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

Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion."

To focus on the Ion's Academic Partner Network, Jan E. Odegard has been appointed senior director of industry and academic partners. Odegard's background includes research and leadership at Rice University in computing. Odegard will also oversee The Ion's labs, which include human/robotics interaction lab, an immersive reality lab and an industrial prototyping lab.

Deanea LeFlore has been named senior director of community and corporate engagement. Like Rowe, LeFlore had a similar role at Station Houston before this new position. Before that, she spent most of her career working for the city of Houston and served under four Mayors over 17 years.

Lastly, Chris Valka, has been hired as senior director of operations, overseeing finance, accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management. Prior to this position, Valka served in the president's cabinet overseeing a similar spectrum of responsibilities at the University of St. Thomas.

"As we prepare for The Ion's opening in early 2021, we are excited to welcome Deanea LeFlore, Dr. Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka, to our growing team," says Rowe in the release. "I am excited to see what this diverse group of experts will bring to our efforts to build an inclusive innovation hub in a tech-forward environment that promotes all that is great about Houston."

The 270,000-square-foot Ion building broke ground in July of last year and is slated to open in 2021. Recently, the organization announced its first programming partner — Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, and select courses have already begun.