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Here's what the Bay Area can learn from Houston

When it comes to maintaining a good ecosystem, diversity is key. Houston learned that the hard way. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

Hello Bay Area! We Houstonians are concerned about you.

We think your economy is becoming overly dependent on Silicon Valley. In 2018, the technology industry accounted for around 62 percent of all office leasing activity in San Francisco. From September 2017 to September 2018, tech companies and realty investors bought $1.43 billion worth of San Jose downtown properties, nearly three times what they spent the year before on property in the city.

Some of your biggest search, social media, and database companies are expanding their headquarters in San Jose, San Francisco, and the rest of Silicon Valley. This is causing the construction industry to become more dependent on tech. But it's not just the construction industry that is becoming attached at the hip with Silicon Valley. According to the Bay Area Council, for every one high tech job created in the U.S., four more are created in industries as varied as education, law, dentistry, retail, and food. That means a lot of jobs in the Bay Area are, and are going to be, dependent on Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area's high cost of living is pushing low and middle-income people further and further away from the state to places like Colorado, New York, and Texas (thanks for that by the way). The Bay Area had the highest income disparity between those migrating into the area and those leaving it than any major metro area in the country between 2010 and 2016. An economy can't last with just high-salaried tech workers.

We here in Houston have seen what happens when a metropolitan area becomes overly dependent on its dominant industry.

The 1980s were a tough time in Houston's history due to the huge fall in oil prices. In 1986, crude oil prices fell 52 percent to about $27 a barrel in today's dollars. The majority of Houston's economy was centered around the oil business at that time. The industries that were not directly related to energy, such as restaurants, car dealerships, and real estate were in a symbiotic relationship and were in some cases catastrophically hurt. When the oil industry took a hit, the entire economy took a hit. During this time, Houstonians lost 225,000 jobs, or one in eight jobs in the city.

Many young workers in petroleum engineering, geophysics, and other energy positions were laid off, many leaving the industry altogether. Older workers retired. In the mid-2000s, when the shale drilling revolution began, the needed manpower was just not there to meet the demand and it was expensive to hire and train a new workforce.

We were able to recover. Some 175,000 Houstonians are now working in oil production, oil field services, materials, and fabricated metals, and tens of thousands more are working as suppliers and contractors. We're more ethnically and industrially diverse than we ever were before, but it took time.

What did we learn from the 1980s?

First, diversify.

While we still have a vibrant oil and gas business in Houston, we've also expanded further into our other core industries: health care, technology and space. The Bay Area is fortunate in that it has strong banking, agriculture, and tourism industries. It ought to be putting more TLC into these industries or expanding into other fields.

We learned not to keep all of our wealth in the oil and gas companies in which we work. It's far too common for Silicon Valley workers to have too much trust in the companies they work for, hoping that their stock options will propel them to riches one day. As we learned in Houston, this can lead to disastrous results. Diversify your portfolios, but be careful. Houstonians over invested in real estate in the 1980s and miscalculated the future of that industry.

Second, Houston has also learned to keep well-educated professionals trained and capable of finding support for those in between jobs. Luckily this doesn't seem to be a problem for the Bay Area. While the Greater Houston Region keeps roughly 66.1 percent of its four-year college graduates in the area, the Bay Area keeps 65.2 percent of its graduates around. So, Bay Area, never take your universities, like U.C. Berkeley and Stanford, for granted.

We know the Bay Area has seen its own troubles before. The dotcom bust of the early 2000s was devastating to the local economy. We're just especially sensitive to what happened to us in 1980s and we'd hate to see the Bay Area go through something similar again.

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Elizabeth Biar is vice president of Strategic Public Affairs, a government elations and PR/communications firm based in Houston. Sam Felsing is a former reporter and who currently works as a senior account executive at Telegraph, a political consulting and public relations firm based in Oakland, California.

Ahead of entering the Houston market later this year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play hosted three days of programming surrounding innovation in energy and health care. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Plug and Play, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm and accelerator program, plans to launch its operations in Houston later this year. And, in showing its commitment to the Bayou City, the organization hosted three days worth of panels, talks, and pitches at the Texas Medical Center's TMC Innovation Institute earlier this month.

Houston Innovation Week was Plug and Play's formal introduction to Houston startups and the local corporations that have the potential to support them. The programming focused on health and energy and sustainability, and the summit concluded with TMCx's Demo Day.

If you missed the event, we've hit the highlights for you by rounding up nine powerful quotes overheard throughout the week.

“Nowadays, I feel every industry is going to go through an incredible digital transformation. Even the oil and gas industry, which is very capital heavy, there’s going to be a layer of fast-moving technologies which would help the industry be more efficient. This is the crossroads where Plug and Play was born — bridging the gap between the entrepreneurs and the technologies. That changes an industry.”

— Saeed Amidi, CEO and founder of Plug and Play, says. He also shares the story of how Plug and Play got its start from a few lucky early investments to making over 150 investments a year.

“Now we have about 30 offices, and then quite frankly I realized I had forgotten about America.”

— Amidi says, announcing that Plug and Play will open five new offices across the United States in the next six months to a year.

“We’re not walking in terms of building this integrated robust innovation ecosystem, we’re sprinting in that direction.”

— Mayor Sylvester Turner says, adding that, "If there is any city that ought to be leading the way when it comes to startups, technology, and innovation, it ought to be the city of Houston."

“You have to get people to invest more. It doesn’t happen on its own. People have to see that if we invest, we’re going to get a return.”

— Mayor Turner says, calling the crowd to action. "You can't just talk about what others have done and what we have accomplished. You have to take that now, build the platform, and move into where we are going."

“One of the things you look at is it’s not the technology itself that’s going to make you win or lose, it’s what you do with it.”

— Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, responding to a question about what technologies she has her eyes on. Burger continued on to say that, while she couldn't highlight any technologies in particular — it's like picking a favorite child, she's always evaluating how a new technology would help with the affordability, reliability, and lower environmental impact. "That's the game," she says.

"Management is amazing at suppressing innovation. … We can move toward just trying not to suppress it. If someone has an idea, they are safe to go through the process and raise their hand."

— Bradley Andrews, president of digital at Worley. "I think it's a change in attitude," he says about how management can evolve to advance ideas within energy companies.

“It’s easy to say that we’ll do the thing that gives us the most competitive advantage — and it’s really hard to figure out what that means and how you do that. In general, if we see something that’s out there and implemented that someone else has done, I don’t need to create an internal capability like that. I just need to go access that.”

— Doug Kushnerick, senior technology scouting and venture adviser at ExxonMobil. For Kushnerick, technology solutions that fix specific problems are easy to go after, but things that affect big picture and strategic assets are harder to figure out if they are worth implementing.

“One of our big asks from our partners from an internal perspective is really to have a champion — whether its an innovation manager or someone who really advocates these startups internally. Someone who will find the clinician and the business unit and tap the legal team.”

— Neda Amidi, global head of health and partner at Plug and Play Tech Center, responding to a question about opening up the channels of communications between startups and large companies. She adds that it's a requirement for these people to visit a Plug and Play location four to six times a year.

“What I see from a culture perspective is that it really starts with the leadership in the institution. If the people at the top in the C-suite of the institution are focused on understanding why their organization isn’t performing as well as they expect it to be and are willing to look to the outside, that’s how it starts in my mind.”

— Thomas Luby, director TMC Innovation Institute, responding to a question from the audience about large organizations that tend to be slower adaptors to new technologies.