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New Report Ranks Houston Among Top U.S. Metros for Innovation

Published Apr 24, 2024 by Hailea Schultz

Rice University

Rice University

Houston's universities and medical institutions have secured the city a top spot in a recent report ranking it among the top U.S. metropolitan areas for innovation. 

The Engines of Opportunity report, released by the George W. Bush Presidential Center, placed the Bayou City in eighth, surpassing Austin, San Diego and Los Angeles. The report used a composite score consisting of patents issued, technology licenses, licensing income, startup companies formed, citations in researcher’s academic papers and patents and the number of STEM graduates. 

According to the Houston Business Journal, Houston performed highly in licensing income, patents and citations. Attributing to the city’s success, the University of Houston system ranked 60th on the National Academy of Inventors’ list of the Top 100 Universities in the U.S. Granted Utility Patents, boasting 32 patents in 2022 and more than 200 since 2015. The Carnegie-designated Tier One research university is home to UH Technology Bridge, an innovation park for technology commercialization, industrial partnerships and startup development, sparking innovation and life-changing research through its innovation center, incubator labs and other resources.

Rice University boosted Houston’s position through its groundbreaking startup initiatives such as the Rice Alliance program. Dedicated to supporting technology commercialization, entrepreneurship education and the launch of technology companies, the program has earned recognition as the top Graduate Entrepreneurship Program by the Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine for five consecutive years, raising nearly $26 billion in funding since its establishment. 

Additionally, Rice’s STEM graduate degree programs significantly influenced the ranking. The university was recently recognized as the 29th best institution in the nation for its grad schools by U.S. News & World Report

While Houston's innovation corridor and life sciences ecosystem thrive due to the pioneering efforts of its universities and renowned research hubs like the Ion and the Texas Medical Center, the city still trails behind in terms of large-scale innovative activities, according to the report. Cullum Clark, the author of the report, told the Houston Business Journal that "Houston has a commanding position in oil and gas industry innovation and one of the leading positions in the country in life science and medicine, but arguably has a less diversified range of innovative activities than some other Sun Belt metros." 

Houston’s universities are actively working to drive innovation and research through new initiatives, programs and facilities. The University of Houston recently appointed two new leaders to oversee its startup ecosystem and technology licensing, aiming to enhance entrepreneurship and accelerate the commercialization of research discoveries. Meanwhile, Rice University announced plans to launch the Master of Energy Transition and Sustainability, which will equip graduates with the skills needed to overcome challenges in the region’s evolving energy landscape and drive innovation in sustainability across a wide range of domains from technology to economics and policy. 

Baylor College of Medicine also recently began construction on its new health science facility dubbed the Lillie Roy Cullen Tower at the Texas Medical Center’s Helix Park. Slated for completion in 2026, the building will be dedicated to training new health professionals and advancing medical research.   

Learn more about Houston’s innovation ecosystem

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New Report Highlights the Ion District’s Investment in Houston’s Tech and Innovation Ecosystem

The Ion District, Houston’s thriving 16-acre innovation hub, recently released its 2024 Community Investment Report, highlighting the organization’s commitment to the community and its efforts to bolster the region’s evolving tech ecosystem.   The report outlined a few of the organization’s key initiatives in 2023, including workforce development, a crucial need as Houston continues to expand its presence in innovation and tech. According to the Partnership’s Houston Facts report, Houston led all U.S. cities in tech job posting growth in 2022, with a 45.6 percent increase year-over-year.  Last year, the Ion District announced its selection of Per Scholas as its workforce training partner to support its Tech Job Training and Talent Placement Program. Since its establishment, the program has received over 930 applications, enrolled 48 students, launched three cohorts and witnessed 21 students graduate. The program offers tuition-free courses that are designed to meet industry standards and provide graduates with the skills needed for high demand jobs.   In addition to workforce development, the Ion District worked to increase opportunities for local minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs) through its Inclusive Tech Accelerator and Inclusive Tech Investment Fund. With a combined investment of $6.5 million from Rice University, these initiatives provide companies with funding to advance their service or product.  Other achievements include the organization’s MWBE Outreach and Technical Assistance program, which hosted seven events last year with over 800 attendees. The program pairs MWBEs with an advisor to develop strategies for economic development opportunities within the Ion.   Community collaboration was also a major focus for the Ion District last year. According to the report, the organization hosted over 1,000 events aimed at educating the greater Houston community on initiatives focused on technical up-skilling and workforce development and services supporting the growth of underrepresented-founders, tech-enabled companies and disadvantaged businesses.  These efforts have served as a catalyst for cross-industry collaboration, driving established companies to expand to the Ion. Last year, Houston Methodist opened its 1,200-square-foot Tech Hub at the Ion, which provides a collaborative space for innovators to advance digital health technologies.   “Houston Methodist’s space at the Ion opens up even more opportunities for our start-up and entrepreneur community to embed and gain exposure to the latest innovations in health care,” said Jan E. Odegard, Executive Director of Ion, in a statement. “This partnership is a testament to the ecosystem we’re building and the talent within our building.”  Other companies include SCS Technologies, which opened a 266,000-square-foot innovation hub last year to advance its energy transition efforts. Chevron and Microsoft were also among the Ion’s first tenants, a testament to the energy and tech giant’s dedication to the Houston community.   The groundbreaking advancements and collaborations emerging from the Ion District position Houston as an emerging leader in tech and innovation. According to Houston Facts, Houston boasts more than 9,000 tech-related firms, including over 1,000 venture-backed startups. Additionally, the report shows that maturing tech startups and companies in Houston have garnered significant support, generating $6.42 billion in venture capital funding over the last five years.   “The Ion allows our faculty and students to make an impact across the city, the country and the world through partnerships and collaborations that might not be formed otherwise,” said Reginald DesRoche, Rice University President. “The Ion allows us to work side-by-side with experts and actual end-users to help bring solutions to some of the city’s and the world’s most pressing challenges.”  Learn more about Houston’s tech and innovation ecosystem. 
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Houston Continues to Build Its Reputation as Emerging Tech Hub

