COVID-19 Series: Fireside Chat with Sylvester Turner, Mayor of Houston

Published on Jun. 12, 2020

Houston, the fourth largest city in America, knows about resilience. They’ve been hit by some severe natural disasters in recent years (Hurricane Harvey, back in 2017, dumped 275 trillion pounds of rain on the city area). And yet, with strong leadership and creativity, its citizens have managed to come out stronger and move forward.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has successfully led the city through these crises and he’s also been influential in building the technology ecosystem in Houston. Now, they’re facing the COVID-19 pandemic. At Plug and Play, we had the great opportunity to host a virtual Fireside Chat between Mayor Turner and our Founder & CEO, Saeed Amidi.

Check out the video of the full event:

The First Cases of COVID-19

Towards the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, the novel coronavirus was already becoming strong in China. In February, it spread in Milan. That same month, seeing that the international spread of the virus was a reality, Mayor Turner met with some of the leaders of the Texas Medical Center for the city to be prepared in case the virus arrived in the U.S.

“It was the first week of March when we started taking preventive actions,” said Turner. Large conferences had to be rescheduled, and they registered the first confirmed cases, all of them of people that had recently traveled internationally. But the coronavirus is highly contagious and, on March 10th, the city registered the first case of an infected person that hadn’t left the country. “That was the first case of community spread in the city of Houston.”

How to Keep Citizens Safe While Protecting the Economy

“How do you keep the balance between getting the economy going and taking care of the health of your city?,” asked Amidi. It’s a fair question. Nowadays, the situation has forced governments to choose between protecting their citizens’ health or the economy. A complicated trade-off. 

“It’s a very delicate balance, especially when you’re facing a healthcare crisis,” said Turner, “But we’ve been battle-tested before,” referring to the major natural disasters Houston has endured. None of them has stopped the city.  

“With COVID-19, those businesses that were deemed essential were never closed, such as residential and commercial construction, road construction, housing… Parks have always been kept open, too.” Of course, some sectors have suffered most: retail, events and conferences, tourism, or the entertainment industry. 

He has a message of hope, though: “I know people are tired of being at home, but we have now started to reopen the city.”

The Importance of Investing in Technology

With thousands of people from all over the world staying at home, society is now more virtual than ever before. Innovation plays a key role in this landscape, and Mayor Turner is aware of the relevance of technology in the current situation. 

“We spend billions of dollars on our capital improvement projects, constructing buildings. We are now taking a second look at our capital improvement program and we are seeing that we need to invest more in technology.”

A greater use of technology is in our future. And so we’re not just looking at how we can erect or construct buildings, but now I am investing more money into technology, because we have to create a much more nimble society. If we want to deal with these types of viruses, we need to build a stronger, more resilient and more sustainable city. And technology is a vital part of it.”

Working From Home During (And After) The Lockdown

One of the main consequences of this virtual landscape is remote work. The novel coronavirus has forced people to work from home, but no one knows what’s going to happen now. Will this change the way we work? 

“I'm a little excited about what the future holds,” said Mayor Turner. “A number of our city employees in various departments have been working remotely. I've looked at the reports on a weekly basis and, in some cases, the performance is even greater working remotely.  I'm not going to change their operation, they will continue to work virtually. And we'll see how that continues to go.”

In order to help businesses with employees working from home, we listed 6 startups that could help those working remotely, as well as 5 startups that protect remote workers from cyber attacks

Houston: The Energy Capital of the World

Houston employs nearly a third of the nation's jobs in oil and gas extraction, and it’s home to 4,600 energy-related firms. Back in 2019, Plug and Play opened an office in the city, focused on matching large corporations and startups in the energy sector. 

“Houston is the energy capital of the world, and I'm not just talking about oil and gas. There's a great deal of innovation that's taking place.”, said Mayor Turner. “We recognize that if we want to continue to be the capital, we have to be resilient, and we have to come up with innovative strategies that utilize technology in a very real way. So, if you will allow me to say this, I don't think that there's another city anywhere in the world that has all of the different elements that, when they come together, can really speak to the future of where not only our country is going, but where we are going globally.”

We have to be resilient, and we have to come up with innovative strategies that utilize technology in a very real way

“The city is moving. The opportunities are immense right here in the city, even though the energy sector been has been hard hit by COVID-19. One thing I know about the city is how resilient people come together. The talent is immense and the diversity of our city is an asset.”

Shifting Towards Renewable Energy

At Plug and Play, we work with some of the main corporations worldwide, such as Shell Germany, to help them to innovate and diversify their energy production to clean energy. The city of Houston has its own share of large companies embracing renewable energy. 

“This is the city that has purchased more renewables than any other city in the country.  And we are proud of the companies that work here. They’re also diversifying, recognizing the importance of creating this innovative ecosystem, with clean energy, renewables, wind, solar, you name it.”

Investing in Startups in Houston

“We’re really looking forward to connecting Houston startups with our VC friends,” said Amidi. “There is a lot of money in Houston. We just have to put it to good use and tell our network to invest in startups and mentor them.”

I'm so excited that Plug and Play is here in the city of Houston,” said Mayor Turner. “This is fertile ground. People are adventurous. They create, they're innovative. My job as the Mayor is to do everything we can to support Plug and Play and others, and making it work.”

Fostering Collaboration

“What was happening in the city of Houston was that a lot of innovation was taking place in different sectors, but they were like silos. In the energy sector, there were startups innovating, as well as in the healthcare delivery sector or in manufacturing. But there wasn’t any integration between them,” said Turner. 

“So what we are doing now, and we are very intentional about it, is creating this integrated, robust ecosystem where people are collaborating with one another. Now that we are doing that, this ecosystem has taken off. The dollars are here, the venture capital is here, we’re encouraging others to bring those dollars here and invest. There’s talent, there’s a young population… All of those elements are conducive to growth and investment and opportunity in the city.”

Recovering From COVID-19

When asked if the city has a plan to overcome the current situation, the answer is a clear yes. 

“The goal is to put forth strategies and plans, not just for the short term, but for the long term as well. This recovery is critically important. It's not just about getting past this particular virus, but how do we rebuild our economy and make it even better than it was before?”

“That's one of the things that we learned from Hurricane Harvey. It's not talking about building things back. That's a failed philosophy. It’s thinking, “how do we learn from what we have gone through and put ourselves in a better position so that the economy can thrive even more? We're very resilient people and we’ll come together like never before. As long as those elements are in place, we are situated quite nicely for our future. Every challenge has an opportunity. Now let's find the opportunities and let’s learn how we can build forward.”

 We have launched a global COVID-19 accelerator dedicated to scaling the world’s most promising startups who can help address the coronavirus pandemic. Join the platform today.