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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Stay Innovative Houston

By Rand Stephens (Houston)

Innovation has always been a part of the American spirit and the driving force of the U.S. economy. From the lightbulb to the Internet, from the Model-T to the autonomous vehicle, and from the telephone to the cellphone – we are a nation of continuous technological advancements. Technology comes in many forms and it is booming right here - in Houston, Texas.

Houston is a cutting-edge city where science, academia and industry can collaborate to take the next giant, innovative leap. Yet, many are still lamenting over Amazon passing over Houston for their HQ2 and blaming it on a shortage of digital tech talent. In fact, Houston has an abundance of tech talent that is being absorbed by the energy, healthcare and aerospace industries.  Perhaps that kind of competition for tech-savvy professionals is too much for Amazon.  

Recently, Greater Houston Partnership President and CEO Bob Harvey indicated that Houston’s lack of digital talent may be why it didn’t make Amazon’s short list for HQ2.  “While we are the number one market in the country for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) talent, we need to bolster our pipeline of digital tech talent that is relevant to tomorrow’s digital economy,” stated HarveyThat statement is half true.  Houston is the STEM hub of the nation. It should focus on staying innovative in the industries that make this the energy capital of the world and the home of the largest medical complex in the world – two of the five major industries that drive the U.S. economy.  Instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, Houston should remain centered around its natural strengths – energy, medicine and aerospace.  It does not need to be the next Silicon Valley. Innovation is essential for the medicine, energy and aerospace sectors to continue to thrive in the future.
“Houston is arguably now the country’s most important emerging city, with the largest job growth of any major metro area. Not only can engineers make money there, unlike in Silicon Valley, they can also afford to buy a house.” - Forbes.com

The energy industry is technology dependent, and it is no surprise that Houston is ranked 5th on the list of Top Ten Cities in the World to be anEngineer by Engineering Opportunities.comIt is the only U.S. city to make the list. Houston is the trailblazer for every element of the oil and gas industry such as exploration, production, transmission, marketing supply and technology. In fact, new energy technologies such as horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing and deep water offshore technology originated here or are based here.

The Texas Medical Center (TMC) is at the forefront of advances in health sciences with 5,700 of the world’s top medical researchers in the areas of genomics, clinical research, regenerative medicine, immuno-therapeutics and health I.T.  It is home to both the largest children’s hospital and the largest cancer hospital in the world.  There are so many medical advancements and breakthroughs to come out of the TMC such as performing one of the first heart transplants to developing the MasSpec Pen, a device that allows surgeons to analyze tissue while it’s still in the body and to be more precise about what to preserve during cancer surgery
Approximately 658 acres available for development in Ellington Airport.
Best uses:  Office - Aviation - Institutional - Industrial
Houston is also an aerospace mecca that attracts the nation’s top high-tech professionals for space technology and aviation industries.  It is home to the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, the center for human spaceflight training, research and flight control for the U.S. and NASA’s largest research and development facility.  Down the road is Ellington Field, a multi-purpose commercial and general aviation facility and a joint reserve military base to all five of the military branches, as well as the Texas Air National Guard.  In 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration awarded the Houston Airport System a launch site license, making Ellington Airport the 10th commercial spaceport in the country that can be a potential launch and landing site for suborbital, reusable launch vehicles. 
Leaders from the medical and energy industries have been in discussions to launch a data science institute to develop groundbreaking research and keep Houston competitive in the tech world.  Brilliant idea!  Houston has top-tier universities and medical schools including Rice University, University of Houston, Texas A & M University, Baylor College of Medicine and University of Texas Medical Branch that produce the best and the brightest STEM workforce in the country.  Tying academic partnerships with the energy and the health sciences industries to establish a data science center will keep Houston as the STEM hub for decades to come.  Yet, early last year, a plan by the UT System to do just that was shut down. (“Texas Medical Center, Houston’s energy industry in talks on data science collaboration”)  The proposed location for the data center would have been on 300 acres south of downtown.  However, William McKeon, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center is now teaming up with Jeff Shellebarger, President of Chevron’s North American exploration and production, to put the consortium in a neutral location, since the proposed UT system was met with much criticism. (“Texas Medical Center, Houston energy cos. considering data science consortium)  If this collaboration of academia and industries does result in a data science center that makes Houston the intellectual epicenter, the economic outlook for the fourth largest city in the nation will continue to be strong and the opportunities for commercial real estate will be promising, as well.

People from all over the world relocate here to take advantage of the abundant opportunities that this diverse city offers.  But, even the most robust industries can have threats.  Staying innovative in energy, health sciences and aerospace is essential for Houston to continue to be the leader of the major drivers of the U.S. economy.

(Rand Stephens is a Principal of Avison Young and Managing Director of the company’s Houston office.)

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