Venture Houston brought together key innovators and investors focused on Houston — here's what they said. Photo via Getty Images

Last week, over 2,500 people registered to Venture Houston to talk about startups and venture capital in Houston for two full days.

The two-day conference, which was put on by HXVF, the Houston Angel Network, the Rice Alliance, and Houston Exponential, took place February 4th and 5th and brought together startups, investors, corporations, and anyone who cares to advance the Houston tech ecosystem.

Click here to see what companies won big in the event's startup pitch competition.

Throughout the various panels and keynote addresses, Houston innovation leaders sounded off on what the future of Houston looks like in terms of venture activity. Missed the discussion or just want a refresher on on the highlights? Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual conference.

“The way I look at it, Houston has an opportunity to really emerge as one of the leading startup cities in the country.”

Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution Ventures and co-founder of AOL.

He makes a reference to the iconic line "Houston, we have a problem" — which now is defined by a time of opportunity. Case adds that his VC fund, Revolution, which has invested in Houston-based GoodFair, is looking for new investments in Houston.

“We were behind. We were slow to start, but in typical Houston fashion, now we are escalating with real momentum."

Amy Chronis, Houston managing partner of Deloitte and 2021 Greater Houston Partnership board chair.

Chronis notes on the fact that VC activity in Houston is up 250 percent since 2016, and in that time the city has focused on diversifying its business. Now, the city touts its active corporate community, global diversity, and more.

"In Houston, companies and talent are looking at ways to change the world," she adds.

“I see there being a significant amount of seed capital taking off.”

Stephanie Campbell, managing director of the Houston Angel Network and The Artemis Fund.

Campbell calls out new funds to Houston, like Golden Section Ventures and her own fund, Artemis. She adds that with over $700 million invested in Houston deals last year, the city is in a good place, and she is anticipating more angel activity.

"While this is really exciting progress, there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of seed and early-stage funding," she continues.

“I see there being billion-dollar venture funds here in Houston on the life science front over the next decade.”

John "JR" Reale, managing director of Integr8d Capital.

Reale, who's also the executive in residence at TMC Innovation, says he's seen the growth and potential of the life science industry in Houston.

"You can see the intentionality of the infrastructure that's being built that's going to attract diverse founders and all talent," he says.

“What I really see is the trajectory for Houston has been changing over the last couple years.”

Brad Burke, managing director for the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship.

Burke points to three things that have really moved the needle on Houston's progress as an innovative city. The first was the Texas Medical Center establishing its Innovation Institute a few years back, and the next is how Houston's top energy companies are making big moves to support the energy transition. Finally, he says, The Ion, which is set to open this year, is the third reflection point for progress.

“The Houston startup scene is a very special place. It’s a community I actively choose to be a part of, and it activates me every day.”

Rakesh Agrawal, CEO and founder of SnapStream.

“We’ve got a really incredible story to tell.”

Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development for the GHP.

Davenport adds that this is exactly what the GHP is doing — making Houston's story known. And she says they have talked to global business leaders and they describe the city as a modern, cosmopolitan, truly global city.

Greentown Houston has revealed what it will look like in the new Houston Innovation District. Graphic courtesy of Greentown

Greentown Houston shares progress on Midtown building and adds new corporate partners

seeing green

Construction is underway on the Bayou City's first-ever clean tech incubator known as Greentown Houston.

Via a virtual ceremony on Feb 2, Mayor Sylvester Turner and a team from Massachusetts-based Greentown Labs revealed what the massive space in the new innovation district will look and feel like from the outside in.

The building's exterior will be painted grey and will be flocked by verdant green accents and foliage. According to a statement, Greentown Houston is also working with the Houston Arts Alliance to create a large mural by a local artist on the east side of the building.

The 40,000-square-foot interior — though still very much a construction zone today — will also incorporate Greentown's signature use of the color green in its designs in a bright, airy, and modern setting. A sleek gathering place and entryway will reside under a towering atrium from the building's past life as a Fiesta Mart, while ample square footage leaves room for prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies working to solve climate and environmental challenges.

The Greentown space is being built out from a former grocery store. Photo courtesy of Greentown

"We are the energy capital of the world and we are very proud of it," says Turner. "We plan to lead energy transition and we are very proud of that."

