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How the hurricane shifted startups in Houston

Flooding in Houston
Flooding in Houston, Texas, as a result of Hurricane Harvey. | Photo: Matthew Hager

Hurricane Harvey presented a crisis nimble entrepreneurs could help solve when necessity shifted focus to community impact.

Since Harvey hit Houston, Gabriella Rowe has noted a shift in the city’s burgeoning startup community.

Companies who were focused on coding and designing realized that there was more potential for their technology – to directly improve people’s lives, said Rowe, CEO of tech incubator Station Houston.

“It galvanized the startup community around what impact really means, and several startups adopted the idea of impact being a really important part of who they are,” said Rowe.

“It’s human nature – they’ve seen the important power you can have as technologists and innovators, and for the entrepreneurs that have grabbed onto that, it’s their lifeblood. They’ve experienced what impact can mean, and how they can really help people, and they don’t want to go back,” she said.

A year after the storm, the Houston economy is doing well, but much of this might be attributable to a bubble of jobs related to the recovery, created by federal relief funds and insurance payouts. About 7 percent of Houston’s housing required replacement or repair, fueling construction work.

It may be too early to judge if Harvey was the impetus for a surge in startups, but the area does have a thriving tech scene, with more than 275 companies with digital products, the University of Houston transferring innovations to the marketplace, and the metropolitan area ranking high for minority-owned businesses. It is these entrepreneurs who will help create the new areas of growth for the city.

A problem entrepreneurs could fix

Harvey hit Houston as a tropical storm in August 2017, dumping a record-breaking deluge of water across the Bayou City. Houston’s first responders were inundated with rescue requests – 911 lines were maxed out, and FEMA administrator Brock Long issued an unprecedented call for volunteers with boats to join the rescue effort. “We need citizens to be involved,” Long told reporters. “This is a landmark event. We have not seen an event like this.”

We’re trying to save more lives. Harvey gave us an entirely new focus.
— Matthew Marchetti, founder of CrowdSource Rescue

Matthew Marchetti rounded up his friends and their boats and big trucks and went out to find people in need of rescue. “There were a million requests coming in, and calls, and it was getting really complicated. We had people that were losing their lives when boats and people weren’t available – it was so overwhelming on everybody. We were rescuing somebody in one house and three doors down somebody drowned,” Marchetti said.

“That’s a solvable problem at the end of the day. We thought, ‘There’s a problem here that tech can fix.’

Beyond having several boats between them, Marchetti and his friends were app developers for a Houston-area real estate startup, with an expertise in creating maps. In six hours, they whipped up a website with a simple map that allowed people to plot their homes and request rescue, and allowed rescuers to easily find them. “We woke up the next morning and 1,000 people needed help, and luckily, spontaneous volunteers found the site and began dispatching their own rescues,” he said.

Marchetti estimated that tens of thousands were rescued through his team’s web-based app. And before they’d caught their breath, Hurricane Irma began barreling toward Florida, followed by Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico. Marchetti and his team modified the site to help on the ground in those places, which kept them busy through the end of the year. “Somewhere along the way, we realized, ‘This is just our life now,’” Marchetti said.

Marchetti’s team stepped back from its work on the real estate app, retooled and redeveloped the rescue app, and founded CrowdSource Rescue, an on-the-ground resource for volunteer rescues during natural disasters. The app has since been used during the Mexico City earthquake in 2017, California wildfires, and for this year’s hurricane season, as Hurricane Florence and subsequent flooding battered the Carolinas.

“We’re trying to save more lives,” Marchetti said. “Harvey gave us an entirely new focus.”

For now, the effort is funded by sponsorships and donations.

Focus on impact

Rowe, Station Houston CEO, said Marchetti’s experience is indicative of a broader shift in mindset that occurred in the wake of that storm – including for Station Houston itself. Rowe’s appointment came as part of a pivot toward growing and scaling the company, with a specific emphasis on making a difference.

“Going forward, we are really working with our startup companies to focus on impact, partly because it’s the right thing to do, and partly because it’s incredibly appealing to the Millennial and Gen Z talent in the pipeline,” Rowe said. “How do we collectively source talent and how do we ensure that our startup community is focused on things that are going to benefit our city and community? That’s the example we want to set for what an incubator can be.”

Marchetti and his team have shifted their sights from running a successful company to running a successful company that leaves a lasting impact on the world. And the startup culture in Houston has risen to the task of supporting CrowdSource Rescue in that goal.

“Houston is a very good city to have a startup in; we’re able to reach out to really qualified people with questions on some of the intricacies of running a social-good company – this idea of being self-sustaining, doing a real good for the community without going bankrupt,” Marchetti said. “There’s a tremendous number of great startups and a tremendous amount of wealth here, and being able to tap into that is great.”

Rowe said that during Harvey, there was a breadth of services set up by startups – from coordinating food donations to setting up and mapping ad hoc shelters – and while many of those nimble tools lasted just through the storm, they still left an impact on their creators as they moved forward in their own startups. “If you feel that once, you want to feel that way again, like what you’re doing matters,” Rowe said. “It feels good in a way that simply running a successful business doesn’t.”

Crowdsource Rescue
A screen from CrowdSource Rescue shows the number of people seeking help in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence along Neuse River in North Carolina.