Houston's moving on up in the worlds of economics and startup activity. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

The number four appears to be a sign of good fortune for Houston.

A new ranking from Business Facilities magazine places Bayou City at No. 4 for economic growth potential among large metro areas and at No. 4 for the country's best startup ecosystems.

Regarding the No. 4 ranking for economic potential, Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development for the Greater Houston Partnership, says Houston's industrial diversity has helped the region weather downturns in certain economic sectors "and now has us on a solid growth trajectory."

"The region's steady population increases, coupled with our relatively low costs of living and doing business, bode well for our economic growth potential reflected in this ranking," Davenport says.

Houston's status as the one of the top locations for Fortune 1000 headquarters in the U.S. elevates the region's position as a hub where both large and small companies can prosper, she adds.

Houston appeared at No. 1 in Business Facilities' 2018 ranking of the top large metros for economic growth potential. Representatives of Business Facilities couldn't be reached to explain why Houston dropped three places from 2018 to 2019.

Last year, the magazine pointed out that Houston's economy extends far beyond its standing as the Energy Capital of the World.

"The nation's fourth-largest city has a dynamic, diversified economy that is brimming with innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship," said the magazine, citing advantages such as Houston's strong manufacturing base, enormous healthcare presence, and storied aerospace legacy.

The magazine went on to hail Houston's "distinctly favorable business climate."

"The region benefits from a skilled workforce, world-class infrastructure and transportation system, and a pro-business environment that stimulates rather than stifles business growth," Business Facilities noted.

As for the No. 4 ranking in this year's Business Facilities startup category, Davenport says this indicates the recent work of the Houston Exponential initiative to foster the local startup environment is paying off.

Houston Exponential, established in 2017, seeks to make Houston a top 10 innovation ecosystem, generate $2 billion in venture capital annually, and create 10,000 new tech jobs a year by 2022.

Last October, Houston Exponential announced it had collected $25 million for its first venture capital fund. Making financial commitments to the fund were Insperity, Chevron, Shell, Quanta Services, Westlake Chemical, The Plank Cos., PROS, H-E-B, and Camden Property Trust.

"Factor in the demand being satisfied by a number of new incubators and accelerators, plus the four-mile Innovation Corridor running through the heart of the city and anchored by The Ion, and we're seeing momentum on a scale like never before," Davenport says.

In Houston's Midtown, Rice University is transforming the historic Sears building into The Ion, which will serve as an innovation hub designed to cultivate collaboration among startups, corporations, universities, and other elements of the local business community. It's the first development in Houston's evolving innovation district.

"The Midtown innovation district is an embodiment of our shared community vision to give professionals and families a means of seizing opportunity as Houston continues to grow as a leading city in technology," says Matt Thibodeaux, executive director of Midtown Houston.

Here is Business Facilities' 2019 list of the top 10 places for economic growth potential among large U.S. metros:

  1. Atlanta
  2. San Antonio
  3. Phoenix
  4. Houston
  5. Orlando, Florida
  6. Austin
  7. Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
  8. Las Vegas
  9. Albuquerque, New Mexico
  10. Kansas City, Missouri

Here is Business Facilities' 2019 list of the 10 places with the best startup ecosystems in the country:

  1. Austin
  2. Denver
  3. New York City
  4. Houston
  5. San Jose, California
  6. Orlando, Florida
  7. Nashville, Tennessee
  8. Atlanta
  9. Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
  10. Salt Lake City
The new two-story wall in Station Houston's space represents Station's promise to its startup members as well as showcases the city's stewards for innovation. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Mayor, Station CEO: Houston's innovation ecosystem has arrived

forget up and coming

For Gaby Rowe, Houston's not just an up-and-coming innovation leader.

"Houston's tech ecosystem is here. It exists now. It will continue to grow and gain momentum. It is not a thing of the future; it is here now," Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, tells InnovationMap.

At Station's third anniversary party on January 30, Mayor Sylvester Turner agreed with that sentiment.

"I don't want to say that we're looking to just build this robust, integrated ecosystem," Turner says. "Let me just be bold enough to say that it is done. We've already done it, and we are just expanding on it."

In a week full of announcements — from $2.5 million grants bringing in an international accelerator program to Midtown innovation hub announcing its new name and construction plans — Station, not to be out done, announced its programming expansion plans.

Station's Houston VR Lab made its debut at the celebration, which is an AR/VR space where members can use to showcase their technology to potential partners and investors. Station is also a short ways away from finishing up its robotics lab, something that the organization is partnering with TXRX Labs to work on.

When it comes to investors, Station acts as a sort of matchmaker with its member startups. In 2019, the organization will have 15 different investors with weekly, monthly, or quarterly office hours in the Station space — nine of which are already on board, Rowe says.

Station will also be launching a foreign development accelerator aimed at attracting startups from around the world. The program will help educate and transition the companies into business here in the United States over a one- to three-week session.

