The message is loud and clear — so long, Sears, hello Silicon Bayou.
Houston officials and Rice University have been touting their plans for The Ion, a thriving nucleus for all things innovation, geared to push Space City toward becoming a true tech center in 2020.
And on Friday, ground broke on the construction of a 270,000-square-foot project that aims to be revolutionary. This physical groundbreaking could make future groundbreaking discoveries possible
Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rice University President David Leebron, alongside representatives from the City of Houston and Station Houston, dug their shovels in the dirt as a sign of what’s to come.
Billed as the cornerstone of Houston’s emerging innovation community, The Ion is supposed to play a central role in connecting the city’s entrepreneurial, corporate and academic communities along the new four-mile Innovation Corridor on Main Street.
Houston may have had some innovation setbacks, recently — including Amazon crossing the city off the list early in its new headquarters hunt — but they’re only serving as a catalyst.
“There was some disappointment around the contest with Amazon. But that disappointment led to a sense of urgency and commitment and imagination. And out of that has come something greater than anyone could have imagined,” David Leebron told the crowd gathered across from the iconic 1939 art deco Sears building this morning.
“Our aim it to create an education and innovation ecosystem that puts Houston at the forefront of innovation in energy, medicine, digital tech, education and other areas.”
It’s a compelling choice, selecting a nearly 100-year-old building as the beacon for Houston’s next era. Project believers hope it is an indelible indicator of Houston’s capacity for transformation and advancement.
“Houston went from a cotton, rice and rail hub to the Energy Capital of the world, to a global center for biomedical breakthrough. And now we are entering a new frontier, becoming a hub for the digital universe, a hub for innovation and imagination,” Mayor Turner says.
“It’s the same kind of innovation and imagination that it took to land a man on the moon 50 years ago and led the world to call Houston Space City. Now, we’re sprinting toward becoming Silicon Bayou, and I’m glad to report we’re running well.”
The mayor shared a stable of statistics highlighting how far Houston has come in recent years. There are over 3,000 tech start-ups in The Bayou City today — that number’s grown by more than 100 percent in the last three years according to Turner. Tech jobs have gone up 140 percent in the last year. And venture capital investment in start-ups has gone up by 380 percent in the first half of 2019 year-over-year, Turner says.
Rare University Partnership
Leebron and Turner share a refrain: it will take collaboration to get The Ion off the ground and keep it moving.

The fact that the educational institutions are joining forces is rare, and the hope is that will do a lot to propel The Ion forward and truly turn Houston into a tech-savvy core of innovation, exploration and creation.
While The Rice Management Company, which manages the Rice University endowment, is spearheading The Ion, Leebron is clear that this project does not belong to the Rice or anyone institution of higher learning.
“We want to do something that truly represents the Houston can-do, collaborative spirit. Universities are actually not known — particularly within their home environment — of working together,” Leebron says. “And when we tell people in other cities about the collaboration that was brought together around this project, they are amazed.
Rice University, University of Houston, University of Houston Downtown, Texas Southern University, University of St. Thomas, Houston Baptist University, South Texas College of Law, Houston Community College, Lone Star College and San Jacinto College are all contributing to The Ion.

In keeping with the theme of inclusivity, Turner was clear that The Ion will not be reserved for just the sector surrounding it.
“We are building it for talent that exists in neighborhoods across the city, from Magnolia to Manchester, from South Park to Sunnyside,” he says.
“People in our city — if you have the talent, we’re providing you the mechanism and the venues, and we’re going to put into your talent and allow you to go beyond the stars. Every person is important, and if you have a gift, we want you to utilize it.”