"Last year, we released our first-ever Climate Action Plan, and we believe organizations like Greentown Labs, its impressive network of partners, and climatech entrepreneurs will help us achieve the ambitious goals outlined in the plan," he added.

Greentown Lab first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. It currently operates a similar 100,000-square-foot lab outside of Boston and boasts partnerships with some of the largest energy companies in the world.

At the ceremony, the organizations announced that CenterPoint Energy, Gexa Energy of NextEra Energy Resources, EIV Capital, Wells Fargo, and Williams have come on board as foundation and grand opening partners.

The 14 inaugural partners were announced last year and include Chevron, NRG Energy and Reliant Energy, Shell, BHP, Vinson & Elkins, Microsoft, ENGIE North America Inc., Rice Management Company, Saint-Gobain, Sunnova Energy International Inc., The American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, SCF Partners; Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co. and Direct Energy.

Greentown Houston is also a member of the Greater Houston Partnership.

"We are thrilled to join Greentown Houston to celebrate this critical step forward in their much-anticipated expansion with the addition of these new partners," says Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer with the Greater Houston Partnership. "These organizations, and the expertise and resources they bring, join a thriving ecosystem built of major corporate energy R&D centers, corporate venture arms, and VC-backed energy startups. We are eagerly anticipating Greentown Houston's official opening."

Greentown Houston is slated to open this spring. The incubator has accepted 16 inaugural startups and is looking to bring more on board.

Greentown Labs,the City of Houston, and the Greater Houston Partnership will also be hosting a public, virtual preview of the new space at 4 p.m. on Thursday, February 4. Interested parties can register for the free EnergyBar event here.
Houston has been recognized as a city with high potential for global business. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

Houston ranked among world's top cities of the future for global business

we're no. 3

When it comes to global cities on track for continued global business success, Houston comes in third on a prestigious list recently released.

The new fDi Tier 2 Cities of the Future 2020/21 evaluated second tier cities — defined as non-capital cities with a population under eight million.

Last year, Houston ranked in the No. 5 position. This year, the city moved up in the ranking and held the No. 3 spot for human capital and lifestyle and the No. 7 spot for economic growth potential.

"This ranking is further evidence of Houston's place among the world's great global cities," says Susan Davenport, chief economic development officer for the Greater Houston Partnership, in a news release. "Houston today competes at a higher level than ever before when it comes to foreign direct investment and our business ties to cities and countries around the world.

"With superior global access, a business-friendly climate, exceptional quality of life and a highly educated workforce, Houston is well positioned to continue to build on that momentum in the years ahead."

San Francisco came in at No. 1 on the list and Montreal ranked as No. 2. Austin and Dallas made the top 20 at No. 11 and No. 19, respectively. The report evaluated 116 data points across the five categories: economic potential, cost effectiveness, business friendliness, connectivity, and human capital and lifestyle.

"Houston is a remarkable city, and we are proud to be recognized as one of the world's best cities for foreign direct investment. We are the energy capital of the world, alongside the largest medical center, the Port of Houston, two world-class airports, and a growing innovation ecosystem," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release.

"Houston is also the most diverse city in the U.S. with one in four residents born abroad. The report is also a recognition of our work with community partners over the last five years to build a more livable city. We offer world-class education, art, and culture in addition to our standing as a global business leader."

According to a report, Houston lost over 3,000 innovation jobs between 2005 and 2017. Joe Daniel Price/Getty Images

Houston sees a decline in innovation jobs, according to a new report

Taking the "L"

You've heard of brain drain, the phenomenon of well-educated, highly skilled workers fleeing a geographic area for better opportunities elsewhere. It appears Houston is grappling with a different workforce affliction: innovation drain.

Houston is among several major business hubs in the U.S. — including Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. — where tech-dependent "innovation" jobs evaporated from 2005 to 2017, according to report released December 9 by the Brookings Institution think tank and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. At those cities' expense, innovation jobs have clustered in Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, and San Diego. Those five metro areas accounted for more than 90 percent of job growth in the innovation sector from 2005 to 2017, researchers found.

