HX Venture Fund recently hosted a virtual panel on how the tide has turned in Houston when it comes to tech investment. Getty Images

When Joe Alapat, co-founder and CEO of Liongard, was first getting started on his company, he says a few people recommended he go to Austin or one of the coasts to give his software company a better chance.

"For me, the thought process never really entered my mind that Houston was a place where I would be challenged in doing what I do well. My network is here," Alapat shared on a virtual panel hosted by the HX Venture Fund.

Turns out, it was a good decision. Liongard recently closed a $17 million series B round led by Updata Partners, a portfolio fund of HXVF. Moderated by Brian Richards of Accenture's Houston innovation hub, the panel asked Alapat, Sandy Guitar of HXVF, and Carter Griffin of Updata why Houston is the next hub for tech investing. Here are some key moments from the discussion.

“We’re cautious when we go into places — like Austin and Boston — where there’s a lot of activity both on the company side and the investor side. We’d rather find the opportunities where things aren’t as competitive and frothy, and you’re really dealing with people trying to build a real business, serve customers, and build value in the right way, and not just catch lightning in a bottle and build the next unicorn.”

—says Griffin about Updata's strategy of looking at cities like Houston in the middle of the country.

“A lot has changed in the past couple of years — the thought process, the awareness, as well as the willingness for folks to think about Houston as a place where you can build a startup.”

— says Alapat about how Houston's startup ecosystem has evolved since he started Liongard in 2015. He later notes that Houston's innovation leaders have done well to not copy other metros, but listen and learn from the successes and mistakes of other innovation cities.

“There was this feeling that we needed to be uniquely Houston — we couldn’t replicate Silicon Valley or Austin, we needed to be us. But we were going to have to do things differently. We couldn’t keep doing the same things and expecting this [change.]”

— Richard says, noting the corporate mindset, among other aspects of the ecosystem, shifted to be more focused on startups.

“The VCs are very interested in engaging in this model. So, we’re spoiled for choices is one way of saying it.”

— Guitar says on interest from venture funds in HXVF, noting that the VCs see an opportunity for their portfolio startups to connect with HXVF's corporate partners.

This week's innovators to know are focused on using artificial intelligence in data management, banking for startups, and 5G awareness in Houston. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This year, Houston's innovation ecosystem is set to change tenfold — from the rise of 5G to burgeoning startup and entrepreneurial hubs emerging across town.

Today's featured innovators know a bit about these movements — from an entrepreneur using artificial intelligence in data management for his clients to a banking exec who went all-in on startups.

Tony Nash, founder and CEO of Complete Intelligence

tony nash

Courtesy of Complete Intelligence

Every company wishes they have a crystal ball when it comes to making business decisions, and while a physical iteration of that wish isn't possible, Tony Nash has developed the next best thing for his clients at his startup, Complete Intelligence.

Founded in 2015, Complete Intelligence is an AI platform that forecasts assets and allows evaluation of currencies, commodities, equity indices and economics. The Woodlands-based company also does advanced procurement and revenue for corporate clients.

"We've spent a couple years building this," says Nash in a recent InnovationMap interview. "We have a platform that is helping clients with planning, finance, procurement and sales and a host of other things. ... We built a model of the global economy and transactions across the global economy, so it's a very large, very detailed artificial intelligence platform." Read more.

Brian Richards, Houston innovation hub director at Accenture and board member at Houston Exponential

brian richards

Courtesy of Accenture

The rise of 5G in Houston feels familiar to Brian Richards. He writes in a recent guest column that the development of the technology is similar to the moment in Houston's history when NASA landed a man on the moon.

There are a few similarities Richards expresses in his article, as well as providing more information about 5G itself, but the undeniable fact is 5G will create a lasting impact in Houston.

"Above all, as Houston continues to race toward building a world-class innovation ecosystem and a sustainable, thriving economy, we simply can't take our foot off the gas in the 5G race — much like the moon race," he writes. "It's an imperative that the region continue to lead in 5G network adoption and that our local industries and businesses envision, plan and develop new ways of working." Read more.

Jimmy Allen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Texas Citizens Bank

jimmy allen

Courtesy of Texas Citizens Bank

It's become a bit of a trend to see banks taking a bet on startups — Capital One, for instance, has even entered the coworking industry itself. And one Houston-area bank has become an early adopter of this trend locally.

