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Houston's innovation ecosystem channels the wildcatter's spirit — but with one major difference

Is Texas still full of wildcatters — but for tech and innovation? Some say yes, but with one caveat. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Historically, Texas has been a land of opportunity, and that might ring true now more than ever since the state's oil boom. As Houston's innovation ecosystem grows and develops, are these entrepreneurs reminiscent of the wildcatter days of the early 1900s? Well, sort of.

"Wildcatting is supposed to be really wild. You're supposed to go out in the field and drill some holes and hope that you find something," says Marc Nathan, vice president of strategy at Egan Nelson in Austin. "Truth is, we're a lot more deliberate than that these days."

Wildcatting and deliberate innovation development were the topics of discussion at a panel in Austin during SXSW. The panel, which was hosted by Rice Business and Texas Monthly, was comprised of three panelists with Houston ties: Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, Lawson Gow, CEO and founder of Houston-based The Cannon, and Nathan, who, though based in Austin now, was born and raised in Houston and has done business in town too.

Wildcatting new industries
All three panelists agreed that the entrepreneurial nature of the wildcatters is alive and well within Texas entrepreneurs, just now spread apart multiple industries. Among all of the major Texas cities — or DASH, as Nathan calls it, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and Houston — each has its specialty. Austin tends to specialize in consumer-facing technology, Dallas has a hold on B-to-B and transportation, and San Antonio has the military.

For Houston, which is most known for its energy, life sciences, and space technology, has some new territories it's growing in, says Rowe, from cybersecurity to sports technology. And all of these different industries seem to work together, which is encouraging to see for Rowe.

"That's the secret sauce that Houston has in many ways," Rowe says.

This ability to specialize is also what's also special about Houston. Rather than trying to compete with Austin and its consumer technology — Gow gave an example of a startup focusing on a doggy dating app — Houston is doing its own thing.

"What I love about Houston is we're trying to solve big problems," Gow, who is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO, says. "We're not going to be the consumer software capital of the world and, for the most part, we're not going to mess around with doggy dating apps."

Houston's problems to overcome
One of the challenges Houston faces as an innovation ecosystem is access to funds. According to Nathan, putting money into tech is just not Houston investors are used to doing.

"Houstonians invest in the ground, with oil and gas, and on the ground, with real estate, but not in the cloud," Nathan says.

The reason being, Gow says, is investors tend to put money into industries they know, and there's a need for educating these investors in new industries.

"To compare to Austin, more people in Austin have tech startups that have been successful and they turn around and invest in what they know, which is tech startups," Gow says. "There's a generational effect."

Another challenge Houston faces is competition — but not with other Texas cities or the rest of the country. Competition between startups and accelerators for resources has the potential to hinder the city's growth as an ecosystem.

"We are fighting for very scarce resources — and it's not just money," Nathan says. "It's also talent."

Texas Monthly's chief innovation officer, Tim Taliaferro, moderated the panel. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

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Building Houston

 
 

SpaceCom is taking place online this year for free. Here's what you need to sign up for. Photo courtesy of SpaceCom

Today marks the first day in SpaceCom's two-week online conference featuring space entrepreneurs, NASA executives, government experts, and more.

Usually a must-attend event hosted at George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, SpaceCom is free and virtual this year. Register to attend and check out this curated list of 10 can't-miss discussions.

Click here for the full schedule.

Tuesday, October 20 — General Session: Whole of Government

Greg Autry, director at SoCal Commercial Spaceflight Initiative, will moderate a discussion with Kevin O'Connell, director at the Office of Space Commerce Department of Commerce, and Scott Pace, executive secretary at the National Space Council. The panel will discuss how they will work together on policies and actions they need to take to enable the trillion-dollar space economy.

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 20, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 20 — Carbon Footprint and Emissions Monitoring

Satellite data can give governments and industry the ability to monitor and reduce the carbon footprint. In this panel, experts will discuss the companies that operate and use satellite data to monitor, manage and profit from satellites that monitor the planet's carbon footprint.

  • Lou Zacharilla, director of Innovation Space & Satellite Professionals International (moderator)
  • Sebastien Biraud, staff scientist and Climate Sciences Department Head at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • Steve Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund
  • Yotam Ariel, CEO of Bluefield Technologies
This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 20, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

Thursday, October 22 — Keynote: Industry Applications

This general session features how Amazon Web Services helps terrestrial industries take advantage of space enabled services already in place at competitive pricing. Speaker Clint Crosier from Amazon Web Services and moderator Douglas Terrier, chief technology officer at NASA.

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 22, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Monday, October 26 — Keynote: International Space Station

The new head of NASA's International Space Station program, Joel Montalbano, who is based in Houston's Johnson Space Center, provides a status of and exciting new industry applications for the ISS as well as insight into the future of ISS.

This virtual panel takes place online on Monday, October 26, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Monday, October 26 — NASA Session: Transferring NASA Technology

NASA's treasure trove of technology is available to American industry and entrepreneurs to apply in profitable ways. In this session, NASA technology transfer leaders — Daniel Lockney, Kimberly Minafra, and Krista Jensen — will discuss the many ways the private sector can tap into the accumulated knowledge NASA has to share.

This virtual panel takes place online on Monday, October 26, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 27 — Space Tourism: The Excitement and Expectations

A panel of industry experts will discuss the space tourism industry, taking a deep dive into what the future holds, constraints for the industry's ability to address the market for many years to come and how some of these projects will be executed from a business, technology and execution perspective.

  • Amir Blachman, chief business officer of Houston-based Axiom Space
  • Jane Poynter, founder and co-CEO of Space Perspective
  • Sudhir Pai, CEO of Autonomous Energy Ventures
  • Richard Garriott, private astronaut (moderator)

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 27, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Tuesday, October 27 — Spaceports as the Innovation Hub for Regions

Spaceports around the world can, and in many cases are, serving as regional innovation centers for high tech activities and creating positive economic development opportunities. Speakers Cherie Matthew, project manager at Corgan, and Pam Underwood, director at the FAA Office of Spaceports, review what the future looks like for spaceports and what funding will be necessary with moderator George Nield, president of Commercial Space Technologies LLC.

This virtual panel takes place online on Tuesday, October 27, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

Wednesday, October 28 — NASA Session: Industries of the Future

NASA technology is creating the underpinning for new industries of the future. NASA's work has already changed the world with advances in telecom and microprocessors. More is yet to come. This panel led by Douglas Terrier, NASA chief technologist will explore the industries on the horizon that will stem from NASA innovation.

This virtual panel takes place online on Wednesday, October 28, from 12 to 12:45 pm. Learn more.

Thursday, October 29 — Keynote: Women of Space

NASA's head of human exploration, Kathy Lueders, based in Houston's Johnson Space Center, discusses the crucial role that women have, are, and will continue to provide in getting America back to the Moon, as well as in creating the trillion-dollar commercial space economy with moderator Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at JSC.

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 29, from 11 to 11:45 am. Learn more.

Thursday, October 29 — Zoom to the Moon

An international panel discussion with Orion Program Managers about progress toward launching NASA's first human-rated spacecraft to travel around the Moon since 1972.

  • Catherine Koerner, NASA Orion Program Manager NASA at JSC
  • Didier Radola, head of ORION ESM Programme Airbus
  • Nico Dettman, Lunar Exploration Group Leader for Lunar Exploration Development Projects European Space Agency
  • Tony Antonelli, Artemis II mission director Lockheed Martin

This virtual panel takes place online on Thursday, October 29, from 1 to 1:45 pm. Learn more.

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