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Houston 2035: Innovative Cities Make Diversity A Growth Engine

Xconomy Texas — 

What makes Houston one of the nation’s most innovative cities of the future but also represents its biggest challenge? Its diversity.

Hand-wringing over the diversification of those who call America’s fourth largest city home is beside the point, said Stephen Klineberg, founding director at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “It’s done; it’s already happening,” he told about 300 audience members at the inaugural Houston 2035 conference last Thursday at TMCx.

Instead of focusing on the differences between socio-economic and ethnic groups, embrace them, said Bill Aulet of the MIT Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, who followed Klineberg onstage. “Take advantage of the demographics,” he said. “WASPs don’t found companies; they aren’t entrepreneurs.”

During Houston 2035, part of Xconomy’s Xponential Cities series, a group of Texas and national voices gathered to discuss how the city could remain an innovative leader in the decades to come. The topics included strengths in healthcare, energy, and education, as well as infrastructure, development, urban revitalization, and the search for talent.

“This is a powerful brand that is not being leveraged,” said Ferran Prat, vice president of strategic industry ventures at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

One of the ways that Houston can leverage the research and the millions of patients that seek out care at Texas Medical Center institutions is by targeting “small data,” said John Holcomb, vice chair of the department of surgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center and a co-founder of healthIT startup Decisio Healthcare.

While Houston’s expertise in healthcare and energy are well-known, Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of the Mercury Fund in Houston, said the city’s IT community will begin to flex its muscles as well, namely through what he expects will be an IPO from Alert Logic. The Houston cloud security company was founded a decade ago and Mercury was one of its first investors.

A public offering will create a cluster of future IT CEOs and founders, Garrou said. Other entrepreneurs will create software and hardware to innovate within the legal, insurance, and restaurant industries.

In addition to high-level discussions on economic and urban development, Houston 2035 featured individuals who are innovating throughout the world. Take, for instance, Rebecca Richards-Kortum, a Rice University professor whose work has led to the development of a much cheaper “bubble CPAP” machine that is saving premature babies in sub-Saharan Africa.

She said that such development, which aids the world’s poorest, is also helpful closer to home. “Seven percent of the poorest 10 percent are from the United States,” she added.

Bonnie Dunbar, who leads the University of Houston’s STEM Center and Science Engineering Fair Houston, spoke about her journey growing up on a farm in rural Washington state to a highly coveted perch as a NASA astronaut. “Today, fewer than five percent of undergraduates are engineers,” she said. “We have an inspiration problem.”

Making Houston an innovation destination takes more than researchers and scientists, said Atul Varadhachary, managing partner at Fannin Innovation Studio. “All components of the ecosystem must participate in the framing of this discussion.”

Simrit Parmar, an MD Anderson oncologist and a founder of Platform Houston, pointed to efforts such as the MEST conference, a gathering of specialists in medicine, energy, space, and technology. Parmar founded the conference in 2013.

Those efforts are key, said Henk Mooiweer, with Shell Gamechanger. “We need to force serendipity, force dot-connection,” he said. “We need more stories on challenges. They’re better than success stories. That’s how you build motivation.”