Snapshots: 60 Seconds with Jason Ford, Greater Houston Partnership

Greater Houston Partnership's VP of Regional Economic Development discusses his city's recovery from Hurricane Harvey, and opportunities for startups, foreign direct investment, and technology.

By the BF Staff
From the March/April 2018 Issue

Business Facilities: Despite the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, 2017 was the strongest year ever for housing sales in the city, according to the Houston Association of Realtors. What factors played a key role in the quick rebound from Harvey?

Greater Houston Partnership
Jason Ford, CEcD
Vice President, Regional Economic Development,
Greater Houston Partnership

JF: The region demonstrated competent leadership at the local government and civic level, as the Mayor, County Judge, and other officials acted quickly and decisively throughout the storm and recovery effort. Houston’s business community was fully engaged in the response—from our energy companies, to our sports franchises and every type of business in between—have given incredible sums to the relief efforts.

Houstonians started rebuilding their homes and replacing storm-damaged furniture and clothing. Families living in hotels and households without kitchens ate at local restaurants and cafés. Businesses took on contract workers to help with the cleanup.

Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts accounted for 33,300 jobs. Once the storm passed, businesses reopened, employees returned to work, and recovery efforts were underway. Wholesalers filled their warehouses and added to their payrolls to better serve the growing retail and construction trade. Without Harvey, the region might have added as few as 29,600 jobs, which is pretty close to the Partnership’s forecast of 29,700 jobs for 2017. Clearly, Harvey provided a boost to the economy—a common occurrence in the wake of a major disaster.

BF: Houston Exponential recently launched the HX Venture Fund, the region’s first venture capital fund of funds. Is this initiative living up to expectations?

JF: Since its launch last October, Houston Exponential has been working to accelerate the development of the region’s innovation economy by fostering a robust ecosystem that supports high-growth, high-impact startups. The HX Venture Fund will continue to work to generate compelling return for investors, attract leading venture capital firms and bring their expertise and risk capital to the region, and create a key pathway for innovation and information flow between corporations, startups and innovators.

Houston Exponential and Station Houston, Houston’s hub for technology and innovation, also partnered on #HOUSxSW: a week-long campaign bringing 22 of Houston’s most active influencers and innovators to SXSW to engage conference-goers and transform global perceptions of Houston’s creative community.

This opportunity provided a platform to bring startups like HTX Labs, Liongard, VastBiome, Syzygy Plasmonics, Unvired, Fresh Tech Solutionz and Penrose Technologies—and creative companies like YAWP Records and GoodSpero—to SXSW to elevate awareness of the region to the thousands of people who attend the conference from around the world.

This is a unique time for Houston: We find ourselves at the intersection of major industries like energy, healthcare, aerospace and manufacturing that are primed and ready to be disrupted and are now welcoming that disruption by partnering with startups at an increasing rate.

BF: Do you have any new trade missions planned for this year? What makes Greater Houston an attractive destination for foreign direct investment?

JF: The trade mission focused on promoting the region’s advantages for investment and trade and enhancing key government and business relationships between the region and the United Kingdom and Germany. The opportunities for trade missions deepen ties and advance opportunities in key areas of focus for the Partnership—including energy, life sciences, manufacturing and logistics.

The delegates toured London’s Shoreditch innovation district to observe best practices in developing an innovation ecosystem around tech startups and cultivating urban regeneration in the community. The City and the Partnership are currently undergoing efforts to boost Houston’s innovation ecosystem, including recently announced plans to develop Houston’s own innovation district.

Each year, more global companies are discovering that Houston offers excellent global access, a diverse and educated talent pool, along with world-class amenities for employees. Houston is uniquely positioned as a hub for the Americas, not only as a location to manufacture and export, but also as a strategic partner in the exchange of technology, expertise and best practices with our global counterparts.

Our next trade mission will be in Latin America this June. We will be visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lima, Peru; and Santiago, Chile.

BF: What makes the region a prime location for growth sectors like data centers and information technology?

JF: Houston serves as a strategic hub for the Americas and has a high concentration of redundant fiber optics of wireless high speed broadband capabilities across the region but especially in urbanized areas. The region boasts state of the art, modern internet infrastructure, such as 5G and gigabit broadband. Data center users are spreading storage across locations, bringing data closer to corporate operations for greater reliability and speed. Houston’s markets provide shorter and more flexible lease structures.

Factors contributing to this development include strong economic conditions for Houston’s data intensive industries and a desire by companies to store their data closer to their office. With steady population growth and strong commercial hub, investors and companies are building in Houston. There are tremendous amounts of energy, geophysical and medical data that need to be stored and processed.

Network infrastructure has also improved in order to allow companies to easily connect to secondary data centers outside of the region. This is demonstrated by the fact that Houston has the 2nd highest concentration of shared data centers in Texas plus the world’s largest supercomputer for private R&D. It also provides one of the most robust and reliable electricity grids with looped feeder systems providing added redundancy by several electricity providers in the region.

While not traditionally considered a computer and software development powerhouse, the fact is the region is home to 97,550 workers in technology-related occupations. During the last five years, Houston has seen a rapid increase of 31.4 percent in tech talent.

Houston is a great global city, with ties reaching around the world. The region’s geographic location provides easy global access for both goods and people. From Port Houston to the Houston Airport System to a host of multi-national entities doing business around the clock, the region is the place to be for connecting business to the world.