"Our belief is that there's no better city for an international startup to come to," Rowe says. "It's so easy to assimilate and there's such a global footprint. And, there's such an open community when it comes to the warmth of the people. There's no one here that I've worked with that won't give you one meeting."

Visually, Station Houston's biggest unveiling was the wall that spans two floors of the office. On the wall is four stewards, as Rowe describes them, that have partnered to progress Houston's innovation. On the wall are the logos of Houston Exponential, TMC Innovation Institute, Rice University, and the University of Houston.

"Those four entities have committed through their stewardship tp make sure that this ecosystem a reality, and today we can say it's here," Rowe says.

The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University

Rice University's Midtown innovation hub dubbed The Ion takes shape

Eye on Ion

Houston's innovation district is one step closer to the Midtown hub it was promised early last year. Rice University announced the construction details of the historic Sears building's transformation into The Ion, as it's now called.

"We chose the name Ion because it's from the Greek ienai, which means 'go'" says Rice University president David Leebron in the release. "We see it as embodying the ever-forward motion of discovery, the spark at the center of a truly original idea. It also represents the last three letters in many of the words that define the building's mission, like inspiration, creation, acceleration and innovation."

Construction on the 270,000-square-foot building will begin in May, according to Rice's release, and is expected to conclude by the end of next year. The cost of the project wasn't disclosed with the announcement. The building will serve as a coworking space, provide resources for entrepreneurs and startups, and host events, the release says, as well as offer retail space for restaurants and entertainment amenities.

"I gleefully applaud this next giant step in the creation of an innovation hub that will take Houston closer to becoming a world leader in data science and digital technologies" says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "As I said last year when the idea was unveiled, we have to leap, not stroll, into the economic frontier. Now the physical transformation of The Ion will help get us there."

Leading the project is the Rice Management Company, and Rice will provide academic programming, along with other educational institutions including the University of Houston, UH-Downtown, the University of St. Thomas, Houston Community College, Texas Southern University, Houston Baptist University, San Jacinto College, and the South Texas College of Law. Station Houston has been named as the programming partner and will have a huge presence in the hub.

"The Ion will inspire open innovation between universities, global corporations and investors," says Gabriela Rowe, CEO of Station Houston, in the release. "Students and faculty members from institutions like Rice University and the University of Houston will coexist and collaborate with scientists from Houston's other great institutions. Investors and corporations will meet face to face with startup entrepreneurs. Together, at The Ion, they will transform Houston into a thriving, connected, high-tech ecosystem."

Houston-based Hines was listed as the developer, and other dealmakers include New York-based SHoP Architects, James Carpenter Design Associates, James Corner Field Operations, and Gensler's Houston office. The Ion's transformation will include removing the '60s-era metal cladding, but the structure will maintain its original art deco façade.

This is the first phase of development for Houston's innovation district — a 16-acre plan for Midtown, according to the release, and the district will also feature housing, public spacing, and important infrastructure.

"We are eager to contribute to an enhanced quality of life for residents and visitors of Midtown Houston," said Matt Thibodeaux, executive director of Midtown Houston. "The Midtown innovation district is an embodiment of our shared community vision to give professionals and families a means of seizing opportunity as Houston continues to grow as a leading city in technology."

Courtesy of Rice University

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Rice Alliance event identifies 4 most-promising energy tech companies at CERAWeek

startups to watch

Wondering what energy tech companies you should keep an eye on? Wonder no more.

As a part of 2021 CERAWeek by IHS Markit, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship hosted a virtual pitch competition today featuring 20 companies in four sessions. Each entrepreneur had four minutes to pitch, and then a few more to take questions from industry experts.

"Of the companies here today, we've intentionally selected a diverse group," says Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance at the start of the event. "They range from companies looking for their seed funding to companies that have raised $20 million or more."

The following companies pitched at the event: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

At the end of each session, attendees voted via Zoom poll on which startup had the most potential. According to the event attendees, the most promising energy tech companies are:

REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies

Asheville, North Carolina-based REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies is working to "put a green spin on power." The company's micro-Expansion Turbine System produces green power for digital oilfield and pipeline initiatives through the recovery of excess natural gas pressure.

"RTT's technology provides a scalable, clean energy source to reliably power digital oilfield and pipeline initiatives at a significantly low operating cost," says Christopher Bean, founder and CEO, in his presentation. "Never has it been more important to make production and pipeline operations greener, safer, and efficient."

Connectus Global

Connectus Global, based in Calgary, provides custom technology solutions that can increase productivity, profits, and competitiveness. Connectus' Real-Time Location System, or RTLS, uses Ultra-Wide Band for communication and triangulation while hosting a Radio Frequency Identification Device, which come in the form of badges, tags, and receivers.

"In our first year, we received $800,000 in revenue and are on track to hit our numbers — $3.6 million — at the end of this fiscal year," says Mike Anderson, CEO of the company, in his presentation." We have a global white labeling agreement with Honeywell and we make up about 75 percent of their digitized workforce management portfolio."

