Jon Nordby, Houston's MassChallenge Texas managing director, is the guest on the first episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Courtesy of MassChallenge

Jon Nordby has watched the city of Houston as it pivoted from innovation being a distant idea to a growing ecosystem of many moving parts and major players — all the while becoming one himself.

Nordby worked his way from advising startups and shaping the innovation coming into Houston at the Greater houston Partnership and then at Houston Exponential to now serving as the local leader for MassChallenge Texas in Houston. In fact, Nordby was a part of the team that brought MassChallenge to Houston in the first place. When he was the director of strategy at HX, the organization was discussing MCTX's Houston program.

"I guess I did a good enough job there that they invited me to be a part of the program when it launched," Nordby says on the podcast.

Nordby also discusses the program and how the inaugural cohort met — and even exceeded — his expectations in the first episode of InnovationMap's new Houston Innovators Podcast. The cohort was a shortened, smaller program, but it surprised everyone at the grand finale of the program when the Houston Angel Network gave out an investment to Houston-based Sensytec. Nordby says that's the first time a MassChallenge cohort anywhere had that opportunity.

In the podcast, Nordby shares what the next cohort will look like, and even shared how there will be two new categories within the program. MCTX will be looking for startups in the sports tech and aerospace industries and will provide special mentorship and programming for those startups. He also mentions that MCTX is gearing up for growth for its office space to be able to accomodate 100 participants in a future cohort.

Check out the podcast below for more details of MCTX's plans to expand, Nordby's take on Houston innovation, and why he's pretty glad he didn't move to Austin a few years ago.


Three non-Houston investors discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Houston's innovation ecosystem. Getty Images

3 observations about Houston's innovation ecosystem from out-of-town venture capitalists

Zooming out

You'll go cross-eyed looking at the same puzzle for too long, and sometimes it's better to take a step back and introduce some fresh perspectives and ideas from someone not so connected to the matter at hand.

At the second annual HX Capital Summit hosted by Houston Exponential at Rice University, HX gathered three out-of-town venture capital experts to discuss Houston's innovation ecosystem with Sandy Wallis, managing director at the HX Venture Fund. The fund-of-funds focuses on connecting non-local investors to Houston in order to bring new venture opportunities to town. On the panel, the experts discussed their observations about the Bayou City, which can be summed up as follows.

Community engagement and corporate interest are good signs for Houston 

Right off the bat, the panelists agreed that its much more encouraging visiting Houston nowadays than it was in the recent past. Clint Korver, managing director at San Francisco-based Ulu Ventures, has only recently played witness to the city, thanks to his firm's work with HX and the fund of funds.

"I'm just getting to know the Houston community," Korver says. "I'm really intrigued by how much community support there is."

Korver says that, not unlike Houston startups, Bay Area companies find it a challenge getting a foot in the door at major corporations. However, he's observed that Houston-based corporates want a seat at the table of Houston innovation.

"All the corporate attention that's being integrated here is super intriguing," Korver says. "That's our startups' hardest problems."

The other panelists, who are much closer to Houston, echoed Kover's interest in the role corporations play. Venu Shamapant, founding partner at Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners, and Thomas Ball, founder and managing director at Austin-based Next Coast Ventures, have witnessed Houston evolve into what it is today over the past decade or so.

"We've both been coming to Houston over the past 20 years and been investing in startups, and it's been a dramatically different scene even in just the past five years," Shamapant says.

Houston's ecosystem is going to take time

While the panelists remarked on the evolution the city has and the support that large corporations seem to be willing to provide, Houston has other assets that's setting it up for success. The panelists mention a solid pool for talent, impressive educational institutions, and more.

"When I look at Houston, I think it has every ingredient for success, which is why I want to spend time here," Ball says.

Sure, as Ball says, Houston has the ingredients, but what it now needs is the time to cook.

"To me, it's more of just time that it's going to take. We can't bake this Houston cake by turning the thermostat up to 900 degrees in an hour. It's going to take three hours at 300," Ball says, adding that he doesn't know very much about baking. "It will take time. This won't be an overnight success. We're here for the long haul."

Houston has some challenges yet to overcome 

Wrapping up the panel, an audience member asked about the changes Houston still needs to make to really get to the point it needs to be at.

For Korver, the answer was pretty simple. Houston needs a big exit.

"There's this incredible amount of momentum that comes along with a successful company that takes a hold of everyone — the rising tide floats all boats thing," Korver says.

For Ball, particularly comparing Houston to other major innovation-focused cities, the issue is that Houston is so spread out.

