When you think of Houston, what is the first thing that comes to mind?
Video from African Diaspora News Channel/YouTube
Houston is dubbed as the “Space City” due to the presence of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) center, but what makes Houston so great does not come from elements located outside of earth’s orbit.
It is the people.
Though Houston prides itself on its diverse population that is truly a melting pot, innovators and technology startups are still hesitant to bring their organizations to the state’s largest city.
After they were left off of Amazon’s shortlist for a new headquarters in 2018, innovators and businesses in Houston realized the need to change the perception of innovation in the city.
What if there was an event that could successfully showcase all of Houston’s (and the state’s) innovators and startups, similar to the wildly successful Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo?
Thanks to Houston Exponential, this event does exist. Still, much of the country and state is oblivious to the ecosystem and innovative community that Houston Exponential is helping create through the Houston Tech Rodeo.
The Houston Tech Rodeo (HTR) was created to change the perception of the innovation and startup scene in Houston.
Joey Sanchez, director of corporate engagement at Houston Exponential, was present when Amazon passed over Houston and is a vital factor in helping create the innovative ecosystem of Houston.
“I was with the Greater Houston Partnership for five years, which is the Regional Chamber of Commerce for the city and the region. I was present when Amazon came to Houston and looked at our town for [their second headquarters] and passed us up, which was the wakeup call that Houston needed in order to, you know, really get going on our tech ecosystem,” Sanchez said.
2021 marked the second edition of the HTR, which brought together innovators from across the city and throughout the country thanks to the event’s digital platform.
However, if it were not for the swift execution of the original HTR in 2020, the event may not be here today to help build relationships and density in the community.
“It feels like we're actually helping the ecosystem, we're actually like building something together with our community … [the original] tech rodeo like I said, was idea to execution in 48 days,” Sanchez said. “We had the idea in January of 2020 and if we weren't quick to market, we would have never gotten off the ground before [the] pandemic. I think the excitement from the first tech rodeo kind of created a momentum through [the] pandemic for us that we were able to continue community building and beyond.”
Sanchez and other Houston-area leaders use the term “ecosystem” when referring to building an organic community of innovation. While the word can be considered buzzy, it speaks to the efforts and vision of community leaders.
Houston has every resource available to establish itself as one of the premier innovation scenes in the country and world. However, building connections with media, local and state universities, and bringing venture capitalists to Houston is how the city can begin to show innovators that they can thrive in this ecosystem.
“When people use the word ecosystem, it is a little bit of a buzzy word, but it really does indicate organic growth … unfortunately, it just was not happening in Houston, organically. So, now with startups, you know, rising and exiting the companies, and, you know, giving back and creating new roles, new talent, new startups, that is the generation of an organic ecosystem that we are looking for in Houston,” Sanchez said. “I see the beginnings of what's to come; we need more media, we need connections with universities, we have the startup development organizations, we have the corporate support, we need investors, and we need venture capitalists. If we have all of those, the startups, the founders, and entrepreneurs will thrive.”
HTR was a huge success in 2021 as the event had 160 events and 8000 attendees between its virtual and in-person platforms. While each attendee had the chance to experience all of HTR’s innovative events and sessions, the main goal of the tech rodeo is to spur connections.
“Really, the whole point is meeting new people who can possibly become business partners or potential partners, you know, customers or mentors or anything of the sort. Houston has a challenge and the fact that we are one of the largest geographic cities in the nation, we do not have density. So, density is a need for talented individuals to collide,” Sanchez said.
Creating density in Houston is a major component in establishing that organic ecosystem. It is not enough to just have top talent or resources; an ecosystem thrives by having both components create collisions that lead to innovation.
“There is a formula that Accenture put together in regard to innovation ecosystems, and we really do live by it, because … how organic ecosystems thrive is through talent (T) times collisions (C), times resources (R), times impact (I),” Sanchez said. “So, TCRI is that formula. And, you know, talented individuals are great, but if they are not connecting and colliding with other talented individuals, then it is very hard for them to scale and grow businesses, so that is what tech rodeo is all about. It is for new entrants into the market to get to know the ecosystem. We have so much going on in so many different areas that people need to know all the different opportunities at hand. That is what tech rodeo is here for, to showcase all the great things that are happening in Houston.”
Still, to have density and an ecosystem that thrives, a city does have to attract and acquire top talent. The question is, how can Houston work with the other major Texas cities to bring top talent to the state and to space city?
“We are also trying to win talent like that is a huge challenge for every city across the country. Austin is declared the winner of all tech talent for 2020. So, you know, as much as we love Austin, we love all of the Texas cities, we believe that Texas has this super hub that it is building,” Sanchez said. “A startup state that is going to rival any place in the globe with Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, and I think Texas is going to continue to grow leaps and bounds over the next generation or two. But, we have to make sure that Houston is an attractive region for people to come live, build a business, work, play, whatever they are looking to do, Houston has to keep up with the times.”
Thanks to the efforts of Sanchez and Houston Exponential, HTR was able to grow four times bigger in the 2021 edition. As Houston and the HTR gain awareness, the event looks to grow even more in 2022 and beyond.
“The second tech rodeo was four times bigger than the first one. Four times the attendees, sponsorship revenue, four times the events. We kind of hit it perfectly with post-pandemic in-person, with all the vaccines and CDC guidelines being relaxed,” Sanchez said. “So, what a great, you know, showcase for our city and for our ecosystem. And, yeah, I am just excited for, you know, what is to come. We’ve already got next year’s planned for the dates, February 27th through March 6th, and I’m excited to see it grow another four times bigger.”
If you are in the Houston area and looking to network, Sanchez hosts a weekly “cup of Joe-y” coffee meetup at Finn Hall each Friday from 8:30 – 10:30 am to help spur connections.