Jan Odegard, Executive Director at The Ion, joins the show this week to take a deep dive into the innovation ecosystem of Houston, Texas. As the center and anchor, The Ion has changed the landscape of the Houston community, providing a unique 16-acre multi-use space for entrepreneurs, academics, accelerators, incubators, and corporations. Jan talks about his own journey from Norway to Houston, why he ended up at The Ion, and how he hopes to take this innovative space to the next level.
[00:00] Podcast begins - Telling Houston’s Innovation Story
[01:47] Expanding engineering knowledge in Norway and Houston
[10:42] Taking over as Executive Director & diving into innovation
[14:28] Supporting homegrown Houston tech talent at the Ion
[19:33] Creating collisions in the Innovation Corridor
[27:40] Keeping an eye on energy tech in Houston
How did you end up as Executive Director of The Ion?
After moving back and forth from Norway to Houston in his early career, Jan spent 18 years as the Executive Director of the Ken Kennedy Institute. It was only after this time was coming to a close that Jan found that he still had more he wanted to do to increase his impact in Houston. His motivation became talent retention and innovation, two focal points in the Ion’s mission. When the opportunity became available to take an entrepreneurial risk and grab the bull by the horns, Jan was ready to become the Director of The Ion.
“There are tech jobs in Houston, there are cool software tech jobs in Houston, there are opportunities for you to work here, but the tech talent that we were seeking didn't believe that there were jobs for them here.”
Are you starting to see a change in how people view Houston tech talent?
In years past, Houston has been a great place to learn about tech, but hardly the place tech talent stayed. When taking over as Executive Director of the Ion, Jan’s mission felt clear: create an environment where students, startup founders, and investors can come together and encourage talent to stay in Houston. Now, Jan feels confident in saying that he’s seeing more people excited about jobs and industries taking place here, instead of searching elsewhere.
“Are we done? No. We need to keep at it, but I do think and I'm optimistic that we're going to make that dent. Getting the students off campus and outside their comfort zone is going to be a key part of [talent retention].”
What are The Ion’s goals for Houston’s future and for the Innovation Corridor?
Jan believes the Ion has a transformative vision for Houston’s future, and it starts with the importance of collisions. Urban sprawl and talent moving out of Houston creates the issue of less talent and less founders meeting each other through organic and collaborative collisions. Through programs and projects taking place at the Ion, and thanks to Common Desk for creating coworking spaces within the Ion district, Jan hopes to see more collisions, more collaborations, and a closer, more unified environment for Houston tech.
“I believe that innovation starts with collisions, and if we keep spreading out, we're minimizing the amount of collisions we have. So, we need to bring people together. You want to create an environment where you're gonna want to live there and play there and be there.”
What technologies, companies, and industries do you have your eye on?
The sky feels like the limit in terms of Houston’s potential, especially with The Ion reaching a new level of capacity recently, but Jan finds himself especially interested in the fields of clean energy, medtech, and transportation. Energy and medtech already feel like an integrated part of Houston’s future, especially with the Innovation Corridor located so close to the Houston Medical Center. As for transportation, Jan sees a massive opportunity for tech talent to find more solutions for the lack of accessible public transportation in Houston and throughout Texas.
“We need to do a better job capturing those stories that extend beyond the program, product, or event you're running. How does Houston get to tell our story to people that are not inside the circle? That's really where we are coming up short because we need Houston to be proud of Houston.”