Today, one-third of innovation jobs in the U.S. are located in just 16 counties, and more than half are concentrated in 41 counties, according to the report.

The report shows the Houston metro area lost 3,281 tech-oriented innovation jobs during that period. Dallas-Fort Worth lost even more (8,969), while the Austin metro area gained 1,200 and the San Antonio metro area picked up 1,472.

Houston's loss represents a slippage of 0.2 percent in the region's share of innovation jobs in the U.S., the report notes. On a percentage basis, DFW sustained an even greater loss (0.5 percent), while Austin's share declined 0.1 percent and San Antonio's didn't budge.

On the positive side, Houston ranked 14th for its sheer number of innovation jobs, with Dallas-Fort Worth at No. 7 and Austin at No. 16. They were among 20 "superstar" metro areas singled out in the report.

In the report, researchers classify innovation jobs as those in 13 R&D-heavy sectors, including aerospace, computer manufacturing, chemical production, and telecom. While the 13 innovation segments account for only 3 percent of U.S. jobs, they represent 6 percent of the country's economic output (GDP), one-fourth of exports, and two-thirds of corporate R&D expenditures, the report says.

Responding to the Brookings analysis, Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership, notes the Houston area employs about 150,000 tech workers, many of whom are employed outside the 13 innovation industries mentioned in the report. In fact, she adds, Houston boasts the highest share of tech workers at non-tech companies among the country's 20 largest metro areas.

"That said, we recognize the need to build Houston's digital tech presence, an area where we have traditionally lagged," Davenport tells InnovationMap.

Houston is making headway on that front, though. Davenport cites the expansion of Microsoft Corp.'s local operations, the recent opening of Bill.com's Houston office, and the rise of three Houston entrepreneurship initiatives — The Ion, TMC3, and The Cannon — as examples of this progress.

"Houston continues to gain recognition as a leading tech city," Davenport says. "The region cleared $500 million in venture capital funding this year, a new high for Houston, and tech-related employment continues to grow within the energy industry. We continue working with our partners to grow Houston's innovation ecosystem and are excited for the great momentum in this area."

Investor and entrepreneur Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential, a nonprofit that promotes startups and innovation, acknowledges the region's historical lack of focus on the innovation economy contributed to Amazon bypassing Houston as a finalist in 2018 for the e-commerce giant's second headquarters. Despite that harsh reality, Moore says the Brookings report fails to take into account innovation jobs embedded in sectors like Houston's massive energy industry.

"That data issue will always penalize a city with a large energy sector until it is corrected," Moore says. "And as we know, the energy sector is starting to innovate rapidly, as it must. And that innovation draws more employees to those companies and to Houston."

Houston's ready for the artificial intelligence revolution. Yuichiro Chino/Getty Images

Houston ranks among the top cities ready for the rise of artificial intelligence

Ready for it

How ready is Houston for the rise of artificial intelligence? More ready than you might think.

In the recently released Global Cities' AI Readiness Index, Houston ranks ninth in the world among large cities (those with 5 million to million residents). Singapore topped the large-city list; Dallas appeared at No. 8.

"The age of technology is here, and we cannot afford to sit idle," Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a recent release. "We must leap, not stroll, into the future."

The Oliver Wyman Forum, part of management consulting firm Oliver Wyman, based its AI ranking on surveys of residents and leaders in 105 global cities, along with a review of publicly available socioeconomic data. The group says its goal in compiling the ranking was to "start a data-informed conversation about how to address the very real opportunities and challenges of AI disruption."

"Houston has been working diligently over the past several years to grow a robust digital tech ecosystem," says Susan Davenport, senior vice president of economic development at the Greater Houston Partnership. "Previously, most surveys ranked Houston in the 30s in this area. When we see ourselves ranked ninth among large global cities and U.S. metros in AI readiness, it's a positive signal of our trajectory."

Signs of Houston's trajectory in the AI universe abound:

"When you think about Houston's core industries like energy, life sciences, and manufacturing, these are all data-intensive businesses that are ripe for disruption by AI and other digital technologies," Davenport says. "There is significant activity with AI already happening in the market, but I think we're still early on the growth curve, with a great deal of upside potential."

