Houston Voices

Houston isn't Silicon Valley — and that's a good thing, according to these experts

While everyone always looks to Silicon Valley as the model of the ideal startup ecosystem, Houston is forging its own path. Getty Images

As WeWork's fall from grace continues to dominate the headlines and we monitor the slew of layoffs and dipping share prices afflicting this year's Silicon Valley darlings, we reflect on Houston's own startup ecosystem. How are Houston startups and investors similar to and different from Silicon Valley early-stage deals? What are the drivers and factors that may be unique to Houston and how do they influence outcomes?

Jamie Jones, executive director of Lilie, sat down with early stage investor and Rice Business alum, Dougal Cameron of Golden Section Technology Venture Capital (GSTVC), to discuss the Houston startup and funding ecosystem. From that discussion, a number of key features emerged:

From Cameron's experience, Houston investors have historically focused on unit economics and profitability, in addition to top line growth, as their key performance measures. As an enterprise software investor, he notes that an indicator of a healthy venture that warrants early stage investment is one where profitability can be achieved as the venture reaches the $1 million revenue mark. Cameron, like other early stage investors in Houston, are interested in ventures that produce sustainable growth not only growth for growth's sake.

While early stage investment capital in Houston does flow, it does not do so at the same check sizes and the same velocity that you may see in Silicon Valley. Analysis of Pitchbook data indicates that Houston firms raised $28.1M in seed and early-stage funding in Q3 2019 versus $2.86B for Silicon Valley based ventures. The belief is that the density of the capital network in Silicon Valley means that if you get one $500,000 check then you will very likely to get others. Cameron noted that he believes the effects of loss aversion are on full display — no firm wants to be the one that passes on the next Google.

However, in Houston, entrepreneurs must be scrappy to pull together funding and ensuring they hit milestones along the way in order to drive scarcer investment into their ventures. From Cameron's perspective, Houston entrepreneurs own their cash balance and strive to keep their overhead low by working out of cheaper spaces, leveraging friends and family to contribute to the venture in its early days, etc.

With fewer investment dollars flowing in Houston, the use of Simple Agreements for Future Equity (SAFEs), which are common in Silicon Valley, are rarely used in Houston. Why? Cameron believes that using unpriced and loosely binding agreements may work in an ecosystem where startups are pushed for rapid top-line growth and may be burning through tens-of-thousands of dollars per month and will need to raise capital quickly, which will drive a pricing event. However, in Houston, investors may prefer arrangements that provide some downside risk.

Examples include convertible notes that include a lien on assets, which would be virtually unheard of in Silicon Valley, or through priced fundraising rounds. Without broad and deep capital networks and the pressure of rapid top-line growth, near term pricing events are not guaranteed, pushing Houston investors to prefer other deal structures.

While everyone agrees that Houston and the robust startup ecosystem that is growing across the city needs more cash to catalyze growth, Cameron firmly believes that new capital coming into the city must be the right type of capital. Capital that will not negatively distort the ecosystem by driving early-stage entrepreneurs to strive for top-line growth that is not sustainable through a profitable business model. This type of capital will not offer exorbitantly-sized seed rounds removing the entrepreneur's need to be scrappy and cost conscious.

We must understand that many Houston entrepreneurs seek to build businesses that have lasting impact and are not only "growing to close," the model Silicon Valley seems to have embraced over the past 7 to 10 years. Cameron is nervous that first big checks that come from outside Houston will push unprofitable businesses forward and will sour the market for local investors that are starting to engage in startup-investing.

While everyone always looks to Silicon Valley as the model of the ideal startup ecosystem, Houston may offer a look into the model of the future — one that is focused on building durable, profitable businesses by right-sizing growth over the venture's life-cycle. For Houston-based entrepreneurs, this means the opportunity to access capital that emphasizes sustainable, smart growth.

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Jamie Jones, executive director of the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Rice University, and Dougal Cameron, managing director of Gold Section Technology Ventures and 2013 Rice Business alum, wrote this article for LILIE.

This article originally appeared on Liu Idea Lab for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's blog.

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Building Houston

 
 

Moonflower Farms grows lettuce hydroponically. Courtesy of Moonflower Farms

A Houston urban farm has earned national recognition for its innovative approach to water conservation. Moonflower Farms won the American Heart Association's Foodscape Innovation Excellence Award, which recognizes positive changes in the foodscape, a term for all of the places where food is produced, purchased, or consumed.

The Heart Association selected Moonflower's submission, titled "Sustainable Farming Through Water Conservation," from 26 entries. Dallas' Restorative Farms earns the Foodscape Innovation Consumer Choice Award.

"These two innovations demonstrate a way of producing food that promotes affordability and equitable access, and the American Heart Association is proud to recognize these efforts," AHA chief medical officer for prevention Eduardo Sanchez said in a release.

Located in a 20,000-square-foot greenhouse south of downtown, Moonflower operates what it describes as Houston's first vertical indoor farm. The method both reduces the amount of space needed to grow the farm's microgreens, lettuces, herbs and edible flowers and it eliminates the disruptions caused by adverse weather conditions, which allows the farm to produce year round.

Moonflower uses a closed-loop system for capturing rainwater to feed its crops. The water is treated and oxygenated so that it can be reused. Not having to pay for water from the City of Houston allows the farm to operate more economically and sell its produce at an affordable price to restaurants and individuals.

"Our hydroponic farm uses 90-percent less water than conventional farms," Moonflower founder and CEO Federico Marques said in a statement. "We provide year-round produce to residents in historically underserved communities and donate produce to local charitable food systems."

One of those charities is Houston non-profit Second Servings, which "rescues" food from restaurants and events and distributes it to food pantries and other resources.

"The donations we receive from Moonflower Farms are incredible," Second Servings founder and president Barbara Bronstein said. "Their hydroponically grown greens are so appreciated by the needy Houstonians we serve, who lack affordable, convenient access to fresh produce."

Recently, Moonflower introduced a SupaGreens subscription box that allows customers to purchase greens weekly, bimonthly, or monthly. The box is delivered directly to consumers.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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