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."

As a a part of its annual Inc. 5000 findings, the magazine named Houston the ninth hottest startup city in America. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

It's not just Texas' weather that's hot. Three Lone Star State cities made Inc. magazine's list of hot startups cities — and Houston came in at No. 9.

The list came out of the Inc. 5000 report — the magazine's list of the fastest-growing 5,000 privately-held companies in the United States. The list was ranked by the three-year revenue growth of each of the cities' companies.

Houston had a three-year revenue growth 117 percent with 84 Houston companies on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list.

"After Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, the Houston area's construction industry grew tremendously to help rebuild and repair the storm's damage," the short ranking blurb reads, mentioning two Inc. 5000 companies in Houston: oil pipeline services company JP Services (No. 792) and contractor services firm CC&D (No. 1,973).

Houston beat out Dallas (No. 10) by just 4 percent three-year revenue growth and 10 Inc. 5000 companies. The article calls out Dallas for its "low regulations, zero corporate income taxes, and the Dallas Entrepreneur Center, or DEC, which is a nonprofit organization serving as a hub for startup networking, funding, and mentorship."

Meanwhile, Austin, which ranked No. 2 on the list, had a three-year revenue growth 259 percent, and has 87 Inc. 5000 companies this year. Austin was praised for its "high rate of entrepreneurship and job creation" in the article, as well as for having outposts for top tech companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google.

Here's the full list:

  1. San Francisco
  2. Austin
  3. New York City
  4. San Diego
  5. Atlanta
  6. Denver
  7. Los Angeles
  8. Chicago
  9. Houston
  10. Dallas

Earlier this month, Business Facilities magazine named Houston the fourth best startup ecosystem in the U.S., as well as the fourth best city for economic growth potential. Similarly, Commercial Cafe recently named Houston a top large city for early stage startups.

Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Houston Partnership, previously told InnovationMap that it's the city's diversity that keeps the city growing and resilient.

"The region's steady population increases, coupled with our relatively low costs of living and doing business, bode well for our economic growth potential reflected in this ranking," Davenport says.