Jimmy Allen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Texas Citizens Bank, says the bank's new 3,900-square-foot location — its seventh branch in the Houston area — fits perfectly within The Cannon's 120,000-square-foot building in West Houston, which Texas Citizens helped build. The branch opened in December 2019; the grand opening is planned for January 2020.

"Owner-operated businesses are both the genesis of our business model and [a] key customer segment served," says Allen, who was named to his position in November. "A subset of that group certainly includes young, relatively new companies, which favor the current trend in coworking or live-work-play communities." Read more.

No one knows the full scope of what 5G will bring, but there's no better time than now to brace for, and embrace, the possibilities of 5G. Getty Images

Here’s why you should pay attention to 5G in Houston

Guest column

Fifty years after Houston launched mankind to the moon, there's been a flurry of news about Houston launching 5G with claims of revolutionizing communication. However, some Houstonians are probably wondering — "why should I need faster internet to watch another YouTube video?" And, they're not alone. The truth is there are many questions unanswered around 5G — rightly so, because, similar to the moon-landing, its impact is more about what it will help create.

But, now is a good time to look ahead. As we ring in the New Year, I'd like to take a moment to review what 5G is, how the rollout is going, and importantly, why it matters to Houston and its future.

What's 5G again?

5G is the next generation of wireless technology after 4G (shocking, I know). Because 5G networks rely on much smaller and more closely-deployed antennae that can be fixed to existing physical structures (e.g. buildings, light poles) instead of traditional cell towers, signals can be carried faster and more reliably. It doesn't just mean faster streaming for your binge-worthy shows; it means better business opportunities. Nearly four in five (79 percent) Houston business executives agree that 5G will revolutionize their industry by offering new ways to provide products and services, according to Accenture's 2019 Technology Vision report.

Some of the winning characteristics of 5G include:

  • Speed: 5G is set to be much faster than previous generation networks, up to 100 times faster than existing 4G networks, offering speeds up to 10 gigabits per second.
  • Latency: We'll see much less delay or lag. To put it into perspective, 4G networks latency is typically around 40-50 milliseconds. With 5G, it should be one millisecond or less, going undetectable to the user.
  • Capacity: 5G has greater capacity, meaning networks will be able to cope better with many high-demand applications at once — from connected cars and augmented reality experiences and simultaneous HD video streaming.
  • Reliability: 5G is also expected to be ultra-reliable, allowing more critical use cases such as emergency responses and industrial applications.

How's it going?

2019 saw continued progress on 5G. All the four major U.S. mobile service providers have deployed 5G commercially in Houston, making it one of the leading U.S. cities when it comes to 5G deployment.

2020 will be a building block, and we're sure to see advancement across three key areas: networks, devices and experiences. These aspects are the three legs of the 5G stool and grow interdependently. For example, the network build-out will accelerate adoptions of devices and 5G-enabled experiences. In turn, demand for new, enhanced 5G-powered experiences will drive more network deployment and device purchases this year and beyond. There are also perceived barriers to adoption among business leaders, including the upfront investment, security, and employee buy-in, which will need to continue to be addressed.

Why should Houston care?

To begin, possibilities are countless for virtually all key Houston industries, including the energy sector, from transporting a technician to an oil rig via virtual reality or overseeing pipeline repairs remotely, to handling hazardous chemicals safely without direct human contact.

Another area 5G can be applied would be for smart vehicles, connected roads and other municipal infrastructure. It is estimated that smart city applications (which Houston is starting to make some real progress around) made possible by 5G networks could create three million new jobs and contribute $500 billion to U.S. GDP over the next seven years, while helping citizen lives be safer and more convenient.

Above all, as Houston continues to race toward building a world-class innovation ecosystem and a sustainable, thriving economy, we simply can't take our foot off the gas in the 5G race — much like the moon race. It's an imperative that the region continue to lead in 5G network adoption and that our local industries and businesses envision, plan and develop new ways of working.


When Henry Ford invented the automobile for the masses, he could not have foreseen how it would catalyze tourism, retail consumption, labor mobility or urbanization. Likewise, no one knows the full scope of what 5G will bring, but there's no better time than now to brace for, and embrace, the possibilities of 5G.

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Brian Richards is the Houston innovation hub director at Accenture and board member at Houston Exponential.