"To me the one thing I struggle with in Houston is what I would call a density problem," Ball says. "I think you need density here and you need to concentrate your resources in certain places in this city."

At Houston Exponential's second annual HX Capital Summit, four Houston entrepreneurs turned investors discussed their lessons learned. Getty Images

Here's what startups can learn from Houston exits

Success stories

One way to evaluate a city's innovation ecosystem is by the number of successful exits they've had. From startups being acquired by big companies to bringing in a private equity partner, exits can put a city on the map.

Houston has quite a few exits under its belt, and some of those entrepreneurs have stayed in town to fund future success stories. At Houston Exponential's second annual HX Capital Summit, four entrepreneurs discussed their exits, providing key lessons learned for entrepreneurs.

Houston has some perks. 

One thing moderator Samantha Lewis, director at the GOOSE Society of Texas, asked each panelist was what made each entrepreneur start their companies in Houston — and furthermore, what made them stay here after their successful exit.

Panelist Ashok Gowda co-founded and served as COO at Visualase Inc., a real-time tissue monitoring system that exited to Medtronic for over $100 million. He now leads Biotex, a Houston-based medical technology investment firm and accelerator, as president and CEO.

For Gowda, Houston was obviously a key market for med tech, but it provided something even more once he reached the commercialization phase of a product.

"From a commercial standpoint, once the technology became commercial, it was an ideal location," Gowda says. "We were traveling all across the US, and it was a nice hub. We're right in the center of the country, and you can get to either coast very quickly."

The panel also agreed that the quality of life in Houston played a major role in settling down.

You might need to rethink your executive team. 

The panel full of venture capitalists of course touched on the ability to fundraise in Houston, as each panelist had been on both sides of the table. For Gowda, it's pretty simple.

"If you're struggling to raise money, you either have a bad idea or the wrong team," he says, adding that if you really believe in your idea, take a good hard look at who's at the leadership level of your team.

Talent is still a challenge in Houston.

Of course, if you do identify a problem within your team, finding the right leader for your technology might be difficult in Houston.

Keith Kreuer, who was also on the panel, is principal at RedHouse Associates, a group of angel investors that invest like a find would, but without having a fund. Between Kreuer and his team, they were involved in 10 startups before forming the investment group.

"We could find developer and sales talent here, but to get to that higher executive talent, we had to go out to other places," Kreuer says.

However, not all of the panelists agreed that talent was a major challenge they faced. Some noted that they got lucky with the talent they found.

Don Kendall, CEO of Kenmont Capital Partners, came to Houston to run a power company and family office. He turned $100,000 into $1.6 billion and now is a member of GOOSE.

"We had no problem getting the engineering talent," Kendall says. "We really found Houston to be a good environment, and it's only just continued to improve."

Playing to Houston's strengths might be key to success.

For Gray Hall, managing director at Austin-based BuildGroup, which focuses on writing big checks to a small amount of software startups, he knew how to play to his company's and Houston's strengths.

Hall previously served as CEO of AlertLogic, which had a private equity exit in 2013, and Hall stayed on until 2018 as the company continued to grow. He also co-founded Veracenter, which had a strategic exit after growing to $80 million in annual revenue.

"The common theme across both companies and why we were able to grow is real simple: Customer and people," Hall says.

Houston might be one of the country's best kept secrets when it comes to midmarket activity, Hall notes — midmarket companies being defined as those with $50 million to $1 billion in revenue.

"What Houston doesn't get enough credit for is the midmarket in Houston, which I think is tremendous," Hall says. "It's as strong as anywhere else in the country."

AlertLogic was able to tap into this midmarket to quickly grow its client base.

Something else that differentiates Houston from other cities is its culture, which is less focused on the glitz and glam and more focused on hard work.

"Engage with people that have a credible story and a credible plan to solve a problem," he says.

Houston is growing. 

One thing each of the entrepreneurs agreed on is that the city is only growing its resources and quality of startups.

"I see Houston as sort of a startup in the startup world," Kreuer says. "And, what we're trying to do is grow and catch up to the West Coast and the East Coast, but I think Texas as a whole is going to be pretty powerful, and Houston is going to be a central part of that mainly because we have the markets here, and the people in the area and the talent to do that."

As Houston's success stories become more frequent, this provides an avenue for more entrepreneurs turned investors.

"When you've done it before, you've learned the lessons, and you feel like you can do it again and again," Gowda says. "That's what we're trying to do. You see all the possibilities here."

This week's batch of innovators have had to be pretty creative in their industries. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

The ability to innovate lives in one's ability to think outside of the box — no matter the industry. This week's Houston innovators to know have had to get creative and think of new ways of doing things, from retailing to creating greeting cards.

Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential

Harvin Moore, who has a 20-year career in tech and innovation, has been named as president of Houston Exponential. Courtesy of HX

Harvin Moore has been a banker, an educator, an elected official, and more — but his newest title is president of Houston Exponential, which suits him just fine.

Now, under his new role, he's leading the nonprofit that's focused on connecting, promoting, and attracting within Houston's innovation ecosystem.

"There's no question that five years from now, or 10 years from now, Houston will be a very large and continually rapidly growing tech economy," Moore tells InnovationMap. "The question is just how fast it is going to get here." Read more.

Alex Kurkowski, founder of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski wanted to tell a better story. Courtesy of Tellinga

Alex Kurkowski has a problem with traditional greeting cards.

"They're templated. They're frozen, stagnant, fixed in what they are," Kurkowski says. "They suck."

The Rice University MBA grad decided he would do something about it. He created his business, Tellinga — short for "telling a story" — to create a new avenue for people to communicate a message to their loved ones. Kurkowski has big plans for his company and the platform he's creating. Read more.

Steve Scala, executive vice president of corporate development for DiCentral

Steve Scala joined DiCentral in 2014 to focus on growing the company worldwide. Courtesy of DiCentral

Something's brewing in retail — and it's scaring the industry. Steve Scala writes in a guest column for InnovationMap that dropshipping — the process of shipping products direct from vendors to customers, cutting out warehouses and storage facilities — is only going to gain traction in the industry.

"The study found that approximately 88 percent of retailers see dropship as inevitable to long-term success," Scala writes. "According to 87 percent of those retailers surveyed also experienced an increase in revenue as a result of dropshipping. Customer service also benefitted from dropship, with 84 percent of retailers noting improvements to customer service after adopting the dropshipping fulfillment model." Read more.

Here's your one-stop shop for innovation events in Houston in September. Getty Images

10+ can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for September

Where to be

The busy fall event season is kicking off this month with tons of Houston innovation pitch events, educational panels, and networking opportunities.

If you know of innovation-focused events for this month or next, email me at natalie@innovationmap.com with the details and subscribe to our daily newsletter that sends fresh stories straight to your inboxes every morning.


September 5 — MassChallenge Texas in Houston Finale and Startup Showcase

The top startups from the inaugural MassChallenge Texas cohort in Houston will be recognized by community leaders to a room full of potential investors and customers, MassChallenge mentors, VIP community leaders, and their loved ones.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Thursday, September 5, at House of Blues Houston (1204 Caroline St.). Learn more.

September 5 — Frost Bank: Fail Forward Series

Join Impact Hub Houston for an evening of #FailForward — behind-the-scenes stories straight from entrepreneurs on the challenges they faced trying to access and raise funding for their small business or startups. And, learn from bankers and financial experts what those entrepreneurs could have done to make their journey easier and more successful.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Thursday, September 5, at BakerRipley Leonel Castillo Community Center (2101 South Street). Learn more.

September 6 — Finding your Product-Market fit via the W3 method

Amos Schwartzfarb, Author of Sell More Faster - The Ultimate Sales Playbook for Startups and Managing Director of Techstars Austin will deliver a hands-on workshop for founders (seed through Series A) that will enable you to identify the path to achieving product-market fit. Included in the $25 workshop is a signed copy of Sell More Faster.

Details: The event is from 11 am to 12:30 pm on Friday, September 6, at WeWork Labs (708 Main St., 3rd floor). Learn more.

September 10 — Founder Institute's inaugural cohort graduation showcase

The fresh (and first) graduates of the Founder Institute in Houston are celebrating the completion of their program. The graduation celebration will consist of a leadership focused commencement speech, hearing from the graduates (remarks and pitch), and showcase where each company will have a display table and be able to be speak one-on-one.

Details: The event is from 6 to 9 pm on Tuesday, September 10, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

September 11 — Energy and Clean Technology Venture Forum XVII

The Rice Alliance's Energy and Clean Technology Venture Forum is the largest energy and clean technology venture capital conference in the U.S. open, to all emerging energy technology companies (both traditional energy and alternative energy).

Details: The event is from 8:30 am to 5 pm on Wednesday, September 11, at Jones Graduate School of Business (Rice University, 1900 Rice Blvd.). Learn more.

September 12 — HX Capital Summit 2019: Presented by JPMorgan Chase

Join Houston Exponential for its 2nd Annual Capital Summit, which will focus on the latest activity amongst Houston investments. This one-day event will highlight panel discussions from all aspects of Houston's innovation scene.

