"There's something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it." Photo via Getty Images

Houston's seen a growth in startup and venture investment — even amid the pandemic — and a group of Houston innovators sat down for a virtual event to discuss what's lead to this evolution.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted an installment of its Houston Industry Series focused on Digital Tech on Thursday, September 24. The panel of experts, moderated by Krisha Tracy of Google Cloud, discussed how they've observed the paradigm shift that's occurred in Houston over the past few years — and why.

Missed the discussion? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual event.

“I think there really is an interest for venture capital here, both locally and also welcoming it from outside of Houston. … There’s something magical happening in Houston, and [VCs] want a piece of it. I think that magical piece is a renewed interest in collaborating.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of Houston Angel Network and co-founder of The Artemis Fund. "I think a lot [of this progress] is due to the GHP, Houston Exponential, and the founding of the HX Venture Fund to bring those venture funds to Houston to say, 'what's happening here?'" Campbell adds, saying that this connectivity and collaboration that's happening in Houston VC is unique.

“I think there’s a misconception around all we do is oil and gas and life science in Houston, but when you think about what VC-backable companies look like, they’re tech, they’re B2B SaaS, they’re highly scalable, and they don’t tend to be capital-intensive types of things we see corporate venture backing.”

Campbell says, adding "the connectivity and the interest in VC is really taking off. It's an exciting time to be in Houston and Texas in general."

“Plug and Play’s ventures team is based in Silicon Valley and one thing they enjoy about meeting Houston-based founders is valuations tend to be more reasonable than in the Bay Area."

Payal Patel, director of Plug and Play Tech Center in Houston. "There are gems to be found," she adds.

“I don’t know what it is — if it’s something in the water or just Texans being very friendly, but the investors here share deal flow. It takes a village, and I think we all understand a rising tide lifts all boats."

Patel says on the collaborative nature of Houston. "It's really magical."

“What you’re witnessing is a city that has been waiting for industrial innovation to reach the point where it can be adopted at a really high scale, and that happened around 2017.”

Jon Nordby, managing director at MassChallenge Texas in Houston. Nordby adds that MassChallenge in Houston hasn't been keen on consumer tech, or the "grilled cheese delivery apps," as he describes. "We like companies that are in love with problems, not so much in love with solutions. … We build really meaningful tech."

“Over the last year or two, we’ve seen that sleeping giant get awoken. Open and external innovation is newly adopted by more legacy industries where it wasn’t before — and that’s just created a mountain of opportunities for startups and investors alike.”

Nordby says on the shift toward this meaningful, problem-solving technology, which Houston is full of, as he observes.

Plug and Play, an international accelerator and investment group with a presence in Houston, joined a panel to discuss startup investment, networking, and more during the pandemic. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Overheard: International startup accelerator shares advice for Houston companies navigating COVID-19 era

Eavesdropping online

It's no secret that the spread of COVID-19 has greatly affected startup ecosystems by shutting down coworking and accelerator spaces and providing economic uncertainty in the venture capital world. However, organizations focused on investment and acceleration are still working to virtually guide startups virtually.

Plug and Play Tech Center, an accelerator and investment group based in Silicon Valley that recently launched its Houston presence, is still offering support and even investments to startups as the pandemic continues on. One way they've recently done so is through Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to answer questions from Houston entrepreneurs.

On the panel, Neda Amidi, partner and global head of health at Plug and Play Tech Center, Milad Malek, associate at Plug and Play Ventures, and Payal Patel, director at Plug and Play Houston, discussed concerns and questions about the organization's dedication to Houston, advice amid the pandemic, and more. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Timing and opportunity set up the Plug and Play Houston office. The mayor and other business leaders in Houston had seen what happens in our Silicon Valley office and with all the things that are going on in the burgeoning startup community in Houston, we saw the opportunity.”