Houston's first Digital Fight Club will be November 20 at White Oak Music Hall. Courtesy of Digital Fight Club

Accenture and InnovationMap team up to bring innovative high-energy event to Houston for the first time

total knock out

The Houston innovation ecosystem has seen its fair share of panels. Whether the discussion is focused on digital health care or investing, it's structured the same way. However, one organization has redesigned what a typical innovation networking and panel event needs to look like, and Houston gets to see the Digital Fight Club in action in November.

Michael Pratt came up with the idea for Digital Fight Club as a way to liven up technology-focused events and networking opportunities. The plan was to pit two specialists against one another, with a referee steering the conversation. The audience is involved too and can vote in real time for the winner of the, for lack of a better word, debate.

"The notion of crazy fun wild entertainment was kind of in the back of our minds, but it exploded in that way more than we predicted it would," Pratt says.

Since Pratt premiered the concept in Dallas, where he is based, in 2016, he put on three more in Dallas and even hosted one in Boston in October 2018. The sixth Digital Fight Club will be hosted in Houston and presented by Accenture and InnovationMap, at White Oak Music Hall on November 20.

Brian Richards, managing director at Accenture and Houston Innovation Hub director, says he wanted to bring the concept to Houston because it's directly in line with what the city needs.

"We were just inspired by how completely different from a panel that it really brings out these core beliefs," Richards tells InnovationMap. "We thought it would be a great way to help spark the innovation community here in Houston."

The topics of discussion for the Houston edition include cybersecurity, future of the workforce, tech in oil and gas, health tech, and more. The event is structured very deliberately, Pratt tells InnovationMap. Five different 10-minute discussions take place between two fighters and a referee — all experts in their own ways on the topic at hand and selected by the event's partners and sponsors. Usually, the referees are a bit more senior with years of experience in an industry, and the fighters tend to be high-energy entrepreneurs.

"People that are founders and at that stage of their careers have no shortage of opinions, and that makes for great fighters," Pratt says.

Once the fight is over and the audience has decided the winner, conversations can continue at an after party. Pratt says he's e seen some pretty successful networking after his events, which is something that Richards is excited to bring to Houston.

"One of the things we've been trying to drive here in Houston is collisions — the ability to get our corporates, our investors, our startup founders to collide," Richards says. "We believe this is a way to help create that density of collisions and this is a format that helps spark that in an organic way."

Here's an example of what a Digital Fight Club match up looks like:

Digital Fight Club: Dallas 2019: Fight #3: Silence: To digitally disconnect or not www.youtube.com

Good things don't just come to those who wait. If you're wanting to get your startup in front of major corporations, you need to take matters into your own hands. Pexels

Overheard: Experts give advice for Houston startups looking for corporate partnerships

Eavesdropping in Houston

If you've ever wanted to know the best way to get your startup in front of a major corporation, according to experts from both sides of the table — here's your chance.

At the Houston Innovation Open Conference, five major players in Houston's innovation ecosystem sat on a panel and discussed startups, accelerators, and more. One question asked each panelist for their advice for corporate partnerships. Here's what they had to say.

“Go to one of our programs — even if you used to work at an oil and gas company, as a startup, you need new pathways and you need help and support and lots of love along the way.”

Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. Even with a Houston business background, there's strength in numbers, she says.

“Keep your identity along the way.”

Haibin Xu, regional manager of Shell Research Connect & GameChanger US and Canada. From the corporate side of things. Xu said sometimes the Shells of the world can't help you — find the right company that best aligns with your startup.

“Do your research. … And have a clear value proposition, and put it on the table.”

Wade Bitaraf, head of energy and sustainability practice at Plug and Play. Preparation and research is extremely important before you meet with any potential corporate partners.

“Find a community to join … and don’t limit yourself to what you think is your industry.”

Brad True, managing director of The Cannon and Cannon Ventures. True gave an example of a Cannon company that found success outside the industry they thought they were confined to.

“You have to find the pathways that are going to make it as easy as possible.”

Brian Richards, innovation lead and managing director at Accenture. Richards emphasized that startups can go bankrupt waiting for something formal from a big corporation.

Speakers at the third annual Houston Innovation Open Conference discussed policy, performance, and more. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Overheard: 5 powerful quotes from Houstonians speaking at the Houston Open Innovation Conference

EAVESDROPPING IN Houston

When it comes to Houston's innovation ecosystem, there's a lot to discuss. From accelerator programs to role of educational institutes, the third annual Houston Open Innovation Conference covered it all on Thursday, March 28.

