Startup wishlist

Houston needs 4 things to emerge as a startup hub, according to this entrepreneur

Houston has the potential to be a great place for startups, but it might need some fine tuning. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

I often think about why Houston's entrepreneurship ecosystem hasn't taken off as much as it should, given the talent pool and the industrial gravity that's concentrated here.

I joined Station Houston as one of the very early members in January of 2016 and since then been watching all the moving parts in the Houston innovation ecosystem as an entrepreneur. I wanted to share four practical ideas on how Houston can emerge as a startup hub.

1. Houston entrepreneurship needs to focus on deep tech and multidisciplinary endeavors
I believe a lot of breakthrough innovations will come from the interaction between different scientific disciplines or industries. We can target startups built on multidisciplinary sciences and provide a support system for them to thrive in Houston. We have the absolute best engineers, rocket scientists, and doctors in Houston, yet they aren't talking to each other as much as they should. Programs like Pipes and Pumps are great, but we need a modernized initiative that goes beyond holding a one-day event per year. A methodical and continuous program that brings professionals from energy, space, and medicine together to address the challenges these industries face. This may sound crazy, but it works. For example, my last startup commercialized DNA Sequencing in the oil and gas industry. Another startup is using microfluidics to simulate the reservoir, and there are startups using satellite data to identify methane emissions. Now, imagine if we were systematically identifying these opportunities and incubating these startups in Houston. We would be unstoppable and, more importantly, we would be ourselves. Let's help our entrepreneurial doctors, scientists, and engineers launch deep technology startups instead of trying to make apps.

2. Houston needs a structured startup program
Let's be honest, coworking space and 30-minute sessions with mentors isn't going to cut it. First-time entrepreneurs need a lot of help to gain experience and kick start their business model. What's missing is a structured program that can take a talented entrepreneur from the idea stage to raising their seed round (better or at least similar to Creative Destruction Lab or Breakout Lab).

3. Focus on helping the entrepreneurs, and the ecosystem will flourish
Any initiative around entrepreneurship that doesn't boil down to helping entrepreneurs is effectively useless. We need to pass all activities through the "entrepreneur benefit" filter. The current suite of entrepreneurship activities in Houston are skewed towards self-celebratory warm and fuzzy feeling for the ecosystem; we need to shift the attention and resources to entrepreneurs who are in the trenches trying to make it to the next level. Once we have good entrepreneurs, we will have good exits which makes investors happy and incentivize them to invest more. Those entrepreneurs then start building other companies or turn investor and this cycle gradually builds the ecosystem. What's happening now is quite the opposite; all the attention is on building the ecosystem and hoping that it's going to make everything else happen/

4. Houston could be the home for moonshots
Moonshots come from the application of deep technology, and I can't think of a better place to be the home for moonshot startups than Houston. From cure for cancer to rockets to Mars, to reversing climate change via CO2 capture and utilization. That said ideating and incubating moonshots requires vision and the appetite for risk-taking. The good news is that this model really works. As proof look at the OS Fund amazing and astronomically successful portfolio of the companies. According to Bryan Johnson, "OS Fund is investing in deep tech companies that marry hard science and technology to solve big problems and make money." We need a new breed of investment firms such as OS Fund in Houston.

Imagine if we had a portfolio of multidisciplinary deep technology startups in Houston, going through a rigorous program and had the support of the Houston industrial magnets and investors to take off. Now that's what Houston deserves.

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Moji Karimi is co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Cemvita Factory Inc.

Amy Chronis runs the Houston office of Deloitte and serves on the sustainability board for the GHP. AlexandersPortraits.com

When Amy Chronis, the Houston managing partner for Deloitte, was asked to join the Greater Houston Partnership last year, she immediately started doing some research on some of the bigger picture issues the city is facing.

In March, as the chair for the organization's sustainability committee, she brought together a group of constituents to engage in a Smart Cities study with the goal to identify what Houston needs to focus on — what it wanted to be known for.

Overwhelmingly, the stakeholders wanted the city to be known for its innovation, something that surprised Chronis. The group pared down the eight topics of action into three they felt were most timely and then spent the rest of the time focusing on: clean energy, transportation, and smart infrastructure (technology and communication). Now, Chronis has a better understanding on what the city wants as she leads her committee for the GHP.

In her career, which has spanned the state of Texas, she's always served clients in various sectors. Specifically over her last 30 or so years in Houston, Chronis has seen the tide change within innovation, especially with large energy companies.

"We're not Silicon Valley, but Houston has so much going on in terms of development — in energy but also even in medical with the Texas Medical Center," says Chronis, citing advancements from the likes of Rice University, Houston Exponential, TMCx, Station Houston, and more. "Houston's got a lot more going on than people realize."

Chronis sat down to talk with InnovationMap about the change Houston companies are experiencing and her work with the GHP.

InnovationMap: What did you learn from the smart cities study you conducted for the GHP?

Amy Chronis: I learned a lot. It's affirming how much all types of people with different backgrounds care and are interested in this topic and are highly desirous of our region moving forward. I also learned that things are more complicated or difficult than we would like — in terms of funding initiatives, for instance.

IM: In terms of developing the city's workforce, what aspects of the community does Houston need to focus on?

AC: I think there was widespread agreement that we need to keep improving our educational outcomes for all our people. The issues around workforce development are critical for us to improve. It will take public-private partnerships to make real progress.

IM: What can Houston learn from other cities?

AC: I learned a lot about other Smart City initiatives that are being done and accomplishments made in other cities around the world. What those accomplishments have in common was a concerted effort by the city, region, and business leaders — all the stakeholders — to agree on smaller, attainable goals. Instead of trying to address something in a huge way, they nibbled at the edges, if you will.

IM: Do you think Houston is able to do that?

AC: Absolutely, I love Houston — in particular our manifest destiny and inherent pillar to our culture where everyone can make it. It's why I came here 30-something years ago and why my family and I love it here. I think hard work and opportunity still makes Houston a great city. We have the ability, we just need help bringing actionable steps forward.

IM: Switching gears a little, what's the role Deloitte and its clients are playing within Houston's innovation ecosystem?

AC: We like to think we're a real conduit for innovation and a digital transformation for many of our clients. We're very blessed to serve many of the large energy companies — and across industries — in Houston. It's really gratifying to see how much is being invested in research and development and the focus on innovation catalysts. I think there's an awareness now — more than there was a few years ago — that if you're not moving forward, then you're behind.

IM: How do you see the future of Houston's workforce?

AC: I think we have real progress to be made to make sure all of our citizens can achieve the education and opportunities they need. I'm heartened by public-private partnerships that are already underway.

As digitalization moves along, people talk about whether or not artificial intelligence and machine learning will replace jobs. It will replace some jobs, but it'll be far more important that young people still learn those really critical thinking skills. We will need people to evaluate data and make decisions — that critical reasoning will still be absolutely vital.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.