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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.

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Building Houston

 
 

A team out of the engineering school at Rice University has created a technology for real-time wastewater monitoring. Photo via rice.edu

A team of researchers from Rice University have received a $2 million grant to develop a unique technology that speeds up the analysis of wastewater for viruses from hours to seconds.

The team is based out of Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering and led by Rafael Verduzco, associate chair and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering. The four-year grant from the National Science Foundation will support the development of the technology, which includes wastewater-testing bioelectric sensors that deliver immediate notice of presence of viruses like SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, according to a news release from Rice.

The research project — with its partners at the Houston Health Department — have already developed water testing procedures and have analyzed samples from locations around the city. The current process includes taking samples and transferring them to Rice for analysis, but the new technology would be able to monitor systems onsite and instantly. The parties involved with this work are also collaborating with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Center of Excellence for wastewater epidemiology that was announced in August.

“Monitoring wastewater for COVID has been pretty effective as a way to get an idea of where we are as a population,” says Verduzco in the release. “But the way it’s done is you have to sample it, you have to do a PCR test and there’s a delay. Our selling point was to get real-time, continuous monitoring to see just how much of this virus is in the wastewater.”

The grant's co-principal investigators include Jonathan Silberg, the Stewart Memorial Professor of BioSciences and director of the Systems, Synthetic and Physical Biology Ph.D. program, and Caroline Ajo-Franklin, a professor of biosciences. Co-investigators also include Lauren Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Kirstin Matthews, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“These are engineered microbes we’re putting into wastewater, and even though they’re encapsulated, we want to know if there are concerns from health authorities and the general population,” Verduzco said. “Kirstin’s role is to look at the policy side, and also gauge public reaction and educate people about what it means when we talk about engineered bacteria.”

Rafael Verduzco is leading the research and development. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

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