim Executive Director Jan Odegard said as a former professor at Rice University he watched as many graduates fled Houston to find employment in other cities. Students didn’t “see” the technology jobs.

Odegard said that was “disheartening” because technology opportunities are available in Houston. For example, many energy companies are seeking IT professionals, but those are not traditional tech jobs.

The Ion seeks to improve the connectivity of the emerging industry while providing a safe space for a diverse community to learn new skills, launch new businesses and accelerate companies.

Backed by Rice Management Company, along with all the major Houston-area educational institutions, the center will offer boot camps, short-term certification, accelerator programs, angel investing and other events.

Residents will also gain access to career development opportunities.

“We are building the infrastructure that’s going to support that. We want to continue to attract and retain talent in Houston,” LeFlore said.

Advancing the community

With the seed of innovation being rooted across the city, The Ion leadership believes the city is headed in the right direction.

“Data shows an increase in the number of resources for startups, the number of co-working locations, and the amount of venture capital money entering the Houston market,” LeFlore said.

In terms of venture capital investment, one key metric to measure tech and innovation, Houston is tracking to reach $1 billion in annual VC investment in startups and entrepreneurship in Houston, according to Odegard. This could exceed the reported $700 million invested in 2020.

The Ion leadership said the goal is to amplify what is already being done in the community. LeFlore said partnerships are essential.

“We’re not going around recreating the wheel, but complementing each other, building each other up and growing together,” she said.


This story has been updated to reflect that The Ion is expected to open later in 2021.

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