HTC Asia Fosters Opportunity Beyond the Horizon

 

Vinit Sharma moved to the Bayou City last month to launch his company's first U.S. location. His spartan one-man office, Room 117 at the Houston Technology Center, is where the journey begins.

Sharma is senior manager of marketing for Gulf Guar Gum, which processes a key ingredient in drilling fluids used for hydraulic fracturing. Houston is its biggest market. Its parent company is based in India, which Sharma calls home, and Gulf Guar Gum processes its product in Oman in the Middle East.

"It's better to be present here rather than to market from India and contact them on the phone," Sharma explained.

His arrival also marks a milestone for HTC-Asia & Middle East, which was launched in early 2013 to build business partnerships to share emerging technologies between companies in the U.S., Asia and the Middle East. Gulf Guar Gum is the first of its companies to open a U.S. office.

"It's a special time because HTC is really trying to establish Houston as the international hub for emerging technologies," said Sid Vinyard, founder and chairman of HTC-Asia.

HTC-Asia, a privately funded enterprise that shares the HTC name but operates separately, aspires to get Asian and Middle Eastern companies to invest in Houston startups and bring their companies and technologies to Asia. Houston will do the same, bringing overseas businesses and technologies here.

"We will push U.S. technologies to Asia," Vinyard said. "And we will pull emerging Asian technologies from Asia to the U.S. to establish their U.S. presence. So it's a two-way pipeline flowing both ways."

The initiative will further cultivate Houston's business ties with these regions.

In 2014, more than $27.7 billion in goods and commodities were exported to Asian markets through the Houston-Galveston Customs District. That's 21.1 percent of all exports through the district last year, according to international trade database WISERTrade. Imports from Asia totaled $42.6 billion, or 35 percent of all Houston import traffic.

"Asia is a mirror image of Houston in the sense that they both offer imminent growth opportunities," said Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership.

Rapidly growing economies in Asia and the Middle East need industrial equipment and engineering services exported from Houston. Jankowski said these regions provide local businesses an opportunity to grow as Europe's economy remains stagnant. Houston has about 1,500 companies doing business in Asia.

Aiding their efforts are a growing number of nonstop flights to and from Asia and the Middle East. That includes an Emirates flight to Dubai that is gaining buzz for its first-class private suites and showers.

Last year, Bush Intercontinental Airport had 1 million fliers for these regions, including Africa and Australia. That's up 32.5 percent from 2013.

Hans Stockton, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of St. Thomas, said many foreign companies have opened Houston offices in the past few years.

"It used to be that Houston had to go out to the world to find business," he said. "Now the world is coming to Houston."

The city's diversified economy and welcoming attitude toward foreign corporations are attractive. The recent slump in crude oil prices may have put some deals on hold, but Stockton said it hasn't stopped them.

"I think the spirit certainly is still there to engage," he said, "but I think everyone's on hold."

Oil price opportunities

Vinyard said some businesses are even taking advantage of the low crude prices. Gulf Guar Gum, for example, is open to buying an oil services company to expand its U.S. business.

"These companies are looking at opportunities in the U.S. during the oil slump," Vinyard said.

He started the international initiative four years ago and has invested about $250,000 to make HTC-Asia & Middle East a privately funded enterprise. The Houston Technology Center is a nonprofit incubator and accelerator for startups.

"I was just convinced that if we took the same business model, meaning incubation, to Asia that it could be a private venture and be profitable because we have the option … to invest in companies directly should we want to," Vinyard said. "We can take a piece of equity in these companies we choose to help."

He first gathered sponsors in Singapore, Thailand and India. These companies, by writing checks to the organization, gain access to clients and technologies in Houston. They can also open offices in the midtown-based HTC.

Vinyard, who spends about four months in Asia each year, is now seeking sponsors in Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. Early next year, Vinyard plans to explore South Korea and Taiwan.

HTC-Asia has offices in Singapore, where it's based, and Bangkok. Additional employees work in India, and it will open an office in Bahrain by year-end. It also has a business incubator in Bangkok and will open another in Singapore.

Lots of enthusiasm

Bangkok-based SCG is among the organization's more enthusiastic sponsors, and it had an employee spend six months at the local HTC to learn more about opportunities in Houston. SCG owns companies in cement and building materials, chemicals, and paper and packaging.

"By going to HTC, we've got more exposure to the new technology, new ideas," said Suracha Udomsak, the research and development director of SCG Chemicals.

SCG has signed memorandums of understanding with two companies to bring their technologies overseas, Vinyard said.

Like Rice's competition

Also in Bangkok, HTC-Asia is a major sponsor for The mai Bangkok Business Challenge at the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration of Chulalongkorn University. It's similar to the Rice Business Plan Competition, and some teams participate in both.

A-76 Technologies, which creates an anti-corrosion coating and lubricant, was a finalist in Bangkok and placed second at the Rice competition in 2014. It's now a client at HTC in Houston.

The team initially viewed Bangkok as a practice competition for Rice, but it proved to be so much more, CEO Lauren Thompson Miller said.

"It really opened our eyes to the opportunities overseas," she said.

The company has spoken to potential distributors for its product in China, India, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand and other countries. HTC-Asia helped with some of these introductions.

Detecting as releases

HTC-Asia also created connections for Rebellion Photonics, a Houston-based company that creates technology to see and quantify gas releases in real time.

It can detect gas leaks on refineries and offshore rigs before an explosion can occur, and it can monitor methane emissions at hydraulic fracturing sites.

Rebellion Photonics also competed in both competitions - snagging first in Bangkok and second at Rice in 2010 - and was previously a tenant at HTC. More recently, HTC-Asia introduced the company to refineries in Asia.

CEO and co-founder Allison Lami Sawyer said it's nice having HTC-Asia as an ally.

"Asia can be a very difficult nut to crack," she said.