The company's U.S. office is located in Houston.

DrillDocs

Houston-based DrillDocs has created an automated drilling cuttings characterization service, called CleanSight, that supports an operator's understanding of their wellbore's state of stability and cleanness in real time.

"We're taking computer vision to the drilling rig," says Calvin Holt, CEO and co-founder at DrillDocs, in his presentation. "Now for the first time, drilling and geomechanics teams will have unique, real-time data to ascertain the well's condition."

Revterra

Revterra, a Houston-based company and inaugural Greentown Houston member company, is creating a flywheel energy storage system for long-duration grid-scale applications.

"For those of us in Texas, the power outages we experienced a couple weeks ago are a stark reminder that the stability and the resiliency of our electric grid should be a top priority as we transition to low-emission power sources," says Ben Jawdat, founder and CEO at Revterra, in his presentation. "Energy storage is a critical element in both grid stability and enabling our transition to sustainable energy."

Houston makes top 10 list for major metros based on startup growth

by the numbers

Houston is a bustling hub for startup activity — and the numbers don't lie.

A new ranking from real estate investment marketplace Roofstock places Houston at No. 10 among the major U.S. metro areas with the highest rates of startup formation. Roofstock's ranking, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, puts the Houston area's startup formation rate at 9.48 percent. The startup formation rate refers to the number of new businesses in a given year divided by the total number of businesses.

Here's the other Houston startup data cited by Roofstock:

  • Annual number of startup formations: 9,214
  • Annual number of jobs created by startups: 55,475
  • Number of jobs created by startups as a share of all new jobs: 14.44 percent

"In the past years, Houston has seen a massive burst in its startup ecosystem. … Houston is one of the best places in the United States for entrepreneurs to launch and grow a business," Houston-based app developer Bixlabs says.

As a matter of fact, the Houston area's ratio of new business founders to total business founders stood at a healthy 21 percent as of December 2020, according to career website LinkedIn. Houston was sandwiched between Salt Lake City (26 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth (20 percent). Also in 2020 and 2019, Houston ranked sixth on a list published by residential real estate platform Clever of the most affordable U.S. metros for startups.

"Considering Houston's metro is tied with San Antonio's for the highest average investment in small business, and the proximity to great food, the Gulf of Mexico coast, and attractions like Minute Maid Park and the NASA Space Center, we would definitely suggest considering starting a business here," Clever says.

Two other Texas metros appear on Roofstock's list — Austin at No. 3 (startup formation rate of 10.61 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth at No. 5 (startup formation rate of 9.82 percent).

Here's the additional data for the Austin metro area:

  • Number of annual startup formations: 3,858
  • Number of annual new jobs created by startups: 21,357
  • Number of jobs created by startups as a share of all new jobs: 16.49 percent

Here's the additional data for the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area:

  • Number of annual startup formations: 10,731
  • Number of annual new jobs created by startups: 69,696
  • Number of jobs created by startups as a share of all new jobs: 15.11 percent

The Las Vegas metro area holds the No. 1 spot on the Roofstock list, with a startup formation rate of 11.44 percent.

Houston venture capitalist says it's time for more women in VC

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 73

In all the turmoil of 2020, Samantha Lewis had at least one silver lining. The former director of Goose Capital transitioned into her new position as principal at Mercury Fund.

However fortunate she feels to have her new position, she shares on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week that there's not nearly enough of women like her in venture capital.

"The bottom line is there has to be more women with check-writing abilities," Lewis says on the show. "And when there is more women with check-writing abilities, more women will get funded."

Joining the podcast at the start of Women's History Month, Lewis says that the pandemic disproportionately affected women's careers across the board — but when it comes to VC, the solution is growing the female representation at firms.

"It is up to the people in VC hiring or the institutional investors who are giving money to funds to make sure there's a woman on the investment team," she says — adding that just one isn't enough.

In her role at Mercury, Lewis is helping build up the fund's processes — something she specialized in at Goose. She's also focused on building up the portfolio around a specific theme.

"One of the things specifically that Mercury brought me over to focus on from an investment perspective is something we're calling our 'power theme,'" Lewis says. "Think about it as giving people the power to make decisions that are authentic to their values around sustainability and impact."

There have been significant changes in consumer values driven by millennials, and businesses are prioritizing sustainability and transparency in order to keep up. Lewis discusses how Houston-based Topl, which is one of Mercury's portfolio companies, has a major role to play in this space.

Another key area of interest for Lewis is fintech.

"The other piece of the theme is thinking about the democratization of financial services," Lewis says. "Legacy financial institutions have ignored large groups of our population here in America and broader for a very long time. Technology is actually breaking down a lot of those barriers, so there are all these groups that have traditionally been ignored that now technology can reach to help them build wealth."

Lewis discusses more about how Mercury Fund is at an inflection point and how the Houston innovation ecosystem is developing with intention on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.