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.

The Digital Fight Club made its Houston debut on November 20 at White Oak Music Hall. Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

What do you get when you cross the information of an innovation panel with the ferocity of a boxing match? A verbal sprawling among innovation leaders that can only be known as the Digital Fight Club.

Houston's DFC came about with the help of Accenture, which had been a partner at the Dallas events, and InnovationMap, who teamed up as presenting sponsors for the event. DFC's founder, Michael Pratt, came up with the idea for Digital Fight Club as a way to liven up technology-focused events and networking opportunities.

The setup of the event is five fights, 10 fighters, and five judges. Each fighter has just a couple minutes to take their stand before the event moves on.

"This is Digital Fight Club," says Pratt, CEO of the company. "You get subject matter experts, and serious founders and CEOs on the stage and make them make their case. You learn something, it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than a panel."

The hour of fighting is coupled with a VIP event ahead of the showdown and an after party where further networking can continue on. At Houston's VIP event, InnovationMap got to check in with partners, fighters, and referees about how they thought the event was going to pan out. Check out the VIP event video here.

The panel of referees included Gabriella Rowe, CEO of Station Houston; Denise Hamilton, CEO of Watch Her Work; Tim Kopra, partner at Blue Bear Capital; Lance Black, Director at TMCx; and Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures.

The refs asked two questions per fight, and were able to vote on the winners of each round — as was the audience through an interactive web-based application. The break down of the fights, topics, and winners are as follows:

Fight #1: Future Workforce of Robotics/AI. Matt Hager, CEO of Poetic Systems, vs Pablo Marin, senior AI Leader, Microsoft. Hager took the win with 77 percent of the vote.
Fight #2: Whose responsibility is cybersecurity. Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate vs Tara Khanna, managing director and Security Lead at Accenture. Khanna won this round, snagging 66 percent of the votes.
Fight #3: Oil & Gas Industry and the Environment. Michael Szafron - commercial adviser for Cemvita Factory, vs Steven Taylor, co-founder of AR for Everyone. Szafron received 76 percent of the voites, securing the win.
Fight #4: Digital in our personal lives. Grace Rodriguez, CEO of ImpactHub, vs Javier Fadul, chief innovation officer at HTX Labs. Rodriguez won with the largest margin of the night — 85 percent.
Fight #5: Future of Primary Care Geetinder Goyal, CEO of First Primary Care, vs Nick Desai, chief medical information officer at Houston Methodist. Goyal received 72 percent of the votes to take home the win.

The fights were heated, and some of the fighters had knockout quotes, from Hager's "AI is mostly bullshit" to Khanna's "Compliance doesn't mean you're secure." For more of the knockout quotes, click here.

The fight is on

Emily Jaschke/InnovationMap

Mike Pratt, who hosted the event, founded the Digital Fight Club in 2016.