Details: The event is from 7:30 am to 3 pm on Thursday, September 12, at the Shell Auditorium (Rice University). Learn more.

September 12 — Cooley x JLABS @ TMC: Medtech Startup Fundamentals

Join Cooley, JLABS, and TMC Innovation for a half-day seminar gathering leading executives, investors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders in the medical technology industry. Speakers will explore market trends and share strategies on how to position your startup for growth and success.

Details: The event is from 12:30 to 5:30 pm on Thursday, September 12, at the JLABS @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

September 17 — Raising Capital with Investment Crowdfunding

Station Houston, NextSeed, and the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce are putting on a discussion about fundraising online.

Details: The event is from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm on Tuesday, September 17, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

September 19 — The Cannon Grand Opening

The Cannon, an entrepreneurial hub in West Houston, is celebrating its new digs. Join the party to learn about coworking at The Cannon, to network with Houston's innovation ecosystem, and more.

Details: The event is from 4 to 9 pm on Thursday, September 19, at The Cannon (1336 Brittmoore Road). Invite only.

September 19 — JLABS x UH: Startup Pains: From Academia to Startup

JLABS and the University of Houston Technology Bridge present a special installment of the university's monthly Startup Pains. This month the focus is on licensing and technology transfer.

Details: The event is from 5:30 to 7 pm on Thursday, September 19, at the JLABS @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

September 24 — The Future of Payments: How Fintech, Crypto, and Blockchain are Transforming E-Commerce

The global economy is powered by 125 million business and payments between those businesses transacted over a variety of technologies. In the US, $2 trillion of the $58 trillion in payments generated by small business are "other" — new digital payment technologies including cryptocurrency and blockchain created by fintechs, banks and large players like Facebook and JP Morgan. Over time, the remaining $56 trillion will shift from paper checks to more digital forms. A change in the payments landscape is imminent, and in many ways, the US is behind in digital acceptance. What will this change look like? Join Vinay Pai, senior vice president of engineering at Bill.com, as he discusses.

Details: The event is from 4 to 5 pm on Tuesday, September 24, at Duncan Hall (Rice University). Learn more.

September 24 — The Eco-System of the Language Industry: Panel and Networking Event

Introducing the first Women in Localization Texas Chapter Houston Event. Winnie Heh, associate chapter manger - mentoring for the Silicon Valley Chapter, and Middlebury Institute of International Studies Career Advisor, Translation, Interpretation & Localization Management, will be presenting on importance of localization and various localization job functions available in our rapidly globalized world.

Details: The event is from 6 to 8 pm on Tuesday, September 24, at Station Houston (1301 Fannin Street, #2440). Learn more.

September 24 & 25 — Innovation Engineering Quick Start Class

Bruce G. Hall, CEO and president of eureka! inventing is teaching an abridged version of his innovation engineering course that's offered at the University of Houston. InnovationMap readers can get half off by registering through this link.

Details: The course is on either Tuesday, September 24, or Wednesday, September 25, at Energy Corridor Marriott (16011 Katy Fwy).Learn more.

September 25 — Third Coast Innovators Mixer

Calling all innovators and entrepreneurs in the Third Coast. JLABS @ TMC is hosting a networking event with fellow innovators and entrepreneurs in the ecosystem as well as current JLABS residents and the JLABS @ TMC team.

Details: The event is from 5 to 7 pm on Wednesday, September 25, at the JLABS @ TMC (2450 Holcombe Blvd). Learn more.

September 25 — Energy Tech Night

Energy Tech Night offers insights from energy digitalization/innovation/emerging tech experts and rapid-fire pitches from the cutting edge in startups offering solutions for the energy challenges of today & tomorrow.

Details: The event is from 6:30 to 8:30 pm on Wednesday, September 25, at Saint Arnold Brewery (2000 Lyons Ave) Learn More

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Overheard: Houston execs weigh in on the innovation ecosystem and local startups

Eavesdropping in Houston

Something has shifted in Houston, and businesses across industries — whether it be real estate, health care, or energy — are focused on innovation, emerging technologies, and the role of startups within the business community.

At the Greater Houston Partnership's annual Economic Outlook on December 5, three panelists from various industries gathered to discuss some of the biggest issues in Houston — from the multifamily real estate market to what the local workforce needs. The panel was moderated by Eddie Robinson, the morning news anchor for Houston Public Radio, and the panelists did weigh in a few issues affecting innovation.

Missed the talk? Here are a few overheard moments from the discussion.

