The “What Houston Needs” Debate

I saw a couple posts last week from some of my colleagues involved in the Houston startup scene that revolved around what Houston needs to have a more vibrant  startup and entrepreneurial culture.  The first one comes from Aziz Gilani, a local VC, who says that what’s missing is a strong engineering/research university.  The second comes from Marc Nathan, who says what’s needed is better managers/mentors to take technological ideas and execute on them.

Both have valid points and both are right.  Aziz says they are different sides of the same coin.  But I would qualify that claim by saying that the universities and research organizations in Houston need to do a much better job of tech transfer out of their institutions.  Rice, in particular, seems to be lacking in this area, and I feel our team’s exposure at the Rice Business Plan Competition highlighted this deficiency.  At RBPC, most of the competition comes from businesses formed around university-driven research.  The university has put a business team around an idea (usually by pairing an MBA with engineering grads).  This isn’t always done by the university itself; sometimes the students take it upon themselves.  But however it happens in other universities, it does not happen at Rice.  How is it the university with the “largest business plan competition” does not have a competitive team each year?

There are several things that Houston needs to do to become a more likely place for entrepreneurial activity, but creating better tech transfer programs is something that’s actionable in the short-term.

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