I had the pleasure of attending the full-day conference, which was a meeting of the minds of Houston innovation. To catch you up and rid you of your fear of missing out, check out these five overheard quotes from the day.

“I’ve charged my board on Houston Exponential, and I say to them, ‘What good is it for us to be the most diverse city in the country if we’re not solving the challenges that impact diverse communities.’”

Amanda Edwards, Houston City Council Member in At-Large Position 4, in her keynote presentation calling for Houston to lead the charge in solving inequalities in innovation.

“Competition is good. I would rather have an abundance of an ecosystem than just one (accelerator). I think each different group — whether it’s MassChallenge, Station Houston, or The Cannon or any other current or future accelerator — all has their own value proposition.”

Brian Richards, managing director, Accenture Houston Innovation Hub, during the panel about startups and entrepreneurs. The quote was in response to an audience question about competition within Houston accelerators and programs.

“If we don’t create this ecosystem, others will tap into the resources we have, and we lose or we fall short.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner, in his keynote presentation, explaining why the city is focused on developing the city's ecosystem now — before it's too late.

“I think the more emphasis on incubators and accelerators has addressed the need for community. You have people who are like minded … and you have a community that cares about something more deep rather than just being in the same physical space together.”

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, on the panel about accelerators and incubators. The panel question was regarding how some coworking spaces have evolved to be accelerator or incubator programs.

“This is such a uniquely positioned city because of its corporate base, because of the strength of its university structure, and because of the combination of that and the ability to collaborate within those two is a different kind of runway or opportunity.”

Susan Davenport, senior vice president, economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership, during the "Houston Innovation Ecosystem" panel.

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With fresh funds, Houston startup plans to represent the future of fireproofing

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 60

A few years ago, Mike Francis caught a video of a man's hand coated in some sort of material and placed over a fire. Nothing was happening to the man's hand — the coating completely protected it — but something was happening in Francis's brain, and a year ago he founded Nanotech Inc.

Based in Houston, NanoTech' is focused on reducing energy waste by proper insulation within the construction industry — a half inch of NanoTech's material is the equivalent of 30 inches of fiberglass. However, perhaps more important to Francis is the life-saving capability the product provides in terms of fireproofing.

"We're working with all of the major players in the state of California to not only fireproof the utility infrastructure, but eventually homes and businesses," Francis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal, if we're looking into the future, is to fireproof that state — and we're working with the right people and companies to make it happen."

To the best of his knowledge, Francis says NanoTech is the only company this far along working on this goal. Millions of utility poles go up in flames as the forest fires sweep through the state, and coating them with NanoTech could help prevent this damage.

Of course, as the company grows, Francis is lucky to have the support and the funds behind him and his team. Earlier this year, Halliburton selected NanoTech as the inaugural member of Halliburton Labs. For the past few months, NanoTech has been based in the labs, receiving hands-on support, and NanoTech will join the year-long inaugural cohort of 15 or so companies in 2021.

NanoTech also has a new member to its support system — and $5 million — following the close of its seed round led by Austin-based Ecliptic Capital. Francis says he was looking for an investor to bring new expertise the company doesn't have yet, and Ecliptic will be crucial to growing globally.

"Those first investors, especially in your seed round, are critical to your growth," says Francis. "We're so excited to be partnering with Ecliptic — we just trusted them."

Francis shares more about fundraising during a pandemic and what being based at Halliburton has meant for his company's growth. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


These are the latest COVID-19-focused research projects happening at Houston institutions

research roundup

Researchers across the Houston area are working on COVID-19 innovations every day, and scientists are constantly finding new ways this disease is affecting humankind.

From a COVID breathalyzer to a new collaboration in Houston — here's your latest roundup of local coronavirus research news.

A&M System to collaborate on a COVID-19 breathalyzer

A prototype of the device will be used on the Texas A&M campus. Photo via tamu.edu

Researchers at Texas A&M University System are collaborating on a new device that uses artificial intelligence in a breathalyzer situation to detect whether individuals should be tested for COVID-19. The technology is being developed through a collaboration with Dallas-based company, Worlds Inc., and the U.S. Air Force.

The device is called Worlds Protect and a patient can use a disposable straw to blow into a copper inlet. In less than a minute, test results can be sent to the person's smartphone. Worlds Inc. co-founders Dave Copps and Chris Rohde envision Worlds Protect kiosks outside of highly populated areas to act as a screening process, according to a news release.

