Houston’s Innovation Strategy: Two years later

I moved to Houston in 2015 from Chicago and I distinctly remember my best friends thinking I was absolutely crazy. I’ve spent my career focused on digital innovation and their thinking was that I clearly needed to move to Austin rather than Houston. However, from my time in Houston working with the oil and gas industry at global professional services firm Accenture, I could see that there was nearly unlimited opportunity for using digital innovation to reimagine industrial companies. And yet, the entire digital world seemed to be focused on another messaging app. For this reason, I moved to Houston to try and launch a digital innovation hub for Accenture.

After only being in the city for a year, Accenture was asked to drive a pro-bono strategy for the Greater Houston Partnership, working with some of the most passionate and visionary people I’ve ever had the chance to meet on how to address our city’s lack of ‘innovation’. Almost immediately, a different argument started to appear – that we actually are one of the most innovative cities on the planet! One oil and gas executive we interviewed summarized it succinctly: “What do you mean Houston’s not innovative? We’re curing cancer, drilling in deep water. We put a man on the moon. We created Enron (to a good laugh)!” They were absolutely right – Houston has a very rich history of invention and innovation, but in the past couple of decades, the world’s largest and most disruptive companies were coming out of San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Austin, and so on—not out of Houston. Where were Apple, Google, Facebook, venture capital, and the start-up accelerators?

We dove into interviewing entrepreneurs, investors, academics, government officials, and corporate leaders, all of whom had their own view of what Houston lacked or what secret potential it had. The challenge of having the right talent loomed large as did the lack of density of innovation resources and activities. Venture capital was always top of mind to entrepreneurs who either felt ignored by the coasts or that our local investors weren’t growth focused. And when we did have success stories, those companies often moved to the coasts or Austin rather than stay local. Of course, there were tons of great examples as well, but universally there was a feeling that much more needed to be done.

The Houston innovation strategy made many recommendations, but perhaps its greatest impact was getting these different constituencies around the city to acknowledge the problem, the imperative and urgency for change, and the view that a proactive effort could yield real results. As the spotlight started to shine on the need for innovation, things started to really accelerate, building upon the great groundwork that many had laid in the years before. Since then, through the work of this amazing city and almost certainly everyone on this distribution, Houston has made tremendous strides in the last two years – too long to even list them all (but I’ll try).

  • Accelerators and incubators have formed and evolved including Station Houston, TMCx, The Cannon, Mass Challenge, WeWork, JLABS, and more.
  • Houston Exponential (HX), born out of the innovation strategy, is now connecting people and institutions to attract and promote innovation in Houston.
  • The HX fund-of-funds is bringing in capital from the coasts to help invest in our start-ups.
  • Rice University is making a $100M bet on innovation in Houston through the Ion to create density and collisions.
  • InnovationMap and HXTV are highlighting the success stories in Houston and helping bring collisions that might not otherwise happen.
  • Amazon, which famously forewent Houston in 2017, even opened up a tech hub here!
  • Amazing start-ups like Nuro, Arundo, Nuu Group, Pheramor, Grab, FanReact, HTXLABS, and SO many more are paving the way for those that will surely follow.
  • Houston broke records on the amount of venture funding and Station Houston is helping make Houston ‘smarter’ through the smart cities accelerator.

This is not all – I’m sorry in advance if I failed to highlight all of our city’s accomplishments.

We are nowhere near the finish line, we have just started going. But this community continues to amaze every single day! We should all be proud of everything that we have collectively done to make Houston better for all Houstonians and the legacy we are leaving on the city. It won’t ever be the same.

Brian Richards is a Managing Director at Accenture.  He is currently the Innovation Lead for Accenture in the Southwest Region and the Managing Director for Accenture’s Houston Innovation Hub which he has led from conception to its launch in February 2017. The Hub now has over 100+ amazing people, conducted 400+ workshops, and is delivering innovative projects in machine learning, video analytics, remote operations, and much more.