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.

At Houston Exponential's second annual HX Capital Summit, four Houston entrepreneurs turned investors discussed their lessons learned. Getty Images

One way to evaluate a city's innovation ecosystem is by the number of successful exits they've had. From startups being acquired by big companies to bringing in a private equity partner, exits can put a city on the map.

Houston has quite a few exits under its belt, and some of those entrepreneurs have stayed in town to fund future success stories. At Houston Exponential's second annual HX Capital Summit, four entrepreneurs discussed their exits, providing key lessons learned for entrepreneurs.

Houston has some perks. 

One thing moderator Samantha Lewis, director at the GOOSE Society of Texas, asked each panelist was what made each entrepreneur start their companies in Houston — and furthermore, what made them stay here after their successful exit.

Panelist Ashok Gowda co-founded and served as COO at Visualase Inc., a real-time tissue monitoring system that exited to Medtronic for over $100 million. He now leads Biotex, a Houston-based medical technology investment firm and accelerator, as president and CEO.

For Gowda, Houston was obviously a key market for med tech, but it provided something even more once he reached the commercialization phase of a product.

"From a commercial standpoint, once the technology became commercial, it was an ideal location," Gowda says. "We were traveling all across the US, and it was a nice hub. We're right in the center of the country, and you can get to either coast very quickly."

The panel also agreed that the quality of life in Houston played a major role in settling down.

You might need to rethink your executive team. 

The panel full of venture capitalists of course touched on the ability to fundraise in Houston, as each panelist had been on both sides of the table. For Gowda, it's pretty simple.

"If you're struggling to raise money, you either have a bad idea or the wrong team," he says, adding that if you really believe in your idea, take a good hard look at who's at the leadership level of your team.

Talent is still a challenge in Houston.

Of course, if you do identify a problem within your team, finding the right leader for your technology might be difficult in Houston.

Keith Kreuer, who was also on the panel, is principal at RedHouse Associates, a group of angel investors that invest like a find would, but without having a fund. Between Kreuer and his team, they were involved in 10 startups before forming the investment group.

"We could find developer and sales talent here, but to get to that higher executive talent, we had to go out to other places," Kreuer says.

However, not all of the panelists agreed that talent was a major challenge they faced. Some noted that they got lucky with the talent they found.

Don Kendall, CEO of Kenmont Capital Partners, came to Houston to run a power company and family office. He turned $100,000 into $1.6 billion and now is a member of GOOSE.

"We had no problem getting the engineering talent," Kendall says. "We really found Houston to be a good environment, and it's only just continued to improve."

Playing to Houston's strengths might be key to success.

For Gray Hall, managing director at Austin-based BuildGroup, which focuses on writing big checks to a small amount of software startups, he knew how to play to his company's and Houston's strengths.

Hall previously served as CEO of AlertLogic, which had a private equity exit in 2013, and Hall stayed on until 2018 as the company continued to grow. He also co-founded Veracenter, which had a strategic exit after growing to $80 million in annual revenue.

"The common theme across both companies and why we were able to grow is real simple: Customer and people," Hall says.

Houston might be one of the country's best kept secrets when it comes to midmarket activity, Hall notes — midmarket companies being defined as those with $50 million to $1 billion in revenue.

"What Houston doesn't get enough credit for is the midmarket in Houston, which I think is tremendous," Hall says. "It's as strong as anywhere else in the country."

AlertLogic was able to tap into this midmarket to quickly grow its client base.

Something else that differentiates Houston from other cities is its culture, which is less focused on the glitz and glam and more focused on hard work.

"Engage with people that have a credible story and a credible plan to solve a problem," he says.

Houston is growing. 

One thing each of the entrepreneurs agreed on is that the city is only growing its resources and quality of startups.

"I see Houston as sort of a startup in the startup world," Kreuer says. "And, what we're trying to do is grow and catch up to the West Coast and the East Coast, but I think Texas as a whole is going to be pretty powerful, and Houston is going to be a central part of that mainly because we have the markets here, and the people in the area and the talent to do that."

As Houston's success stories become more frequent, this provides an avenue for more entrepreneurs turned investors.

"When you've done it before, you've learned the lessons, and you feel like you can do it again and again," Gowda says. "That's what we're trying to do. You see all the possibilities here."