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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Nearly half of Houston workers complain of serious burnout, says new report

working hard

Local workers who're especially dreading that commute or cracking open the laptop in the morning aren't alone. A new study reveals that nearly half of Houston laborers are more burned out on the job.

Some 49 percent of Bayou City residents report to be burned out at work, according to employment industry website Robert Half. That's significantly higher than last year, when only 37 percent reported burnout in a similar poll.

Meanwhile, more than one in four Houston workers (28 percent) say that they will not unplug from work when taking time off this summer.

Not surprisingly, American workers are ready for a vacation. Per a press release, the research also reveals:

  • One in four workers lost or gave up paid time off in 2020
  • One in three plans to take more than three weeks of vacation time this year

Elsewhere in Texas, the burnout is real. In Dallas, 50 percent of workers report serious burnout. More than a quarter — 26 percent — of Dallasites fear they won't disconnect from the office during summer vacation.

In fun-filled Austin, 45 percent of the workforce complain of burnout. Some 32 percent of Austinites feel they can unplug from work during the summer.

Fortunately for us, the most burned-out city in the U.S. isn't in the Lone Star State. That dubious title goes to the poor city of Charlotte, North Carolina, where 55 percent of laborers are truly worn out.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston small biz tech platform raises $21M series B

money moves

A tech company focused on supporting and growing startups and small businesses has reached its own next big growth milestone this week.

Machine learning-enabled small business support company Hello Alice, founded in Houston with a large presence in California, has closed its $21 million series B raise led by Virginia-based QED Investors with participation from new investors including Backstage Capital, Green Book Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, and How Women Invest.

The raise comes at a pivotal time for the company, which worked hard during the pandemic to support struggling business and now aims to support entrepreneurs of all backgrounds as the world re-emerges out of the COVID-19 era. The fresh funds, according to a press release, will be used to refine the predictive capabilities on its platform, launch a mobile application, and more.

"These investments signal that despite the recent challenges small business owners have faced, there is an economic tidal wave that will revitalize Main Street, led by the entrepreneurs we serve," says Elizabeth Gore, co-founder and president of Hello Alice, in the release.

Since April 2020, Hello Alice has granted over $20 million in emergency funds and resources for small business owners affected by the pandemic. According to the release, the largest percentage of those grants went to "New Majority owners," especially people of color and women. Additionally, the company has reportedly experienced 1,100 percent growth and has expanded to support 500,000 small business owners weekly, with an increased revenue of more than 600 percent through its SaaS platform.

"We are thrilled to have a cap table as diverse as the business owners we serve," says Carolyn Rodz, co-founder and CEO of Hello Alice, in the release. "Our investors are leaders from the Black, Hispanic, LGBTQ+, Women, and US Veteran communities. As a Latina founder and fellow small business owner, I want to ensure that as our company grows, we are fueling future diversity in capital and breaking through ceilings for the benefit of our community."

According to a recent report Hello Alice produced in partnership with GGV Capital, now is the time to support small businesses. The report found that 83 percent of owners surveyed (which included 97,739 founders operating in all 50 states) believe their business will perform better in 2021 than in 2020. Most of the founders — 93 percent — plan to hire this year compared to the almost half — 45 percent — that laid off employees in 2020. Additionally, founders have an increased focus on tech — 75 percent said they are going to spend more on tech this year compared to last.

"Small business owners are the backbone of the U.S. economy, but many fail before they've had an opportunity to meaningfully serve the community in which they're based," says Frank Rotman, QED Investors Founding Partner, in the release. "Access to both capital and business expertise remain the biggest obstacles for SMBs, challenges heightened for women- and minority-owned businesses.

"Traditionally, corporations and government grants want to engage and support, but there hasn't been a source of truth on who can qualify for their diversity grants, funds and programs," he continues. "Hello Alice solves this problem, building tools that empower the new majority and enabling corporations and governments to support SMBs. Founders Carolyn and Elizabeth and the entire Hello Alice team are having a real, tangible impact on the ecosystem. We are incredibly excited to help them help others."

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to two local innovators, as well as one honorary Houstonian, across industries — energy, manufacturing, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Juliana Garaizar, head of Greentown Houston and vice president of Greentown Labs

Juliana Garaizar is transitioning her role at Greentown Houston. Courtesy photo

Juliana Garaizar has a new role within Greentown Labs. She's lead the local team as launch director, and now is taking a new role now that Greentown Houston has opened its doors. Garaizar recently discussed with InnovationMap why now is the perfect time for Greentown to premiere in Houston.

"I think that if Greentown had happened one year before or even one year later, it wouldn't be the right time. I really believe that our main partners are transitioning themselves — Shell, Chevron, and many others are announcing how they are transitioning," she says. "And now they look at Greentown as an execution partner more than anything. Before, it was a nice initiative for them to get involved in. Now, they are really thinking about us much more strategically." Click here to read more.

Misha Govshteyn, CEO of MacroFab

Misha Govshteyn joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the evolving electronics manufacturing industry. Photo courtesy of MacroFab

Electronics manufacturer and MacroFab, run by CEO Misha Govshteyn, much like the rest of the business world, was not immune to the effects of the pandemic. But as some business returned last summer, Govshteyn says MacroFab bounced back in a big way.

"In a lot of ways, the concepts we've been talking about actually crystalized during the pandemic. For a lot of people, it was theoretically that supply chain resiliency is important," Govshteyn says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Single sourcing from a country halfway around the world might not be the best solution. ... When you have all your eggs in one basket, sooner or later you're going to have a break in your supply chain. And we've seen nothing but breaks in supply chains for the last five years." Click here to read more.

Kerri Smith, interim executive director of the Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator

A new clean energy accelerator has announced its first cohort. Photo via rice.edu

The Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator, a 12-week program that will prepare startups to grow their business, connect them with strategic partners and mentors, launch pilots, and fundraise, has named its inaugural cohort.

"We were impressed with the quality, potential and range of clean energy solutions being commercialized by our applicant pool and took great care in assessing their potential as well as our ability to meet their identified needs," says Kerri Smith, the accelerator's interim executive director. "The selection process was very competitive. We had a difficult time paring down the applications but are looking forward to working with our first class of 12." Click here to read more.