— Patel says on how Houston snagged its very own Plug and Play location. "Given the high concentration of large companies here — as well as the growing number of investment opportunities — we moved quite quickly to open the office here," she adds.

“There’s a number of great entrepreneurs here in this city. I think a missing ingredient has been the number of early stage investments — especially in that Seed or series A stage. So, we hope to make an impact in that. Our CEO has publicly stated that he’d like to make five investments in Houston a year.”

— Patel shares about Plug and Play's investment strategy in Houston. She adds that five investments in Houston a year is the bare minimum, and they actually are striving for more.

“[Investing virtually is] kind of the same process, but we definitely try to make sure we have cameras on and distractions are away, really giving that entrepreneur that same experience as we can in a face-to-face meeting."

— Amidi says on how Plug and Play's investment team approaches investment meetings and pitches during this time. She explains that during the beginning of the pandemic, most of their investments were with companies that had existing relationships with or follow on deals. Now they have made investments in companies they've never met in person. She says Plug and Play has relied on its network to give feedback on these potential deals.

“During COVID, we’ve recommended to a lot of our portfolio companies to raise more than what they needed at the time to be able to power through what’s happening now and what will happen on the economy side as well."

— Amidi says about investment advice they've given to Plug and Play startups.

“A lot of hardware companies get too intense in terms of thinking about one avenue of fundraising. Spend a lot more time thinking about fundraising strategy.”

Malek says on fundraising for hardware startups specifically. He adds that there are other options for generating cash flow, like grants. "Don't forget the business side of things" he adds. "I know early on, a lot of founders are focused on the technology and prototyping, but it's important as well to think about a compelling narrative for potential investors — even if you're pre-revenue."

"For SaaS, it’s important to have a unique differentiation. There are a lot of copy cats in this realm. It’s ok to be doing something that has competitors — every startup has competitors."

— Malek says about software-as-a-service startups pitching to investors. "It's a red flag when we're talking to a startup — especially one with a SaaS product — that says we don't have competitors," he adds, saying it's usually not true.

“A lot of investors out there prefer teams with multiple founders and not just one founder. It never hurts, at least in an investor’s eyes, to have two or three founders.”

— Malek explains, responding to a question about how to begin the process of bringing another co-founder on board. Investors, he says, value a team with diverse backgrounds and expertise.

“Take your time — it’s kind of like picking a spouse or partner. You want to make sure you’re compatible.”

Amidi adds, saying it's an exceptionally difficult process nowadays. She recommends reaching out to your network for leads on a potential co-founder or even looking into sites like AngelList or LinkedIn.

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Houston innovator bets on humanoid robotics with new startup

back in the founder seat

For his next act, Houston entrepreneur Nicolaus Radford has started — in what he describes as an "anti-stealth" capacity — a new company that hopes to bring humanoid robotics out of science fiction novels and into manufacturing floors.

Radford, who saw his last company, Nauticus Robotics, from founding to IPO, left the company in January. He tells InnovationMap that he started receiving some compelling offers at other robotics companies, but none of them felt like a fit. However, he just couldn't get the idea of advancing humanoid robotics out of his head.

"Humanoids are the holy grail of all of robotics," Radford says. "It's what every science fiction writer's always dreamed about.

"It is the future," he continues. "And now with this generative AI moment of 2022 where these machines look a lot more capable, flexible, reprogrammable — they can reason in real time. That's a huge deal."

Radford says he got a call from his friend, Jerry Pratt, who was the CTO at humanoid robotics company Figure AI. Pratt and Radford both worked in robotics at NASA and each have decades of experience in the tech world. The conversation really sealed the deal for Radford, and the two officially launched Persona AI in a LinkedIn post that Radford says shocked him with how much interest the community had.

Radford says that with all this interest, he wants to open up the company to more co-founders than just himself and Pratt, who's based in Florida.

"We're going to give a significant amount of the company out to the early joiners, more so than is probably typical," Radford says. "And it's because we know it takes a village, and we want to highlight that to everybody."

