BROWNSVILLE, Texas – Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation is set to host the inaugural StartUp Texas Pitch Summit this Wednesday, July 8 via a livestream from the Brownsville Performing Arts Academy.
BCIC Executive Director Josh Mejia said the event will showcase early stage companies presenting their product or service to a judging panel of industry experts, venture capitalists, and high profile media.
If the judges like what they see and hear, the finalists could win a share of $100,000.
In a Zoom conversation with The Rio Grande Guardian, Mejia said there was a little bit of uncertainty as to whether BCIC’s StartUp Texas program would be a success, due to the economic downturn caused by COVID-19. However, he said his fears have been allayed.
“We have narrowed it down to ten finalist startups that are scalable. Some are homegrown and some from Mexico City, and some coming from the northeast portion of the country, up in Boston.”
Mejia said he and the BCIC team are thrilled to see the level of interest from venture capitalists.
“Based on this program generating a lot of buzz, we were actually able to partner up with some venture capitalist firms that are also going to be able to provide investment opportunities for these startups. So, not only do we have that grant portion that we can provide these startups with, but we also have the private sector that is looking to pump in some private sector dollars towards these businesses.”
Mejia was pleased to deliver a punchline: “And that is all happening here in Brownsville.”
A reporter noted that the words “venture capitalists” and “Rio Grande Valley” are rarely used in the same sentence. Mejia responded: “It’s a brand new language.”
Asked if Brownsville City Commission is pleased with the work BCIC has done in getting StartUp Texas off the ground, Mejia said: “I think they are proud not only of the group but I think they are proud of the collective effort that we are doing. More than anything I think there is a new sense of excitement that has not been experienced before. Venture capitalists, seed funding, Series A funding, it is all brand new to the folks down here.”
Mejia said BCIC chairman Michael J. Limas has been very good at expressing the concept of StartUp Texas to city and community leaders.
“We are opening the doors for hundreds of millions of dollars that are available in the state, from these private venture capitalist firms. And now they have their attention and their presence in Brownsville, looking at the startups, we are going to go ahead (with a livestream) and present. We have just raised the bar.”
Mejia said efforts such as StartUp Texas are starting to change the culture of Brownsville.
“We are trying to change the culture so that we start thinking about, okay, if I want to start a business in the Valley, specifically in Brownsville, Texas, what kind of business is going to open up markets for me?”
Mejia gave a shoutout to Jordana Barton of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas for her help in increasing broadband connectivity in Brownsville.
“Through the power of broadband the conversations we have been having with Jordana and city leaders here in Brownsville, this is the place to get started. And with BCIC’s assistance now providing up to $20,000 in grants, you can essentially start a business here and grow at a very fast pace,” Mejia said.
“Jordana is helping us lead an effort into bridging the digital divide in the city. She has also been very present in the upper Valley, in Pharr, and is a great asset to have for the community.”
Mejia also thanked the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism. This department will be part of the livestream.
“They are helping provide more awareness of what the Valley is doing, specifically, Brownsville in terms of entrepreneurship. So, I encourage everybody to view the livestream event we have on July 8. We were hoping to have it just in person but due to COVID we want to make sure that everybody’s health is a priority. So, we will have this live-streaming event and it will be up on StartUpTexas.com. It will also be up on our social media accounts. We will be looking to partner with great publications like the Rio Grande Guardian so we can have the livestream video playing on their website.”
Asked what budding entrepreneurs who missed the cut for this first go-round of funding should do, Mejia said: “We have already gotten a lot of calls and emails and even some LinkedIn messages from entrepreneurs that would want to participate in it but we are just putting them on queue for the next round.”
Mejia acknowledged that he had his doubts about whether StartUp Texas would be a winner.
“I was very skeptical coming in. I believed in the power of entrepreneurship, I believed in the human capital of our area. But I just felt that perhaps the type of venture that would be coming in might not have been strong enough to be able to attract venture capitalists to come down. To my surprise and the surprise of a lot of people, the ten companies that we actually got as finalists are companies that are already being recognized either statewide, nationally or in their own country, as well.”
Mejia said representatives from COMENER (Consejo Mexicano de la Energia) have traveled from Mexico City to Brownsville to experience what is on offer for startup businesses.
“In the energy and oil sector we have companies in this New Space category. We have a company that looks to provide GIS mapping services from the Moon. We have companies as well that are using NASA technology and patented NASA technology in order to come up and solve issues for the energy sector,” Mejia noted.
“Out of nowhere we also had a company that is looking to produce a more cost-effective silicon wafer for microchip manufacturing. And they all want to that here in Brownsville. So, we have people traveling in from Monterrey, from Mexico City, from Boston, they are going to chime in. They want to expand and relocate here in Brownsville, Texas. That is all happening because of the eco-system we are building here.”
Mejia added that Startup Texas will augment plans to build a large incubator for startup businesses.
“So think of Startup Texas as being that carrot at the end of the stick. All these entrepreneurs that are coming in to the center, learning about all the fundamental resources needed to scale up a business, will now feel that access to capital is no longer an issue in the Rio Grande Valley. Why? Because BCIC is going to be able to provide some grants but we are also using this whole ecosystem and program to attract VC’s, angel investors from outside of the area, to start looking into what Brownsville has to offer.
“And that is not only attractive to folks within the community, it is also attractive to Latin America and other states in our country. We really want to create that attraction piece in Brownsville, to be able to attract all sorts of human capital from all walks of life to be able to start a business, scale it up and truly grow and diversify our economy down here.”
Asked for any wrap-up remarks, Mejia said: “So, the biggest takeaway I would like to give out to everybody is, we have this responsibility as economic developers and leaders of our communities to be able to address the challenges that are currently being faced with COVID-19. But with supplemental programs that also foster new ventures during these times, you just never know you might find that one piece that is going to balance the economy for you in the long run.”
Mejia noted that quite a few of the large tech companies around today started during the 2008-09 economic collapse. “They found challenges but they also found great opportunities to pursue. So, I think we have a good mixture here in the Valley and especially here in Brownsville, Texas, because here is where a lot of the activity is going on at the moment.”
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