Follow the money

Leading venture capitalists forecast the future of funding in Houston

Venture capital panelists discussed Houston's venture funding future — both the good and the bad. Houston Exponential/Twitter

Despite Houston being known for its money, venture capital has struggled to hit its stride until recently. Now, as Houston has attracted more money for its startups — even coming close to Austin, according to recent data — the Bayou City faces a challenge ahead.

"We will go through a massive tech correction — period. End of story," says Blair Garrou, managing partner of Houston-based Mercury Fund, at the inaugural HX Capital Summit.

The correction, Garrou says, would have happened a few years ago, but Middle Eastern and Chinese investments have been holding down the fort, so to speak.

"Whenever this correction happens, whether it's a year, two years, or three years, [my hope is] that the capital here invests through the cycle," Garrou says. "Anyone who invests through the cycle will win."

Garrou was joined by a few other venture capitalists on the panel hosted by Houston Exponential at the TMC Innovation Institute on December 4: Tim Kopra, partner at Houston-based Blue Bear Capital; Mark Friday, associate at Houston-based Cathexis; Joe Milam, CEO of Austin-based Angelspan; Jay Zeidman, managing partner of Houston-based Altitude Ventures Texas; and moderator Rashad Kurbanov, CEO of Houston-based iownit capital and markets.

While the tech correction looms, Houston's current venture ecosystem blooms, thanks to a rise in high net worth personal and family investments.

"There's a real hunger from a lot of ultra-high net worth families to get into this sector, and it'd be really interesting if we can cultivate that here in Houston," says Kopra.

People have gotten more comfortable investing in tech, says Garrou, so the investment opportunities have grown.

"There's a greed component to it that people don't like to talk about," Garrou says. "When people see people making money in a certain sector, they say, 'why not me.'"

However, there are a few things holding back some investors. One being that companies from earlier venture funds have yet to reach their full potential, says Garrou, and he and other venture capitals need to move the needle on that to demonstrate success. He says, once that happens, more capital will flow.

Another hesitation Zeidman says he's seen is within investing in funds, rather than directly into startups.

"There's a difference in investing in companies and investing in funds," Zeidman. "I think a lot of folks are skeptical about investing in funds. I want to be in a deal — I don't just want to give you money and you go decide what to do with it."

Houston Exponential, the city-backed innovation arm for Houston, launched a fund of funds in October. The HX Venture Fund has the potential to create a "flywheel effect" in Houston, says Garrou.

"We're going to see dozens and dozens of funds from across the country come to Houston — they're already coming," Garrou says. "But what's important is they are going to want to co-invest with local investors, and that's the key to venture capital."

While encouraging out-of-city investors is a key part of the equation, Houston does stand well on its own, Milam says. Houston has historically been compared, perhaps wrongly, to Austin., because it got a head start when it came to startup growth. But it's a different story now.

"Austin isn't as advanced as people give it credit for," says Milam. "I don't think Houston at all has [to] look at Austin as a role model or for guidance. Houston has a far better and brighter future when it comes to mobilizing capital and Houston-born startups."

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that despite Houston's slow start and rough waters ahead, Houston's future is bright when it comes to venture capital and startup growth.

"When you look at Houston, we've got a huge economy here — a huge number of customers here," Friday says. "I think we can close the gap of the ratio the amount of venture and startup activity to the overall size of our economy."

The coffee company announced three Houston-area solar projects. Courtesy of Starbucks

Coffee shop chain Starbucks is plugging into Texas' solar energy industry in a big way.

Two 10-megawatt solar farms in Texas owned by Cypress Creek Renewables LLC are providing enough energy for the equivalent of 360 Starbuck stores, including locations in Houston, Humble, Katy, and Spring. Separately, Starbucks has invested in six other Texas solar farms owned by Cypress Creek, representing 50 megawatts of solar energy; Santa Monica, California-based Cypress Creek is selling that power to other customers.

Three of the eight solar farms in the Texas portfolio are just outside the Houston metro area. One is in the Fort Bend County town of Beasley, while two of the projects are in Wallis and Wharton.

Starbucks already relies on a North Carolina solar farm equipped with 149,000 panels to deliver solar energy equivalent to powering 600 Starbucks stores in North Carolina, Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

"Our long-standing commitment to renewable energy supports our greener-retail initiative and demonstrates our aspiration to sustainable coffee, served sustainably," Rebecca Zimmer, Starbucks' director of global environmental impact, says in an April 15 release about its solar investment in Texas. "Now, we are investing in new, renewable energy projects in our store communities, which we know is something our partners and customers can appreciate for their local economy and for the environment."

The solar commitment in Texas aligns with Starbucks' goal of designing, building, and operating 10,000 "greener" company-owned stores around the world by 2025. The Seattle-based retailer expects this initiative — whose features include renewable energy, energy efficiency, and waste reduction — to cut $50 million in utility costs over the next 10 years.

U.S. Bank's community development division teamed up with Starbucks and Cypress Creek on the Texas solar farms. Chris Roetheli, a business development officer at U.S. Bank, says solar tax equity investments like those undertaken by Starbucks are growing in popularity among non-traditional investors.

"Starbucks is taking a unique approach — investing in solar farms regionally to support a specific group of its stores," Roetheli says in the announcement of the solar collaboration. "This is a new concept, and one that I think other companies are watching and may follow. It's an interesting model that allows them to talk specifically about the impact of their investments."

Starbucks' investment comes as Texas' stature in the solar energy sector keeps rising, along with the state's role in the wind energy industry.

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, more than 2,900 megawatts of solar capacity are installed in Texas. That's enough energy to power nearly 350,000 homes. Among the states, Texas ranks fifth for the amount of installed solar capacity.

Solar investment in Texas exceeds $4.5 billion, with about 650 solar companies operating statewide, the association says. The solar energy industry employs more than 13,000 full-time and part-time workers in Texas, according to the Texas Solar Power Association.

With more than 4 gigawatts (over 7,000 megawatts) of solar capacity expected to be added in Texas over the next five years, the national solar association reported in 2018 that "Texas is poised to become a nationwide leader in solar energy … ."

As it stands now, though, solar supplies less than 1 percent of Texas' electricity.

A 2018 state-by-state report card for friendliness toward solar power assigned a "C" to Texas, putting it in 34th place among the states.

The report card, released by SolarPowerRocks.com, lauds the backing of big Texas cities like Houston, Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio in encouraging residential solar installations.

However, the report card adds, outlying areas in Texas lag their urban counterparts in support of residential solar, "and we'd like lawmakers here to codify more protections and goals for solar adoption, but in the most populous areas, the Lone Star [State] shines."