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

 
 

A new report finds Houston a top city for business friendliness and connectivity. Photo via Getty Images

Houston, the future looks bright.

A new study from the fDi Intelligence division of the Financial Times places Houston at No. 7 among the top major cities of the future for 2021-22 across North, South, and Central America. Among major cities in the Americas, Houston appears at No. 3 for business friendliness and No. 4 for connectivity.

"Houston is known as one of the youngest, fastest-growing, and most diverse cities anywhere in the world. I am thrilled that we continue to be recognized for our thriving innovation ecosystem," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is quoted as saying in the fDi study.

Toronto leads the 2021-22 list of the top major cities in the Americas, followed by San Francisco, Montreal, Chicago, and Boston.

The rankings are based on data in five categories:

  • Economic potential
  • Business friendliness
  • Human capital and lifestyle
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Connectivity

Houston's no stranger to the list. Last year, the city ranked No. 3 on the same study, and in 2019, claimed the No. 5 spot.

"The fact that Houston consistently ranks among the top markets for foreign direct investment speaks to our region's connectivity and business-friendly environment," says Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer at the Greater Houston Partnership. "Many of the industry sectors we target for expansion and relocation in Houston are global in nature — from energy 2.0 and life sciences to aerospace and digital tech. The infrastructure and diverse workforce that make these prime growth sectors for us among domestic players are equally attractive to international companies looking to establish or strengthen ties in the Americas."

International trade is a cornerstone of the Houston area's economy. In 2020, the region recorded $129.5 billion in exports, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. China ranked as the region's top trading partner last year, followed by Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

Houston's role as a hub for foreign trade and international business "is likely to support the region's economic recovery in the months and years ahead," the partnership noted in May.

"We talk often of Houston as a great global city — one that competes with the likes of London, Tokyo, São Paulo, and Beijing. But that's only possible because of our infrastructure — namely our port — and our connections around the world," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the partnership, said last month. "Houston's ties abroad remain strong."

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