Featured Innovator

New Accenture exec aims to put Houston's innovation ecosystem on the map

Thomas Rubenak is senior principal of Accenture Ventures. Courtesy of Accenture

In most industries, there's a disconnect between startups and major corporations. The startups may have solutions for the big companies, but the two entities might not know how to connect with each other. That's something Accenture hopes to help with.

The company created Accenture Ventures to help connect the dots between emerging technology and big business. As the program has expanded, Thomas Rubenak was selected to serve the Southwest region as senior principal.

With a long career of working in tech, research and design, and startups, Rubenak hopes to use his experience to help grow Houston's blossoming innovation ecosystem.

"It takes a village. It's not just the amazing accelerators we have throughout the region," Rubenak says. "If you look at the Cannon, Houston Exponential, MassChallenge, and all of the ecosystem — it takes all of us together to prop up a thriving economy. That's what we're doing. We're changing not just the face of Houston but really impacting the startups as well as the clients we serve."

Rubenak spoke with InnovationMap to discuss the role Accenture Ventures plays in the ecosystem and how he sees innovation in Houston growing.

InnovationMap: You're new to your role, but you've worked with tech and startups for years. Tell me a little bit about your career to date. 

Thomas Rubenak: I come most recently from EY. I did a few assignments there, primarily working with the EY and Microsoft alliance. I was also a go-to-market lead for deep technical accounting for IPOs and other regulatory compliance issues. I worked a lot with the Entrepreneur of the Year program. Before that, I spent most of my career in tech research with Gartner and Forrester. This space is all about brilliant minds that really focus on helping the world understand what's next in emerging technology. I worked pretty extensively with venture capital, private equity and venture banks.

IM: While you’ve worked on projects across the country, you’ve been based in Houston, so you’ve been able to see the city transform, right?

TR: In my career, I've been really fortunate enough to align with amazing people in the market. Several years ago, we started a community just in Houston to bring entrepreneurs, angel investors, and some VC together. It was a nonprofit, grassroots effort called TeXchange; I just wanted to help entrepreneurs connect to sources of capital.

IM: How did Accenture Ventures get its start and what does it aim to do?

TR: Accenture realized four years ago that in order to stay competitive, it needed to tap the best of the best in the startup world. The only way to do that is to dedicate resources and people to that task, and that's how we started Ventures. As a recent joiner, my role is primarily the lead for the Southwest to bring the best of the startup ecosystem into our clients to help them solve their most pressing problems. And it's not just about problems, but also about opportunities.

It's a win-win-win. The client gets the benefit of having the best of the best and the startups get amazing exposure to companies they might not have been able to get in front of. And, Accenture is happy because it gets to serve the client.

Accenture works in multiple sectors, including resources (oil and gas), chemicals, mining — so for obvious reasons, the Southwest is a big sector for us — but, we also tap the health and public safety sectors.

As we look to design these arrangements with these startups and we find that there is a compelling need to invest in them, we'll become a minority investor. If that startup then has a M&A play that makes sense to everyone, we'll look into that as well.

IM: How do Accenture Ventures and the Innovation Hub work together?

TR: I am part of the hub, and I also serve the broader team.

What we bring to the table is amazing talent to data scientists to designers — many different resources — and we work with our clients to figure out what they want to solve or if there's a play in the market they are interested in. We can pull the best from Accenture and from the startup ecosystem to design solutions.

IM: What’s the most challenging thing about solving clients’ goals?

TR: It's not a challenge so to speak, but it's something I have to be mindful of, and that is always keeping the client's interest at hand, so recognizing and realizing that they have short- and long-term goals that they want to achieve.

IM: What's it like working with companies on the startup side?

TR: We seek specific types of startups. In order for us to be really effective, we keep a pulse on the market. Our focus is on companies that have gotten their source of funding, they've gone through their first round, companies that have great management who have been in industry or served big companies, and companies that are disruptors, innovators, or have something really compelling to bring to us. The challenge is that there are so many of them. There are so many great startup companies doing amazing things. But, as many startups as there are, there's just as many client issues.

