Workshops Illustrate Growth of Houston Startup Scene

7/31/13Follow @angelashah

The Dog Days of August are soon upon us, but the startup scene in Houston is not showing any sign of slowing down.

The Saturday afternoon traffic was brisk across Morningside Drive. And it wasn’t just the patrons of the bars and restaurants in the Rice Village, a shopping center tucked in between the Texas Medical Center and Rice University. Both Platform Houston, a co-working space for life science and medical startups, and Brightwork CoResearch, also a co-working space but with a Biosafety Level-2 lab, were hosting separate workshops geared to boost budding entrepreneurs. Significantly, each event was standing-room-only.

“We didn’t have this kind of activity in Houston just a few years go,” says Billy Cohn, the famed Houston heart surgeon and medtech innovator.

We’ll hear more about my interview with Cohn and his latest invention in a story next week, but this particular observation of his is apt, and one that is being echoed loudly and repeatedly by others in Houston’s startup ecosystem. While Houston has long been known as the home to Big Energy and one of the world’s largest medical centers, its entrepreneurs in those sectors are only recently proving to be an economic force on their own, and are filling up the calendar with hackathons, workshops, and meetups.

Women ranging in age from 10 to well past middle-age crammed into Brightwork’s as of yet un-renovated space for an introductory course in programming using Ruby on Rails, an open-source web-application framework. This was the first Houston workshop for Rails Girls, a program started by a Finnish woman keen on bringing more women into software development.

About 60 people pecked away on their laptops as 10 coaches—mostly male, I saw—taught programming basics and explained its jargon, pointed out the difference between Java and Javascript, and encouraged them to sign up for monthly meetings of the Houston Ruby Brigade. Grace Rodriguez, co-founder of Houston’s C2 Creative co-working space, urged the audience to raise their arms in a victory sign as she invoked the tao of Sheryl Sandberg.

“Speak up; encourage other women to speak up,” she says. “Female developers are so hot right now. Take advantage of it.”

Jacob Shiach, who founded Brightwork last month, says

he was motivated to bring Rails Girls to Houston after noticing female participation in the tech scene around him dwindled once he left St. Thomas University and entered the working world. The 20-something Shiach says he’s been to meetings where the men literally cluster among themselves to the point of excluding any woman in the room.

“In my computer science classes at St. Thomas, there were 10 girls for every two guys but when I started going to executive meetings, it was 20 guys and Amanda,” he says, referring to his Brightwork colleague, Amanda Shih, who led Saturday’s seminar. “This idea that women aren’t interested or capable in programming is ridiculous.”

Platform Houston brought in Brian Meece, founder of New York-based crowdfunding site Rockethub, to coach local startups on how to create an effective crowdfunding pitch. The fledgling companies’ products ranged from apps to jump start job searches using social connections to a company selling techniques and tools to better care for preemies.

One attendee, Roxanne Pirooz, says the workshop helped frame how crowdfunding could help both raise money and serve as customer validation for startup ideas. Her project is called Clanography—think a more archival Facebook, where photos are not down-sized and security is tighter, but with the  community-grouping ability you find in Google circles.

The projects are still raw, as Pirooz would readily admit. Simrit Parmar, Platform’s founder, says they are re-editing pitch videos this week to make them more presentable. Once the entrepreneurs polish their presentations, they can upload them to a dedicated web page on Rockethub’s site in a partnership between Platform and the crowdfunding company.

“You’re seeing a shift away from New York and Silicon Alley, and Silicon Valley,” says Meece, an artist and ukulele player who founded Rockethub in 2009. “Houston is emblematic of the rise of the middle market.”

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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  • pdna95

    Houston’s got a bright future

  • Angeles Calderon

    Wow clanography sounds interesting!