VC investor: Houston's energy tech ecosystem grows as Bay Area activity seemingly slows
There's stretch of sleek low rise office buildings in Palo Alto — referred to as Sandhill Road — that has long been the center of Silicon Valley (and the world’s) venture capital sector. An investor friend of mine told me recently that Sandhill Road is a ghost town these days, with the key partners at many of the Silicon Valley venture funds largely working from home or at their second homes.
That’s disappointing if true, but not surprising. Commuting sucks, and this business is a lot more far flung and global than it used to be. The venture capital business is always a wild and fun ride, focused on founders and the next big thing, with constant movement and alliances and partnerships.
I’ve been in these waves since I began investing during the dotcom boom in 2000, making the jump from private equity to venture capital in San Francisco at a fund behind Yellowpages.com and a few others, before co-leading a prior firm I founded in San Francisco doing seed investing and advising funds and investment arms of Macquarie Bank, ConocoPhillips, and Shell. We got in on the ground floor of cleantech and did well. This is my third major VC downcycle – there is always opportunity on both sides, and the more things change, the more they stay the same in venture capital. Hubs matter, because the business is heavily a critical mass of talent and capital business, with a power curve of outcomes. Cutthroat as venture capital and startups are, it is not private equity. You do need partners.
Houston has long lacked a center of gravity at all, let alone in tech. You might try rereading the 2001 Economist headline article “The Blob that Ate East Texas” for some humorous color on that score. But in tech, that’s changing.
Rice University’s Ion Houston innovation district project came out of some of the Greater Houston Partnership work a few years ago on how to get a serious tech hub going (I briefly served on the GHP affiliated Houston Technology Center board for Royal Dutch Shell during that revamp). After a slow start, Ion has begun to fill up with tech startups and bona fide check writing investors to go with the constant barrage of startup programming on its Ion Activation Floor and adjacent Greentown Labs incubation building.
Chevron Technology Ventures opened a guest office on day one on the third floor and Houston private equity and sometime crossover VC investor Ara Partners took early space with its headquarters in the building across the hall from them. Local fund of funds HX Venture Fund, which was created out of that GHP/HTC revamp and also puts on the Venture Houston Conference, moved in on the second floor.
Our fund, Energy Transition Ventures, was the first venture capital fund to move into the Ion when we launched in 2021, is located two doors down from HXVF. My partners and I made the call to make Houston our headquarters over Austin where my partner, Craig Lawrence, is located. He’s a former energy tech and solar executive who learned venture investing leading the successful cleantech effort at Accel Partners in Palo Alto. We are both Texas educated, Bay Area venture capital alums who are doing venture capital in Texas because it’s our home. Our third partner, Q Song, moved from Korea to the US, picking Houston over Austin and our Bay Area office to join us.
Houston was not the obvious choice – it still isn’t – I got nostalgia when driving through Austin and San Francisco in the last week seeing the sheer mass of tech and venture capital names to do business with, but doing things our own way is kind of our brand. We chose the Ion, because well, venture capital and startup life is a participation not a spectator sport, and if Houston was ever going to have a shot at being an investment hub, it needed an actual hub, and founders needed a place to go meet venture capitalists, and that won’t work if venture capitalists all work out of their homes or alone in some energy corridor or downtown high rise.
In our hallway of the Ion, you pass HX Venture Fund, Decarbonization Partners, Energy Transition Ventures, and WaterLens, a water testing startup which spun out of UT many years ago, all next door to each other at one end. And at the other end BP Ventures — with a newly added ExxonMobil venture capital team guest suite adjacent — next to water and energy pipeline corrosion detection software and hardware startup INGU, a Chevron Technology Ventures-backed startup, which is adjacent to one of Houston’s largest venture-backed SaaS companies, Liongard. That’s a half a dozen tech startup founders and a dozen investors across all stages in 125 feet.
I can count approximately 20 other startups in the building now, still heavily skewed to energy. Across the floor, Artemis Energy Partners and Veriten, run respectively by Houston energy fixtures Bobby Tudor and Maynard Holt two of the three Tudor Pickering Holt founders, have their offices, with Schlumberger and hydrogen software startup Velostics which just announced its seed round sandwiched in between. The co-founder of Tierra Climate, a Rice spinout that also just announced its seed round works out of the coworking, and Eigen Controls is building GHG detection equipment around the corner a few feet from an Edtech and medtech startup, and renewable energy services startup Clean Energy Services is headquartered a few feet from the entrance.
Since we moved in, GOOSE Capital, a Houston investment group launched out of Rice at the Rice Alliance Business Competition two decades ago, put its offices in the Ion Activation Floor, and you can quietly find their Managing Director Andrew Nicholson trooping up and down the stairs. BP Ventures then pulled the trigger in 2022 – and moved its US venture capital investing team HQ to the Ion — right down the hallway from us. Chad Bown who manages the US team is sitting in a phone booth 100 feet from me and Chris Spears is listening on pitches as I type this. And this month Decarbonization Partners, the climate growth fund of BlackRock and Temasek, opened its office next door to mine in between us and HX, with three investment professionals, led by David Hayes, formerly with BP Ventures. Aramco Ventures, now led by the former Energy Ventures US head Jim Sledzik, began weekly Friday morning office hours. Jim can often be grabbed for a casual chat on his way between meetings on a regular basis, as can Luis Alcoser or Kemal Anbarci who pop in and out of the Chevron Technology Ventures visiting offices on third floor, with Veriten, which just announced an investment fund, and now Artemis joining recently.
The Houston pool of high quality founders and startups has definitely improved as well – though we still don’t have the quantity or quality of teams needed for a healthy startup market. Blair Garrou from Mercury Fund was part of a recent panel for the Texas Venture Crawl at the Ion along with BP Ventures’ Ion based Grace Chan talking about why Houston, and he remarked that in their earlier funds, Mercury was 5 to 10 percent Houston startups, having to go far afield to fill up even one fund - but his recent fund is closer to 25 percent Houston based, as local team quality has improved.Houston venture capital is two orders of magnitude smaller than the Bay Area – it’s about like writing an article asking whether Silicon Valley is the emerging Energy Corridor. But it’s nice to have coffee and beers with next door neighbors who are actually investing in, and founders who are actually running, venture backed businesses. Founders are learning that Houston’s venture investment and tech scene has an actual home these days, and is open for business.
Neal Dikeman is a venture capitalist and seven-time startup co-founder investing out of Energy Transition Ventures.