Three of Houston's mayoral candidates shared the stage at Tech Rodeo to talk about how they would lead the city toward greater success within the innovation space. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

It's an election year in Houston, and one of the big topics on the minds of the candidates is how to continue the momentum of Houston's developing innovation ecosystem.

Houston Exponential put three of the declared candidates on the stage yesterday to ask them about their vision for Houston on the final day of Houston Tech Rodeo 2023. HX CEO Natara Branch moderated the discussion with Chris Hollins, Lee Kaplan, and Amanda K. Edwards. Each candidate addressed issues from diversity and equity, the energy transition, and more.

Missed the conversations? Here are a few overheard moments and highlights of the panel.

“It’s integral to our vision for the future of Houston that this is a place where small businesses, entrepreneurs, and creatives can thrive. We want to grow this economy to be one of the strongest economies in the United States — and we know that startups and small businesses are the powerhouse for that.”

— says Chris Hollins, who explains that he's a small business owner himself and also served as interim Harris County Clerk from June 2020 to November 2020, overseeing the 2020 United States presidential election in Harris County.

“Houston has an energy-centric community, and a lot of people who have money have gotten too comfortable investing in just oil and gas. … I understand how hard it is to run a business, and I understand (it) from representing entrepreneurs and investors.”

— says Lee Kaplan, a founding partner at law firm Smyser Kaplan & Veselka LLP.

“One of the things that’s important in a leader is making sure that they understand your issues, but most importantly that they can execute. That has been something that has been chief in concert in the way that I have served in public service, but of course the way that I’ve been a part of the startup economy.“

— says Amanda K. Edwards, who contributed to the establishment of the city’s tech and innovation task force as an at-large Houston City Council member. The task force resulted in the creation of HX Venture Fund and the Innovation District, she explains.

“When we think about cities that have done this really well — Silicon Valley, The Bay Area, Boston, Austin — what’s key in many of those cities is institutions around education. … We have to lean into Rice University and the University of Houston — making these centers for talent, excellence, and innovation so that we’re developing the thinkers, the engineers, the creators of the future, and then we’re giving your businesses a crop of new hires.”

— Hollins says responding to a question about Houston's challenges.

“The thing that I think is the most important for the city is to be rigorous with what we do. We’re not going to get around the fact that it’s hot and we have mosquitos. But we can sell the fact that we have a city that’s improving.”

— Kaplan says on Houston's progress.

“I don’t want to compete or lose to any city in America. When I think about Houston, I’m bullish. I know that we are the place that is home to innovation, and it’s about time that people know us as that."

— Edwards says, referencing how Houston is known nationally for its problems — she gives the example of Hurricane Harvey. “We have major challenges in our city, but we can innovate using our innovation economy to provide answers and solutions to them.”

“Energy has to be a part of our story. We are where we are today because we’re the energy capital of the world. And we know that the energy transition is happening, and if we don’t lean into that, our region stands to lose hundreds of thousands of jobs.”

— Hollins says on the types of emerging tech in Houston.

“You often hear it said that Houston is the most diverse city in the nation, but I pose this challenge: What good is it to be the most diverse if we’re not solving the challenges that diverse communities face? And that includes equity in tech. We have all of the raw ingredients here in the Houston community to make Houston the home of where tech and innovation is diverse and equitable.”

— Edwards says on Houston's diversity and the challenges the city faces.

When it comes to maintaining a good ecosystem, diversity is key. Houston learned that the hard way. Photo by Tim Leviston/Getty Images

Here's what the Bay Area can learn from Houston

Take note

Hello Bay Area! We Houstonians are concerned about you.

We think your economy is becoming overly dependent on Silicon Valley. In 2018, the technology industry accounted for around 62 percent of all office leasing activity in San Francisco. From September 2017 to September 2018, tech companies and realty investors bought $1.43 billion worth of San Jose downtown properties, nearly three times what they spent the year before on property in the city.

Some of your biggest search, social media, and database companies are expanding their headquarters in San Jose, San Francisco, and the rest of Silicon Valley. This is causing the construction industry to become more dependent on tech. But it's not just the construction industry that is becoming attached at the hip with Silicon Valley. According to the Bay Area Council, for every one high tech job created in the U.S., four more are created in industries as varied as education, law, dentistry, retail, and food. That means a lot of jobs in the Bay Area are, and are going to be, dependent on Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area's high cost of living is pushing low and middle-income people further and further away from the state to places like Colorado, New York, and Texas (thanks for that by the way). The Bay Area had the highest income disparity between those migrating into the area and those leaving it than any major metro area in the country between 2010 and 2016. An economy can't last with just high-salaried tech workers.

We here in Houston have seen what happens when a metropolitan area becomes overly dependent on its dominant industry.

