Featured Innovator

Accelerator program executive to connect the dots within Houston's innovation ecosystem

Yvette Casares Willis leads partnerships for MassChallenge Texas. Courtesy of MassChallenge

For Yvette Casares Willis, Houston already has what it takes to be a strong innovation ecosystem. Now, it's about working together to get the city where it needs to be, and MassChallenge hopes to do that with its new chapter in Houston.

"I'm excited about what Houston has to offer," says Willis, who is the director of partnerships for the organization. "We have everything we could possibly provide in this ecosystem to be amazing, as long as we all work together. If we can all collaborate and if we all have the same mission, we can really make a difference in Houston."

MassChallenge Texas announced its new Houston program in January. Applications for the inaugural cohort will be officially open as of tonight's launch party for the program. The organization, which has locations around the world, looks for early stage startups that haven't raised more than $500,000 in equity-based funding and have generated less than $1 million in revenue over the past year. The cohort will support 25 startups with free GreenStreet office space, mentorship, investment opportunities, and more, all the while taking no equity in the companies.

Willis has been the organization's boots on the ground in Houston, since MassChallenge Texas is run out of Austin. She spoke with InnovationMap about what MassChallenge's Houston program means to her and the city.

InnovationMap: Why did the city need something like this?

Yvette Casares Willis: We're a little unique to what Houston already has. Houston has a lot of great organizations, but MassChallenge is unique in the fact that we're industry agnostic, we're a nonprofit, and we offer a different business model to be added into the local ecosystem.

IM: Having worked in Houston, what do you feel you bring to the table for MassChallenge?

YCW: My role covers the entire state, but I have been boots on the ground for MassChallenge in Houston and it's been exciting to bring this to where I'm from. I have over 20 years in the Houston market in the corporate environment — my background is in professional sports and entertainment.

IM: As the director of partnerships for MassChallenge, what have you been able to accomplish?

YCW: In the last 10 months, I've been able to meet with several community and corporate partners to talk about MassChallenge. I've seen a lot of excitement. We're working on collaborating, so that when we do have our cohort, we can provide them with the best opportunities to partner with the community and corporations."

IM: What are you most excited about for Houston's MassChallenge program?

YCW: I feel like Houston has all of the best ingredients to be an amazing ecosystem. MassChallenge is going to play a big part of bridging all of the different organizations together. I see that everything is here, but it needs to come together, and I think MassChallenge is really good at doing that wherever they are.

IM: What's next for MassChallenge?

YCW: In my role, when I talk to other organizations, I see a lot of interest between collaborations between Houston and other cities in Texas, but I also see a lot of excitement globally. Houston's a global city and a lot of people are excited about the network MassChallenge has around the world.

------

Portions of this interview have been edited.

A new report from the Greater Houston Partnership found that Houston saw over $33 billion in foreign investments over the past 10 years. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Throughout the past decade, over 500 foreign-owned companies from 36 countries have planned investments in Houston. The investments are spread across more than 600 deals within 63 industries in Houston. Adding up the amount of disclosed valuations, the total exceeds $33 billion.

The city has a lot to offer these companies from all over the world, says Greater Houston Partnership's senior vice president of research, Patrick Jankowski, in a release.

"These foreign-owned companies came to Houston for a variety of reasons, from being closer to their clients to establishing a beachhead for entering the U.S. market," Jankowski says in the release.

The information is compiled in the new Global Houston report from the GHP that analyzes data on foreign investment over the past decade. The research shows that now

The foreign investment movement greatly impacts the local economy, Jankowski adds.

"It infuses new capital into the region, expands the manufacturing base, helps underpin jobs, facilitates the exchange of ideas and best practices, increases trade, adds to the tax base and stimulates growth," he says.

Aside from the investments, the report found that locally, more than 2,500 Houston manufacturing firms have their hands in global trade. Around 17.3 percent of Houston's economy is related to exports, which amounts to double than what was recorded in 2003, according to the Brookings Institution. The Bayou City regularly leads the nation in exports, such as oil field services, refined products, chemicals, and fabricated metals.

The report also took into account Houston's diversity, which has also evolved over the past 10 years. About one in four residents are born outside the country, and a third of the population growth is attributed to immigrants — who account for 390,000 of the city's new residents. In 2017 alone, foreign-born Houstonians made up almost a third of the total GDP of Houston, or $142.1 billion.

"Over the last couple of decades, Houston's economy has become more diversified," says Bob Harvey, GHP president and CEO, in a news release. "We've surged beyond traditional oil and gas to include a burgeoning energy tech and renewables industry, a thriving life sciences and healthcare sector, and a robust advanced manufacturing ecosystem. And in that time, as this report shows, Houston's trade and investment ties with the rest of the world have grown as well. These global connections are essential to our long-term success."

In 2018, Houston's top five trade partners all increased activity. The top countries are, Mexico ($24.6 billion in 2018, compared to $20.1 billion in 2017), China ($20.3 billion, compared to $18.8 billion in 2017), Brazil ($12.9 billion, compared to $12.6 billion in 2017), The Netherlands ($10.4 billion, compared to $8.6 billion in 2017), and South Korea ($10.3 billion, compared to $6.8 billion in 2017).

By the numbers

Here are some key findings from the report.

  • The Houston/Galveston Customs District handled 289.2 million tons of cargo in 2018, or 33,000 metric tons every hour.
  • The Houston/Galveston Customs District ranked first in the nation in foreign tonnage handled and 7th in the nation by dollar value in 2018.
  • The three ports of Houston, Galveston and Freeport support 343,525 jobs, according to a report from Martin & Associates and Texas A&M University
  • Of Houston's 1.6 million foreign-born residents, 39.8 percent are naturalized (i.e. U.S. citizens). That's up from 32.3 percent a decade ago.
  • Latin America leads among regions of origin for Houston's foreign-born population with 1.02 million people in 2017, up 42 percent from 2008. Asia follows at 409,395, up 37 percent and Africa with 95,017, a 14 percent increase.