Featured Innovator

Innovation leader discusses the future of HX and how the city of Houston is at an 'inflection point'

Harvin Moore, who has a 20-year career in tech and innovation, serves as president of Houston Exponential. Courtesy of HX

If there's one person optimistic about Houston's innovation ecosystem, it's probably Harvin Moore.

"There's no question that five years from now, or 10 years from now, Houston will be a very large and continually rapidly growing tech economy," Moore tells InnovationMap. "The question is just how fast it is going to get here."

Houston Exponential — the city's nonprofit meant to connect the dots within innovation in Houston — named Moore the president of the organization earlier this summer. He's hit the ground running since then.

Moore discusses with InnovationMap how his tenure is going and where the innovation ecosystem is at as the city dives into a busy fall season.

InnovationMap: How has your first few months at HX been?

Harvin Moore: It has been, I would say, chiefly defined by the fact that I've been on a grand listening tour. I went back over my calendar recently to count the number of meetings, because it really does seem like I don't come up for air. It's summer in Houston, and I've been getting in and out of a hot car like most of every day. I'm up to somewhere in the high nineties — like 95 of these meetings. And what has really kind of blown me way about that is that five years ago, there really wasn't an ecosystem. You could have had a listening tour in a week.

IM: How is HX's role in the ecosystem evolving with the ecosystem itself?

HM: HX's role from the start was to attract, promote, and connect. Let me first say that of those three, HX as a staff has been mostly focusing on promotion in the past. However, the board has been doing all three — attract, promote, and connect. We will be focusing more on connecting and attracting in the future.

Attract is bringing in big companies, small companies, and startups to Houston, as well as bringing in talent. It's the people who want to move to Houston because there are a lot of good job opportunities — not just in energy, medicine, and logistics. It's also an effort to attract capital so that there is more access to the enormous number of high net worth people in Houston for angel capital and investments, but also venture capital.

We're going to continue to promote. You're going to see a difference in how we promote. We're going to be more focused on shining this light all around the community, and we're going to be more focused on diversity.

Connect relates to how are we are helping startups — like by finding venture capital firms.

IM: So, how is HX looking to connect startups to investment opportunities?

HM: In the past and how the situation is now, there's something like 80 percent of venture is on the West and East Coasts. It's like all the attention is in the Bay Area and then New York and Boston. And, in Houston, we talk about how far behind we are of Austin. And, I guess that's true, but still — Austin is a blip on the map compared with San Francisco and the Bay Area for example.

But what's happening now is a shift. There are these venture capitalists that are really starting to look — in the last two or three years and for various reasons — at the growth of ecosystems. So, when a VC calls, in the past they would have looked for a company that they're interested in, and they would come down to visit and see it. Maybe to be a little bit more efficient, they might call TMCx, for instance, and say that they'd like to come down and ask for TMCx to find some other companies to meet with.

Now with HX active in this connecting role, that's what we'll be doing. Now if a VC calls on, let's say, Station Houston, Station will say, "OK, yes, we can help, but you can also call on HX because Houston has a lot more to offer." That's not the way it works in most cities because of competition, but this is one of the keys of how we're going to really break out in Houston because we have a collaborative nature in the city.

IM: What's a goal you have for HX?

HM: HX has not yet built out its data capabilities and responsibilities. You can't be a great connector at scale without a good system, like Hubspot, for instance. How many startups are there in Houston? Nobody knows. How many seats are there at the startup development organizations, or SDOs? Nobody's counted them. None of this stuff's been measured. I mean, there are some people that are trying to measure how much venture capital is coming into Houston, and it's amazing how much it is, but it's still missing data.

One thing I want to talk about is the startup database, which has never been done before. We really haven't even seen anyone make a real attempt to do this because it's such a daunting task. Of course, if we don't start quick, it's going to be pretty hard to do later. However, we as a board decided around a year ago that we were going to make this a priority to create a really good, useful, accurate database of as many of the startups and growth-stage technology companies in Houston as possible. We just reached an agreement with Texas A&M University to be the data partner. So, they're going to assign doctorate student up there who's going to be running the project.

IM: You have a long career in education with positions at Houston ISD as well as KIPP Houston Public Schools. How does education merge with your career now?

HM: Well, it's actually a question that makes sense now. Every time I've been asked that question throughout my entire career, it's been harder to answer. I started volunteering in education when I was living in New York as a banker, and I would take the subway up to Harlem and I would tutor up there. When I moved back to Houston, I found a place to tutor here, and my involvement got bigger and bigger until I ran for public office — and won with something like 74 percent of the vote and was re-elected three times serving HISD for 13 years.

Now, it looks like a brilliant career decision, although it never was meant to be. And the reason it makes so much sense is that academia and research and universities are huge parts of the ecosystem. During my time in education, I began to realize that the workforce development — particularly at the post high school level — was job skills. We did a study and found out where the jobs were and worked our way back from there. We redid our career technology programs because of this study.

How this experience ties into what I do at HX is that quality jobs skills credentialing is one of the most important things that the education system can do for the growth of the technology ecosystem.

IM: How have you seen the industry evolve recently?

HM: It's good advice to look around and remember how things look today cause we are living through an inflection point, and there's been several of those in our history. When people started looking around and seeing people walking around with these little PDAs, palm pilots, and things like that — that was the beginning of an inflection point. There are these inflection points in history, like whoever the hell put rollers on suitcases for the first damn time — that was not even long ago. And now no one carries a bag anymore. That was a silly example, but we are living through this inflection point here in Houston.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Sandy Wallis, managing director of the HX Venture Fund, has seen investing in Houston change over her 20-year career. Courtesy of Sandy Wallis

After 20 years in the venture capital world, Sandy Guitar Wallis has seen the evolution of investing — on both coasts and here in Houston as well.

Now, as managing director of the HX Venture Fund, Wallis is playing the long game. The fund of funds acts as a broker to other venture funds, raising money from limited partners and then strategically doling out investments to non-Houston venture funds, with the hope that those funds circle back into the Houston innovation ecosystem with a multiplier effect.

"We have raised a fund of funds with the HX Venture Fund, and we're deploying that capital across probably 10 venture capital funds over time," Wallis explains on the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Each one of those funds, will invest in 15 to 20 underlying private companies. So, at the end of the day, HX Venture Fund 1 will have exposure to 10 VC funds, as an example, and — by virtue of those investments — maybe 300 private companies."

The HX Venture Fund is aiming to raise between $50 million and $70 million for its first fund. Last year, HXVF made six investments, and Wallis says she expects another three to five investments in 2020. Ultimately, Wallis says, HXVF is looking to get a wide range of of firms involved — from early stage to later, growth stages — as well as a diversity in industries of focus.

Beyond the money, HXVF is opening up the discussion on a national scale, with visiting VCs and potential investors.

"We are getting a lot of interest in coastal VCs who want to invest here," Wallis says on the podcast.

Wallis, who is a co-founder of Weathergage Capital, got her MBA at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, but has been in Houston for most of her career — traveling to each coast for business. Wallis shares her expertise, discussing everything from why the IPO process has slowed to what startups need to know about venture capital.

Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.