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."

Houston small businesses are struggling to pay their rent with doors closed and operations ceased — but where should the relief come from? Getty Images

It's not too huge of an assumption to make that many Houston startups and small businesses failed to pay their rents in full yesterday. Since the city's stay-at-home mandate on March 24 — and even preceding that — most businesses have seen a slowdown of revenue as a result of COVID-19-caused business disruptions.

Business owners are frantically looking in their leases and searching online to see what rights they have and what sort of protection they have in such an unprecedented time.

"People are confused. They don't know what to do, and finding information is hard," says Meredith Wheeler, co-founder and chief creative officer of Sesh Coworking, which opened earlier this year.

Wheeler and Sesh's co-founder, Maggie Segrich, have created a petition to get on the radar of local elected officials to challenge them to pass legislation to protect small businesses in this time.

"At the end of the day, it would be so wonderful and idealistic to say that we could rely on the niceties and the moral compasses of our landlords, but it's probably not true for everyone and so that's why we need legislation to dictate what is right," Wheeler says.

But landlords are also in unchartered territory, says Josh Feinberg, who has worked in Houston as a commercial real estate broker and co-founded CRE tech platform, Tenavox.

"There's this idea that there's this acrimony between tenant and landlord, and I think, as a former broker, we're set up that way to get our side the best deal. But in reality, that's just not true," Feinberg says. "The majority of commercial real estate is owned by regular people — not usually some faceless, gigantic corporation."

And they have a piper to pay too, Feinberg adds. Ninety percent of CRE is owned by debt, he says. If the government steps in anywhere, it should be on the lender level, as well as creating some sort of tax relief.

"If there's any relief here, it's going to have to come from lenders, and I think you'd hear that from owners and brokers," Feinberg says.

In somewhat convenient timing, Tenavox has recently co-founded a new company that provides a bit of a solution for small businesses. Otso provides landlords with an alternative to cash security deposits. Traditionally, deposits are held onto by landlords — they aren't legally allowed to spend it unless the tenant defaults.

"In general, I think cash deposits are wasteful," Feinberg says. "It's critical capital that the business can hire with, invest, and use."

Tenavox teamed up with Euler Hermes, a 135-year-old credit insurance company, to create Otso, and the credit company backs the lease performance of each tenant that is approved by Otso. The transaction calls for a fee added to the rent, but no large cash deposit would be required.

The tool can be used on new leases, and, in light of the current situation, Otso can also be used to create an addendum in existing leases so that the tenant can get back their deposit and use it in this time of crisis. Either landlord or tenant can apply online and hear back that same day — Feinberg says he's focused on a speedy response to help get this deposit money back to the tenant.

"If we can get some liquidity back into the hands of the business, they have some a better chance of survival," Feinberg says.

Other than looking into Otso, Feinberg has some other recommendations for small business owners. He says they should be applying for relief from the Small Business Administration, which has more money to dole out than they have ever had. And, as it pertains to working with their landlords, communication is key. Show financials and specific information — like what March 2019 looks like compared to 2020 — so that landlords can take that to their lenders.

"An unprecedented crisis is going to require unprecedented solutions," Feinberg says.