Red Labs Boosts New Startup Culture at University of Houston
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He understands where they are coming from. “I would’ve loved to do this,” he says of his undergrad days at Houston.
As a young teen growing up in the west Houston suburb of Sugarland, Panahi convinced his parents to allow him to start a hosting company out of his bedroom, charging multiple customers $30 a month for a static IP address that cost him $125 a month. He got customers but, more tellingly, he got hooked on having a startup. He went on to create what he calls an “Expedia of translations” with friends in college.
“I actually enjoy it a lot, and if I can help someone else do this, that’s great,” he says. “I’ve had students who get a consulting job making $70,000 a year but they are delaying their start day because they want to do [startups] for a while.”
Panahi says he is focused on making sure Red Labs isn’t trapped in the Ivory Tower, and he’s forged partnerships with the city’s other incubators, accelerators, and co-working spaces.
He sees Red Labs as a transition for budding entrepreneurs, and a bridge to other programs that could support their ideas on the way to commercialization. One of the startups is applying to the new program at TechStars Austin, while another is seeking to join the energy-focused Surge accelerator in Houston.
Aziz Gilani, a director at the venture capital fund Mercury Fund in Houston, is among the real-life experts that Panahi has recruited as a mentor. “I regularly visit Red Labs and love working with the students,” he says.
Gilani has watched that the university’s startup evolution firsthand. When he first came to Houston five years ago, he made it a point to chat with the various organizations that were part of the city’s startup ecosystem.
For whatever reason, Gilani says he couldn’t get a response back from the University of Houston. “I would send over emails and no one would reply,” he recalled. “I finally drove over to U of H one day and introduced myself to the entrepreneurship center, and they asked me, ‘What is a venture capitalist?’ ”
A look of disbelief had spread across Gilani’s face. “They’ve really come a long way since then,” he says. “Hesam has a lot to do with that.”