IM: In your opinion, what challenges does the Houston innovation ecosystem still have to overcome?

TR: It's no secret that the economic engine of venture capital is in the east and west coasts. We have a lot of great VCs here, but it's about how do we keep our startups here. That's an issue that everyone talks about. But we also have seen a lot of startups move to Houston from other places. But, from the financial aspect of it, I think we could always use more of that. I personally don't think there will ever be another Silicon Valley, but we'll be something different. We'll be ourself. But, we do need those sources of capital in place. But something I want to mention is the diversity and the universities in Houston — we have a lot going for us.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Spaces plans to open a new location in Houston this month, Chevron Technology Ventures invests in autonomous vehicle tech, and more Houston innovation news. Courtesy of Spaces

A lot is happening in the Houston innovation ecosystem — so much that you may have missed a few key news items. Let's hit the highlights, shall we?

Applications are open for major health tech awards program that is coming to town, a Houston corporate venture fund doles out cash to self-driving cars, new coworking space to deliver, a diversity-focused partnership launches, and more Houston innovation news.

Chevron Technology Ventures invests in self-driving cars

Voyage is growing its fleet of self-driving vehicles with the help of a Houston corporate VC fund. Photo via voyage.auto

Silicon Valley's Voyage, a self-driving car technology company, closed its series B round at $31 million. Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures contributed to the round.

The round's funds will go toward expanding the company's fleet of G2 autonomous vehicles in California and Florida, as well as introduce Voyage's G3 self-driving car, Oliver Cameron, co-founder and CEO at Voyage, writes in a release.

"Chevron has been supporting the public's transportation needs for over 100 years. As our customers' mobility needs and preferences change, we want to continue to be part of their journeys. Our investment in Voyage affirms this commitment," says Barbara Burger, CTV president, in a release. "We established the Future Energy Fund in 2018 with an initial commitment of $100 million to invest in breakthrough technologies that enable the ongoing energy transition. The fund looks for technologies that lower emissions and support low carbon value chains. Our investment in Voyage fits well within the objectives of the Future Energy Fund while also informing our perspective on the changing energy landscape."

Accenture to close out health tech challenge in Houston

accenture

The national challenge will conclude in Houston. Courtesy of Accenture

Applications are open for the fourth annual Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge and close on September 22. Finalists will present to judges from global health companies at one of two regional events — in Boston on Nov. 7 or in San Francisco on Dec. 5. The final judging event will take place in Houston on February 6, 2020.

"We look forward to this year's submissions as we continue to identify bold ideas from startups that deliver new solutions for health organizations to improve the lives of consumers, clinicians and employees," says Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health and innovation at Accenture, in a release. "Since its inception, the Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge has brought healthcare organizations and startups together to tackle the world's biggest health issues where we have received more than 2,200 applications, invited more than 90 startups to compete and who have benefitted from the guidance of nearly 1,000 executive judges from the healthcare industry."

The submission form, including additional details about the challenge's criteria, eligibility, and requirements, is available at: Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge-Health.

GotSpot wins pitch competition

Reda Hicks claimed the win at a military spouse pitch event. Trish Alegre-Smith/Military.com

Reda Hicks, who founded Houston-based GotSpot Inc., won a $15,000 check from the StreetShares Foundation and Samuel Adams' Brewing the American Dream at the Great American Military Entrepreneur at the Military Influencer Conference in Washington, D.C.

GotSpot is a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it.

"This award is a game-changer for me," Hicks says to Military.com. "This will allow me to hire more incredible military spouses and help GotSpot on its path to go global."

Rice University launches new sports business course

Rice University

Rice University has a new sports business program. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University, along with the Houston Texans, is introducing a new program for the university's sport management students. Pro Sports: Management is a course designed to teach the business side of the sports world.