"We're trying to crowdsource the company," he continues. "We've coined that we're anti stealth."

Specifically, Radford says he's looking at growing the team to about 25 people in the next year, alongside raising early funding. He's looking for people with a diverse tech background with well-rounded experience.

"Robotics and humanoids in particular are just so multidisciplinary," Radford says. "Humanoids are a hundred-thousand-piece puzzle, and you're trying to put this puzzle together."

And for Radford, assembling that puzzle in Houston is of utmost importance. The company is headquartered here, and Radford is currently working with The Ion to set up an office there.

"We're exceptionally excited to put (the company) in Houston," he says. "It would be incredible for the city — there's a lot of industrial manufacturing here and a lot of warehousing. ... I still have this desire to shine a light on Houston's tech scene because I believe it is unsung, underappreciated, and quite capable."

The potential for this technology is huge — Radford estimates it as a $3 trillion market — but the first industry he plans on tackling is automotive, but he also sees promise in the medical, energy, and home industries.

"We think automotive is going to be a first-mover market. There's a lot of publicly announced partnerships between advanced robotics companies and humanoid companies and automotive," he says. "These folks are showing a willingness to put something out in the press that says they're developing a humanoid or piloting a humanoid. That's huge.

With this expressed interest, technology advancement, and large labor shortage, Radford is convinced now is the time for humanoid robotics — and for Persona AI.

"We're at a technology tipping point where it makes sense that these machines can do this, and there's an investment community willing to finance it," Radford says. "I think the first time in all of robotic history we're closer than we've ever been to making this a reality."

Here's how far Houston's robust population of 'super commuters' drive to and from work every day

on the road again

If you’re a workday commuter in the Houston metro area, you may be among the many motorists who’ve cursed the snarled traffic on I-610/West Loop Freeway. This route routinely takes the crown as the most clogged roadway in Texas.

But imagine if you were one of the nearly 80,000 workers in the Houston area who travel at least 90 minutes each way for their jobs. That’s an even more gripe-worthy commuting scenario.

U.S. Census Bureau data gathered by Apartment List shows that as of 2022 in the Houston area, 79,645 workers were tagged as “super commuters.” These workers represent three percent of all commuters in the region.

The Houston area’s 2022 number is down slightly from the pre-pandemic year of 2019, when 82,878 workers across the region were super commuters, according to Apartment List.

Igor Popov, chief economist at Apartment List, says 3.7 million American workers spent at least 90 minutes traveling each way for their jobs in 2022. These extreme commutes are becoming more commonplace as suburban populations rise and employers pull back on remote work, he says.

Nationally, the number of super commuters jumped by 593,000 in 2022 compared with 2021, when the pandemic caused the figure to plummet by more than 1.5 million.

“Generally, super commuting is most common for transit users, workers who live on the fringes of the metropolitan area, or those who commute to separate metros entirely,” Popov says.

Super commuting is also common among high-income workers who are willing to travel longer distances for higher-wage jobs, according to Popov.

A recent study by Stanford University and travel data provider INRIX mostly aligns with the Census Bureau data cited by Apartment List.

Since the pandemic, the study says, the share of one-way commutes covering at least 40 miles has gone up in the country’s 10 largest metros, including Houston. In the Houston area, the share of one-way super commutes, which the study defines as those over 75 miles, grew 18 percent from 2019-20 to 2023-24.

Among the 10 areas examined in the study, a typical two-way super commute lasts nearly four hours and 40 minutes.

Experts: What Houston startup founders need to know about conducting a successful IPO

guest column

Home to a wealth of world-changing innovations and a highly skilled labor pool, Houston has attracted startups and digital tech firms for years. Today, the city stands at the forefront of a promising era with seven Houston startups beginning the year strong with more than $380 million in venture funding, and the city ranked among the top emerging startup ecosystems in North America

Houston-based startups planning their exit strategies have good reason to be optimistic about an initial public offering, or IPO, market that is expected to grow in 2024. After a two-year slump in startup investing, some market watchers are predicting that the IPO window may reopen as the economy improves and inflation and interest rates cool.

