Show me the money

Houston still needs capital, talent, and success stories to grow its innovation ecosystem, according to a panel of experts

Capital Factory's Texas Startup Roadshow made a pit stop in Houston to discuss investment. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

While Houston has increased its number of capital investments in startups over the recent years, there's more work to be done.

A panel of experts at Capital Factory and J.P. Morgan's Texas Startups Roadshow discussed what the city still needs if it is going to accomplish its mission of being a vibrant, successful place for innovation.

For Blair Garrou, managing director of Mercury Fund, Houston has experienced a growth in the number of opportunities for deals, but his firm can only do so much.

"There's more activity going on right now than my 20 years here — it's coming," Garrou says. "And we don't have enough capital to support it."

Garrou says out-of-Houston firms want to invest in deals here, but they don't want to lead a round — they want Mercury Fund to, and they'll follow. For Garrou, that indicates a credibility problem that needs to be addressed.

Houston Exponential is attempting to right the course on this issue with its HX Venture Fund, says Sandy Wallis, managing director. The fund of funds puts money into non-Houston VCs in hopes that those VCs turn around and invest back into Houston.

"The number one problem I'm trying to help with, which I hear a lot from entrepreneurs, is getting more venture here, Wallis, who co-founded Weathergage Capital, says. "What we're trying to do is make sure that our entrepreneurs are meeting with VCs — not just the ones HX invests in, but all the ones that get into town."

She wants to connect the dots for startups — both to visiting VCs and local corporations, which, she says, are already engaged and interested.

"You can see the fluid activation of our corporates here," Wallis says. "Those corporates are engaging directly with the innovation going on in Houston, and we have our headliner tech companies in place."

One of the things that would spir interest and investment into Houston companies is more success stories coming out of Houston, says Paul Hobby, founding partner at Genesis Park. Focusing on talent — developing leadership, recruitment, and retention — is what the city needs to get there. It has all the other ingredients, he says.

"In Houston, we have the means, the opportunity, the will, the capital, and the risk tolerance to solve our own problems," Hobby says to the crowd.

Houston has been working on developing talent and providing resources for entrepreneurs for the past couple years, and many of those accelerator and incubator programs — like Station Houston, The Cannon, Impact Hub Houston, MassChallenge Texas, etc. — have launched to serve startups.

"We probably have 12 to 15 startup development organizations all with different flavors," Garrou says. "And in doing that, we're still looking to the outside for best practices, like Capital Factory, to ask how we could do this better."

The focus on improving resources for startups will continue, he says, and even more will deliver. However, not every single effort will see success, but that's OK, Garrou says.

"All of these are grand visions that Houston has to keep building," Garrou says. "Some of that won't pan out, but the fact that it's all happening and if 50 percent is successful, then I think we've done our jobs to meet entrepreneurs where they are."

Wallis agrees — in capitalism, you can't win it all.

"Developing Houston is going to have failures and successes, and it's about failing successfully," she says.

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Building Houston

 
 

Re:3D is one of two Houston companies to be recognized by the SBA's technology awards. Photo courtesy of re:3D

A couple of Houston startups have something to celebrate. The United States Small Business Administration announced the winners of its Tibbetts Award, which honors small businesses that are at the forefront of technology, and two Houston startups have made the list.

Re:3D, a sustainable 3D printer company, and Raptamer Discovery Group, a biotech company that's focused on therapeutic solutions, were Houston's two representatives in the Tibbetts Award, named after Roland Tibbetts, the founder of the SBIR Program.

"I am incredibly proud that Houston's technology ecosystem cultivates innovative businesses such as re:3D and Raptamer. It is with great honor and privilege that we recognize their accomplishments, and continue to support their efforts," says Tim Jeffcoat, district director of the SBA Houston District Office, in a press release.

Re:3D, which was founded in 2013 by NASA contractors Samantha Snabes and Matthew Fiedler to tackle to challenge of larger scale 3D printing, is no stranger to awards. The company's printer, the GigaBot 3D, recently was recognized as the Company of the Year for 2020 by the Consumer Technology Association. Re:3D also recently completed The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator this year, which has really set the 20-person team with offices in Clear Lake and Puerto Rico up for new opportunities in sustainability.

"We're keen to start to explore strategic pilots and partnerships with groups thinking about close-loop economies and sustainable manufacturing," Snabes recently told InnovationMap on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Raptamer's unique technology is making moves in the biotech industry. The company has created a process that makes high-quality DNA Molecules, called Raptamers™, that can target small molecules, proteins, and whole cells to be used as therapeutic, diagnostic, or research agents. Raptamer is in the portfolio of Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which also won a Tibbetts Award that Fannin Innovation Studio in 2016.

"We are excited by the research and clinical utility of the Raptamer technology, and its broad application across therapeutics and diagnostics including biomarker discovery in several diseases, for which we currently have an SBIR grant," says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner at Fannin Innovation Studio.

This year, 38 companies were honored online with Tibbetts Awards. Since its inception in 1982, the awards have recognized over 170,000 honorees, according to the release, with over $50 billion in funding to small businesses through the 11 participating federal agencies.

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