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

 
 

Several Houston startups won kudos and more at recent competitions — plus more Houston innovation news. Photo via Getty Images

What's the latest in news for the Houston innovation ecosystem? So glad you asked. Here's some local startup and tech news you might have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, an energy transition startup snagged $100,000 in a recent competition, four space health researchers were named to a Houston program, a Houston tech startup was tapped by Google for its recent cohort, and more.

Cemvita Factory wins $100,000 in clean energy competition

Cemvita Factory has secured wins in two recent startup competitions. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

A Houston company has been named the the $100,000 cash winner of an inaugural competition.

The GS Beyond Energy Innovation Challenge from Cleantech.org named Cemvita Factory as the big winner — out of six finalists. Another Houston company, Amperon Inc. , came in second place, followed by Skycool Systems in third place. The third Houston startup named to the finals, Veloce Energy, was named the crowd's favorite. The three Houston finalists were announced in June.

"Our top three startups face many challenges on the path to accelerating the energy transition, and we are honored to be a part of their journey. Startuplandia is a rough and tumble world, and it was a very close competition. Congrats to Moji Karimi and the Cemvita Factory team. Can't wait to see what you do next," says Neal Dikeman, chairman of Cleantech.org and a partner at one of the prize sponsors, Energy Transition Ventures, in a news release. "And a huge thanks to our accelerator and incubator partners. We look forward to working with everyone again in the future."

Cemvita Factory was also named the winner of The Ion's Houston Startup Showcase a few weeks ago.

Google taps Houston startup for latest cohort

Google has named DOSS to its Black Founders Accelerator. Photo via Pexels

A Houston startup has made it into the Google for Startups Accelerator: Black Founders cohort. DOSS, a digital, voice-activated real estate tool, was selected for the second cohort of the accelerator.

Bobby Bryant leads the company as founder and CEO. DOSS is joined by 10 other startups — including two other Texas companies, Dallas-based Zirtue and Fêtefully.

"Being a digital real estate search and transactional marketplace, this is a perfect opportunity for DOSS to have direct access to Google Engineers and Developers. This is a startup founder's dream to work with Google," Bryant writes in a LinkedIn post.

The program concludes with a showcase on Thursday, October 21 from 11:30 am to 1:00 pm.

Space health organization selects four fellows

These four fellows will continue their space health research with the support of TRISH. Photo via Pexels

Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine has named four scientists to receive postdoctoral fellowship awards to further their career in space health. Each fellow will work on a two-year project that "addresses challenges to astronaut health during deep space exploration missions," according to a news release. The fellows also become part of the TRISH Academy of Bioastronautics, a forum for postdoctoral researchers working on TRISH research projects.

"The space industry needs a strong pool of highly-trained scientists focused on human health to return us to the moon," says Zélia Worman, TRISH scientific program manager and lead for postdoctoral career development, in the release. "TRISH has selected four postdoctoral fellows who are ready for the challenge. We are proud to welcome these outstanding scientists to our Academy of Bioastronautics and work with them to launch their career in space health and reach for the Moon and Mars safely."

The postdoctoral fellows are:

  • Kaylin Didier of the University of Wisconsin, Madison — focused on ionizing radiation and immune responses: exploring sex differences
  • James Jahng of Stanford University, California — focused on countermeasure development against myocardial mitochondrial stress by space radiation exposure
  • Heather McGregor of the University of Florida, Gainesville — focused on investigating planta somatosensory noise as a countermeasure for balance and locomotion impairments in simulated lunar and Martian gravity
  • Mallika Sarma of Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland — focused on stress response and neurovestibular compensation and the potential ameliorative effects of team support

Houston energy consortium names winners in startup competition

Energy tech founders pitched at the Society of Petroleum Engineers' summit. Photo via Getty Images

The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Summit from the Society of Petroleum Engineers-Gulf Coast Section concluded with a startup pitch event earlier this month. Three startups were recognized at the Shark Tank-style competition.

  • The judges selected Houston-based SaaS startup InerG as the winner.
  • The People's Choice winner was New Jersey-based Anax Power.
  • North Carolina-based Revolution Turbine was the runner-up, according to the judges, as well as received honorable mention from the People's Choice portion of the competition.
The judges of the event — or the "sharks" — included Plug and Play Director Payal Patel, Montrose Lane Managing Partner Ryan Gurney, CSL Ventures Vice President Abhinav Jain, and SCF Ventures Managing Director Hossam Eldadawy.

Capital Factory is calling for all female founders

Attention female founders — Capital Factory has a competition you need to know about. Photo via Getty Images

Austin-based Capital Factory's Texas Fund, in partnership with Beam Angel Network, Seven Seven Six Fund, and Golden Seeds (Houston), has announced a $100,000 Investment Challenge for its 4th Annual Women In Tech Summit on October 4. Capital Factory is looking for five technology startup finalists to pitch to a panel of advisors and judges made up of successful investors, entrepreneurs, and industry leaders. The prize on the line? A $100,000 investment and membership into Capital Factory.

Any software, hardware, or CPG startup in Texas with a female founder or co-founder can apply to participate. The finalists will all be fast tracked into the Capital Factory portfolio, access to the Capital Factory Mentor network and coworking space, and up to $250,000 in potential total hosting credits from AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure and other major hosting providers. Capital Factory will receive: 1 percent common stock grant as advisor equity (separate from the investment) and the right to invest up to $250,000 in the next round of funding.

One winner will receive a $100,000 cash investment on a SAFE or Convertible Note using Capital Factory's term sheet and your most recent funding valuation, or a qualified term sheet provided by the company. The deadline is September 12. Submit your application

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