From advice to observations, these five quotes overheard at SXSW proves Houston had some great spokespeople at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival. Photos courtesy

Houston had no shortage of representatives at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival, which took place March 8 to 12 in Austin. Several sat on panels, lead mixers, or even starred in a movie for the film track of the conference.

I had the pleasure of sitting in on a great deal of these events featuring the best and the brightest of Houston's innovation stars, but I realize most did not. To catch you up and rid you of your fear of missing out, check out these five overheard quotes from the fest.

"I think it's so important to find your focus and know what to say no to, because you can't do it all. Elizabeth [Gore] and I have a monthly 'meeting of no' where we literally check off things off our plate that we need to stop doing because we just don't have enough time. It's probably one of our most valuable hours."

Carolyn Rodz, co-founded Alice with Elizabeth Gore. Alice co-hosted a series of panels at the Bumble Hive. She was asked, during the investment-focused panel, about focusing on B-to-B vs. B-to-C as a startup. Alice and Bumble just recently announced a partnership.

"We're trying to awaken the sleeping giant — a really huge city with lots of money, trying to infiltrate and activate huge family offices and rally people behind the goal of building a vibrant startup community. We've got a long way to go in terms of attracting VC talent — we're still behind Austin and Dallas."

Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, at the Austinpreneur podcast recording of "The Texas Startup Manifesto" episode. He was asked about what he's been trying to accomplish at The Cannon. Gow is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO.

"We've got all the basic tools, and we know what the main issues are. There's still a lot to do, but we need to be smart and do fact-based and mechanism-based combinations."

James Allison, chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center. At his panel, "Making the Fight Against Cancer Even More Personal," he was asked about the current status of immunotherapy research.

“Have very specific questions. I hate the ‘can I pick your brain’ request. If you want advice on something, ask me that specifically. And, show up at everything. … It’s not about what network you have, but how many networks you can get into.”

Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston. On the "Equitable Growth Ecosystems for Entrepreneurs" panel, she was asked about how an entrepreneur might try to grow their network and mentorship.

"Houston is an incredibly industrial town. We have more Fortune 500 companies here than anywhere other than New York — most of them in the world of the dirty and dangerous. We don't have a lot of scooter companies."

Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston. She was asked while on her panel, "Startup Funding: From Apprenticeships to Professions," about bootstrapping as a startup. Read more about this discussion here.

Houston, we have a problem — and it's helping local startups have access to funding. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

SXSW panelists: Improving access to funding is key for Houston's continued ecosystem growth

Show me the money

A few weeks ago, Mayor of Houston Sylvester Turner and Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe proclaimed that Houston's up-and-coming innovation ecosystem was no longer up and coming: It had arrived. But what preceded that proclamation was years of figuring out what it was Houston could do to get to this point.

"We're the fourth largest city in the United States, and in 2015 were ranked 20th out of 25 ecosystems," Rowe says at a panel at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival.

Following that shocking news, Rowe says the city's focus was on building tools — accelerators, incubators, education — but nowhere did anyone talk about funding. Now, years later, with plenty of accelerators, workspaces, and educational programs, Rowe says Houston now has a great pipeline of companies, but the problem is finding funding for them to tap into.

Entrepreneurs are looking for three things when it comes to finding ways to fund their companies, according to Rowe. They want it to be accessible capital — not something they have to take a class on to figure out how to get to it. They also want it to be impactful and local to where their headquarters is.

"When I think about accessible, impactful, and local, I think, well, not a lot falls into that category [in Houston]," Rowe says. "We're not doing it particularly well right now."

It's a structural problem, according to Rowe. While the city has built up its entrepreneurial climate, it hasn't yet made the same effort with investors.

"Even if we have one or two funds, we need an ecosystem that supports funding in the same way we have an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs," she says.

Joe Milam, founder of Austin-based AngelSpan, an early stage investor relations platform, says the issue in Houston — and Austin — is that industries can be siloed. There's a huge need for an honest broker to connect the dots across the city, and that person needs to be impartial.

"You gotta care about your community first, before you care about your own agenda," Milam says. "Otherwise, you're going to flounder like Houston has, and how Austin still does."

One thing everyone agreed on during the Saturday, March 9, panel was that Houston has a lot of money, but it's been sitting on the sidelines. The mission is, in addition to bringing in venture capital firms, finding ways to engage money that's already in town.

"We have to produce tools to enable that capital that's hiding," Rowe says.

Houston-based PolyVascular earned recognition in two categories, as well as nabbing up to $25,000. Courtesy of TMC Innovation

2 TMCx companies leave SXSW with awards and grant money

Med tech

Two Houston companies are walking away from SXSW with awards and grant funds.

