Tech boom

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

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.