"Houston allows you to do what you do. And you don't get that in other places."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Bradley R. Freels, chairman of Midway Cos. Freels says, while the city's been overshadowed by other Texas cities for innovation and tech — and even by its large oil and gas industry presence, the city is becoming a great place for startups. "This is a great place to do business because it's easy to get started in business here. I think it's just over shadowed to some degree," he says, adding later that, "the initiative around the innovation corridor is real."

"Houston is unique, in my opinion, in how open and welcoming it is."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

— David Milich, CEO of UnitedHealthcare - Texas & Oklahoma. Building off the panelists point that Houston is a spirited, can-do city, Milich specifies that it's the collaboration between people in Houston that sets the city apart. "When we present ourselves with something to get done, we generally get it down."

"We're realizing that the economy is shifting. As we move forward in the 21st century, our entire workforce needs to be tech fluent."

Photo via Greater Houston Partnership/Facebook

Nataly Marks, managing director and region manager at JPMorgan Chase. When asked about jobs needed in Houston, Marks specified technology positions. Moreover, JPMorgan Chase is emphasizing getting the entire staff proficient in the latest tech resources.

New travel startup plans the perfect vacations for Houston's busy young professionals

GET THERE NOW

Work-life balance for a young professional is hard. There's the dream of travel but the nightmare of planning. Then there's the challenge of working with limited vacation days and finding a friend whose schedule lines up.

To the rescue comes Houston-based Here & Now Travel, which aims to create a vacation free of stress and full of memorable experiences and offers adventurous group travel specifically for young professionals.

When discussing the inspiration for starting their company, cofounder Alex Coleman tells CultureMap that he and his wife and fellow cofounder, Elise, were caught between the benefits and drawbacks of individual versus group travel.

They loved the freedom of solo traveling but not the potential feelings of isolation and vulnerability. When it came to traveling with friends, they enjoyed the bonding and security in a group but not all the work involved with navigating everyone's schedules and preferences during planning.

"We decided to create a travel company that combined the best of both worlds," Coleman says. "A company that gave people the flexibility of going to their desired destinations at their desired time, without losing the experience of traveling with a group of awesome people."

As young professionals themselves, the Colemans also wanted their company to consider the typically low number of vacation days their target clients have. That's why Here & Now trips take advantage of weekends and holidays so participants only have to take a maximum of three days off from work.

Here & Now Travel currently has six trips planned for 2020: two to Costa Rica, two to Colombia, and two to Mexico. On these trips, the itineraries lean towards adventure activities and cultural experiences.

For example, their next trip scheduled for January 9 to January 13 to Costa Rica includes exploring Juan Castro Blanco National Park, zip lining through the rainforest, learning how to make tortillas with a local family, and more.

"We shy away from crowded tourist attractions. We pride ourselves on showing travelers hidden gems of our destinations, be it the hidden Mayan cenote in Tulum where we have to be blessed by the community's Mayan Shaman before entering, or one of the region's largest waterfall in Costa Rica which sits on the land of a small farming family," says Coleman. "Through these tucked away, amazing places, we get to see things others typically don't, and have true interaction with the communities we are visiting.

Each Here & Now package includes private transportation to and from the airport and for the duration of the trip, shared three or four-star accommodation, all breakfasts and lunches, and all entrance fees and itinerary activity costs. Flights, dinners, and the required travel insurance are not included.

If you decide to join one of their trips, you can expect to be in a group of between six and 14 young professionals — with 14 being the absolute max as Here & Now Travel doesn't want to overrun the visited communities or contribute to the overuse of their resources.

"Large groups in charter buses feel clunky and seem like you are trampling or disrupting the destinations you are visiting," says Coleman. "We cap our trips at 14 people, allowing us to be good stewards of the communities we visit, and maintain our feel as a small group of travelers...and not tourists."

Each travel group is also accompanied by a Here & Now host who handles all the logistics as well as a local guide, which is a feature that Coleman believes sets their company apart from others.

"Travelers on Here & Now trips are always led by someone who calls that destination home," he explains. "Our guides have an emotional bond to the places we explore. Their passion and connection to their homes is something that can't be replicated."

Along with employing these local guides, Here & Now Travel works with local drivers, restaurants, and lodging as a way to ensure the money they spend in each community stays in that community.

As a further testament to their commitment to sustainable tourism, Here & Now Travel plans to offset their carbon footprint, which is mainly caused by airline travel, by donating to the nonprofit Trees for Houston in 2020.

The company also has plans to increase their number of trips to once per month and to eventually include European destinations.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.