When Jacob Thomas first came to the University of Houston’s Technology Bridge in 2016, he knew it was the perfect incubator space to grow his company, Alchemy Sciences. The excellent support infrastructure enabled the fledgling oil recovery business to focus on improving its technology, product and business development, and operations.
“Technology Bridge also had the advantage of being located at a premier, research-focused university that afforded the opportunity to collaborate not just with other startups but with groundbreaking innovators on campus,” Thomas said.
And when Hadi Ghasemi, an associate professor in the UH Cullen College of Engineering, launched Elemental Coatings for his revolutionary anti-icing material in 2019, his ideal space was literally minutes from his campus laboratory.
“We have one of the best spaces in town right here near campus,” he said. “From a ready-made workforce to the facilities, it was a unique opportunity that was perfect for us.”
Thomas and Ghasemi aren’t alone in their assessments. They are part of a booming community of entrepreneurs setting up shop in Technology Bridge, Houston’s premier innovation park for technology commercialization, industrial partnerships and startup development located adjacent to the UH campus along the Gulf Freeway.
Connecting People and Ideas
UH prides itself on spurring innovation from the first spark of an idea to the transfer of knowledge and technology. The University is home to the nation’s top-ranked undergraduate entrepreneurship program and is one of the top 25 royalty-earning universities in the United States. And for seven of the past eight years, UH has ranked among the top 100 global universities for the number of utility patents issued.
Tanu Chatterji, the associate director of startup development at Technology Bridge, includes those accolades in her pitch to prospective tenants. But it’s the wealth of established relationships with UH researchers and potential employees already on campus that is the biggest selling point.
“If you are looking to grow a company and plug into a major ecosystem, Technology Bridge is where you want to be. You have access to the talent, expertise, facilities and resources you need to be successful,“ said Chatterji, noting that UH is a Carnegie-designated Tier One research university with 35 faculty members in the National Academy of Inventors.
"The students, faculty and resources at the heart of our ecosystem set us apart from everyone else," said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, UH vice president of energy and innovation, and professor of Petroleum Engineering.
Right now, Technology Bridge has more than 20 companies utilizing a wealth of amenities, including private and shared incubator lab spaces designed to support chemical, mechanical and life sciences startups. The Innovation Center features large, fully equipped and furnished office spaces with open and private areas, conference rooms and collaborative meeting areas, and a common kitchen area.
Additionally, startups receive unmatched access to UH faculty, one-on-one mentorship opportunities and the full support of the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation to help with funding, workshops, grant development and commercialization.
“This is an innovation environment that is unique to Houston. We’re all about connecting people and ideas,” Chatterji said.
A Community for Innovators
To access the benefits of Technology Bridge and enjoy its competitive rental rates, companies are required to fulfill certain criteria. This includes committing to a minimum one-year contract and actively engaging with the UH innovation community at one of three levels: hiring university talent, working collaboratively on projects with faculty or sponsoring research, or commercializing UH intellectual property.
"Access to a knowledgeable workforce, along with the facilities and support for intellectual property protections and patents, was essential for us," Ghasemi said.
“We’re not looking to give out cheap space to anyone who’s just going to move out in three years,” Chatterji said. “We really want the right partners on board to help us cultivate this ecosystem.”
Technology Bridge is home to a diverse mix of companies, comprising both external organizations and spinoffs founded by faculty, graduate students and staff. While some ventures are still in the early stages, actively seeking funding and assembling their teams, a handful have already reached the exciting milestone of selling products and are preparing to transition into larger, more permanent facilities.
“The higher the engagement, the higher the discount they get on their lease,” Chatterji said. “On the flip side, there’s incentive for UH to keep these companies within our family so we get to share new ideas and innovations and they can mentor our faculty and students.”
In recent years, startups at Technology Bridge have developed innovations in advanced materials, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, energy, food and agriculture, as well as infrastructure and construction, optometry, medical devices and computer software. Among their accomplishments are hundreds of groundbreaking inventions such as a plant-based polymer with the potential to replace petroleum-based plastics and revolutionary therapeutics that have had a profound impact on patients worldwide, offering treatments for cancer, Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy.
Thomas' Alchemy Sciences, renowned for its portfolio of products that enhance the efficiency of oil and gas production in multiple basins across the United States, is now embarking on the early stages of expansion to Latin America. The company recently graduated from Technology Bridge, moving into a larger space to accommodate its growing operations.
“An incubation ecosystem like this is essential for technology startups as they begin their journey,” Thomas said. “The proactive staff, modern lab facilities and associated support systems enabled us to conduct experimental work efficiently and was key to our growth over the past five years.”
Elemental Coatings, a company founded on technology pioneered by Ghasemi at his UH lab, produces anti-icing surfaces with exceptional durability, even in the harshest environmental conditions. After four years at Technology Bridge, Ghasemi said the company will double its workforce and move into a bigger facility early next year.
“When we started this journey, there were maybe two companies at Technology Bridge, so it’s been amazing to see this growth,” said Ghasemi. “Access to a knowledgeable workforce, along with the facilities and support for intellectual property protections and patents, was essential for us and is crucial for any startup.”
Building for the Future
It’s not only innovators who are taking notice of the remarkable developments happening at Technology Bridge. U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, who represents Texas’ 29th congressional district where Technology Bridge is located, helped secure nearly $3 million in federal funding for infrastructure improvements that will further grow its position as a leader in Houston’s innovation space.
“We have a lot of momentum at Technology Bridge as we continue to support Houston’s growing innovation economy,” Krishnamoorti said. “We’re building great partnerships and providing these startups with everything they need to commercialize technologies and be successful.”
About $2.875 million of the funding will benefit the UH Industry & International Innovation Hub (UHI), a planned center for industry partner engagement with an investor and mentoring studio and event space. It will also increase onsite industry and startup capacity and establish workforce development and training rooms. The remaining money will be used to establish the Deck Innovation & Coworking Center, with eight new, private offices that will increase lease revenue by a projected 150 percent. The entire project is expected to increase capacity by more than 20 companies.
“No other space in Houston has what we have,” added Krishnamoorti. "It’s not just the Tech Bridge, it’s the University of Houston Tech Bridge. The students, faculty and resources at the heart of our ecosystem set us apart from everyone else."