Memorial Park, which is currently undergoing a master plan renovation, and other Houston parks can be a great opportunity for introducing urban conservation inside the city limits. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

The Houston toad is a species that was discovered in Harris County in the 1950s. It has a very distinct, loud call that reverberates at quite a high pitch. But the Houston toad's call hasn't been heard in the city of Houston for almost 50 years. The species is locally extinct and critically endangered elsewhere. In fact, it's the most endangered amphibian in North America, says Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership.

"When we think about extinction, we think of the dodo bird or the woolly mammoth," Johnson says. "But extinction is happening right underneath our noses."

The Houston Zoo has a breeding facility for Houston toad, but other than that, it's extremely unlikely that the Houston toad will ever reside naturally in its namesake city.

"We have modified the environment so heavily, that it'd be a bit of a dicey thing to do [to reintroduce the species] because there are so few of them, it's better to focus on an environment where it's still OK for them," Johnson says. The largest population of the Houston toad is actually in Bastrop, however due to the Bastrop fires in 2011, the species is only just recently back to a good place even there.

Johnson is giving a free lecture in April at Rice regarding extinction, where she'll bring her Astros-named Houston toads, Springer and Julia Morales, as her teacher aids.

Changing tides in conservation
As cities like Houston continue to be developed, scientists and researchers are challenged with finding new ways to effect conservation. Johnson says within the industry, there's been a shift in thinking when it comes to preserving nature.

"There's a new burgeoning movement in conservation called urban conservation," she says. "For a long time, if you talked to the traditional conservationists, the idea of conservation is to protect big spaces — the national and state park systems are the perfect example."

But large parks are expensive and a huge undertaking. It's still the strongest form of conservation, but introducing conservation efforts in a city — perhaps in some of Houston's parks, like Memorial Park or Hermann Park — helps not only the species of animals involved, but also educates the local population and forms a connection with residents.

"That has a twofold kind of benefit," Johnson says. "It protects the greenspace so species to live with us, and then also it makes the connection to this place we try to protect."

Of course, this type of effort is new, and there's not a lot of data to show how this would affect the ecosystem and its species, from the migratory and genetic diversity standpoints. Despite the lack of data, Johnson says this type of effort needs to happen.

"We're going to continue to manipulate the world, and maybe if we started thinking about this now, that we can get to a point were we understand enough were we can make these some sort of functioning ecosystem," she says.

Part of the shift in thinking about these ecosystems has to do with new ways of tracking species and understanding their environments.

"Technology is helping us ask a lot of these questions," Johnson says. "Ecology is surprisingly complicated. There's so many variables. ... I think technology and our advance with computing is definitely going to help us understand it."

Using preservation to solve flooding
The educational component is also very important to conservation, and Johnson is making strides on campus with her class. Last year, her department and her class introduced a pocket prairie right on the Rice campus.

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Of course, there are other flood solutions being discussed — some even incorporating tech or even a tube system underground.

"Historically, there has been some budding of heads between the environment and technology, but I really think moving forward, those two fields have to work together. We need to use technology to save the environment," Johnson says. "I think Houston is one of the places where that conversation is starting to happen."

Missing the toads

Courtesy of Cassidy Brown Johnson

The Houston toad has been locally extinct since the 1970s.

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$100M Houston VC fund launches to back technical founders

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A new venture capital fund has launched with an initial $100 million mission of supporting founders with innovative critical infrastructure solutions.

Fathom Fund, which is looking to build out a portfolio of advanced computing, material science, climate resilience, and aerospace startups, announced they've launched with an initial close of over $100 million. The fund is founded by longtime investors Managing Partners Paul Sheng and Eric Bielke.

"We believe recent technological advances have accelerated the pace of scientific discovery, increasing the pool of technology companies that can produce venture-scale returns," Sheng says in a news release.

According to the fund, it hopes to bridge the gap for early stage capital for physical innovations and "moonshot" projects.

“What’s lacking in venture is rigorous technical diligence at the early stages and a playbook to scale these innovations at the pace necessary to lead industries," Bielke adds. "With this launch, we are looking forward to supporting founders with some of the most disruptive and novel ideas.”

