Show me the money

SXSW panelists: Improving access to funding is key for Houston's continued ecosystem growth

Houston, we have a problem — and it's helping local startups have access to funding. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, Mayor of Houston Sylvester Turner and Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe proclaimed that Houston's up-and-coming innovation ecosystem was no longer up and coming: It had arrived. But what preceded that proclamation was years of figuring out what it was Houston could do to get to this point.

"We're the fourth largest city in the United States, and in 2015 were ranked 20th out of 25 ecosystems," Rowe says at a panel at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival.

Following that shocking news, Rowe says the city's focus was on building tools — accelerators, incubators, education — but nowhere did anyone talk about funding. Now, years later, with plenty of accelerators, workspaces, and educational programs, Rowe says Houston now has a great pipeline of companies, but the problem is finding funding for them to tap into.

Entrepreneurs are looking for three things when it comes to finding ways to fund their companies, according to Rowe. They want it to be accessible capital — not something they have to take a class on to figure out how to get to it. They also want it to be impactful and local to where their headquarters is.

"When I think about accessible, impactful, and local, I think, well, not a lot falls into that category [in Houston]," Rowe says. "We're not doing it particularly well right now."

It's a structural problem, according to Rowe. While the city has built up its entrepreneurial climate, it hasn't yet made the same effort with investors.

"Even if we have one or two funds, we need an ecosystem that supports funding in the same way we have an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs," she says.

Joe Milam, founder of Austin-based AngelSpan, an early stage investor relations platform, says the issue in Houston — and Austin — is that industries can be siloed. There's a huge need for an honest broker to connect the dots across the city, and that person needs to be impartial.

"You gotta care about your community first, before you care about your own agenda," Milam says. "Otherwise, you're going to flounder like Houston has, and how Austin still does."

One thing everyone agreed on during the Saturday, March 9, panel was that Houston has a lot of money, but it's been sitting on the sidelines. The mission is, in addition to bringing in venture capital firms, finding ways to engage money that's already in town.

"We have to produce tools to enable that capital that's hiding," Rowe says.

Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion."

To focus on the Ion's Academic Partner Network, Jan E. Odegard has been appointed senior director of industry and academic partners. Odegard's background includes research and leadership at Rice University in computing. Odegard will also oversee The Ion's labs, which include human/robotics interaction lab, an immersive reality lab and an industrial prototyping lab.

Deanea LeFlore has been named senior director of community and corporate engagement. Like Rowe, LeFlore had a similar role at Station Houston before this new position. Before that, she spent most of her career working for the city of Houston and served under four Mayors over 17 years.

Lastly, Chris Valka, has been hired as senior director of operations, overseeing finance, accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management. Prior to this position, Valka served in the president's cabinet overseeing a similar spectrum of responsibilities at the University of St. Thomas.

"As we prepare for The Ion's opening in early 2021, we are excited to welcome Deanea LeFlore, Dr. Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka, to our growing team," says Rowe in the release. "I am excited to see what this diverse group of experts will bring to our efforts to build an inclusive innovation hub in a tech-forward environment that promotes all that is great about Houston."

The 270,000-square-foot Ion building broke ground in July of last year and is slated to open in 2021. Recently, the organization announced its first programming partner — Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, and select courses have already begun.