Houston Tech’s Relief Efforts For Harvey Morph Into Ongoing Support

Xconomy Texas — 

Houston—Six months ago, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, flooding much of the city and forcing the sudden evacuation of tens of thousands from their homes. To help with recovery and relief, the city’s tech community came together to create websites and apps to help rescue people and connect them to relief efforts. Tech groups also set up funds to sustain those efforts. Let’s catch up with where they are now.

—As Harvey stalled and ultimately dumped nearly 52 inches of water onto the greater Houston area, Mercury Fund’s Blair Garrou told me he and other tech leaders were concerned that the disruption would adversely affect startup founders and other members of the city’s burgeoning tech scene. That concern gave rise to a new organization, “Entrepreneurs for Houston,” (E4H) which Garrou founded along with Station Houston CEO JR Reale; Erik Halvorsen, director of the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Institute; Sketch City founder Jeff Reichman; and Carolyn Rodz, founder and CEO of Alice. The idea was to create a fund that would be used to deploy technology to help civic and social groups meet needs after the storm.

The group launched with the goal of raising $10 million, but Elena White, who was hired in November to be E4H’s executive director, says the organization decided to focus first on defining its mission before spending the $12,000 it has raised so far.

White says the group has not spent time on further fundraising, but instead has been interacting with social services and civic groups trying to understand their technology needs. “I’m focused on understanding the system’s challenges, and then let’s raise the money to fix those challenges,” White says.

(She also points out that E4H spent much of its efforts in the storm’s aftermath calling attention to the broader Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund set up by city and county leaders, which raised more than $112 million, according to media reports.)

White says she hopes to develop a strategy—and, perhaps, have some pilot projects in place by April to provide sustainable help to the fund’s target organizations.

—The E4H effort eventually marked the beginning of what would become an umbrella civic organization called Houston Exponential, which also launched a fund-of-funds that organizers hope will bring additional venture capital to Houston entrepreneurs, and elevate the city to join the ranks of the nation’s top innovation hubs. The HX Venture Fund is looking to raise as much as $50 million from corporate investors with the idea of seeding that money into venture firms that would seek to invest in Houston startups.

Guillermo Borda, the fund’s manager, says he expects to be able to announce a new investor in the fund by early fall. Additionally, Exponential Houston absorbed the Houston Technology Center, the city’s first organization devoted to startup development.

—As the storm stalled over Houston, the co-working space Station Houston became the staging area for a group of the city’s technologists who developed websites and apps to assist emergency management authorities in rescuing the stranded and connecting those people to available shelter and other resources as efficiently as possible. Two of the websites—Report Your Hours and My Harvey Needs —are still live and being used to aid Harvey victims. Denise Hamilton, founder and CEO of WatchHerWork in Houston, founded My Harvey Needs. She says the website has been transferred to Bread of Life, a Houston non-profit. “They’re still in the day-to-day of that business—serving meals and doing coat and clothing drives,” Hamilton says. “They are walking the neighborhoods and assessing needs, so that is a good place for My Harvey Needs to be.”

As the immediate urgency of needs from the storm has passed, the ties between the tech community and government agencies continue to get stronger, says Sketch City’s Reichman, who led many of the civic tech projects during the storm.

“We know that we’re going to have another disaster,” he says. “Now there is this tech community that can rise up and do stuff to help.”

—Edtech startup Civitas Learning, along with other higher education institutions, banded together to support crowdfunding and other efforts to help college students with emergency needs in order to help them weather the disruptions caused by the storm and stay in school. In October, the fund started with $50,000, but ended up raising nearly $1 million, says Mark Milliron, Civitas’ co-founder. About 90 percent of that funding has been donated to needy students at 35 institutions, he added.

“The whole idea was get it out as quickly as possible,” he says, adding that Civitas is trying to raise an internal challenge match to reach the $1 million tally. “It was about not letting bureaucracy get in the way.”