Can Houston be an incubator for technology startups? The city’s tech gurus debate

HAMBURG, GERMANY - DECEMBER 28: Participant hold their laptops in front of an illuminated wall at the annual Chaos Computer Club (CCC) computer hackers' congress, called 29C3, on December 28, 2012 in Hamburg, Germany. The 29th Chaos Communication Congress (29C3) attracts hundreds of participants worldwide annually to engage in workshops and lectures discussing the role of technology in society and its future. (Photo by Patrick Lux/Getty Images)

A recent roundtable discussion hosted by the Houston Chronicle via email featured the strong opinions of Houston’s top technology leaders, who debated whether Houston had yet to reach the “critical mass” required to spawn its own version of Silicon Valley.

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According to industry observers, numerous factors have colluded to keep the city from becoming a hub of technology startups: the city’s urban sprawl; its lack of geographic cohesion among technology innovators; its dependence on the energy industry; and the competition for talent from Austin and other areas.

The roundtable participants included Rakesh Agrawal, founder of the video search service Snapstream; University of Houston Computer Science Assistant Professor Chris Bronk; and Station Houston Co-Founder Grace Rodriguez.

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While Houston does not lack for talent in technology, according to Bronk, it does lack the financial infrastructure for startup investment.

“First off, we do not have the sort of venture capital-entrepreneurial ecosystem that Silicon Valley does,” Bronk said. “Lawyers here are rarely paid in pre-IPO stock and then wait for big paydays later. That doesn’t fly here.”

Agrawal argued Houston should focus on its own strengths to make it more attractive to technology startups, rather than recreate itself in the image of Silicon Valley.

“Of course Houston is not Silicon Valley,” Agrawal said. “Neither is Chicago, New York, or Boston — but those are all strong startup hubs. Houston has its own strengths and we should aim to focus on leveraging those.”

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Rodriguez, whose group Houston Station connects technology startups with potential investors, claims Houston has been at “critical mass” for years.

“We found that by providing a space for people to connect…and by connecting people with mentors, sponsors and investors who could give them access to capital, we were able to help over 500 people launch and/or grow their startups,” Rodriguez said.

The full virtual conversation between Agrawal, Bronk and Rodriguez can be found here.

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