Most Houston tech accelerators sticking with virtual services for now

Houston’s startup accelerators appear to be playing it safe when it comes to reopening their doors, opting not to restart operations Friday in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement that it’s OK to do so.

Most of the startup development organizations contacted by the Chronicle indicated they would keep their physical locations closed for now, watching to see what the area COVID-19 case and fatality numbers look like – as well as taking the pulse of their members and staff – before deciding to return to their offices.

“What I have told my staff is that we will not do anything they will feel uncomfortable with,” said Gabriella Rowe, CEO of the Ion, the startup hub being built along the Main Street innovation corridor.

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The Ion has its headquarters downtown, sharing space with the Station Houston accelerator, which was recently acquired by Austin-based Capital Factory. Both will remain closed for the foreseeable future, Rowe said.

Tech accelerators’ mission is to share knowledge and foster collaboration among young businesses, but most have moved to doing so remotely, with video conferencing versions of events such as pitch nights and “office hours” with mentors and investors.

Rowe said most of her counterparts are being as cautious as the Ion and Station. And many are finding that the online training, programming and virtual meetings are working out well, which is not surprising given that “we are tech,” she said.

“I don’t think of it as going back to work, because this whole time we have been working our butts off,” Rowe said.

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One of the exceptions is The Cannon, an accelerator and coworking space with three Houston locations. CEO Jon Lambert said the facilities “haven’t been hard-closed,” but with Abbott’s pronouncement, activities will ratchet back up.

“Our staff will be back in the building, and we can now offer services to that subset of folks who have been anxious to have a place to work,” Lambert said.

But there will be significant changes. The Cannon is removing chairs and desks to help keep occupancy at or below the 25 percent limit set by the state. Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes will be within easy reach in most places. Disposable cups, plates and utensils will replace the reusable dishes in break areas.

Staff will be required to wear masks, but members will be “strongly recommended” to do so, Lambert said. Masks will be available on-hand for those who want one.

In a document being sent to all of the The Cannon’s members, they’ll learn that: “We’re going to Velcro Kleenex boxes to the conference room door handles so people can open the doors with a Kleenex and then throw it away.”

Even then, group events won’t be back right away, Lambert said. The Cannon’s programming will continue as virtual, with the soonest in-person gatherings could happen is mid-June, if then.

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Houston Exponential, the nonprofit that helps support startup development organizations, has been allowing its tenants to enter the building since the Harris County stay-at-home order was in place, but guests have not been allowed in the building, said Harvin Moore, its president.

Guests will now be allowed to enter, but there will limits on the number of people in common areas such as conference rooms.

Other members of the tech ecosystem indicate they’ll stay closed for now.

“We are still up and running, but remotely,” said Wesley Okeke, CEO of Fruition Technology Labs in Houston. “We won’t open for at least another two to three weeks. We are waiting to see how the pandemic progresses. Or digresses.”

At the Founder Institute, director James Phelan said that accelerator just graduated its winter cohort of startups, with the entire program run virtually. A new class won’t be in place until mid-August.

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Normally, the Institute, which has its national headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., has local sessions at the Houston Exponential offices.

“Our director team plans to see how everything goes in the next few weeks or months, and are prepared to either return to hosting physical sessions at (Houston Exponential) or to stay online,” Phelan said.

Grace Rodriguez, CEO of Impact Hub Houston, also said that accelerator would not be reopening yet.

“We are going to continue providing workshops, events and meetups online,” Rodriguez said. “We ask our members to continue working from home until we’re confident it’s safe to convene in person.”

Impact Hub has a partnership with the Cannon to provide coworking space, but Rodgriguez said the accelerator will “advise our members to stay home.”

Sesh Coworking, a “female-focused” co-working space in the Montrose area, had planned a grand opening March 26 that was scuttled by the lockdown, said co-founders Maggie Segrich and Meredith Wheeler. That will now happen sometime this summer, “or whenever life begins to take on some normalcy,” Wheeler said.

“We are community-based, and we need to talk with the current members to see the way they feel,” Wheeler said. “We have to go to them first. If we are going to open, they need to feel 100 percent safe and comfortable with it.”





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