The founder duo will bring each of the career expertise to their future portfolio companies. Sheng spent decades at McKinsey & Co and was the firm's head of the Global Energy & Materials practice. Bielke is a former director at Temasek’s Emerging Technologies Fund.

Houston is the 4th best U.S. city for Black professionals, report finds

Black History Month

In acknowledgement of Black History Month 2024, a new report compiled by Black employees at online rental marketplace Apartment List has ranked Houston the No. 4 best U.S. city for Black professionals.

Apartment List reviewed 76 cities across four major categories to determine the rankings: community and representation; economic opportunity; housing opportunity; and business environment.

Houston earned a score of 63.01 out of a total 100 points, making it the second-highest-ranked city in Texas for Black professionals, behind San Antonio (No. 3).

The city earned top-10 rankings in three out of the four main categories:

  • No. 3 – Business environment
  • No. 4 – Community and representation
  • No. 10 – Economic opportunity
  • No. 21 – Housing opportunity

Houston is commended for its strong Black business environment and economy, but there is some room for improvement when it comes to housing. Similarly to Apartment List's 2022 report – which also placed Houston at No. 4 – a little less than half (44 percent) of all Black Houston households are spending over 30 percent of their income on housing, which has increased two percent since 2019.

Houston has a larger Black population than San Antonio, at 19 percent, but its Black population share is overall lower than other cities in the top 10.

"Furthermore, the community is well-represented in some critical occupations: 20 percent of teachers are Black, as are 21 percent of doctors," the report said. "Houston is also home to the HBCU Texas Southern University, helping a job market when the median Black income is several thousand dollars above average."

Houston also has the highest rate of Black-owned businesses in the entire state, at 18 percent.

"From the Mitochondria Gallery to Ten Skyncare and Wisdom’s Vegan Bakery, Houston has it all!" the report said.

Here's how Houston stacked up in other metrics:

  • Black homeownership: 42 percent
  • Black lawyers: 14 percent
  • Black managers: 14 percent

Elsewhere in Texas
Texas cities dominated the overall top 10. San Antonio ranked just above Houston, with Dallas (No. 6) and Austin (No. 7) not too far behind.

San Antonio came in less than 2.5 points ahead of Houston with a total score of 65.44 points. The report praised San Antonio's scores across its economic opportunity (No. 2), housing opportunity (No. 7), and community and representation (No. 10). The city ranked No. 20 for its Black business environment.

But like Houston, San Antonio also fell behind in its Black homeownership rates, according to the study.

"While the Black homeownership rate is higher than average at 44 percent, the homeownership gap (Black homeownership rate - non-Black homeownership rate) quite low at -19 percent," the report's author wrote. "Perhaps this could be explained by San Antonio’s overall homeownership rate, which is also lower than the state’s average. Additionally, the lower homeownership gap could explain the cost burden rate also being lower than average at 41 percent."

The top 10 cities for Black professionals are:

  • No. 1 – Washington, D.C.
  • No. 2 – Atlanta, Georgia
  • No. 3 – San Antonio, Texas
  • No. 4 – Houston, Texas
  • No. 5 – Palm Bay, Florida
  • No. 6 – Dallas, Texas
  • No. 7 – Austin, Texas
  • No. 8 – Colorado Springs, Colorado
  • No. 9 – Lakeland, Florida
  • No. 10 – Charlotte, North Carolina
The full report and its methodology can be found on apartmentlist.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: Can Houston replicate and surpass the success of Silicon Valley?

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Anyone who knows me knows, as a Houston Startup Founder, I often muse about the still developing potential for startups in Houston, especially considering the amount of industry here, subject matter expertise, capital, and size.

For example, Houston is No. 2 in the country for Fortune 500 Companies — with 26 Bayou City companies on the list — behind only NYC, which has 47 ranked corporations, according to Fortune.

Considering layoffs, fund closings, and down rounds, things aren’t all that peachy in San Francisco for the first time in a long time, and despite being a Berkeley native, I’m rooting for Houston now that I’m a transplant.

Let’s start by looking at some stats.

