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.

Deanea LeFlore is Station Houston's new director of community engagement, partnerships, and education. Courtesy of Station Houston

A downtown Houston startup acceleration hub has created a new position focused on expanding the nonprofit's partnerships, engagement, and opportunities.

Station Houston hired Deanea LeFlore as director of community engagement, partnerships, and education. Previously, LeFlore served as chief of protocol for the city of Houston and a vice president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"My passion is promoting Houston as a world-class place to invest, work and live, and I am thrilled to join an organization that embodies this same spirit," says LeFlore in a release. "Station's dedication to accelerating Houston's tech growth through collaboration and innovation compliments my professional experience and I look forward to opening our doors to new partners, expanding programming with our long-time supporters, and introducing Station to a new network of leaders."

LeFlore has experience connecting the city to international organizations. She's overseen visits of over 2,000 diplomats from around the world and has built relationships with more than 90 consulats. She also serves as president of a nonprofit organization, Casa Cultural de las Americas and was named an American Leadership Forum Senior Fellow.

"Deanea LeFlore's enthusiasm for helping Houston reach its untapped potential, paired with her deep experience in civic leadership, make her an outstanding addition to the growing Station Houston team," says Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, in a release. "We look forward to strengthening our foothold in Houston under Deanea's leadership."

In just three years, Station has grown to 400 members with 200 startups and 130 mentors. The new position will provide an intensified focus on new partnerships and educational opportunities for the organization's members. LeFlore's main goal will be to find the pain points of Station startups and foster new programing to advance their businesses.

In January, Station Houston officially became a nonprofit to better serve its members. And, also earlier this year, the organization was announced as the programing partner for The Ion, Rice University's innovation hub to be located in Midtown.