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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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