Flotek Industries, a Houston-based, global supplier of products and services to the energy industry, recently opened a brand-new innovation center in northwest Houston.
Visitors to the 50,000 square-foot facility enter through a room with a faux-orange grove, complete with the sound of birds and crickets.
“And that’s because we focus on using orange oil components, a material called a limonene,” Trudy Boudreaux, a vice president at Flotek explained. She said limonene has unique properties that can be used in the oil and gas industries.
“We take it then in our research lab and you see scientists down here doing active research for being able to see different applications.”
Flotek’s innovation center opens at a time when more civic and industry leaders are recognizing that Houston has an innovation problem.
“In our opinion, you need four things for an innovation hub to happen,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, interim vice president for research and technology transfer at the University of Houston.
One of those four things is talent, he said, and Houston has plenty of that.
“Whether you look at the University of Houston, Rice, the Medical Center and beyond. These are the basis for why you would have the right talent in this city.”
He said the second part is the ability to connect the talent to academia and industry; and Houston’s oil and gas, medical and aerospace industries play an important role in that.
And the third thing is resources – incubators and innovation centers like the one Flotek just opened. Krishnamoorti said Houston has those too.
But what’s missing is money, called venture capital.
“Unlike almost any of the other large metropolitan areas, large urban areas, which have got a culture of creating angel investors and venture capitalists,” he said, “Houston almost has virtually none of those types of activities where you can get angel or venture capital funds that can be directed towards innovation.”
That could change if there were more of an innovation mindset in this city. And it looks like that is starting to happen.
Consulting services firm Accenture chose Houston to launch the first of 10 new innovation hubs nationwide.
At its opening last week, leaders from city government and the Greater Houston Partnership discussed how to move Houston up in the innovation ranking.
The economic development organization created an innovation roundtable last summer.
Jon Nordby, VP of talent and innovation at GHP, said there’s plenty of innovation happening inside Houston’s big three industries – oil and gas, medical and aerospace. But this happens in silos.
“Their concern with the startup ecosystem that was not necessarily, ‘we want to get more innovation into our companies,’” he said. “But it’s more understanding that if this draws in the right kind of talent, it draws in opportunities to create wealth, to commercialize technology that in some way have an effect on their organizations as well.”
The Partnership approached Accenture to study Houston’s startup culture and develop a strategic plan to improve it.
Brian Richards, innovation lead for Accenture in Houston, said cities known for innovation are generally proactive about it.
“And so for me, for Houston, what that says is, it’s not the kind of thing where we just write it off and say, innovation is Austin, innovation is Silicon Valley, just let them have it,” he said. “We can win in this.”
The city of Houston is also involved in the proactive effort.
At-large council member Amanda Edwards last year submitted an amendment to the city budget creating a taskforce for innovation and technology, which she now leads.
She said they are looking into what the city can do, including promoting tech and innovation during trade missions, removing possible regulatory roadblocks and creating incentives for collaboration.
“Could or should there be a district, for example, where a lot of this culture, what people in terms of the talent pool would be looking for, would exist,” Edwards said.
The taskforce expects to present its recommendations to the mayor in the next few months.