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."

For large companies, it's not just about the money. There's more they can offer startups. Getty Images

Here’s how big companies are looking to invest in Houston startups

B2B

As times and technologies change, large companies need to be able to adopt innovative techniques now more than ever. For some companies, that means making a strategic hire, investing in startups, or making acquisitions.

Three panelists with experience in corporate ventures took the stage at the inaugural HX Capital Summit to discuss their best advice for startups looking for investment from large companies.

The panel consisted of Roy Johnston, partner at The League of Worthwhile Ventures; Tom Luby, head of Jlabs; Andrea Course, venture principal at Schlumberger Technical Investments; and moderator Rashad Kurbanov, CEO of Houston-based iownit capital and markets.

The topic of conversation was how corporations work with startups. For Schlumberger, Course says, it's less about acquiring companies and more about investing in technologies those startups are working on.

"When Schlumberger does invest, we like to have a pilot and invest in properties we can grow," Course says. "Our intent is not to go out and buy a startup company, but to grow the technology and then become customers."

Schlumberger has a lot to offer a budding company, namely resources, infrastructure, assets, and a global footprint, Course says.

Previous to his position at The League, Johnston was the director in the venture capital arm of Waste Management, Inc. He says he saw a similar resources-based investment strategy.

"Waste Management might have been more hesitant to write a check, but they were very generous with their assets," Johnston says.

The company could make connections for the startups and provide other support for entrepreneurs in the early stages of starting a company. However, when it came to monetary investments, Johnston says, it was a different story.

"Where I think Waste Management comes in is later on — more of an acquirer than an investor," Johnston says.

When it comes to the types of startups big companies are looking to work with, industry isn't a big issue. Johnson & Johnson, for instance, has an open mind, Luby says.

"It's not an easy fit to say a specific area where J&J fits — if you look at the profile of things we do, we have a no-strings-attached incubation hub next door," he says.

Schlumberger similarly looks outward to spark innovation inward — mostly, Course says, because it's so challenging to think outside the box when you're working everyday inside the box.

"We mostly invest in companies outside of oil and gas, but that we see the potential of bringing used in our industry," Course says.

Houston, has a surplus of diversity — both industry and population, Johnston says. This will be a huge asset of the city, he says, since Houston is on the edge of another revolution for digitization.

"The businesses that are going to be built are going to need people who have a diverse understanding of problems," Johnston says. "That's where I think Houston's diversity is an enormous benefit to us."

Venture capital panelists discussed Houston's venture funding future — both the good and the bad. Houston Exponential/Twitter

Leading venture capitalists forecast the future of funding in Houston

Follow the money

Despite Houston being known for its money, venture capital has struggled to hit its stride until recently. Now, as Houston has attracted more money for its startups — even coming close to Austin, according to recent data — the Bayou City faces a challenge ahead.

"We will go through a massive tech correction — period. End of story," says Blair Garrou, managing partner of Houston-based Mercury Fund, at the inaugural HX Capital Summit.

The correction, Garrou says, would have happened a few years ago, but Middle Eastern and Chinese investments have been holding down the fort, so to speak.

"Whenever this correction happens, whether it's a year, two years, or three years, [my hope is] that the capital here invests through the cycle," Garrou says. "Anyone who invests through the cycle will win."

Garrou was joined by a few other venture capitalists on the panel hosted by Houston Exponential at the TMC Innovation Institute on December 4: Tim Kopra, partner at Houston-based Blue Bear Capital; Mark Friday, associate at Houston-based Cathexis; Joe Milam, CEO of Austin-based Angelspan; Jay Zeidman, managing partner of Houston-based Altitude Ventures Texas; and moderator Rashad Kurbanov, CEO of Houston-based iownit capital and markets.

While the tech correction looms, Houston's current venture ecosystem blooms, thanks to a rise in high net worth personal and family investments.

"There's a real hunger from a lot of ultra-high net worth families to get into this sector, and it'd be really interesting if we can cultivate that here in Houston," says Kopra.

People have gotten more comfortable investing in tech, says Garrou, so the investment opportunities have grown.

"There's a greed component to it that people don't like to talk about," Garrou says. "When people see people making money in a certain sector, they say, 'why not me.'"

However, there are a few things holding back some investors. One being that companies from earlier venture funds have yet to reach their full potential, says Garrou, and he and other venture capitals need to move the needle on that to demonstrate success. He says, once that happens, more capital will flow.

Another hesitation Zeidman says he's seen is within investing in funds, rather than directly into startups.

"There's a difference in investing in companies and investing in funds," Zeidman. "I think a lot of folks are skeptical about investing in funds. I want to be in a deal — I don't just want to give you money and you go decide what to do with it."

Houston Exponential, the city-backed innovation arm for Houston, launched a fund of funds in October. The HX Venture Fund has the potential to create a "flywheel effect" in Houston, says Garrou.

"We're going to see dozens and dozens of funds from across the country come to Houston — they're already coming," Garrou says. "But what's important is they are going to want to co-invest with local investors, and that's the key to venture capital."

