Expert: New 401k investment options would spur Houston venture capital and innovation
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.
------Tory Gattis writes the Houston Strategies blog and is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Urban Reform Institute – A Center for Opportunity Urbanism.