PolyVascular, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, won the fifth annual Impact Pediatric Health pitch competition's medical device and health disparities and equity categories. Additionally, the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium granted the company up to $25,000.

PolyVascular co-founder Henri Justino represented his company in three-minute pitch, and team members Dan Harrington and Kwon Soo Chun were also in attendance.

The company was one of 12 finalists in the competition, which took place on March 8 at SXSW in Austin. Among the judges was Houston doctor, Chester Koh, professor of urology, pediatrics, and OB/GYN at Baylor College of Medicine and Pediatric Urologist at Texas Children's Hospital.

"At the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium, we are always looking for the next cutting-edge breakthrough in the world of medical devices," says Koh in a release. "Impact Pediatric Health's reputation for bringing together the leaders in pediatric medical technology innovations makes it the perfect venue to help identify and accelerate the next generation of medical device companies impacting our youngest of patients."

Founded in 2014, PolyVascular produces polymeric transcatheter valves for children with congenital heart disease — the most common birth defect and number one cause of infant mortality in the developed world. The company's goal is to reduce that number of infant deaths by introducing a higher quality of valves.

Meanwhile, VastBiome, a 2018 biodesign TMCx company, received a $1,000 grant and is now one of two finalists for the San Francisco-based Illumina Accelerator program. The company works with scientists with ongoing clinical trials focusing on the microbiome as it pertains to therapy.

Another TMCx company, Zibrio, was up for an award in the 2019 SXSW Pitch event, but left the contest empty handed.

TMCx has multiple representatives at the festival, and the organization partnered with Energizing Health to host events throughout the first weekend of the conference.

Jim Allison, immunotherapy researcher at MD Anderson and Nobel Prize recipient, is the subject of a new film that premiered at SXSW. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson Cancer Center

Film about Nobel Prize-winning Houston scientist premieres at SXSW

Now showing

For most of his career, James Allison has been a cancer research wildcatter fighting an oftentimes lonely battle for the advancement of immunotherapy. The medical community has historically been skeptical of the science, but nonetheless Allison dedicated his life to developing a better treatment to the disease that has claimed so many lives — including his mother's.

Last year, Allison, the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in medicine, and Breakthrough, a film about Allison's progression from early researcher to Nobel Prize recipient, premiered on March 9 at the 2019 SXSW Interactive festival.

But despite the Nobel Prize and the new film both validating the science to the public, Allison says there's a lot more work to be done in immunotherapy. Allison, his colleague, Padmanee Sharma, and the filmmaker for Breakthrough, Bill Haney, hosted a discussion at SXSW about the future of immunotherapy.

"It's a time of considerable optimism — and we're just at the beginning," says Allison.

The film focuses on the man behind the science — a 70-year-old, harmonica-playing researcher from small-town Alice, Texas. It's both an ode to Allison's career and a thought-provoking take on all the work left to be done in the industry.

Immunotherapy is the process of targeting one's immune system's T-cells, infection-fighting white blood cells, to attack cancer cells. Sharma, a fellow MD Anderson oncology expert and clinician, says their work has received clinical approvals for treating Melanoma, kidney cancer, lung cancer, and bladder cancer. The scientists are now focused on expanding that treatment to other cancer types and building upon the established platform they've created, while also making sure nothing comes in the way of the facts of the science.

"It really requires that we dedicate ourselves to the basic science, understanding it and educating people about it, so we don't allow the facts and science get muddied by things that are political or nonfactual," Sharma says.

In a lot of ways, this is what Breakthrough has been able to do — communicate the facts on a platform where anyone can understand the science.

"We have a revolution on our hands, and thankfully we have people like Bill who can really tell the story well, because maybe as a scientist and a clinician, we're not always equally talented on telling the story to laypeople," Sharma says.

Moving forward, Allison says he's focused on finding out why the treatment fails in some instances, and he's determined to progress immunotherapy's success rate from the 20 to 40 percent rate he says he sees it at now to 100 percent.

"We've got all the basic tools, and we know what the main issues are," Allison says. "There's still a lot to do, but we need to be smart and do fact-based and mechanism-based combinations."

From pitch competitions to panels, here's how Houstonians will be representing at SXSW. Marie Ketring/via sxsw.org

10 can't-miss events at SXSW featuring Houston speakers

South by the Bayou

Plenty of Houstonians, SXSW badge in hand, will be headed to Austin to network, learn, and share the stage with the rest of the festivals attendees. While InnovationMap has highlighted a few of the faces to be on the lookout for this weekend, here's a roundup of 10 events that have a Houston speaker or participant.