"We are thrilled to partner with Rice University on a curriculum that will provide their best and brightest students with insight into the real-world opportunities and challenges facing today's sports teams," says Houston Texans President Jamey Rootes in a release from Rice. "This program is rather unique because our leading executives will work alongside Rice professors to teach current best practices in franchise management across every discipline. We believe that this type of practical industry exposure is the best way to prepare the next generation of leaders in the field of sports management and a valuable contribution to the level of professionalism within our industry."

The classes will be held weekly in the executive offices of the Texans. The course will cover ticketing, public relations, event management, human resources and more.

Spaces plans to open second coworking location in Houston

Spaces, an Amsterdam-based coworking space company that entered the Houston market with a lease in Kirby Grove announced in 2017, plans to open its newest location this month. Courtesy of Spaces

The new Spaces CityCentre One location is planned to open on Monday, September 30. It's the Amsterdam-based company's second coworking space in Houston, with a third already in the works. The first location was in Kirby Grove in 2017, and Spaces Galleria at Post Oak will be opening in the second quarter of 2020.

The CityCentre One location will have over 60,000 square-feet of workspace with perks, including a business club, dedicated desk space, private offices, and seven fully-equipped meeting rooms. Plus, the building is just steps away from CityCentre, a mixed-use development with restaurants, entertainment, housing, and more. Membership pricing starts at $111 a month at the new location.

Cemvita Factory receives more backing from oil and gas industry

Cemvita Factory Cemvita Factory

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, a biotech company that can mimick photosynthesis and convert CO2 into glucose and other substances, has received equity investment from BHP. The amount of the investment was not disclosed.

The investment will help Cemvita Factory continue to develop its biomimicry technology for oil and gas applications to reduce the volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

"This strategic investment fits well with BHP's vision of the future: reducing operational greenhouse gas emissions, reducing environmental impact and the development of low-emissions technology, including increased application of carbon capture, utilization and storage technology," says BHP's chief geoscientist, Laura Tyler, in a release.

Last month, Occidental Petroleum's low carbon subsidiary, Oxy Low Carbon Ventures LLC, announced it invested an undisclosed amount of funds into Cemvita Factory.

Two organizations join forces to promote diversity in the Houston Startup Scene

Impact Hub Houston and The Cannon have teamed up to grow programming and events surrounding diversity. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

In an effort to promote diversity and inclusion within the Houston innovation ecosystem, The Cannon and Impact Hub Houston have teamed up. The collaboration will drive programming and events geared at growing the conversation and resources for startups and entrepreneurs.

"One of Houston's best differentiating qualities is that we are truly a melting pot," says Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. "We want our community to reflect the amazing diversity across our city, so we have to move beyond simply discussing diversity and work to create an environment where innovation can thrive and real change can happen. We are confident Impact Hub will be the perfect partner to bring those aspects to our community."

Gow, who is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO, opened the doors to its new 120,000-square-foot facility in July. Impact Hub Houston will have a presence in the space.

"Over the past few years, Lawson and I have brainstormed how we could work together to connect and grow our region's innovation ecosystem and demonstrate how organizations can evolve from competition to true collaboration," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and Executive Director of Impact Hub Houston, in the release. "I'm so excited that those talks have developed into this partnership: Through The Cannon and Impact Hub Houston, we'll be able to effectively 'meet people where they are' geographically, socially, and culturally, helping diverse entrepreneurs and startups at the myriad intersections of place, purpose, demographics, psychographics, and business growth stages."

Houston innovator nominated for prestigious Silicon Valley award

Alley Lyles is up for an award for her work in digital transformation.

Alley Lyles, digital transformation manager at Direct Energy and Houston startup mentor, was nominated for a Women in IT - Silicon Valley award as Transformation Leader of the Year. The awards event is on October 9.

She is up against Emily Dunn at Anaplan, Windy Garrett at Atos, Manju Abraham at Delphix, Aashima Gupta at Google, Patricia Grant at ServiceNow, and Nataliya Anon at Svitla Systems.

"I am proud to represent Houston in Silicon Valley. The Houston hustle is real. I see it amongst my colleagues who got me here. The hustle isn't always glamorous, so I appreciate the moment when a kid from the East End can shine."