The 1980s were a tough time in Houston's history due to the huge fall in oil prices. In 1986, crude oil prices fell 52 percent to about $27 a barrel in today's dollars. The majority of Houston's economy was centered around the oil business at that time. The industries that were not directly related to energy, such as restaurants, car dealerships, and real estate were in a symbiotic relationship and were in some cases catastrophically hurt. When the oil industry took a hit, the entire economy took a hit. During this time, Houstonians lost 225,000 jobs, or one in eight jobs in the city.

Many young workers in petroleum engineering, geophysics, and other energy positions were laid off, many leaving the industry altogether. Older workers retired. In the mid-2000s, when the shale drilling revolution began, the needed manpower was just not there to meet the demand and it was expensive to hire and train a new workforce.

We were able to recover. Some 175,000 Houstonians are now working in oil production, oil field services, materials, and fabricated metals, and tens of thousands more are working as suppliers and contractors. We're more ethnically and industrially diverse than we ever were before, but it took time.

What did we learn from the 1980s?

First, diversify.

While we still have a vibrant oil and gas business in Houston, we've also expanded further into our other core industries: health care, technology and space. The Bay Area is fortunate in that it has strong banking, agriculture, and tourism industries. It ought to be putting more TLC into these industries or expanding into other fields.

We learned not to keep all of our wealth in the oil and gas companies in which we work. It's far too common for Silicon Valley workers to have too much trust in the companies they work for, hoping that their stock options will propel them to riches one day. As we learned in Houston, this can lead to disastrous results. Diversify your portfolios, but be careful. Houstonians over invested in real estate in the 1980s and miscalculated the future of that industry.

Second, Houston has also learned to keep well-educated professionals trained and capable of finding support for those in between jobs. Luckily this doesn't seem to be a problem for the Bay Area. While the Greater Houston Region keeps roughly 66.1 percent of its four-year college graduates in the area, the Bay Area keeps 65.2 percent of its graduates around. So, Bay Area, never take your universities, like U.C. Berkeley and Stanford, for granted.

We know the Bay Area has seen its own troubles before. The dotcom bust of the early 2000s was devastating to the local economy. We're just especially sensitive to what happened to us in 1980s and we'd hate to see the Bay Area go through something similar again.

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Elizabeth Biar is vice president of Strategic Public Affairs, a government elations and PR/communications firm based in Houston. Sam Felsing is a former reporter and who currently works as a senior account executive at Telegraph, a political consulting and public relations firm based in Oakland, California.

Gabriella Rowe took over as CEO of Station Houston in August. Courtesy of Gabriella Rowe

Station Houston CEO on the future of the city's innovation ecosystem

Featured Innovator

A third-generation educator, Gabriella Rowe vowed she'd never go into the family business, but, she says, never say never.

She instead went into oil and gas and banking before working at a startup that sold after only 10 months. She then worked as a consultant — both for a company and then for herself — assisting high-growth, high-impact industrial companies.

"I realized for the first time that no matter what your size or how long you've been around, you were vulnerable to innovation and change," says Rowe, who is now the CEO of Station Houston, a Houston-based acceleration hub. "Many of the companies we worked with ended up shuttering their operations, which didn't just shut down a company; in most instances, whole towns were destroyed."

While on the road 300 days of the year, enjoying every minute of her job, she fell in love with a client, her now husband, and they decided to settle down to start a family in New York right as her grandfather was taking ill. She stepped in to help run his school.

At that time, New Yorkers were doing outrageous things to get their children into top-tier preschools, one of which happened to be The Mandell School, Rowe's family school.

"So, the first thing I did in my newfound motherhood was to hire a nanny, and then focused on how we could be opportunistic on this market shift in education in New York, so there was born my third startup."

She turned the school around and grew it to two schools in Asia, three preschools in New York, as well as a Kindergarten through eighth grade school — a total of over 700 children across the schools. She sold it in 2013, which led her to Houston to take a position as head of school at The Village School. She grew that school 20 percent in the first year before selling it to private equity.

"I fell in love with Houston and became involved in the tech ecosystem," Rowe says. "I had been involved in New York's tech ecosystem, and I wondered why we didn't have that tech ecosystem in Houston."

Now, Houston's exploding with startups, technology, and entrepreneurs, and Rowe, who took her CEO position at Station Houston in August, is among the leaders bringing Houston to the country's forefront for innovation.

InnovationMap: Coming in as CEO, what were the first things you wanted to do at Station?

Gabriella Rowe: Station is a startup like any other startup. It's thinking: what are we good at that we want to do more of, and what are we doing that someone else does better. And then building out the framework and infrastructure necessary to do what you do well at scale. Having the right people in the right job with the right tools and at the right time is what allows scale to happen. That's what we've been working on for the past three months.

We're going to be doing a huge launch of Station 3.0 in January. It will really allow us to tell the world not just what we're going to be for the next three months, but what we're going to be over the next three years.

IM: What's Station Houston doing differently from other coworking spaces?

