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

 
 

The second cohort of The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator hosted a day full of thought leadership and startup pitches. Photo by Shobeir Ansari, Getty Images

In light of COVID-19, it is more relevant than ever to discuss and support startups with sustainability and resiliency in mind. At the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Cohort 2 Demo Day, a virtual audience was reminded of that.

"So, 2020 has certainly been a year of unprecedented uncertainty and change for Houston, for Texas, for our country, and for our world," says Christine Galib, director of the accelerator. "The past few months in particular have been especially difficult as the global pandemic and civil unrest continue to spotlight systemic and structural scars on the face of humanity."

The virtual event was streamed on July 1 and hosted several thought leaders and presenters before concluding with pitches from four of the cohort companies.

"Through it all, and in a virtual world, Cohort 2 startups, the mentors, and our Ion team have been the change we wish to see in the world," Galib continues. "For these startups, failure is simply not an option — and neither is going at it alone."

Earlier this year, Galib announced the second cohort would be focused on solutions for Houston's air quality, water purification, and other cleantech needs. The program, backed by Intel, Microsoft, and TX/RX, launched on Earth Day and commenced shortly after. Cohort 3 is expected later this year.

Here are the four companies that pitched and the problems they are trying to solve.

Re:3D

re:3D was founded just down the street from NASA's Johnson Space Center to address the need for a mid-market 3D printing solution. The Houston-based startup also wanted to create their 3D printer that operates on recycled plastics in order to prevent excess waste.

"Where some see trash, we see opportunity," Charlotte Craff, community liaison at Re:3D says in her presentation.

Re:3D's clients can get their hands on their own Gigabot for less than $10,000, and the printer uses pellets and flakes from recycled plastics —not filament — to print new designs. Clients are also supported by the company with design software and training.

"We can help the city of Houston help meet its climate action and resilient city goals by transforming the way people think about recycling," Craff says about Re:3D's future partnerships with the city.

Water Lens

While two-thirds of the world is covered in water, only 0.7 percent is drinkable. And of that fresh water, 92 percent of it is used in agricultural and industrial settings. This is how Keith Cole, CEO and founder of Water Lens, set the scene for his presentation.

Water Lens, which is based in Houston with a lab located in Austin, wants to solve the problem of cities and countries running out of fresh, drinkable water by equipping huge water-using companies with a water testing tool.

"We've developed a system to let anyone test any water literally anywhere in the world," Cole says, citing clients like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Halliburton.

S2G Energy

S2G Energy, based in Mexico, is focused on optimizing energy management in order to digitize, empower, and unlock potential for cost-saving efforts and technology.

In his pitch, Geronimo Martinez, founder of S2G Energy, points out that restaurants, commercial buildings, and other adjacent industries can save money by implementing energy management solutions that come out of S2G Energy's expertise. In Mexico, Martinez says, clients include the top two restaurant chains that — especially during COVID-19 — need optimization and cost saving now more than ever.

Eigen Control

A refinery's distillation columns are expensive — their fuel use accounts for 50 of operating costs, says Dean Guma, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Eigen Control.

Guma explains in his pitch how Eigen Control's technology can plug into existing sensors, model networks based on data, and employ the startup's artificial intelligent technology to reduce carbon emissions and save money on operating costs.

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