3/8 — Featured Session: Opening Speaker, Brené Brown

SXSW is starting right out of the gate with a Houstonian. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, will be the keynote address. Her thoughtful talk will focus on community and one's sense of belonging.

The SXSW keynote address will be at 11 am on Friday, March 8, at the Austin Convention Center. Learn more.

3/8 — Hysteria No More: Data, Doctors and Women’s Health

Gone are the days that medical professionals dismiss women's health concerns as "hysteria," but there's still room for improvement on the matter. Three ob/gyns will talk about new ways women are finding health care solutions outside the doctor's office.

Rashmi Kudesia, physician at CCRM Fertility Houston, is one of the panelists, which occurs on Friday, March 8, at the JW Marriott. Learn more.

3/8 — Equitable Growth Ecosystems for Entrepreneurs panel

The country has an equity problem — especially when it comes to startups and funding. Nationally, venture capital funds are not distributed in a way that represents the populations diversity, so how does the industry right the course?

Grace Rodriguez of Impact Hub Houston is among the panel that will discuss this at 3:30 pm on Friday, March 8, at the Hilton Austin Downtown. Learn more.

3/9 — Austinpreneur: The Texas Startup Manifesto

Texas is among the growing innovation ecosystems in the world, but there's plenty of untapped potential. This Capital Factory panel will focus on taking Texas to the next level.

Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, will be a panelist at the event, which begins at 11 am on Saturday, March 9, at the Hilton Austin Downtown. Learn more.

3/9 — Startup Funding: From Apprenticeships to Professions

Venture capitalism has changed tenfold since its start. Looking back on the history of early stage funding can help predict where it's going — from Silicon Valley to every corner of the world.

Station Houston CEO Gabriella Rowe is on the panel, which will take place at 12:30 pm on Saturday, March 9, at the Hilton Austin Downtown. Learn more.

3/9 — Making the Fight Against Cancer Even More Personal

No one loves discussing cancer, but there's a large group of scientists who have to daily and they develop new technologies and innovations to help discover a cure for the deadly affliction.

James Allison, researcher at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and 2018 Nobel Prize recipient, will be on the panel discussing ways to innovate within cancer research. The program starts at 5 pm on Saturday, March 9, at the JW Marriott. Learn more.

3/10 — SXSW Pitch Presented by Cyndx Awards Ceremony

Two Houston startups are competing for an award in the 11th annual SXSW Pitch Event. Fluidity Technologies will be presenting as its drone controller, FT Aviator, in the Hyper-Connected Communities category on Saturday, March 9, at 5 pm, and Zibrio SmartScale, which is in the Health and Wearable category, will present on Sunday, March 10, at 5 pm.

The pitch awards will take place at 6:30 pm on Sunday, March 10, at the Hilton Austin Downtown. Learn more.

3/11 — Tech Diversity Report Card 2019

Is diversity and inclusion basically just a myth in technology? Is it something that's attainable at this point, and what can the industry do to make that happen? A group of panelists discuss based on their experience and observations.

Heidi Hoover, head of office at Houston-based Flanders Investment & Trade, will be a member of the panel, which occurs on Monday, March 11, at 5 pm, at Capital Factory. Learn more.

3/11 — Angel Investor Meetup

Calling all acting and aspiring investors — it's time to rally. Two Texas investors are gathering the troops to discuss trends and opportunities in the state's — and the world's — investment sector.

Samantha Lewis of Houston-based GOOSE Society of Texas will be one of the hosts of the meetup, which takes place on Monday, March 11, at 5 p.m, at the Fairmont Hotel. Learn more.

3/12 — AI & IoT Panel and Emerging Company Showcase

Houston-based Baker Botts and Global Corporate Venturing are setting the stage for emerging tech companies to shine. The event includes a panel, a showcase, and an evening of networking.

James McKell, of Chevron Technology Ventures, is representing Houston on the panel, which begins at 2 pm on Tuesday, March 12, at Hotel Van Zandt. Learn more.

Honorable mentions


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Energy company with U.S. HQ in Houston acquires local business

M&A

A renewable energy retailer based in the United Kingdom is once again expanding its presence in Texas with another strategic acquisition.

Octopus Energy US, which is based in Houston, announced that it has signed an agreement to acquire Houston-based energy provider Brilliant Energy LLC in a $2.23 million deal. With the acquisition, Octopus Energy will take on the 9,000 residential customers currently supplied by Brilliant Energy. These users will be transitioned onto Octopus Energy's technology platform Kraken.

