Houston Tech Center’s Ulrich Reflects on City’s Growing Ecosystem

Houston — Walter Ulrich, CEO of the Houston Technology Center, is returning to his professional roots.

Ulrich is stepping down from his HTC post next year, after a decade at the helm of the Houston-based tech startup incubator. Now, he’s seeking to work with other nonprofits or medium-sized companies that might need some help in a Houston economy addled by low oil prices. “They’re not experts at financial management and stewardship,” he says. “I’d like to help, in a four- to six-month turnaround and use my expertise in technology.”

A business consultant, Ulrich originally came to Houston to help turn around Mincron Software Systems. He made his way to HTC in 2007. In that time, the organization has opened branches at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and The Woodlands, a suburb north of Houston. In 2014, Bob McNair, the businessman owner of the Houston Texans football team, announced a program with HTC that would give as many as 30 Houston startups $25,000 each.

During Ulrich’s tenure at HTC, the startup community in Houston at-large has grown to include a number of efforts focused on healthcare (the TMCx accelerator at the Texas Medical Center and JLabs), general tech (Station Houston), university accelerators (RedLabs and OwlSpark), and energy (Surge.) And, the Rice Business Plan competition continues to bring in startups from all over the world.

As Ulrich takes the year to finish up his tenure at HTC, I asked him to reflect on the challenges and promise that he’s seen in the Houston innovation community. Here’s a lightly edited version of our conversation:

Xconomy: When you started, what was the biggest obstacle to innovation in Houston?

Walter Ulrich: There was no ecosystem, no infrastructure to speak of. Houston was an oil town; all the innovation was done within laboratories at energy companies. It was an aerospace town focused on the space shuttle program. It was a life sciences town that focused on treating patients. It was a great town, but when HTC started, it wasn’t much in the way of a startup ecosystem.

X: What is the biggest accomplishment for HTC during your tenure?

WU: What HTC has accomplished is driving and helping to create an ecosystem, being part of the number of companies that have started here and thrived. We’ve created visibility for the Houston area. Look at the HTC employees that have become leaders in the community: Blair Garrou [founder and managing director at Houston venture capital firm Mercury Fund] cut his teeth at the HTC. Look at the great job he’s done at Mercury.

Many others have come through here. They have been at the heart of the growth of the technology ecosystem.

X: What is one piece of advice you will give your successor?

WU: Be a good listener. We have a great staff that knows what they’re doing, so don’t over-manage the staff. We have a great board that provides wonderful guidance; don’t over-manage the board. Listen to the community. This is a great organization, and leadership will count; management will not.

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