By the numbers

4 things you need to know from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual report as it pertains to innovation

The Greater Houston Partnership has the facts. Nick Bee/Pexels

Every year, the Greater Houston Partnership — the city's economic development arm — gathers up data and reports to paint a full picture of the Bayou City. In the past few editions, innovation has been a key component.

The GHP's innovation coverage spans three pages under the top industry and sectors category. From tech startup growth to money raised, here's what you need to know from the 2019 Houston Facts.

Houston has the 12th largest tech sector in the United States

Christina Morillo/Pexels

The innovation section starts pretty strong with this fun fact. The No. 12 tech sector ranking comes from Computing Technology Industry Association, which cites that Houston has more than 223,000 tech workers. According to the report, about two-thirds of Houston's tech workers are in industries outside of computer and software.

GHP credits Houston's large population of tech workers to its connection to aerospace and oil and gas.

"As the home of NASA's Johnson Space Center and headquarters to the global energy industry, Houston has long been a global hub of engineering talent," the report reads. "In recent years, those skills have given rise to a thriving ecosystem of digital technology companies."

GHP's data reflect that Houston has more than 8,200 tech-related firms, which includes over 500 tech startups.

Venture funding was up over 50 percent between 2017 and 2018

Via Houston Facts


Houston's recorded venture funding doesn't have a hockey stick chart to brag about. Over the past few years, venture funding has been up and down, according to S&P Capital IQ.

"Houston companies in clean energy, health innovation and digital technology have received $3.1 billion in venture capital and growth funding across 333 deals since 2014, averaging $576 million every year," the report reads.

But between 2018 and 2017, VC funds were up 50.9 percent. Of the three categories, clean energy technology pulled in the most money each year and was responsible for 64 percent of the funding during the 2014-2018 period. Sunnova, a residential solar company, had the most money raised during this time with $1.3 billion.

The largest deals reported in Houston in 2018 were:

  • Sunnova Energy — $183 million
  • OncoResponse — $40 million
  • Trisun Energy Services — $39 million
  • Arundo Analytics — $25 million
  • Procyrion — $16 million
  • QuVa Pharma — $15 million
  • NeoSensory — $12 million

University-backed entrepreneurship remains strong

Courtesy of Rice University

The Princeton Review ranks Rice University and the University of Houston as having among the best entrepreneurship programs in the country. Rice runs its Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship out of its Jones Graduate School of Business, while University of Houston's Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship is housed in the Bauer College of Business.

Both schools have run accelerator programs for seven years — the past six of which have been in collaboration. Rice's OwlSpark and UH's RED Labs finished this summer's program on August 1 at the Bayou Startup Showcase with 16 startup pitches.

Meanwhile, the Rice Business Plan Competition is deemed the "richest pitch competition" in the country. In 2019, the competition saw $3 million invested. RBPC companies have gone on to raise $1.2 billion in capital during the competition's 18-year history.

At UH, which has its own set of pitch events, the Wolff Center's graduate students manage a million-dollar Cougar Venture Fund. The fund has a group of experts that analyze and invest in early stage technology companies.

The life science industry continues to grow

Via Houston Facts

In 2018, Houston housed 20.5 percent of the country's clinical trials, with over 1,800 active. The city has more than 1,760 life sciences companies and over 25,100 biotech experts and 7,200 medical researchers.

Thankfully, the money seems to match this volume of activity. Last year, Houston's medical research grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, which totaled $668 million in 2018, was up almost 7 percent from 2017. The city's medical institutions have received nearly $3 billion from NIH since 2014 — an average of $600 million a year.

According to the GHP, the top Houston institutions receiving NIH funding in 2018 were:

  • Baylor College of Medicine — $255 million
  • University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center — $149 million
  • University of Texas Health Science Center — $90 million
  • University of Texas Medical Branch Galveston — $87 million
  • University of Houston — $24 million
  • Methodist Hospital Research Institute — $19 million
  • Rice University — $14 million
  • Texas Southern University — $3 million

As mentioned before, venture capital and private equity investment has increased in Houston, and that trend is also represented in the life science sector. In 2018, life science startups raked in $119 million, which represents a a 41.7 percent increase from $84 million in 201717, according to S&P Capital IQ.

In 2018, the top biotech firms receiving investment were:

  • OncoResponse — $40 million
  • Procyrion — $16 million
  • QuVa Pharma — $15 million
  • Pulmotect — $10 million
  • Tvardi Therapeutics — $9 million

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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