"Brilliant Energy is a company that has always stood for quality and unique brand experiences. It complements our strong dedication to bringing unparalleled customer experience to our users," says Michael Lee, CEO of Octopus Energy US, in a press release. "This is a major moment for us, as we work to bring our 100% renewable energy supply and outstanding technology to more Texans and their homes."

The acquisition is the latest move from Octopus Energy's plans to invest $100 million into the U.S. energy market and target 25 million U.S. energy accounts by 2027, according to the release.

Last fall, Octopus acquired Houston-based Evolve Energy in a $5 million deal. Evolve was founded by Lee, and he transitioned into his role as Octopus CEO following the deal.

Octopus Energy, which was founded around five years ago, reached Unicorn status with a $1 billion valuation in April 2020.

Michael Lee is CEO of Octopus Energy US. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston ranks among fastest growing tech hubs amid the pandemic, report finds

When Americans think of tech hubs, Silicon Valley or even Austin may initially come to mind. However, Houston appears to be making a play for tech-hub status.

Citing data from career platform LinkedIn, the Axios news website reports that Houston has seen a healthy influx of tech workers since the start of the pandemic. In fact, Houston ranks second among 14 major U.S. labor markets for the number of relocating software and IT workers between March 2020 and February 2021 compared with the same period a year earlier.

Miami grabs the No. 1 spot for the gain in software and IT workers (up 15.4 percent) between the two periods, with Houston in second place (10.4 percent) and Dallas-Fort Worth in third place (8.6 percent), according to the LinkedIn data.

"Young engineers and recent college graduates see Miami, Houston, and Philadelphia — not San Francisco, New York, or Seattle — as the hot new places to jumpstart a technology or creative economy career," Axios notes.

At the bottom of the barrel sits the San Francisco Bay Area, which suffered a loss of 34.8 percent when comparing the arrival and departure of software and IT workers. Interestingly, Austin experienced a loss of 8 percent in this category.

The shift from traditional tech hub to emerging tech hub is likely to continue as employers and employees alike further embrace remote work. A survey commissioned in April by the nonprofit One America Works found 47% of tech workers had moved during the pandemic. In addition, 3 in 10 tech workers anticipate living somewhere different than they did during the pandemic.

The CompTIA tech trade group says the Houston metro area is home to 243,908 tech workers. The Houston area's tech workforce grew 12.3 percent from 2010 to 2019, according to the group.

"Houston has been a center for world-changing innovations in energy, life sciences and aerospace for over a century. With science and engineering breakthroughs ingrained in the fabric of Houston's economy, the region has become a thriving hub of digital technology talent and companies thanks to our access to customers and expertise," says a report released in March by the Greater Houston Partnership.

One employer taking advantage of that talent is Bill.com. In 2019, the digital payments company opened a Houston outpost — the company's first office outside Silicon Valley.

"Though the city's technology industry is still developing, it offers a breath of fresh air compared to overcrowded late-stage tech markets like Austin and Denver. Ultimately, the breadth and depth of Houston's talent pool and the neighboring educational pipelines made it an ideal location for a second home," Vinay Pai, senior vice president of engineering at Palo Alto, California-based Bill.com and a Rice University graduate, wrote in April 2020 on LinkedIn.

Energy giant makes Houston sole headquarters in massive move

HQ move

Power player NRG Energy is laser focused on Houston. The Bayou City will be the energy giant's new sole headquarters; the company will no longer split between Houston and Princeton, New Jersey.

The move to a single headquarters simplifies business operations, as a large number of the company's employees and customers reside in Texas, the company noted in a press release and report.

The company, having recently acquired Direct Energy, will maintain regional offices in the markets that it serves and "evaluate real estate needs and consolidate as appropriate," the report adds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner welcomed the news in a statement, relaying that he and his team have had "substantive conversations" with NRG president and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez. "I believe the decision is confirmation that Houston is a smart city for business," said Turner.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also chimed in, adding in part:

With this move, NRG joins 50 other Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas, including 22 in the Houston area alone. America's leading businesses continue to invest in Texas — and grow jobs in Texas — because of our welcoming business climate, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and our young, growing, and skilled workforce.
I thank NRG Energy for designating Texas — the energy capital of the world — as their corporate headquarters, and I look forward to our continued partnership as we ensure a more prosperous future for all who call the Lone Star State home.

Turner noted that more than a year ago, the City of Houston committed to purchasing 100 percent renewable energy through a renewed partnership with NRG Energy as the City's retail electric provider. "The plan is helping us build a more sustainable future, save over $9 million on our electric bill, and reduce emissions," he said.

NRG Energy boasts some 3,000 employees in Houston alone. In its report, the company reported a net loss of $83 million due the impact of Winter Storm Uri.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.