While we’re not No. 1 in all areas, I believe we have the building blocks to be a major player in startups, and in tech (and not just energy and space tech). How? If the best predictor of future success is history, why not use the template of the GOAT of all startup cities: San Francisco and YCombinator. Sorry fellow founders – you’ve heard me talk about this repeatedly.

YCombinator is considered the GOAT of Startup Accelerators/Incubators based on:

  1. The Startup success rate: I’ve heard it’s as high as 75 percent (vs. the national average of 5 to 10 percent) Arc Search says 50 percent of YC Co’s fail within 12 years – not shabby.
  2. Their startup-to-unicorn ratio: 5 to 7 percent of YC startups become unicorns depending on the source — according to an Arc Search search (if you haven’t tried Arc Search do – super cool).
  3. Their network.

YC also parlayed that success into a "YC Startup School" offering:

  1. Free weekly lessons by YC partners — sometimes featuring unicorn alumni
  2. A document and video Library (YC SAFE, etc)
  3. Startup perks for students (AWS cloud credits, etc.)
  4. YC co-founder matching to help founders meet co-founders

Finally, there’s the over $80 billion in returns, according to Arc search, they’ve generated since their 2005 inception with a total of 4,000 companies in their portfolio at over $600 billion in value. So GOAT? Well just for perspective there were a jaw-dropping 18,000 startups in startup school the year I participated – so GOAT indeed.

So how do they do it? Based on anecdotal evidence, their winning formula is said to be the following well-oiled process:

  1. Bring over 282 startups (the number in last cohort) to San Francisco for 90 days to prototype, refine the product, and land on the go-to-market strategy. This includes a pre-seed YC SAFE investment of a phased $500,000 commitment for a fixed min 7 percent of equity, plus more equity at the next round’s valuation, according to YC.
  2. Over 50 percent of the latest cohort were idea stage and heavily AI focused.
  3. Traction day: inter-portfolio traction the company. YC has over 4,000 portfolio companies who can and do sign up for each other’s companies products because “they’re told to."
  4. Get beta testers and test from YC portfolio companies and YC network.
  5. If they see the traction scales to a massively scalable business, they lead the seed round and get this: schedule and attend the VC meetings with the founders.
  6. They create a "fear of missing out" mentality on Sand Hill Road as they casually mention who they’re meeting with next.
  7. They block competitors in the sector by getting the top VC’s to co-invest with then in the seed so competitors are locked out of the A list VC funding market, who then are up against the most well-funded and buzzed about players in the space.

If what I've seen is true, within a six-month period a startup idea is prototyped, tested, pivoted, launched, tractioned, seeded, and juiced for scale with people who can ‘make’ the company all in their corner, if not already on their board.

So how on earth can Houston best this?

  1. We have a massive amount of businesses — around 200,000 — and people — an estimated 7.3 million and growing.
  2. We have capital in search of an identity beyond oil.
  3. Our Fortune 500 companies that are hiring consultants for things that startups here that can do for free, quicker, and for a fraction of the extended cost.
  4. We have a growing base of tech talent for potential machine learning and artificial intelligence talent
  5. A sudden shot at the increasingly laid off big tech engineers.
  6. We have more accelerators and incubators.

What do we need to pull it off?

  1. An organized well-oiled YC-like process
  2. An inter-Houston traction process
  3. An "Adopt a Startup" program where local companies are willing to beta test and iterate with emerging startup products
  4. We have more accelerators but the cohorts are small — average five to 10 per cohort.
  5. Strategic pre-seed funding, possibly with corporate partners (who can make the company by being a client) and who de-risk the investment.
  6. Companies here to use Houston startup’s products first when they’re launched.
  7. A forum to match companies’ projects or labs groups etc., to startups who can solve them.
  8. A process in place to pull all these pieces together in an organized, structured sequence.

There is one thing missing in the list: there has to be an entity or a person who wants to make this happen. Someone who sees all the pieces, and has the desire, energy and clout to make it happen; and we all know this is the hardest part. And so for now, our hopes of besting YC may be up in the air as well.

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Jo Clark is the founder of Circle.ooo, a Houston-based tech startup that's streamlining events management.