diving into deep tech

A hard tech revolution is coming, and Houston is primed to play a role in it

At a recent virtual event, experts discussed the hard tech wave that's coming for Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The past couple decades of innovation has been largely defined by software — and its been a bit of a boom. However, lately it's become evident that it's time for hardware innovation to shine.

At the HX Venture Fund's recent conference, Venture Houston, a few hard tech innovators joined a virtual discussion on the future of hardware — and what Houston's role will be in it.

When it comes to advancing technology for humankind, Adam Sharkawy, founder and managing partner of Boston-based Material Impact, a HXVF portfolio fund, says it's time to expand the walls of what is possible.

"Unlike other types of technologies that may facilitate the possible, deep and hard technologies expand what is in the realm of the possible," he says on the panel. "Software has caught up, and we need a new deep tech wave."

And the future looks promising, as Sharkawy says he's seen hard tech grow over the past 5 to 7 years by about 22 percent. Nic Radford, president and CEO of Houston Mechatronics agrees it's time to shift the focus to hard tech.

"The Information Age was the ubiquitous manipulation of the virtual world, but now we need to uncover the ubiquitous manipulation of the physical world is," he says. "And we need to make those investments toward that."

But investments seem, at least in the recent past, harder to come by for hard tech startups compared to software companies with quick exit strategies.

"Deep tech is traditionally thought of as requiring deep pockets," Sharkawy says.

Radford says there was over $167 billion in capital deployments last year, and only 8 percent of that went to industrial or hard tech. Hardware, he says, is tougher to evaluate, they take longer to exit and are tougher to scale.

"To me that's what makes them a gold mine," Radford adds. "It's an underserved market for sure, and that's because we're tougher to evaluate."

Something to note though, he continues, is that hard tech is going to have a bigger societal impact, but maybe it's not the one with the biggest return.

"I think corporates have an special role to play in the inevitability of hard tech," Radford says. "They aren't completely motivated by financial returns."

Gaurab Chakrabarti, CEO and co-founder of Solugen, says he's had a different experience with raising funds. The Houston entrepreneur has raised over $100 million and is planning to go public soon. He's achieved this by attracting investment from the top VC funds in the country. If you zero in on these powerful funds, you can see they are dedicating more and more funds to this arena. And, he predicts, other VC funds will follow.

"This is a unique time for hardware companies to go and and raise from the top venture capitals of the world," Chakrabarti says.

The city of Houston, with its firm footing in the energy and space industries has an important role to play in this new era.

"The Houston area has all the key ingredients to be an innovation hub — no question," Sharkawy says.

The panelists identified Houston's fine education institutions, major corporations present, access to talent, and more as indicators for success. But the innovation here needs to continue to develop intentionally.

"I'd love to see Houston not try to copycat into a general tech hub," Sharkawy says. "Instead it would be great for Houston leverage its unique position as a leader in energy and space and help its constituents of more traditional energy — big corporates, for example — transform into the new frontier."

Vanessa Wyche, deputy director at NASA's Johnson Space Center, says she's seen the space industry take off as the field becomes more and more commercialized. And locally there's a lot of potential for Houston and all the resources and infrastructure that already exists.

"It's about taking what you're good at, and making it better," she says.

Each of the panelists expressed confidence in this evolving wave of hard tech — and are keeping a close watch on the major players as well as the city of Houston.

"We're going to have to get into the world and do something," Radford says. "That next wave of innovation is specifically interacting with our environment, in my opinion."

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Building Houston

 
 

Percy Miller, aka Master P, took the virtual stage at the Houston Tech Rodeo kick-off event. Photo courtesy of HTR

Percy Miller developed his music career as Master P, but it's far from his only entrepreneurial endeavor. At Houston Exponential's kick-off event for the 2021 Houston Tech Rodeo, Miller took the virtual stage with Zack O'Malley Greenburg, a journalist and author.

In the discussion, Miller shared his experience in his many fields of entrepreneurship, including music, fashion, consumer packaged goods, and more. He focused on trusting your own hard work, surrounding yourself with a good support system, and embracing failure — something he's done throughout his career.

"I don't look at it as a loss. I look at it as a lesson. Every 'L' is a lesson," he says. "Every time I had a business fail, I learned something from it and it opened up a door into a future."

To hit the highlights from the fireside chat with Master P, check out some overheard moments below. To stream the full broadcast, click here.

“A music career only lasts 3 to 5 years at the most. … I started diversifying my portfolio and I looked at the tech side and said, ’This is where you got to be at.’”

Miller says he was out in the Bay Area in the '90s and early '00s, and he saw first hand the tech scene developing in Silicon Valley. He even released an album in 2005 called Ghetto Bill, a reference to Bill Gates.

“I have failed a lot — don’t be afraid to fail. Get out and take that chance on yourself.”

Miller's music career mirrors, in some ways, the dynamic path of a startup. He received a $10,000 investment from his grandparents and used it to launch his career.

"I created an empire with $10,000," he says.

But It wasn't always easy, and Miller remembers the hustle, selling his music from the trunk of his car, and his many failures.

“You have to be committed to what you do — and you have to love it. It never was about money. When you’re passionate about something, you have a purpose. You’ll get there. If you do it for money, you’ll probably never be successful.”

Passion is a key ingredient in the recipe for success, Miller explains. It drives accomplishment and, "if you get it that easy, you'll probably lose it even quicker," he continues.

“I have an entrepreneurial spirit — I have to learn everything about what I’m doing.”

When it came to developing his music career, Miller says he wore every different hat in the process because he knew he would work the hardest.

"For me, if I can be the talent and the person who runs the company, I feel like there's no limit," Miller says. "I knew I could depend on myself."

“Show me your friends, and I can show you your future.”

Miller started his own record label, No Limit Records, and it was here he cultivated an environment of artists who didn't just want to perform, get pampered, and hang out at the club.

"People at No Limit — it was like a university," he says. "Everybody was coming to study to not only learn how to be an artist but also learn entrepreneurship and financial literacy."

“Most people wanted that advanced check, that money upfront. But my thing was I wanted the control in the end. When you come from a poor culture, you look at things differently. At least I did.”

Miller says he learned this at a young age, that if you hold the power, you make the decisions. "I want better for my kids and the only way I am going to do that is by creating longevity where I own the largest percent of the company," he says.

“It’s all about economic empowerment — we’re stronger together.”

Miller says he's focused on product and taking over the grocery stores, as well as driving economic empowerment for other BIPOC-founded companies and putting money back into the community.

"I want to focus on other minority-owned companies and brands get their products on the shelves,' he says.

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