Guest column

Houston needs to overcome its lack of density to continue to develop as an innovation ecosystem, says expert

Houston's density is possibly its biggest challenge when it comes to developing its innovation ecosystem, says a Houston expert. Getty Images

From the front porch of Houston, Texas, we solve some of humanity's hardest challenges. We're the ones who put humans on the Moon and rovers on Mars, go subsea in search of hydrocarbons, and are discovering a cure for cancer. We solve complex challenges, because of a characteristic seemingly embedded deep within our DNA — we are all explorers of the unknown.

Today, a new challenge is rallying our attention, inspiring us to push the boundaries yet again. And, that's the hard challenge of population density. Houston is fourth in population in the country, and yet 89th in the number of people per unit of area.

Why is this an issue, one might ask? Houston, like many other cities around the world, is racing to become a hub for innovation, a critical catalyst fueling the next generation of growth and economic prosperity. And, density is a key component of innovation — it brings divergent mindsets together to look at challenges from multiple perspectives and creates an environment that brings big bold ideas to life.

However, the nature of our geography has created silos that are not easily broken down and separates us by industries, communities, interests, mindsets, and access to transportation, among other things.

But, let's not underestimate our true spirit — and our ability to explore the unexpected, push the boundaries and tackle the challenges the world throws at us.

If I learned anything from living here my entire life, Houston has grit, imagination, and motivation and knows what it means to be a trailblazer. Houston is the most diverse city in the United States. Our culinary landscape is constantly pushing the boundaries of creativity and imagination. Local graffiti and modern art installations are reshaping the visual identity of our community. Our sports and performing arts "rockstars" consistently deliver real-time experiential immersion.

We need to recognize and embrace how these colors of Houston connect us all regardless of our geographic silos and push innovation forward. Said another way, we have all the colors; we just need to converge and paint the canvas together.

True to our nature, some of our Houstonian friends have begun chipping away at this challenge already. Central Houston is attracting world-renowned incubators and accelerators like MassChallenge and Gener8tor — and this scene alone is ever-expanding. The Cannon, The Ion, Impact Hub, Launchpad, Headquarters, and other players are creating environments that bring people together and meet the needs of an ever-evolving workforce through experiential community. We even have a dedicated publication for all things innovation — Innovation Map — sharing resources across our vast city and ensuring no great story is left untold.

Our rich diversity means we have access to human beings from a multitude of backgrounds, which in itself is a force to be reckoned with. By interacting with a variety of human beings, we become more empathetic, understanding, and celebratory of new ideas. This is fundamental to continuous innovation — how we interact and approach challenges, engage in new experiences, and become an inspirational leader in life and work. So, break down the silos and access the diversity of thinking that's already outside the door.

At the same time, the challenge of density must be tackled not only physically but also digitally. By converging the physical and digital ecosystem through a neural network, we can intelligently connect the activity with centralized access to start-ups, corporations, nonprofits, free-lancers, incubators, accelerators, maker-spaces, academia, local influencers, and public partners. Digitally bridging all of us can make one of the largest and most spread-out cities in the U.S. feel like a small Texas town with big ideas and an ever-stronger dimension of inclusivity.

So, join the movement, strike up a conversation, grab your metaphorical spray paint and converge with all the vibrant colors of Houston as we energize the future of humanity, navigate to Mars and back safely, and annihilate the existence of cancer.

As Steve Jobs said: "The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do." Are we ready?

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Brad Rossacci is creative director at Accenture's Innovation Hub in Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

Cloudbreak Enterprises is getting in on the ground level with software startups — quickly helping them take an idea to market. Photo via Getty Images

Lauren Bahorich is in the business of supporting businesses. In February 2020, she launched Cloudbreak Enterprises — B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage venture studio — with plans to onboard, invest in, and support around three new scalable companies a year. And, despite launching right ahead of a global pandemic, that's exactly what she did.

Bahorich, who previously worked at Golden Section Ventures, wanted to branch off on her own to create a venture studio to get in on the ground level of startups — to be a co-founder to entrepreneurs and provide a slew of in-house resources and support from development and sales to marketing and administration.

"We start at zero with just an idea, and we partner with out co-founders to build the idea they have and the domain expertise and the industry connections to take that idea and built a product and a company," Bahorich says.

Bahorich adds that there aren't a lot of venture studios in the United States — especially in Houston. While people might be more familiar with the incubator or accelerator-style of support for startups, the venture studio set up is much more intimate.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

Cloudbreak now has three portfolio companies, and is looking to onboard another three more throughout the rest of the year. Bahorich runs a team of 15 professionals, all focused on supporting the portfolio. While creating the studio amid the chaos of 2020 wasn't the plan, there were some silver linings including being able to start with part-time developers and transition them to full-time employees as the companies grew.

"Within the first month, we were in shutdown here in Houston," Bahorich says. "But it's been a great opportunity for us. Where a lot of companies were pivoting and reassessing, we were actually able to grow because we were just starting at zero ourselves."

Cloudbreak's inaugural companies are in various stages and industries, but the first company to be onboarded a year ago — Relay Construction Solutions, a bid leveling software for the construction industry — joined the venture studio as just an idea and is already close to first revenue and potentially new investors. Cloudgate is also creating a commercial real estate data management software and an offshore logistics platform. All three fall into a SaaS sweet spot that Bahorich hopes to continue to grow.

"We are looking to replace legacy workflows that are still performed in Excel or by email or phone," Bahorich says. "It's amazing how many opportunities there are that fit into that bucket — these high-dollar, error-prone workflows that are still done like it's 1985."

Given the hands-on support, Bahorich assumed she'd attract mostly first-time entrepreneurs who don't have experience with all the steps needed to launch the business. However, she says she's gotten interest from serial entrepreneurs who recognized how valuable the in-house support can be for expediting the early-stage startup process.

"What I'm realizing is a selling point is our in-house expertise. These founders are looking for technical co-founders," Bahorich says. "We can both provide that role and be capital partners."

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