Longtime Houston innovator talks investment trends and ecosystem evolution
Over the years, John “JR” Reale may have transitioned to various roles within the Houston innovation ecosystem, but the people he was working with stayed the same.
“My focus is always on partnering with founders — I just get to do it with two amazing hats,” Reale says on this week’s episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.
Those two hats are as executive in residence at Texas Medical Center Innovation and as managing director of Integr8d Capital, an early-stage fundless venture capital firm that invests with intentionality. Reale joined the podcast for a special two-part series. The first episode is out now and focuses on his career in innovation and investment. The second part, which comes out next week, covers health tech innovation and his work with Texas Medical Center.
Most people might know Reale as one of the co-founders of Station Houston, a hub for tech innovation and entrepreneurship that launched in 2015 and dissolved into a few entities like The Ion and Capital Factory in 2018. Reale says on the show that Station’s success came at a crucial time for Houston.
“Our big insight was ultimately around two things. One, we had a great empathy about how lonely and challenging it is being a founder. It was about building an authentic community where folks wanted to be,” Reale says on the show. “Later in 2016 and 2017, we had this idea of separating space for the services and the things that founders need — especially in a big city like Houston.”
Reale says Station was focused on the founders and providing a centralized location for support — something that sprawling Houston didn’t have before.
“Our mission was really simple,” he says, “it was to serve entrepreneurs. We knew who we wanted to serve, and we knew it meant a lot of different things.”
Around the time of Station, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office asked Reale to join a task force with Amanda Edwards and several other impactful parties. The mission there was to get everyone on the same page and not only see the city’s potential for innovation, but work on developing it.
“We went through a journey as a task force,” Reale says. “A lot of it was about learning together. One of the big insights were about meeting people where they were. You’re bringing all different pockets of the community together, and it’s not about dictating what people have to do.”
When it comes to pointing to a turning point in Houston, Reale doesn’t mince words.
“One of the most important moments for Houston was when we got kicked in the teeth with the Amazon HQ2 bid,” he says. “Amazon came back with the shortlist of the 20 cities in North America — and Houston isn’t on it. I remember being excited. It was arguably the most innovative company in the world saying ‘no thank you.'”
Rather than feel defeated or disappointed, Reale says he was excited about the rejection. It was an opportunity to spur more work that needed to be done.
“That was the gut punch that folks needed to realize,” he says. “Moments like that cause real reflection. Failure like that forces you to ask a different set of questions.”
The pandemic has meant for another, though very different, turning point and opportunity — especially when it comes to investment.
“Over the last few years we’ve seen a positive impact of the pandemic — it’s changed the barriers to capital coming into different geographies, and I think that’s sustainable. We’ve created new norms and behaviors of where capital will go,” he says.
There’s still room to grow and opportunities to come to fruition — especially within the early-stage investment community, Reale says.
“I’d like to see more funds launch here with very intentional strategies — particularly seed and early-stage work. You usually find those to be more geographically close,” he says. “That’s an opportunity. And I’d like to see more awesome operators turned investors.”
Reale shares more about Integr8d Capital and what he’s working on now on the podcast episode, as well as in next week’s episode. Listen to the first interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.