Recipe for success

Houston needs these 4 ingredients to be a world-class innovation hub

Houston has the potential to be a leader in innovation — we just need four things. Getty Images

Is Houston innovative? We put a man on the moon, are curing cancer, and are performing engineering miracles in the oilfield daily. But we don't have the Googles or Amazons of the world or a bustling startup or venture capital scene.

Painfully, Houston was the only one of the 10 largest U.S. metros not to be among the 20 final locations for Amazon's HQ2. By most measures of innovation leadership, Houston is hardly number one in Texas, let alone nationally.

This is a problem. Today, technology innovation is integral to success whether it be using artificial intelligence to improve oil production or patient care, and companies and entrepreneurs will go wherever they need to for the next growth opportunity. If we want the next man-on-the-moon success in Houston and to defend our leadership in energy, health care, etc., we need to be a leader and destination for driving innovation.

So, how does a city like Houston transform itself into a digital technology and innovation leader? That was the core question for a strategy that I led for Accenture working with the Greater Houston Partnership and the mayor's Technology and Innovation Taskforce in early 2017.

After analyzing successful innovation ecosystems around the world, we identified four critical components that make a city a world-class digital innovation location:


Courtesy of Accenture


Talent
You need talent with the right skillsets and mindsets. A modern digital ecosystem needs developers, designers, data scientists, and more. They must also have the right mindset and be able and willing to take risks and do difficult things.

Houston already has tremendous amounts of STEM talent but doesn't produce enough talent or retain enough of the locally-grown talent. To jumpstart, we are going to have to import it initially. The main focus is attracting a large digital company to Houston (e.g. Tesla, Google). This would simultaneously bolster our talent base and image, while also providing opportunities for Houston students to stay and pursue their careers in digital innovation.

Collisions
World-class cities manage to create collisions between talent that spark huge opportunities. Think Steve Wozniak meeting Steve Jobs and Bill Gates meeting Paul Allen. Importantly, they must also collide with customers, investors, other start-ups, academia, people of different backgrounds, and even lawyers (sigh).

In Houston, we've seen this same network effect with the Energy Corridor and Texas Medical Center, but we need a similar setup for digital innovation. That's why the planned Innovation District in Midtown, funded by Rice University, is a game-changer.

Resources
Houston has significant capital in corporations and high-net-worth individuals but is short on angel or venture capital, which would otherwise bring not only money, but also mentorship and connections for young companies.

Detroit had success overcoming this with a 'fund of funds' model, pioneered by Chris Rizik. Local corporations invest in the fund-of-funds which, in turn, invests in venture funds from outside of the state. Their primary motivation should be to earn a return for their investors, but they are asked to look at local companies and spend time in the ecosystem.

The Houston Exponential Venture Fund led by Guillermo Borda recently had its first close of $25 million, and I'm optimistic it'll double or triple in size in the near future.

Impact
Successful ecosystems know how to scale and turn a small company into an international Goliath in just years.

For Houston to be successful in scaling, we must align startups to our local industries, and they must stay and grow here. To solve this challenge, Houston is focusing on becoming famous in certain core themes, including robotics/autonomous systems, data science, industrial IoT, and cybersecurity. These are what our industries – and the world – need, have large inflows of venture capital, and are what Houston has unfair advantage in.

At the end of the day, all four ingredients are essential; none can go to zero or the multiplying effect won't happen. We have to get all of these areas right, all at once. No one company, institution, or sector of the economy can solve the challenge alone. That's why organizations like Houston Exponential and the plans for Houston's Innovation District have been popping up so solve this problem and create connections.

It's an incredibly exciting time for Houston with so much momentum, growth, and demand. We have made bold bets in the past, with our port, TMC, the Space Center, and many more. It'll be a mistake not to carry that legacy forward with a bold new bet for the twenty-first century.

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Brian Richards is Houston innovation hub director at Accenture and board member at Houston Exponential. Read more about him and his career here.

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Building Houston

 
 

Re:3D is one of two Houston companies to be recognized by the SBA's technology awards. Photo courtesy of re:3D

A couple of Houston startups have something to celebrate. The United States Small Business Administration announced the winners of its Tibbetts Award, which honors small businesses that are at the forefront of technology, and two Houston startups have made the list.

Re:3D, a sustainable 3D printer company, and Raptamer Discovery Group, a biotech company that's focused on therapeutic solutions, were Houston's two representatives in the Tibbetts Award, named after Roland Tibbetts, the founder of the SBIR Program.

"I am incredibly proud that Houston's technology ecosystem cultivates innovative businesses such as re:3D and Raptamer. It is with great honor and privilege that we recognize their accomplishments, and continue to support their efforts," says Tim Jeffcoat, district director of the SBA Houston District Office, in a press release.

Re:3D, which was founded in 2013 by NASA contractors Samantha Snabes and Matthew Fiedler to tackle to challenge of larger scale 3D printing, is no stranger to awards. The company's printer, the GigaBot 3D, recently was recognized as the Company of the Year for 2020 by the Consumer Technology Association. Re:3D also recently completed The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator this year, which has really set the 20-person team with offices in Clear Lake and Puerto Rico up for new opportunities in sustainability.

"We're keen to start to explore strategic pilots and partnerships with groups thinking about close-loop economies and sustainable manufacturing," Snabes recently told InnovationMap on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Raptamer's unique technology is making moves in the biotech industry. The company has created a process that makes high-quality DNA Molecules, called Raptamers™, that can target small molecules, proteins, and whole cells to be used as therapeutic, diagnostic, or research agents. Raptamer is in the portfolio of Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which also won a Tibbetts Award that Fannin Innovation Studio in 2016.

"We are excited by the research and clinical utility of the Raptamer technology, and its broad application across therapeutics and diagnostics including biomarker discovery in several diseases, for which we currently have an SBIR grant," says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner at Fannin Innovation Studio.

This year, 38 companies were honored online with Tibbetts Awards. Since its inception in 1982, the awards have recognized over 170,000 honorees, according to the release, with over $50 billion in funding to small businesses through the 11 participating federal agencies.

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