Taking the "L"

Houston sees a decline in innovation jobs, according to a new report

According to a report, Houston lost over 3,000 innovation jobs between 2005 and 2017. Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

You've heard of brain drain, the phenomenon of well-educated, highly skilled workers fleeing a geographic area for better opportunities elsewhere. It appears Houston is grappling with a different workforce affliction: innovation drain.

Houston is among several major business hubs in the U.S. — including Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. — where tech-dependent "innovation" jobs evaporated from 2005 to 2017, according to report released December 9 by the Brookings Institution think tank and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. At those cities' expense, innovation jobs have clustered in Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and San Diego. Those five metro areas accounted for more than 90 percent of job growth in the innovation sector from 2005 to 2017, researchers found.

Today, one-third of innovation jobs in the U.S. are located in just 16 counties, and more than half are concentrated in 41 counties, according to the report.

The report shows the Houston metro area lost 3,281 tech-oriented innovation jobs during that period. Dallas-Fort Worth lost even more (8,969), while the Austin metro area gained 1,200 and the San Antonio metro area picked up 1,472.

Houston's loss represents a slippage of 0.2 percent in the region's share of innovation jobs in the U.S., the report notes. On a percentage basis, DFW sustained an even greater loss (0.5 percent), while Austin's share declined 0.1 percent and San Antonio's didn't budge.

On the positive side, Houston ranked 14th for its sheer number of innovation jobs, with Dallas-Fort Worth at No. 7 and Austin at No. 16. They were among 20 "superstar" metro areas singled out in the report.

In the report, researchers classify innovation jobs as those in 13 R&D-heavy sectors, including aerospace, computer manufacturing, chemical production, and telecom. While the 13 innovation segments account for only 3 percent of U.S. jobs, they represent 6 percent of the country's economic output (GDP), one-fourth of exports, and two-thirds of corporate R&D expenditures, the report says.

Responding to the Brookings analysis, Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership, notes the Houston area employs about 150,000 tech workers, many of whom are employed outside the 13 innovation industries mentioned in the report. In fact, she adds, Houston boasts the highest share of tech workers at non-tech companies among the country's 20 largest metro areas.

"That said, we recognize the need to build Houston's digital tech presence, an area where we have traditionally lagged," Davenport tells InnovationMap.

Houston is making headway on that front, though. Davenport cites the expansion of Microsoft Corp.'s local operations, the recent opening of Bill.com's Houston office, and the rise of three Houston entrepreneurship initiatives — The Ion, TMC3, and The Cannon — as examples of this progress.

"Houston continues to gain recognition as a leading tech city," Davenport says. "The region cleared $500 million in venture capital funding this year, a new high for Houston, and tech-related employment continues to grow within the energy industry. We continue working with our partners to grow Houston's innovation ecosystem and are excited for the great momentum in this area."

Investor and entrepreneur Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential, a nonprofit that promotes startups and innovation, acknowledges the region's historical lack of focus on the innovation economy contributed to Amazon bypassing Houston as a finalist in 2018 for the e-commerce giant's second headquarters. Despite that harsh reality, Moore says the Brookings report fails to take into account innovation jobs embedded in sectors like Houston's massive energy industry.

"That data issue will always penalize a city with a large energy sector until it is corrected," Moore says. "And as we know, the energy sector is starting to innovate rapidly, as it must. And that innovation draws more employees to those companies and to Houston."

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Building Houston

 
 

"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

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