Regional culture, history, and infrastructure are the qualities of a region of the world that drives innovation, jobs, and economic development because technology is ultimately about people and their potential. Our work in MediaTech Ventures has touched upon that fact a few times, whether in John Zozzaro’s look at Culture and Buildings or our exploration of The Innovation Hub of Houston, the work paramount in being a founder, startup investor, or thriving professional, is appreciating and knowing WHERE to be, regionally in a city, such that your work can best collaborate with what matters to what you’re doing.
Years ago, getting to know the Austin startup scene, the notion plagued me that we had to concert our efforts to fuel Austin by focusing people where they could be most meaningful; I put pen to paper, then, to share how Austin’s ecosystem of great impact is in NW Austin.
NW Austin… where we find Telsa, IBM, Apple, Samsung, and other innovative companies beyond
Coined as Austin’s ‘second downtown,’ there is a $3 billion dollar development in N. Austin recognizing the demand for substantial property in the direction that Austin is shifting. Uptown ATX will feature nearly 7 million square feet of offices, apartments, stores, and hotel space, as well as a new MetroRail station — the site already is home to IBM.
Now, if you’re like me, you read that headline and thought, “wait a minute, it’s very certainly already the case that The Domain in North Austin is Austin’s second downtown.” Home to many of Austin’s newest skyscrapers as well as WeWork, Amazon, VRBO, Facebook, and more, maybe this is the second second downtown?
Indeed, Katie Canales and Business Insider, just a few years ago shared, “Northwest Austin has historically been the Texas city’s ‘Silicon Valley,’ and tech’s biggest players are still pouring in. Here’s what it’s like in Austin’s ‘second downtown.’”
In the 1970s, a handful of tech companies, like IBM and Texas Instruments, set up shop north of Downtown, helping to cement the northern region’s status as a center of economic development.
- Katie Canales with Business Insider
This second, or third, major real estate development in fact isn’t the only moving the center of gravity north of 4th and Congress in Austin, TX. By my last count, it’s the 5th city center planned for the side of Austin where freeway infrastructure, good schools, and room to grow, enable more affordable commercial and residential development near Austin. As I think about it, it isn’t shifting from Austin, it’s developing up around where Texas technology, venture capital, and opportunity was already once well established.
At the center of Texas Technology
Periodically over the course of the recent few years, Lego kits started arriving from Dell sales reps and orders associated with their PowerEdge servers. In a clever and creative way rethinking Dell, the kits made us kids again, entrepreneurs familiar with how we can build anything conceivable in our imaginations. I smiled at the tremendously simple way in which Dell found some attention through social media and inspired problem solving through the piecing together of existing technologies, they really reminded us that Dell is a startup-oriented brand and business.
Initially running the business from a dormitory room, Dell started out providing customized upgrades for PCs. The venture founded in 1984 by American Michael Dell, who was then a student at the University of Texas in Austin, proved profitable, and Dell dropped out of college that same year to begin building PCs.
Dell is headquartered in Round Rock, Texas, for those of you who don’t know, is about 35 minutes north of downtown Austin, at what I’ve called the crossroads of technology and an epicenter of Texas; most convenient to entrepreneurship. Literally, it sits where an outer freeway loop of Austin carves north, while the 45 freeway cuts from the region’s venture capital residents, past Apple’s amazing campus, and up to Samsung’s new incredible semiconductor plant, it rides the I-35 freeway, bringing everything closer to Waco, Dallas, and Fort Worth, and it’s a stone throw from here to College Station and Texas A&M. While Austin finds itself appealing for being on the water, it’s Round Rock and the surrounding area that is the epicenter of Texas technology.
This pinpoint on the map has one of Central Texas’ few urban rail lines running through it, it’s close to The Domain (the existing second city center), Austin FC (the region’s first pro sports team and arena) is nearby, Kalahari Resort’s massive convention center is here, and if you’re familiar with the notion of the Texas Triangle, you can see how it’s Round Rock that sits slightly more convenient to the aspects of the triangle.
Technology is Ultimately About People and their Potential
Unlocking the potential of people, so that you might fuel a regional economy that is entrepreneurial and innovative, starts first with recognizing that “tech” is not a focus specific enough. Round Rock, TX is not just “tech” — nor is Austin “tech” any more than you might consider a predecessor region from which people are leaving, “tech.” Its people with passion distinct to what matters there and fueling the future of technology in Texas are a few inspired people who have shifted from work previous into what they do now, in Round Rock.
“There is so much growth and opportunity ahead for Central Texas and Round Rock, and the Chamber has been an important catalyst for that growth.” Jordan Robinson, President of the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce.
As of recently, Jordan Robinson helms the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce, before which she served as the Senior Director of Regional Economic Development for the Greater Houston Partnership, managing projects representing more than 11,000 jobs and $8.2 billion in capital investment. Two years were spent before, working with the Greater Houston Partnership, working for the Office of Governor as the Strategic Business Development Manager for the state of Texas. Brad Napp finds himself too recently in Round Rock and that caught my attention notably because it was a conversation with Brad, many years ago, through the state of Texas offices, that helped inspire the role MediaTech Ventures now plays in developing early startups throughout the world. Brad is now responsible for leading the Round Rock Chamber’s Investor Engagement team to elevate investor experiences in the region.
People with great potential.
What we draw from Venture Development (the focus of Economic Development on entrepreneurship and innovation), is that we must better clarify the network of people accessible in the region and meaningful to the work we hope to inspire. This is why a region must identify better the industries of specialization, than mere “tech,” so that it might align the employers, mentors, and potential investors, to mitigate the risks taken by entrepreneurs. When I look to Round Rock and the region, I see these distinct sectors of strength with which to focus regional innovation:
1. Life Sciences
- Antimicrobial Test Laboratories
- Ascension Seton Williamson
- Cen-Tex Machining, Inc.
