New Microsoft, Intel Accelerator Seeks Tech to Make Houston Smart

Houston—Sensors that can measure rising waters in real time through internet-connected digital road signs, preventing commuters from driving into flooded underpasses.

Traffic signals that use cameras and analytics to adjust the time allowed to cross streets, depending on the individual who is in the crosswalk.

Those are among the types of technologies that could be deployed in Houston as a result of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, a collaboration between Microsoft and Intel with the city of Houston. The program will focus on Internet of Things technologies that could help Houston tackle problems related to mobility and disaster response, among other urban challenges. For example, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, several people, including a Houston police officer, died because they drove into areas not knowing how high the floodwaters were.

For Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, where the accelerator will be housed, focusing on developing smart-city technologies in Houston makes sense considering the wear on the city’s infrastructure, as the US’s fourth largest city tries to accommodate the large number of new residents that move to it each year.

“It’s going to become increasingly challenging for us as we grow to meet the needs of our people,” she says. “I would rather have us choose how to prioritize how we use technologies to facilitate this growth than the market or calamities or changes in circumstances make those decisions for us.”

The accelerator will begin hosting informational sessions next month, with startup applications due June 1, and decisions made July 1. The yearlong program is expected to start Aug. 1 and will be broken into two parts: Six months are focused on programming and fine-tuning products and the second half is devoted to doing a pilot with the city. Microsoft and Intel will periodically have staff on the ground in Houston to help entrepreneurs in the 10 to 14 companies expected to be selected.

The Houston program comes a few months after Dallas leaders launched its own smart cities startup program in February. Microsoft, along with AT&T and Cisco, are among the corporate supporters of the program.

The accelerator is a continuation of efforts in recent years that resulted in a study released last fall by Dallas’ Smart Cities Living Lab program, which featured nine projects in four blocks in the city’s West End neighborhood, including interactive kiosks, smart parking, air quality sensors, and smart lighting. The report by the Dallas Innovation Alliance says that the projects brought a 13 percent increase in foot traffic and a 12 percent boost to business revenue in the area.

For its part, Austin’s Capital Factory, along with Mobility X, the city of Austin, and the Austin Tech Alliance, are hosting a smart cities investment challenge in July for a $100,000 prize. San Antonio’s EPIcenter, a think tank and energy-startup incubator, has made efforts of its own to develop technology that’s focused on disaster relief and preparation.

In Houston, Rowe says the smart cities focus dovetails with existing efforts by Houston Exponential to boost Houston’s innovation ecosystem. “We should be representative of the kinds of innovation that can support and impact the greater Houston area,” she says. “Some of that is going to be industrial in focus and some municipal in focus. Smart cities is an area that touches both.”

Eventually, Rowe says the plan is for the accelerator to reside at the Ion, the central hub for the city’s planned new Innovation District. In addition, the city is working with school officials at the Aldine Independent School District to deploy Internet of Things software developed by BeSafe Technologies to two district schools. The emergency response technology can be used to alert school and public safety officials to a school shooting, for example.

“This creates a communication hub that instantly connects on-site security with police, fire, and other emergency responders, as well as building occupants,” Kevin Harrington, BeSafe’s CEO, says in a press release this week.

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