thinking positive

Houston founders optimistic about COVID-19 recovery, survey finds

According to a survey from Houston Exponential, the Bayou City's startup founders see the light at the end of the pandemic's dark tunnel. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Given the current economic environment, you might think founders of Houston startups would view the future with a healthy dose of pessimism. But you'd be wrong.

A survey conducted between April 23 and May 7 by Houston Exponential, a nonprofit that promotes the local innovation ecosystem, revealed that Houston startup founders largely see the future through a lens of optimism. For example:

  • More than half of the startups that said they were harmed by the coronavirus pandemic believe they'll begin bouncing back before the end of this year.
  • 70 percent of the startups that said they were hurt by the pandemic believe they'll begin recovering before they run out of cash. "They're saying, 'We're making it through this to the other side, and we're going to be better on the other side," says Bryant Chan, director of product at HX.
  • 80 percent of startups said they planned to add employees within the following 12 months.
  • Two-thirds of startups said they had a funding runway of at least six months.

"Houston is a resilient city, and its agile founders are the most adept at making the best of any situation," HX states in a summary of the survey results.

HX sent the survey to more than 1,000 startup founders in Houston. The survey results include responses from founders of companies with 30 or fewer employees.

Harvin Moore, president of HX, says he wasn't surprised by the generally optimistic outlook of Houston startup founders. In part, that's because local startups as a whole aren't swimming in deep pools of venture capital, according to Moore. Lower valuations lead to lower overhead and shorter cash runways, translating into abundant resilience, he says.

Moore suspects that if a startup founders survey were to be conducted in a VC hotbed like Silicon Valley, "we would probably find less resilience just because there were higher burn rates and, therefore, more dependence on runway."

Chan says startups in Houston hold an advantage over startups in hotspots like Silicon Valley because they're used to practicing "capital efficiency."

"Hopefully, we will maintain that as an advantage," Moore says.

Despite the optimistic elements of the survey results, Houston startups are encountering obstacles. Those include:

  • One-third of startups with at least six employees said they carried out layoffs or furloughs as a result of the pandemic-scarred economy.
  • Thirty percent of startups said they saw contracts fade and revenue shrink because of the pandemic.
  • Nearly one-fifth of startups that said they were raising capital before and during the pandemic saw their valuations decline by 10 percent to 20 percent.

One of the most noteworthy findings in the negative column was that the No. 1 hiring challenge for startups (cited by 21 percent of them) was offering competitive pay.

"Founders are finding talented candidates in Houston, but are unable to meet their salary demands," HX states. "It's common for startups to compensate early employees through company equity in lieu of salary, but with such economic uncertainty, employees may prefer that guaranteed cash and liquidity."

Before the pandemic, the top hiring challenge for Houston startups likely would have been finding the right talent, Chan says.

Despite such challenges, the path ahead for Houston's startup community seems to be pretty smooth, particularly as organizations like HX keep pursuing more access to angel, early stage, and seed funding.

"We have a strong economy, low cost of living — all these things that are solid about Houston and are not going away," Moore says. "We're confident that 2021 will be a great year. 2020 is probably going to be — for most people in Houston, just like around the rest of the country — the year of reimagining and repositioning and recovering. For some companies, it's going to be a huge inflection-point year."

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Building Houston

 
 

Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

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