But good timing requires good readiness. The window of opportunity for preparation now appears to be a microwindow. As any company that went public at the peak of the dot-com or post-COVID booms can attest, preparation is essential to quickly take action when the time is right. Hitting that microwindow will require that IPO-bound Houston companies be strategic about their IPO readiness planning. A lack of planning can result in an IPO experience that is not well planned, and potentially a missed opportunity altogether.

It’s unclear when the next IPO window will open, or for how long the window will remain open, but it could happen quicker than expected. This unpredictability suggests that Houston startups seeking to go public should start their legal, financial, and regulatory planning now. The important period for many companies planning an IPO begins six to 18 months prior to listing and lasts until the six months post-IPO.

Readying an IPO

We gained several insights from our discussions with CEOs and CFOs who have effectively navigated IPOs recently to provide insights for companies contemplating going public when the next microwindow opens. A company’s comprehensive readiness plan can be key to performing well in the market, whether it is up or down. Summarized below are common key areas that challenged many C-Suite executives in being a public company and, in hindsight, areas they wished they had addressed earlier in the process.

  1. Internal forecasting. Internal forecasting is paramount. In fact, it’s one of the primary takeaways cited in our conversations with the C-suite execs who went through the IPO process. Houston companies on an IPO track should be prepared to provide accurate forecasting and timely fulfillment of projections. Missing projections can result in significant regulatory repercussions.
  1. Key performance indicators and non-GAAPmeasures. Take reasonable steps towards performing a comprehensive benchmarking study to determine relevant KPIs and non-GAAP measures and metrics to report upon; be ready with the frameworks in place to report upon during quarterly and annual reporting.
  1. Growth story. The ability to communicate the company’s growth story can be essential to an effective IPO. Company leaders should be able to clearly convey topics such as the company’s growth, vision and strategy, its plans for improving performance metrics, the market opportunity, its competitive edge, and how its product or services will meet market demand. Meetings with analysts and other market influencers are also necessary to gain investor support. The executives we talked to said that when they did not invest time in this awareness-building step, they often found themselves rushing to get the word out as the offering date closed in.
  1. Finance infrastructure and human capital. Understand the infrastructure and operating model required to operate as a public company, along with the human capital necessary to sustain operations. Identifying the necessary skillsets and bandwidth within the team supports a smoother IPO process. Collaborating with experienced, independent advisors is also vital. These advisors assist in organizing the process, outlining SEC reporting requirements, updating SEC-compliant financial reporting, preparing Management Discussion and Analysis (MD&A) and pro forma financial information, and offering guidance throughout the pre-IPO preparation.
  1. Governance. IPO-bound companies need to anticipate new corporate governance requirements as a publicly traded entity, particularly in terms of their board of directors. Proper governance and board oversight can be essential to support the quality of financial statements produced by management. Executives told us that recruiting the right board members is often a significant pre-IPO challenge. Identifying these members early is crucial, as the right resources may not be available later.

Closing thoughts

If you are among those companies looking to go public in the near future, now is the time to get your house in order. Companies are often surprised to discover how much preparation it truly takes to operate as a public company. In fact, we typically recommend starting the preparation journey 18 to 24 months before the anticipated public listing date. Simply stated, if you wait until the IPO window opens before gearing up, you likely will be gearing up for the next window.

Deloitte’s complimentary IPO

SelfAssess tool can help you gauge your ability to go public with a tailored assessment. The tool provides you with useful insights and identifies potential areas for improvement based on the feedback you provide.

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Will Braeutigam is the U.S. capital markets transactions leader at Deloitte & Touche LLP. Laura Evans is audit and assurance partner at Deloitte & Touche LLP.