New to town

Exclusive: Global early stage accelerator program launches second Texas location in Houston

Palo Alto-based Founder Institute is launching its Houston program at Station Houston. Image courtesy Founder Institute

Silicon Valley-based Founder Institute has announced its second Texas program in Houston, which will operate out of Station Houston. Founder Institute Houston applications for the inaugural cohort close May 19.

The early stage accelerator focuses on advancing startup companies in the pre-funding phase.

"It's quite different from any other program in Houston currently," says Neal Murthy, director of Founder Institute Houston. "It's an accelerator, but it's an idea-stage accelerator."

Before Founder Institute, Houston's only early stage opportunities were tied to universities — like the University of Houston's Red Labs or Rice University's Owl Spark — and those are typically focused on the university's community and on education, Murthy says.

In anticipation of launch, Founder Institute Houston will host a series of free entrepreneurial events, with the first one being March 19.

The Houston chapter will be ran by three directors: Murthy, a UH lecturer and angel investor, James Phelan, innovation expert with a real estate background, and Tabbie Saenz, Alice community leader and Baker Ripley mentor. Martin Martinez, managing director of Founder Institute Texas, who launched the Austin program, will also join the team.

"What's nice about our team is because we were already colleagues and friends prior to coming together on this project, we already have rapor, we can communicate, and we know each other's working styles, strengths, and weaknesses," says Phelan.

Founded in 2009 by Adeo Ressi and Jonathan Greechan, Founder Institute has chapters in 180 cities in 65 countries. They've contributed to 3,500 companies that have now raised over $800 million.

"Houston's supportive startup community and its affordable living costs have inspired a lot of entrepreneurial enthusiasm in the city. Every year, more co-working spaces and incubators move to Houston and it's now easier to launch a startup here than ever before. We aim to help that trend," Ressi says in a release. "I believe that our structured accelerator program will give potential founders the guidance they need to launch successful technology companies in Houston."

Every chapter focuses on the same idea-stage type of company and selects around 30 companies to participate in a 14-week course of education, mentorship, and business development. The cohort spends around three hours a week in educational programming, but then is expected to spend 20 to 25 hours a week working assignments and business development. It's designed to be tough. Usually, only around 10 founders of the 30 will cross the finish line.

"If they can't handle this course, then there's no way they're going to be a successful founder because this course is a breeze compared to running a company," says Phalen.

The Founder Institute alumni network is huge, and is one of the program's biggest perks. Not only do participants get access to a network successful founders, but they also usually have a foot in the door at the next stage of competitive accelerator programs.

"That's an enormously valuable thing from a fundraising aspect if you have the support from another successful founder standing next to you, vouching for you," Phelan says.

Another thing that makes Founder Institute different is, rather than operating off an equity approach, Founder Institute and its local directors receive warrants from each participating company. And, fellow founders and even program mentors receive a cut too.

"The sharing of that [means] everyone has economic incentives and it encourages collaboration among the cohort itself," Murthy says.

Founder Institute's expansion plan for Texas doesn't end at Austin and Houston. Two other locations in Dallas and San Antonio are also in route to the Lone Star State. However, Houston's a bit different of a city to be in, with it's diversity and large size.

"We are going to be targeting a very diverse community as well. We want to have everyone who hasn't had a chance to access resources like this," Saenz says.

Murthy, who has been a mentor for the Founder Institute in Austin, says it's so remarkable to see how much these founders accomplish in the 14 weeks, and he can't wait to see that affect the Houston ecosystem.

"We think that Houston needs a number of new elements to fill out its ecosystem, and this is one of them — an idea-stage accelerator," Murthy says. "We've seen the success it's had in Austin and globally, and we're hoping to bring that to Houston."

BBVA, which recently went through a rebranding process, selected two Houston startups for its accelerator program. Photo via bbva.com

Two socially minded entrepreneurs in Houston are getting a big boost from a bank-sponsored accelerator program.

The pair of entrepreneurs — leaders of socially focused ventures Eight Million Stories and Small Places LLC — are among 19 social entrepreneurs from across the U.S. chosen to join the BBVA Momentum accelerator program.

This year, BBVA Momentum features five months of online and in-person education lasting from June to November. Headspring Executive Development by Financial Times runs the online component, while the University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business manages the in-person training. Each social entrepreneur is paired with a mentor from banking giant BBVA to provide one-on-one support throughout the program.

At the end of the program, BBVA awards prizes to ventures that have been identified as being highly sustainable and creating the most social impact. Last year's top venture took home $75,000 in equity funding.

Eight Million Stories

One of the two Houston-based startups that was selected for the program is Eight Million Stories, which was founded by Marvin Pierre. The organization helps formerly incarcerated youth (16 to 18 years old) through a free, voluntary four-month program designed to help them:

  • Build strong relationships in their communities.
  • Gain access to an array of social services.
  • Develop life and job skills.
  • Continue their education.
  • Secure meaningful employment.

Pierre says his program "seeks to upend the school-to-prison pipeline by supporting previously incarcerated young people in successfully transitioning back into their communities, and by curbing unnecessary referrals from schools to the juvenile justice system."

Pierre hopes to eventually roll out Eight Million Stories across the country.

"We believe that there are a lot of commonalities in terms of why kids end up in the juvenile justice system, whether it's broken homes or lack of support in the school system or other factors," Pierre says. "If you interview every kid in the system, you'll find there's a common thread. That's what we're trying to undo. If we attack those commonalities, then we can aggressively work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline."

Small Places

Finca Tres Robles/Instagram

Today, the main focus of Small Places, co-founded by Daniel Garcia-Prats, is Finca Tres Robles (Spanish for Three Oaks Farm), Houston's only private farm inside the 610 Loop. The farm grows fruits, vegetables, and herbs that are sold to consumers directly by the farm and at local farmers markets.

"Agriculture is fundamentally about people, not plants," Finca Tres Robles says on its website. "While food is central to the work we do, the farm has the capabilities to impact other important areas of health. As an organization, our focus is on developing farms and agricultural spaces that can provide critical health-related services to communities that are need of basic infrastructure to support health."

Among the farm's projects is the Pre-K Produce Program. Finca Tres Robles estimates that thanks to the program, anywhere from $250,000 to $1.25 million in healthcare costs will be saved over the lifetime of the preschoolers.

Small Places also helps run the community farm at the Harris Health System's Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital and operates Houston's 3 Oaks Farms, which focuses on production of the moringa tree, the source of a nutrient-packed superfood.

In a nutshell, Small Places offers:

  • Farm development, management, and consulting services.
  • Education.
  • Community outreach.
  • Job training.

Small Places says it concentrates on "placemaking and community health, helping community- and health-related nonprofits, municipalities that have food security/access issues and progressive commercial developers that want to establish a culture of health in their neighborhoods."