- Laser Scientific
- Lehle Seeds
- M3 Design
- Micro-BAC International, Inc.
- Millipore Sigma
- Army Futures Command
- Advanced Aerospace Design
- Precision Honeycomb
3. Innovative Manufacturing
- National Instruments
- TECO-Westinghouse Motor Company
- Texas Instruments
4. Sports tech
- Round Rock Express
- Austin FC
- The Crossover and Fieldhouse
- Perfect Game
- Cedar Park’s HEB Center
- Old Settlers Park
5. Media & Entertainment
- Certain Affinity
- Community Impact Newspapers
- Cytek Media Systems
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
What we look to accomplish, in further developing an ecosystem to deliver meaningful returns from innovation, is a Venture Development model that focuses the attention on what we have from a flywheel (below), in the specific sectors of strength in a region, to put the right pieces in place to foster entrepreneurs.
Fueling The Region Further with Venture Development
Companies provide sector stability in that they offer the jobs, job training, and even some capital investment (sponsorship) of the respective industries. Company executives and directors are ideal mentors and angel investors, while the companies themselves are the initial partners founders seek in what they’re working to manifest. Clearly, North Central Texas, around Round Rock, distinguishes Texas technology with strengths not found elsewhere.
Incubators teach founders while providing the resources and a network of peers and mentors familiar with this stage or those sectors in particular.
Notice how in our visual, how Companies overlap with Incubators; and likewise, how each element of a startup ecosystem overlaps with another, all supporting the Venture Development work.
Incubator CTX and Tech Ranch operate nearby but where Round Rock and the surrounding region can accelerate innovation and entrepreneurship most is with a renewed focus on developing incubators here where investors and technology companies like those above, serve them.
With Innovation Workspaces, Regus, Wilco, Coworking Pflugerville, Expansive North Austin, WeWork at The Domain, and T-Werx, as well as the developing Round Rock Library, the region has shared workspace but since coworking lowers the cost of office space, while also serving as event space and providing what’s considered “coincidental collisions,” a focus of spaces on the industries identified would further fuel Texas innovation.
Incubators look to Coworking spaces as places to operate; and in as much as a founder shouldn’t pay for office space, from a Venture Development perspective, it’s silly to make our Incubators pay for property just to exist — we want them thriving on behalf of the founders.
It’s here where Intellectual Property is more meaningfully researched, developed, and commercialized. Distinct from Incubators, which teach founders and help develop the ventures, look to what’s found in the region for product development, R&D, and Production. Startup Studios tend to align with specific industries as resources applicable to what’s being done — wet labs, robotics spaces, film studios, and creative design hub: to best serve the regions’ strengths, work together to establish Startup Studios.
Providing seed capital to accepted startups, Accelerators play a later stage role than Incubators, providing things like Media Relations and other means of scalable growth, access to relevant partners since you’re ready for them, and more direct access to capital than mere introductions and office hours.
Beyond Startup Studios, founders look to Accelerators when they know what they’re doing (perhaps from an Incubator earlier), have developed solutions (IP and products — such as what emerges from Startup Studios), and are ready to *go*
Venture Capital is a critical facet of Venture Development as it serves as both the aggregator of capital resources (referred to as Capital Formation) and exists as a signal of a healthy startup ecosystem. VCs and Angel Investors get involved with startups seeking a Return on Investment; that manifests from “Exits” — either a venture going public and becoming a publicly traded company or getting acquired.
Thus, Venture Capital helps drive founders to exit, cycling capital back into funds, through successful founders, and moving Intellectual Property and innovative teams back into Companies.
One of the great benefits of the Round Rock and North Austin region is that much of Central Texas’ venture capital community is found up and down the MoPac and 620 freeways, just around the corner and a quick drive from where it resides, to here. VC is much more accessible in this region than it might be considered elsewhere in the area.
Providing capital at the scale necessary for founders the result of (directly or indirectly) what we’ve covered thus far, VC brings us full circle in Venture Development, back to Companies through Corporate Venture Funds and the role Companies play in acquiring startups (delivering exits) that return investments to Venture Capital.
The Stories of Dell as Inspiration to the Region
It’s October 2021, and one of Texas’ consummate entrepreneurs publishes Play Nice But Win: A CEO’s Journey from Founder to Leader. The venture development of identified opportunities for innovation is playing nice to win.
“Play Nice But Win is exactly right. Exceptional entrepreneurs like Michael Dell have changed the world under great pressure, but with great success. Michael tells you how to be successful and true to your values in this awe-inspiring narrative of what it takes.”
- Eric Schmidt, cofounder of Schmidt Futures and former CEO and chairman of Google
I’m immediately drawn to the book in as much as I’ve recently been drawn to Dhar Mann who is tirelessly inspiring kindness, “Please don’t ever get tired of being a good person with a good heart. People like you are what give this world hope, so always be as good as you are.” This is the responsibility of entrepreneurs; this is the epicenter of the future of technology: giving the world hope by doing good.
Michael Dell wrote about it, revealing the highs and lows of the company’s evolution amidst a rapidly changing industry, recalling the mentors who showed him how to turn his passion into a business, revealing the competitors who became friends, foes, or both, and highlighting the sharks that circled, looking for weakness.
“This is Dell Direct. With insightful frankness and humor, Michael Dell tells his story, that of his iconic company and the grit required to compete in the ever-growing technology industry. This is a book for entrepreneurs, leaders, and dreamers.”
- Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
What emerges from Dell’s story is the story that reveals the future of technology in Texas in the long-term vision underpinning his success: that technology is ultimately about people and their potential. As you look to Texas, increasingly look to the impact so many entrepreneurs, investors, innovators, and mentors, have had through the region in and around Round Rock, TX.