GR: Well, we're not a coworking space; we are an acceleration hub for startups. First and foremost, we don't have the space to be a coworking space. We may have functioned like a coworking space in the beginning. We're here to accelerate startups in their growth, and we do that in a variety of ways. We connect them with curated connections to corporations that can help them pilot their ideas. We connect them with capital they need to grow fast. And we connect them with subject matter experts that help them understand how to grow their company. In some instances how to fail fast or pivot in a way that's going to make them the most successful. Our focus is accelerating the startups. It's one of the reasons we take no equity investments, because we don't want to be judging the success of a startup based on whether or not they meet our investment criteria. We want to do what's right for the startup, no matter the type of startup. I don't believe we can do that with a straight face and in good conscience if on the side we are doing investments. That really does differentiate us.

IM: So, how is Station Houston different from an accelerator program?

GR: The real answer is that these things are becoming more closely put together. We are more similar to an accelerator than anything else, but we are not time limited, and we are not hyper selective in a cohort way. A typical accelerator has a theme and cohorts with companies to that theme. We do not yet have a cohort-based accelerator with that specific timing. We apply many of the exact same methodology that they'd get in that time frame, but we carry it over the course of the year. We shift the companies to different buckets of focus. It's really the timing that's different. It might take a company longer to get to specific benchmarks, but we're still working to accelerate them. We're the only one doing this in Houston.

IM: Would you switch to a cohort-based accelerator?

GR: We won't be changing what we do, but we might be adding a specific themed-based cohort for companies at a specific stage of acceleration — an energy-focused cohort, for example, which would be really low-hanging fruit. We are in talks with Rice University to do something like this. My guess is we will launch this type of acceleration as a sub-product of what we do sometime in the first or second quarter of next year.

IM: What's on the horizon for Station, especially regarding Station 3.0?

GR: It all relates, in some way, to our move to the innovation district in 2020. That's what we are focused on. We worked really closely with Rice University on this. We believe that this building needs to open fully functioning and full, at capacity or as close as we can get from day one. The only way for us to do that is to be building that density at our current location here, and just shifting our operations there when the time comes.

IM: What keeps you up at night, as it pertains to your business?

GR: Oh, I've got a long list. The thing that keeps me up at night is 2020 is around the corner. We have a lot of work to do to be ready for this Innovation Hub. And it's not just what's going in the hub. There's going to be a big spotlight shown on us to the rest of the world. We have to know now how to handle that when it comes. It's a lot of collaboration. It's a lot of leaving our politics and our agenda at the door. All of us have to be doing this for Houston. If we do it well, if we do this for Houston, and leave the other stuff aside, then we're all going to benefit. That's the thing I worry about most, that if we have these successes and wins, that maybe some territorial stuff comes into it and that politics creep back into it, and we don't focus on the collaboration.

The other thing that keeps me up at night, when I have the nightmares, is that we turn into a post-industrial ghost town because the energy capital of the world is somewhere else because we didn't innovate the way we were supposed to. That's a nightmare we can avoid by making sure we do what's needed — and a whole lot of that has to do with collaborating with each other.

IM: How is Houston's innovation ecosystem doing?

GR: I think we started to see something when the Crunchbase numbers that came out a couple weeks ago that showed Houston neck and neck with Austin from a VC investment standpoint, which is something we've never even come close to before and, all of the sudden, boom, we're right there. I think that's what we are going to continue to see in Houston. We're not going to see little wins now. We're going to start seeing big wins. The fact that I get a front row seat for that and get to invest my time and energy into something I care so much about makes me one of the luckiest people I know.

IM: What does Houston need to accomplish in the innovation community?

GR: Connective tissue — everyone knowing what's actually happening in Houston. Having resources, like InnovationMap, to tell us what's happening in Houston. I have been astonished for years now how much is happening here. Having resources like InnovationMap to tell us about what's happening here will make a huge difference.

The other piece we need that's on the way is a real focus on talent. We're beginning to see a lot of investment, and we're only going to see more of it over the next 12 months. And that's not just going to affect the talent, but also the types of companies we're attracting to Houston. The quality of life in Houston is phenomenal. That's what a lot of tech companies are looking for. There hasn't been enough yet to bring them to Houston, because we haven't been able to demonstrate the growth of our ecosystem.

We are going to have something big happening with either Google or Microsoft over the course of the next 12 months. That's only going to accelerate things for our startups.

IM: You moved here almost five years ago. What attracts you to Houston?

GR: First and foremost, the people. This is a city filled with some of the most amazing people I've worked with in my entire career anywhere in the world. We should not underestimate that as a city. The sense of humanity in Houston is like nothing I've ever experienced. It's not just what we saw in Hurricane Harvey, but it's exactly what happened in Hurricane Harvey, only it happens all the time in this city, it just isn't on the national news.

In Houston, everyone talks to each other all the time so you make connections all the time; you learn things about the community. I can't tell you how many Uber drivers I've had that have talked to me about their startup and then have ended up coming into the Station — that's the kind of stuff they say only happens in San Francisco, but it happens here for a different reason; it's because they really care. I hope that as we grow our ecosystem that we never forget that.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.