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

 
 

Syzygy Plasmonics has raised a series C round of funding. Photo courtesy of Syzygy

A Houston-based company that is electrifying chemical manufacturing has closed its largest round of funding to date.

Syzygy Plasmonics closed a $76 million series C financing round led by New York-based Carbon Direct Capital. The round included participation from Aramco Ventures, Chevron Technology Ventures, LOTTE CHEMICAL, and Toyota Ventures. The company's existing investors joining the round included EVOK Innovations, The Engine, Equinor Ventures, Goose Capital, Horizons Ventures, Pan American Energy, and Sumitomo Corporation of Americas. According to a news release, Carbon Direct Capital will join Syzygy's board and serve as the series C director.

"We were very attracted to the multiple use cases for the Syzygy reactor and the lifetime-value of each Syzygy customer," says Jonathan Goldberg, Carbon Direct Capital's CEO, in the release. "Emissions from hydrogen production total more than 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. Syzygy's photocatalysis technology is a key solution to decarbonize hydrogen production as well as other critical industries."

Syzygy Plasmonics has a technology that harnesses the power of light to energize chemical reactions — rather than the traditional process that is fueled by heat. The Syzygy approach reduces feedstock waste and produces fewer emissions when powered by renewable electricity. According to the release, some series C participants have also formed commercial agreements to deploy Syzygy's technology to meet their decarbonization goals.

The investment funding raised will help the company to "further development and delivery of all-electric reactor systems that eliminate fossil-based combustion from chemical manufacturing and reduce the carbon intensity of hydrogen, methanol, and fuel," per the release.

"Our mission is to decarbonize chemical and fuel production," says Syzygy Plasmonics CEO and Co-Founder Trevor Best in the release. "Syzygy's aim is to achieve 1 gigaton of carbon emissions reductions by 2040, and the series C financing is a key milestone in building towards that goal.

"Closing this fundraising round with such strong support from financial and strategic investors and with commercial agreements in hand is a signal to the market," he continues. "Forward-thinking companies have moved beyond setting decarbonization goals to executing on them. Syzygy is unique in that we are developing low-cost, low-carbon solutions to offer across multiple industries."

Syzygy was founded based off a breakthrough discover out of Rice University from co-founders and professors Naomi Halas and Peter Nordlander, who invented high-performance photocatalysts. The company's collaborators then engineered a novel reactor that uses easy-to-find low-cost materials like glass, aluminum, and LEDs instead of high-cost metal alloys. After several field trials of the scalable, universal chemical reactor platform, Syzygy expects commercial units scheduled to ship in 2023.

"Syzygy is hyper-focused on aligning energy, technology, and sustainability," says Suman Khatiwada, CTO and co-founder of Syzygy, in the release. "The projects we are delivering are targeting zero-emissions hydrogen from green ammonia, low-emissions hydrogen from combustion-free steam methane reforming, and sustainable fuels made from carbon dioxide and methane. This technology is the future of chemical manufacturing."

Syzygy has raised a $23 million series B round last year following its $5.8 series A in 2019.

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