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.

This week's innovators to know are focused on using artificial intelligence in data management, banking for startups, and 5G awareness in Houston. Courtesy photos

This year, Houston's innovation ecosystem is set to change tenfold — from the rise of 5G to burgeoning startup and entrepreneurial hubs emerging across town.

Today's featured innovators know a bit about these movements — from an entrepreneur using artificial intelligence in data management for his clients to a banking exec who went all-in on startups.

Tony Nash, founder and CEO of Complete Intelligence

tony nash

Courtesy of Complete Intelligence

Every company wishes they have a crystal ball when it comes to making business decisions, and while a physical iteration of that wish isn't possible, Tony Nash has developed the next best thing for his clients at his startup, Complete Intelligence.

Founded in 2015, Complete Intelligence is an AI platform that forecasts assets and allows evaluation of currencies, commodities, equity indices and economics. The Woodlands-based company also does advanced procurement and revenue for corporate clients.

"We've spent a couple years building this," says Nash in a recent InnovationMap interview. "We have a platform that is helping clients with planning, finance, procurement and sales and a host of other things. ... We built a model of the global economy and transactions across the global economy, so it's a very large, very detailed artificial intelligence platform." Read more.

Brian Richards, Houston innovation hub director at Accenture and board member at Houston Exponential

brian richards

Courtesy of Accenture

The rise of 5G in Houston feels familiar to Brian Richards. He writes in a recent guest column that the development of the technology is similar to the moment in Houston's history when NASA landed a man on the moon.

There are a few similarities Richards expresses in his article, as well as providing more information about 5G itself, but the undeniable fact is 5G will create a lasting impact in Houston.

"Above all, as Houston continues to race toward building a world-class innovation ecosystem and a sustainable, thriving economy, we simply can't take our foot off the gas in the 5G race — much like the moon race," he writes. "It's an imperative that the region continue to lead in 5G network adoption and that our local industries and businesses envision, plan and develop new ways of working." Read more.

Jimmy Allen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Texas Citizens Bank

jimmy allen

Courtesy of Texas Citizens Bank

It's become a bit of a trend to see banks taking a bet on startups — Capital One, for instance, has even entered the coworking industry itself. And one Houston-area bank has become an early adopter of this trend locally.

Jimmy Allen, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Texas Citizens Bank, says the bank's new 3,900-square-foot location — its seventh branch in the Houston area — fits perfectly within The Cannon's 120,000-square-foot building in West Houston, which Texas Citizens helped build. The branch opened in December 2019; the grand opening is planned for January 2020.

"Owner-operated businesses are both the genesis of our business model and [a] key customer segment served," says Allen, who was named to his position in November. "A subset of that group certainly includes young, relatively new companies, which favor the current trend in coworking or live-work-play communities." Read more.