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.

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Building Houston

 
 

A new report finds Houston a top city for business friendliness and connectivity. Photo via Getty Images

Houston, the future looks bright.

A new study from the fDi Intelligence division of the Financial Times places Houston at No. 7 among the top major cities of the future for 2021-22 across North, South, and Central America. Among major cities in the Americas, Houston appears at No. 3 for business friendliness and No. 4 for connectivity.

"Houston is known as one of the youngest, fastest-growing, and most diverse cities anywhere in the world. I am thrilled that we continue to be recognized for our thriving innovation ecosystem," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is quoted as saying in the fDi study.

Toronto leads the 2021-22 list of the top major cities in the Americas, followed by San Francisco, Montreal, Chicago, and Boston.

The rankings are based on data in five categories:

  • Economic potential
  • Business friendliness
  • Human capital and lifestyle
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Connectivity

Houston's no stranger to the list. Last year, the city ranked No. 3 on the same study, and in 2019, claimed the No. 5 spot.

"The fact that Houston consistently ranks among the top markets for foreign direct investment speaks to our region's connectivity and business-friendly environment," says Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer at the Greater Houston Partnership. "Many of the industry sectors we target for expansion and relocation in Houston are global in nature — from energy 2.0 and life sciences to aerospace and digital tech. The infrastructure and diverse workforce that make these prime growth sectors for us among domestic players are equally attractive to international companies looking to establish or strengthen ties in the Americas."

International trade is a cornerstone of the Houston area's economy. In 2020, the region recorded $129.5 billion in exports, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. China ranked as the region's top trading partner last year, followed by Mexico, Brazil, Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, India, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy.

Houston's role as a hub for foreign trade and international business "is likely to support the region's economic recovery in the months and years ahead," the partnership noted in May.

"We talk often of Houston as a great global city — one that competes with the likes of London, Tokyo, São Paulo, and Beijing. But that's only possible because of our infrastructure — namely our port — and our connections around the world," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the partnership, said last month. "Houston's ties abroad remain strong."

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