A recent search of job website LinkedIn found more than 200 AI-focused jobs available in the Houston area at employers like Shell, Accenture, Deloitte, Capgemini, HP, and EY.

Over the past year, the Greater Houston Partnership has led several trips to Silicon Valley to meet with companies involved in AI, cloud computing, and other technologies that enable businesses to harness the power of data.

"We are finding these innovative companies are very interested in tapping into the customer base here in Houston," Davenport says, "and we expect to see growth in this sector to continue over the next few years."

Bill.com's new Houston office is in West Houston and has space for 125 employees. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Silicon Valley fintech company officially opens its second headquarters in Houston

New to town

Only 18 months ago, a growing Palo Alto, Calif.-based fintech company was weighing its options for its first out-of-state expansion. And yesterday, Bill.com opened its second headquarters in Houston.

"When we set out to find a second headquarters in Houston, we had three criteria we were looking for," says René Lacerte, CEO of Bill.com.

Those three things were a good education foundation, vibrant business economy, and diversity, which "Houston has that in spades," Lacerte adds.

Lacerte, who is based in Palo Alto, celebrated the opening of the office on September 18 at a reception that included Mayor Sylvester Turner, Susan Davenport, president of the Greater Houston Partnership, and others who were involved in the process of bring Bill.com to Houston. Mayor Turner even celebrated the office opening by proclaiming September 18th as Bill.com Day in Houston.

"We've worked very hard the past few years to strengthen Houston's digital tech innovation ecosystem," says Davenport. "Today, I think solidifies the momentum we've been building."

The new office is located on the west side of town at the CityWest office development. Bill.com has 25,000 square feet and can have up to 125 employees. Lacerte says he wants to have every department represented in the Houston office, from sales to programming.

"There are two reasons I founded the company," Lacerte says to the crowd. "One was to make a difference in the lives of our customers, and the other was to make a difference in the lives of our employees. Having this second office is a huge opportunity in the lives of people in our communities."

Lacerte founded Bill.com in 2006, and the company has raised over $259 million in funding. The software-as-a-service company has over 3 million members, according to Bill.com, and processes $60 billion in payments annually.

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City launches public dashboard for tracking COVID-19 in Houston's wastewater

data points

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

Rice University rises with massive $100M gift for innovative new student center

student centered

Rice University's Owls are soaring of late, with the school just being named the top in Texas and No. 7 in the U.S. Now, the institution known as the "Ivy League of the South" is the recipient of a mammoth gift aimed at a game-changing student center.

The Moody Foundation has granted Rice University a massive $100 million for its planned Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity, which will replace Rice's current Memorial Center (RMC), and will become a new focal point for the university's 300-acre wooded campus, the school announced.

Notably, this new student center is designed by Sir David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates; the acclaimed architect's other works include the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Scheduled to break ground in early 2022 and construction completed in 2023, the brand-new Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity will maintain some elements of the old RMC, namely the chapel and cloisters. Students and staff can expect demolition of the rest of the existing RMC, per a press release.

Moody's $100 million grant matches the record for the largest gift in the university's history. (Last year, the Robert A. Welch Foundation donated $100 million to the school to establish the innovation-driven Welch Institute.) The Moody Foundation has contributed over $125 million to Rice since 1964, a press release notes.

As part of the Moody $100 million gift, a new Moody Fund for Student Opportunity will support an endowment dedicated to student programs "physically anchored in the new student center and elsewhere in the university," according to the school.

All this supports Rice's recently announced plans for a 20-percent expansion of the undergraduate student body by fall 2025, as CultureMap previously reported.

"We are extremely grateful for this extraordinary philanthropy in support of Rice students," said Rice president David Leebron in a statement. "This gift will enable our students to broaden their engagements and experiences while at Rice in ways that will empower their success throughout their lives. It will also enable us to both connect more deeply with Houston and with the world. This will be the epitome of what an inclusive and outward-looking student center should be."

Elle Moody, a trustee of both the Moody Foundation and Rice, added: "As a Rice University alumna, I know this gift will have a profound and lasting effect on the campus and its students. This investment is supporting much more than just a building. We're investing in every student, so they have access to pursue any endeavor whether it's leadership, artistic, athletic, global or more."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.