"People can walk up and, literally, just breathe into the device," says Rohde, president of Worlds Inc., in the release. "It's completely noninvasive. There's no amount of touching. And you quickly get a result. You get a yay or nay."

The university system has contributed $1 million in the project's development and is assisting Worlds Inc. with engineering and design, prototype building and the mapping of a commercial manufacturing process. According to the release, the plan was to test the prototypes will be tried out this fall on the Texas A&M campus.

"Getting tech innovations to market is one of our sweet spots," says John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, in the release. "This breakthrough could have lasting impact on global public health."

Baylor College of Medicine researchers to determine cyclosporine’s role in treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients

BCM researchers are looking into the treatment effect of an existing drug on COVID-19 patients. Photo via BCM.edu

The Baylor College of Medicine has launched a randomized clinical trial to look into how the drug cyclosporine effects the prevention of disease progression in pre-ICU hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drug has been used for about 40 years to prevent rejection of organ transplants and to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

"The rationale is strong because the drug has a good safety profile, is expected to target the body's hyperimmune response to COVID and has been shown to directly inhibit human coronaviruses in the lab," says Dr. Bryan Burt, chief of thoracic surgery in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor, says in a press release.

Burt initiated this trial and BCM is the primary site for the study, with some collaboration with Brigham and Women's. The hypothesis is that the drug will help prevent the cytokine storm that patients with COVID-19 experience that causes their health to decline rapidly, according to the release.

The study, which is funded by Novartis, plans to enroll 75 hospitalized COVID-19 patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center who are not in the ICU. There will be an initial evaluation at six months but Burt expects to have the final study results in one year.

Rice launches expert group to help guide pandemic response

A new response team is emerging out of a collaboration led by Rice University. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University is collaborating with other Houston institutions to create the Biomedical Expert Panel, supported by Texas Policy Lab, to assist officials in long-term pandemic recovery.

"Not all agencies and decision-makers have an in-house epidemiologist or easy access to leaders in infectious disease, immunology and health communications," says Stephen Spann, chair of the panel and founding dean of the University of Houston College of Medicine, in a news release. "This panel is about equity. We must break out of our knowledge siloes and face this challenge together, with a commitment to inclusivity and openness."

The purpose of the panel is to be available as a free resource to health departments, social service agencies, school districts and other policymakers. The experts will help design efficient public health surveillance plans, advise on increasing testing capacity and access for underserved communities, and more.

"The precise trajectory of the local epidemic is difficult to predict, but we know that COVID-19 will continue to be a long-term challenge," says E. Susan Amirian, an epidemiologist who leads the TPL's health program, in the release. "Although CDC guidelines offer a good foundation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when managing a crisis of this magnitude across diverse communities with urgent needs."

Houston Black-owned beauty biz gets major holiday shout out from Oprah

favorite things

Every holiday season, Oprah Winfrey and her elves work hard to put together her namesake list of Favorite Things. The 2020 list of must-have gifts highlights Black-owned or led businesses, including a Houston-based beauty line, 54 Thrones.

For the past six years, Oprah's Favorite Things are available for purchase in the Oprah's Favorite Things storefront exclusively on Amazon, including the 54 Thrones African Beauty Body Butter Collection Gift Set.

The limited-edition Holiday Deluxe Tin contains five individually packaged African Beauty Butters. The Beauty Body Butters are infused with African-grown, pure, and organic plant botanicals which help protect, soothe, and nourish the skin. These Beauty Butters nourish and revitalize the skin; repair dry, tired, or cracked skin; and hydrate the body, hands, elbows, and feet.

Founder Christina Funke Tegbe was inspired by her Nigerian aunt and the tubs of shea butter she sent from Nigeria. In 2015, Tegbe left the corporate world of high-powered consulting and founded 54 Thrones, named after Africa's 54 countries.

This year, more than 50 of the 72 featured products on the Oprah list come from Black-owned businesses, according to Amazon.

"As so many continue to look for ways to support Black lives any way they can, we found dozens of absolutely gorgeous gifts from Black-owned businesses that we wanted to share and celebrate as part of this year's Favorite Things," said Winfrey, via Amazon.

Founder of 54 Thrones, Christina Funke Tegbe. Photo courtesy of 54 Thrones

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.