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Expert: New 401k investment options would spur Houston venture capital and innovation

Could tapping into 401k investment be a gamechanger for Houston startup funding? Photo via Getty Images

With fossil fuels facing an uncertain future, Houston is wisely pushing to further develop its innovation economy with initiatives like Houston Exponential and Rice Management Company's Ion, as well as the No. 1 ranked entrepreneurship programs at the University of Houston (undergraduate) and Rice (graduate).

Venture capital is both the critical fuel and limiting factor to expanding Houston's innovation ecosystem, but the vast majority of venture capital in this country is focused outside of Houston in places like Silicon Valley and Austin. How can we increase the local pool of venture capital focused on Houston?

A recent federal guidance provides the answer with a new option for adding dramatically to Houston's venture capital resources. On June 3rd 2020, the Department of Labor issued an information letter allowing 401k funds to invest in private equity, including venture capital. Houston has hundreds of thousands of employees contributing to 401k retirement plans, including those working at our 41 Fortune 1000 companies as well as other major employers like the Texas Medical Center hospitals. If even a small fraction of their savings could be channeled into Houston-focused venture capital funds (or funds of funds like the HX Venture Fund), it could add hundreds of millions of dollars to Houston's startup ecosystem.

How would this work? While federal guidance does not allow direct private equity investments in 401k plans, it does allow private equity to be part of the mix in target date, target risk, or balanced funds offered. Imagine the creation of a "Houston Balanced Fund" focused on a portfolio of equities and bonds from Houston companies, local government bonds, and a 15 percent allocation to Houston-focused venture capital (the maximum allowed for illiquid assets). The fund would be a bet on a prosperous long-term future for Houston — something I think many Houstonians would enthusiastically add to their retirement portfolios. Once created, it could be added to the investment options in 401k employer plans all over the city.

As an example of the power of this model: if 100,000 employees — only 3 percent of 3 million jobs in the Houston metro — invested just $10,000 of their 401k portfolios into a Houston Balanced Fund with 15 percent allocated to venture capital, it would inject an additional $150 million dollars into the local venture capital pool to spur new innovations and companies that can be the future of Houston's economy — a 20 percent increase to the $715 million of venture capital invested in Houston in 2020. This new venture capital could be leveraged even more by focusing it on early-stage Houston startups that might have trouble attracting the attention of national VC firms. As they mature to Series B rounds and beyond, they should have no trouble bringing in capital from outside the region.

This is an opportunity for Houston to do something no other city has done — to be innovative with not just new ventures and technologies, but with how they're financed. We can be proactive pioneers fueling Houston's 21st-century innovation ecosystem.

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Tory Gattis writes the Houston Strategies blog and is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Urban Reform Institute – A Center for Opportunity Urbanism.

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Building Houston

 
 

Here's what not to miss at the first all-virtual CERAWeek by IHS Markit. Screenshot via virtual.ceraweek.com

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

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