eavesdropping in Houston

Overheard: Experts discuss why Houston is the next hub for tech investing

HX Venture Fund recently hosted a virtual panel on how the tide has turned in Houston when it comes to tech investment. Getty Images

When Joe Alapat, co-founder and CEO of Liongard, was first getting started on his company, he says a few people recommended he go to Austin or one of the coasts to give his software company a better chance.

"For me, the thought process never really entered my mind that Houston was a place where I would be challenged in doing what I do well. My network is here," Alapat shared on a virtual panel hosted by the HX Venture Fund.

Turns out, it was a good decision. Liongard recently closed a $17 million series B round led by Updata Partners, a portfolio fund of HXVF. Moderated by Brian Richards of Accenture's Houston innovation hub, the panel asked Alapat, Sandy Guitar of HXVF, and Carter Griffin of Updata why Houston is the next hub for tech investing. Here are some key moments from the discussion.

“We’re cautious when we go into places — like Austin and Boston — where there’s a lot of activity both on the company side and the investor side. We’d rather find the opportunities where things aren’t as competitive and frothy, and you’re really dealing with people trying to build a real business, serve customers, and build value in the right way, and not just catch lightning in a bottle and build the next unicorn.”

—says Griffin about Updata's strategy of looking at cities like Houston in the middle of the country.

“A lot has changed in the past couple of years — the thought process, the awareness, as well as the willingness for folks to think about Houston as a place where you can build a startup.”

— says Alapat about how Houston's startup ecosystem has evolved since he started Liongard in 2015. He later notes that Houston's innovation leaders have done well to not copy other metros, but listen and learn from the successes and mistakes of other innovation cities.

“There was this feeling that we needed to be uniquely Houston — we couldn’t replicate Silicon Valley or Austin, we needed to be us. But we were going to have to do things differently. We couldn’t keep doing the same things and expecting this [change.]”

— Richard says, noting the corporate mindset, among other aspects of the ecosystem, shifted to be more focused on startups.

“The VCs are very interested in engaging in this model. So, we’re spoiled for choices is one way of saying it.”

— Guitar says on interest from venture funds in HXVF, noting that the VCs see an opportunity for their portfolio startups to connect with HXVF's corporate partners.

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

Domino's and Nuro announced their partnership in 2019 — and now the robots are hitting the roads. Photo courtesy of Nuro

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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