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."

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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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