While encouraging out-of-city investors is a key part of the equation, Houston does stand well on its own, Milam says. Houston has historically been compared, perhaps wrongly, to Austin., because it got a head start when it came to startup growth. But it's a different story now.

"Austin isn't as advanced as people give it credit for," says Milam. "I don't think Houston at all has [to] look at Austin as a role model or for guidance. Houston has a far better and brighter future when it comes to mobilizing capital and Houston-born startups."

Ultimately, the panelists agreed that despite Houston's slow start and rough waters ahead, Houston's future is bright when it comes to venture capital and startup growth.

"When you look at Houston, we've got a huge economy here — a huge number of customers here," Friday says. "I think we can close the gap of the ratio the amount of venture and startup activity to the overall size of our economy."

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston organizations launch collaborative center to boost cancer outcomes

new to HOU

Rice University's new Synthesis X Center officially launched last month to bring together experts in cancer care and chemistry.

The center was born out of what started about seven years ago as informal meetings between Rice chemist Han Xiao's research group and others from the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine. The level of collaboration between the two teams has grown significantly over the years, and monthly meetings now draw about 100 participants from across disciplines, fields and Houston-based organizations, according to a statement from Rice.

Researchers at the new SynthX Center will aim to turn fundamental research into clinical applications and make precision adjustments to drug properties and molecules. It will focus on improving cancer outcomes by looking at an array of factors, including prevention and detection, immunotherapies, the use of artificial intelligence to speed drug discovery and development, and several other topics.

"At Rice, we are strong on the fundamental side of research in organic chemistry, chemical biology, bioengineering and nanomaterials,” Xiao says in the statement. “Starting at the laboratory bench, we can synthesize therapeutic molecules and proteins with atom-level precision, offering immense potential for real-world applications at the bedside ... But the clinicians and fundamental researchers don’t have a lot of time to talk and to exchange ideas, so SynthX wants to serve as the bridge and help make these connections.”

SynthX plans to issue its first merit-based seed grants to teams with representatives from Baylor and Rice this month.

With this recognition from Rice, the teams from Xiao's lab and the TMC will also be able to expand and formalize their programs. They will build upon annual retreats, in which investigators can share unpublished findings, and also plan to host a national conference, the first slated for this fall titled "Synthetic Innovations Towards a Cure for Cancer.”

“I am confident that the SynthX Center will be a great resource for both students and faculty who seek to translate discoveries from fundamental chemical research into medical applications that improve people’s lives,” Thomas Killian, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences, says in the release.

Rice announced that it had invested in four other research centers along with SynthX last month. The other centers include the Center for Coastal Futures and Adaptive Resilience, the Center for Environmental Studies, the Center for Latin American and Latinx Studies and the Rice Center for Nanoscale Imaging Sciences.

Earlier this year, Rice also announced its first-ever recipients of its One Small Step Grant program, funded by its Office of Innovation. The program will provide funding to faculty working on "promising projects with commercial potential," according to the website.

Houston physicist scores $15.5M grant for high-energy nuclear physics research

FUTURE OF PHYSICS

A team of Rice University physicists has been awarded a prestigious grant from the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Physics for their work in high-energy nuclear physics and research into a new state of matter.

The five-year $15.5 million grant will go towards Rice physics and astronomy professor Wei Li's discoveries focused on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), a large, general-purpose particle physics detector built on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, a European organization for nuclear research in France and Switzerland. The work is "poised to revolutionize our understanding of fundamental physics," according to a statement from Rice.

Li's team will work to develop an ultra-fast silicon timing detector, known as the endcap timing layer (ETL), that will provide upgrades to the CMS detector. The ETl is expected to have a time resolution of 30 picoseconds per particle, which will allow for more precise time-of-flight particle identification.

The Rice team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas. Photo via Rice.edu

This will also help boost the performance of the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC), which is scheduled to launch at CERN in 2029, allowing it to operate at about 10 times the luminosity than originally planned. The ETL also has applications for other colliders apart from the LHC, including the DOE’s electron-ion collider at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.

“The ETL will enable breakthrough science in the area of heavy ion collisions, allowing us to delve into the properties of a remarkable new state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma,” Li explained in a statement. “This, in turn, offers invaluable insights into the strong nuclear force that binds particles at the core of matter.”

The ETL is also expected to aid in other areas of physics, including the search for the Higgs particle and understanding the makeup of dark matter.

Li is joined on this work by co-principal investigator Frank Geurts and researchers Nicole Lewis and Mike Matveev from Rice. The team is collaborating with others from MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, the University of Illinois Chicago and University of Kansas.

Last year, fellow Rice physicist Qimiao Si, a theoretical quantum physicist, earned the prestigious Vannevar Bush Faculty Fellowship grant. The five-year fellowship, with up to $3 million in funding, will go towards his work to establish an unconventional approach to create and control topological states of matter, which plays an important role in materials research and quantum computing.

Meanwhile, the DOE recently tapped three Houston universities to compete in its annual startup competition focused on "high-potential energy technologies,” including one team from Rice.

------

This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.