As a home to world-changing innovations and a talented labor pool, Houston has been an attractive region for startups and digital tech firms for years. But it’s only recently that Houston has begun to receive its due as a prominent emerging tech hub, joining the likes of San Francisco and Austin as a major player in the sector and as a center of activity for the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.  According to Houston Facts, venture-backed startups have received more than $6 billion in venture capital funding over the last five years.  Another testament to Houston’s thriving startup ecosystem is that the region has cemented more than 80 startup development organizations (SDOs), including incubators and accelerators, makerspaces, co-working spaces, non-profits, and academic institutions that have succeeded in forming a growing network of resources to assist Houston’s tech entrepreneurs.  That growing network of resources was instrumental in the decision of Mallard Bay, a Louisiana-based online Airbnb-style marketplace for booking guided fishing and hunting trips, to expand its offices into Houston and join the Greater Houston Partnership as a member.  Mallard Bay participated in the 2022 Rice Business Plan Competition, winning $218,000 – the fourth most in investments and prizes. The international student startup competition also allowed Mallard Bay’s founders to network with a host of investors and funding sources, leading to an introduction to Softeq Venture Studio, which invests in early-stage startups.  “Entering the Rice Business Plan competition... not only [helped] us raise money, but the recognition and the contacts we made were instrumental in growing the business and sparked the idea to expand to Houston,” Logan Meaux, co-founder and CEO of Mallard Bay, said in a press release. “Prior to the competition, we were unaware of all that the Houston startup ecosystem had to offer, but quickly realized the value of having a network here in Houston.”  Mallard Bay said that it believes its expansion into Houston will bring a wealth of future growth opportunities, thanks to the region’s robust infrastructure to support innovation, entrepreneurship, and investment.  A recent push by Houston leaders to attract more startups has produced a surge of incubator and accelerator activity, while Houston’s universities are also making efforts to drive innovation, with the entrepreneurship programs at Rice University and University of Houston being singled out by Princeton Review as some of the top programs in the nation. The University of Houston also plans to open an Innovation Hub in 2025, in hopes of further catalyzing innovation in our region.  According to Craig Rhodes, Vice President of Regional Economic Development at the Partnership, “When an event like the Rice Business Plan Competition brings the top collegiate entrepreneurs to Houston, we now have the resources in place to attract these exciting innovative companies to want to grow in our community.” The Ion is another vital piece of Houston’s startup and tech ecosystem, offering 266,000 square feet of commercial office space for established tech companies, co-working space for early-stage startups, and common space for events and programming. Established in 2021, The Ion has since become the main hub in the thriving Ion District, a 16-acre innovation community and economic engine that is currently home to over 300 businesses and continues to invest in the tech sector’s job training and talent pipeline.  Home to more than 230,800 tech workers, Houston is a thriving hub of digital tech talent, with its tech workforce only expected to grow. According to a Dice study, Houston led all cities in tech job posting growth in 2022, with a 45.6 percent increase year over year.  Learn more about Houston’s tech and innovation ecosystem. 
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