TechStreet, a Houston-Style SXSW, to Showcase City’s Startups

11/18/13Follow @angelashah

For Kim Evans, boosting the Houston startup scene is personal.

In 1999, she left BMC Software to found her own startup, Covasoft, but venture capitalists told her she would have to relocate to Austin before they would invest. “My VCs felt Houston was a poor choice for a tech startup because of the lack of talent and supporting services and infrastructure,” Evans says.

She moved, and Covasoft ended up raising $21 million in funding. Three years later, the startup was shut down and its assets purchased by Tonic Software, also in Austin. The company was short-lived, but the indictment against Houston stuck with her.

“I don’t think anyone, whether it’s Houston or any community, should have to leave,” says Evans, who is now president of Blue Lance, a business consultancy in Houston. “We can be with entrepreneurs locally and support their growth from ideation to launch.”

That goal has led to an effort called “TechStreet Houston,” a sort of South By Southwest geared to the Bayou City—and a conference that aims to highlight innovation in medicine and energy, as well as technology.

The daylong conference is on Wednesday, Nov. 20, and includes panels on personalized medicine and independent science research, innovating within large corporations, and what organizers call “practical” innovations in nanotechnology, such as a University of Houston professor who has developed what he calls a better way to waterproof surfaces.

A Houston version of Hatch Pitch, which began in Austin at South By Southwest, will also be held at TechStreet. Over the course of the afternoon, a dozen startups will present before successful entrepreneurs and investors.

Gaurav Khandelwal, a mobile IT entrepreneur in Houston, is part of the planning committee with Evans, and shares a similar story. When he first started his startup, Chai One, he was repeatedly told that he should move to Austin or San Francisco—that a tech startup had no place in Houston, a place more known for the Texas Medical Center, considered the world’s largest health care center, and for being a global node of the energy industry. “What’s missing is a spark, a spark that can bring all of this together,” he says. “TechStreet is an opportunity to change that image. This allows talent from other parts of the country to look at Houston in a different way.”

Organizers say today’s Houston is much different from the one Blue Lance’s Evans had to leave 14 years ago. In the last few years alone, a half-dozen accelerators, co-working spaces, and incubators have cropped up—each seeking to boost entrepreneurs and their ideas. (On Thursday, the two-year old energy tech accelerator, Surge, will host a house warming for its new and larger headquarters.)

Both Rice University and the University of Houston have ramped up educational programs geared to tie entrepreneurial-minded students to real-world mentors. And while the venture capital market is not as active as those in Silicon Valley or Boston, financiers are actively investing in promising leads.

“Houston TechStreet is a market that can better showcase what is happening to a grander audience,” says Chris Valentine, an event promoter for the conference who has worked in Austin with South By Southwest for the last six years. “There is so much happening … Houston is not taking advantage of that,” he added. “This is an opportunity to bring together the community.”

Certainly, Houston’s size—it is the nation’s fourth largest city and sprawls over 627 square miles—and the fragmented and diffuse efforts of its entrepreneurial scene can make it difficult to achieve a critical mass that commands attention. “Many people feel like these [existing] venues are not open or collaborative enough,” Evans says. “We want to put that to bed and make it clear that this is a platform where anyone in the Houston community can come and showcase their innovation.”

Khandelwal, who founded Chai One in 2008, was educated in India and lived in New York, but now makes Houston his home. “Houston has a good story but an old reputation,” he says.

His company recently purchased the old headquarters of Schlumberger in a faded industrial neighborhood east of downtown Houston that he and others hope to revitalize. He and his business partner, Apurva Sanghavi, plan to renovate the now shuttered Art Deco building and make it Chai One’s headquarters. The pair already runs Start Houston, a co-working space down the street in the same neighborhood.

His motivations and boostership of Houston are not entirely philanthropic. “Chai One, selfishly, needs talent,” he says. “Hopefully we can draw those people to Houston.”

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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