Guest column

Houston primed for opportunity within the tech inversion caused by the pandemic

Just like Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 is causing Houstonians to rethink how they operate — and that tech and innovation inversion is opening the door to new opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

For has long as I can remember, I had to live near water. That's why I moved to Houston. Recently, new neighbors moved next door from the downtown Galleria area. They loved it there until coronavirus turned shopping habits into stay-at-home habits. The experience led them to recognize they could do just fine without the Galleria-area routine, pivoting instead to a maritime lifestyle.

Could COVID-19 be triggering an inversion paradigm? An inversion paradigm puts needs first rather than product first. We have experienced many historic technology inversions. Remember when our televisions were air-wave dependent and telephones were tethered to the wall? Because the need evolved for a phone that was mobile, today our TV's are wired, and our telephones are untethered.

This technology inversion fundamentally found its way to the individual consumer and transformed entire industries. Houston businesses are responding to a rare COVID-19-induced disruption. Inversions are rare, but when they occur, opportunity follows.

Large infrastructure challenges are normally led by bureaucratic funding processes that result in productized solutions. Hurricane Harvey was a wake-up call to take decisive action to protect decades of private and public investment against future flood events. It was an analogue to removing the board with the nail in it from the driveway to avoid endless tire repairs.

Now, Houston's resilience infrastructure is going through a Hurricane Harvey-induced inversion. The fundamental approach to water management is experiencing a historic reversal which focuses on need rather than a response cycle. Largely dependent on surface run-off systems, Houston experienced a river running through it during Hurricane Harvey. In response, studies and projects are underway to consider a major underground storm drainage system. Water management is fundamentally changing to move stormwater from above ground to below grade, while domestic water is moving away from underground sources to surface supplies, such as lakes. These programs reduce threats to downtown, allowing urbanism and businesses to flourish, simply by addressing a human need in lieu of building another drainage product.

Fortunately for the Houston economy, pre-COVID, quasi-inversion programs already in place to address mobility needs, such as the $7.5 billion METRONext program and $4.8 billion for flood control essentials, are injecting billions of dollars into the local economy. At the federal level, future stimulus funding designed to address infrastructure needs and the economic impact of Coronavirus are likely to follow next year. Consequently, the current Hurricane Harvey, COVID-19 inversion could position Houston to rebound from a time of trial reimagining what a next generation city in the modern age should look like.

Graphic courtesy of AECOM

In fact, infrastructure programs have a long history of creating sustainable jobs and transforming cities. Did you know the River Walk in San Antonio, a downtown centerpiece that thrives today and contributes to thousands of job opportunities, was a construction project born during the Great Depression to address a disastrous flood occurring in the early 1920s? San Antonio architect Robert H. H. Hugman was elected to address a need to save lives and reimagine San Antonio's downtown. The city was altered forever by creating a flood resilience infrastructure that also transformed its city center into a civic gathering place that made San Antonio one of the largest destination cities in Texas.

While technology inversions are occurring more often than before, they are still rare, and each one is very important. Infrastructure inversions that transform cites are even more exceptional. In a COVID-19-induced inversion period, the possibilities are limitless, and the time is now. With programs underway and potential stimulus funding to support additional investment to address city needs, Houston is positioned for something amazing.

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Tony Loyd is based in Houston and vice president at AECOM.

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Building Houston

 
 

"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

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