Zooming out

3 observations about Houston's innovation ecosystem from out-of-town venture capitalists

Three non-Houston investors discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Houston's innovation ecosystem. Getty Images

You'll go cross-eyed looking at the same puzzle for too long, and sometimes it's better to take a step back and introduce some fresh perspectives and ideas from someone not so connected to the matter at hand.

At the second annual HX Capital Summit hosted by Houston Exponential at Rice University, HX gathered three out-of-town venture capital experts to discuss Houston's innovation ecosystem with Sandy Wallis, managing director at the HX Venture Fund. The fund-of-funds focuses on connecting non-local investors to Houston in order to bring new venture opportunities to town. On the panel, the experts discussed their observations about the Bayou City, which can be summed up as follows.

Community engagement and corporate interest are good signs for Houston 

Right off the bat, the panelists agreed that its much more encouraging visiting Houston nowadays than it was in the recent past. Clint Korver, managing director at San Francisco-based Ulu Ventures, has only recently played witness to the city, thanks to his firm's work with HX and the fund of funds.

"I'm just getting to know the Houston community," Korver says. "I'm really intrigued by how much community support there is."

Korver says that, not unlike Houston startups, Bay Area companies find it a challenge getting a foot in the door at major corporations. However, he's observed that Houston-based corporates want a seat at the table of Houston innovation.

"All the corporate attention that's being integrated here is super intriguing," Korver says. "That's our startups' hardest problems."

The other panelists, who are much closer to Houston, echoed Kover's interest in the role corporations play. Venu Shamapant, founding partner at Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners, and Thomas Ball, founder and managing director at Austin-based Next Coast Ventures, have witnessed Houston evolve into what it is today over the past decade or so.

"We've both been coming to Houston over the past 20 years and been investing in startups, and it's been a dramatically different scene even in just the past five years," Shamapant says.

Houston's ecosystem is going to take time

While the panelists remarked on the evolution the city has and the support that large corporations seem to be willing to provide, Houston has other assets that's setting it up for success. The panelists mention a solid pool for talent, impressive educational institutions, and more.

"When I look at Houston, I think it has every ingredient for success, which is why I want to spend time here," Ball says.

Sure, as Ball says, Houston has the ingredients, but what it now needs is the time to cook.

"To me, it's more of just time that it's going to take. We can't bake this Houston cake by turning the thermostat up to 900 degrees in an hour. It's going to take three hours at 300," Ball says, adding that he doesn't know very much about baking. "It will take time. This won't be an overnight success. We're here for the long haul."

Houston has some challenges yet to overcome 

Wrapping up the panel, an audience member asked about the changes Houston still needs to make to really get to the point it needs to be at.

For Korver, the answer was pretty simple. Houston needs a big exit.

"There's this incredible amount of momentum that comes along with a successful company that takes a hold of everyone — the rising tide floats all boats thing," Korver says.

For Ball, particularly comparing Houston to other major innovation-focused cities, the issue is that Houston is so spread out.

"To me the one thing I struggle with in Houston is what I would call a density problem," Ball says. "I think you need density here and you need to concentrate your resources in certain places in this city."

Pat Matthews of Active Capital visited Houston with a collaboration with the HX Venture Fund. Photo courtesy of Active Capital

When Houston Exponential established the HX Venture Fund, the goal was to bring out-of-town capital and investors into the city of Houston. The fund of funds invests in a portfolio of venture capital funds with the hope that those funds find a way back into the Houston startup ecosystem.

After a little over a year, HXVF has invested in five funds: Boston-based .406 Ventures, Austin-based Next Coast Ventures, Boston-based OpenView Venture Partners, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, and Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners.

The fund of funds is also regularly hosting those five funds — as well as a mix of potential portfolio fund members — in Houston for what the HXVF calls "immersion days" where the venture capitalists can meet local startups, innovation leaders, and even fellow investors that they could eventually co-invest with.

"The goals of these days are to have venture capitalists travel to Houston, meet with our entrepreneurs (and the startup development organizations like Station, Cannon and WeWork that support them), and provide both capital and expertise in company building to the tech companies," says Sandy Guitar Wallis, managing partner at HXVF. "The venture capitalists also meet with HX Venture Fund corporate LPs, who can be customers or acquirers of their portfolio companies."

Just this month alone, HXVF is hosting four funds — two from their portfolio and two that they haven't yet invested in. San Antonio-based Active Capital, which has raised a $21 million fund, is among the visiting VCs this month. The fund's founder, Pat Matthews, an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist, has shared his busiest day — February 5 — as well as his perspective on Houston innovation with InnovationMap.

A morning too busy for breakfast

After waking up at the Hotel Derek, Matthews starts his second day in Houston by taking a Lyft to the Greater Houston Partnership for what he believes to be a breakfast meeting with Wallis and Guillermo Borda of HXVF, but the group has too much to discuss that a meal falls by the wayside.

Before this trip, Matthews hasn't visited Houston in a professional capacity. While Active Capital is based just down I10 in San Antonio, the firm's investments are split almost in half by deals done in Texas versus the rest of the world. Active Capital focuses on B2B SaaS investments — usually leading — in seed or series A rounds.

Matthews has called Texas home for around a decade. He founded an email marketing startup in Virginia, which was acquired by San Antonio-based Rackspace. He relocated to join Rackspace and worked on growing the organization for six years before creating Active Capital.

Following the meeting — still unfed, Matthews meets up with Serafina Lalany from Houston Exponential to carpool to The Cannon on the west side of town.

Loading up on carbs and fireside chats

Matthews forgoes his usual carb aversion to eat slices of Domino's pizza at The Cannon before beginning his first of three fireside chats with Houston innovators. Patrick Schneidau, CEO of Truss, leads the conversation at The Cannon. (Schneidau is a board member of InnovationMap's.) After the chat, Matthews has a meeting with a startup before heading back into town.

With one fireside chat down, Matthews heads into his second one of the day at Station Houston with Joe Alapat, founder of Liongard. Matthews observes that each of the entrepreneurs who interviewed him had great questions, and seemed to be far along with their companies. Meanwhile, any of the people he met before or after the chat seemed to be at a much earlier stage in their startup journey.

The last fireside chat was hosted by Rakesh Agrawal of Snapstream at WeWork's Jones Building location. Matthews and Agrawal attempted to set up a Facebook livestream for the conversation, but an issue with the technology wouldn't allow for the stream.

An evening of good food and great mentorship

With meetings and fireside chats done, Matthews heads straight to a dinner with Blair Garrou, founder and managing director of Mercury Fund. The two venture capitalists dine at Eunice and split several appetizers and a bottle of wine while discussing their own recent investments and interests. Matthews, who met Garrou in 2014, thinks of him as a great mentor in venture capital.

Matthews headed back to the hotel after dinner and crashes hard after the long day. He would head back to San Antonio on a Vonlane bus — he gets a lot of work done on his trips — the next day.

What's next for Active Capital and Houston?

Matthews says he left Houston with an overall positive opinion of the city, and says it's similar to other Texas cities, aside from Austin, in its startup presence and capacity. While he assumed he'd meet energy and space startups, he realized Houston had a lot more going on than that.

"It definitely seemed like there was a lot of passion and a lot of hustle," Matthews says. "And it seems like the city is really working to support and cultivate that and keep it in Houston. I was inspired."

Throughout the visit, Matthews handed out his business card and some conversations have developed from those connections, he says. Another representative from Active Capital who is focused on sourcing deals with startups will visit next, and Matthews says he also thinks that he'll return to Houston to continue conversations he's been having, including some with other investors.

"I could definitely see doing deals in Houston," Matthews tells InnovationMap.