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.

Camppedia, a Houston-based startup, can help match kids to summer camps all around town. Educational First Steps/Facebook

Tudor Palaghita and his sister Ana are both parents and both busy professionals. And both used the same word when it came to finding camps to help their kids pass the long, steamy summer: painful.

"We're working parents, we're strapped on time, but we want to make sure we give our kids enriching experiences," explains Ana. "One spring, we were going through the [camp search] process, and we talked about how difficult it was. And the next spring, we said, there's something here. We feel this pain, our friends feel this pain, and no one is helping us. Why don't we solve our problem ourselves?"

And that's exactly what they did. The duo used their business and technology backgrounds — Ana has an MBA from Northwestern University and built a successful career in a major financial institution, and Tudor has his Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech — to launch Camppedia.com. The site is intended to be a one-stop shop for parents looking for camps for their children.

The tool launched in March of 2019, coinciding with spring break. Currently, it offers options throughout central Houston. Parents can select camps for their children based on interests, their ZIP codes, cost or even those that offer extended hours for moms and dads with full-time jobs.

"We believe the most important aspect to building anything is to understand your users," says Tudor, who left his research and development job at a major oil and gas services company to work full-time on Camppedia. "Before we launched, we did a lot of interviews and talked to a lot of parents, and then hand sketched prototypes to better convey our idea."

The pair went one step further after that, speaking with camp providers, seeking input about not only their products, but also the issue they faced in terms of marketing or registration. Following that fact-finding mission, they built Camppedia to show as many options as possible for families who want to book activities, as well as giving users the option to build their own calendars, save favorite options and see what camps actually have spots available. When parents select a camp, they are then driven to the individual camp's website to book.

Development on Camppedia, which is a member company at Station Houston, began last September, when the duo began looking at what to include on the site and finding partners who could assist them in building it.

"We looked at a bunch of different paths from a technology perspective," says Ana, who works on the site from her home in Virginia. "Because you can build the sort of the fancy, what I'd call destination-technology architecture, or you could build something scrappier, and I think we landed on something scrappy because we are still learning. Chances are [going forward] we'll change quite a bit."

Camppedia is built on WordPress, and currently features more than 275 camps from large to small. Tudor and Ana have been making improvements ever since, but the response has been enthusiastic. Parents, the pair say, have loved having so much information in one place. And camps have actually come to them, seeking information about how to be listed. That led to the creation of a camp partnership category, where camps can pay to use certain features on Camppedia's site, such as the ability to reach out to interested parents.

Going forward, the duo look forward to further building Camppedia as a resource. They're looking at adding reviews and experiences from parents, as well as finding ways to take the concept nationwide. But they're really happy with how the site has grown and the response they've had. The business, they insist, is designed to be a service that will support parents as they try to make the best decisions they can for their children.

"While the road ahead is daunting," says Tudor. "We are super excited about the possibility of building something truly useful for working parents who nowadays are struggling with so many competing priorities and whose needs seem to be somewhat overlooked by the digital reinvention coming out of Silicon Valley."


Photos courtesy of Camppedia