Austin, Inc.'s No. 1 Surge City, is as dynamic as it is surprising. These four Austin locals (and a recent transplant) represent the thriving parts of the city, as well as aspects that are still a work in progress.
Veronica Garza had long struggled with an autoimmune disorder when, in 2009, she discovered that switching to a grain-free diet improved her health dramatically. Only one problem: that might mean no more of the killer tortillas served at frequent Garza family cookouts in Laredo. Veronica decided to concoct a replacement tortilla made with almond flour. Five years later, her youngest brother, Miguel, who was living in Austin, convinced her and their mother, Aida, that they could build a business there around Veronica's creation. After the family got distribution in a local co-op, a friend of Whole Foods co-founder and CEO John Mackey's recommended the brand to him. Siete Family Foods (the brand is named for the Garza family of seven, all of whom are employees) soon found itself at the heart of a booming consumer-packaged-goods startup scene in Austin. A connection to the founders of Epic Provisions, a successful protein-bar company, led to an early investor. A local consumer products accelerator called SKU led the Garzas to Ben Ponder, SKU's CEO and Siete's eventual COO. "We're in 4,000 stores around the country now and growing really fast," Miguel, the CEO, says. Veronica, president and chief innovation officer, is focused on developing paleo and gluten-free foods inspired by their Mexican-American heritage. "Austin has a lot of folks who have paved the way," he says.
"This isn't well known in the world, but if you live in Austin and understand computer science, you know that many seminal products were developed here, particularly in artificial intelligence," says Amir Husain, whose A.I. company, SparkCognition, works with such clients as Boeing, Honeywell, and the U.S. Department of Energy. IBM has long had a large presence in Austin--"Much of the development of IBM's Watson was done here," he notes. The serial entrepreneur moved to Austin from Lahore, Pakistan, as a teenager to learn from his computer-science hero, Turing Award-winner Edsger Dijkstra, and his colleagues at the University of Texas. Now Husain represents a strain of deep tech in Austin, home to firms like data and engagement platform Umbel, and even the legendary game-developer Richard Garriott's Portalarium, which Husain admires for its rich in-game A.I. Longtime Austin tech stalwarts including Dell and Bazaarvoice continue to feed the talent pool, but Husain reserves the most credit for UT. "It's one of the largest universities in the country, in enrollment, with a top 10 computer-science department," he says. "Plus, Austin has an open-mindedness--it embraces all cultures and the arts along with the sciences. That combination is very hard to beat."
The Silicon Valley Transplant
Famous for being a life hacker, author, podcaster, and prolific startup investor who was early to Uber, Twitter, and many other now-household tech names, Tim Ferriss might be the ultimate Silicon Valley creation. And yet he moved to Austin in 2017. Why? "I love that there's a conspicuous lack of a single dominant industry here," he says. "In San Francisco, it felt like an echo chamber; there's a mono conversation about technology. In Austin, I'm friends with tech people but also oil and gas people, consumer-products people, filmmakers." After he unofficially retired from investing in tech companies about three years ago, he began to crave more diverse perspectives--hence the reset. For Ferriss, the move also delivers on a longtime wish. "I wanted to live in Austin after college and tried to get a job at the software company Trilogy," he says. "That didn't work out, but I returned again and again for South by Southwest and came to love the city."
When Joah Spearman launched his travel-recommendations service, Localeur, in 2013, he was a rarity as a black tech-company founder--and even more so in Austin, where the black population has shrunk as its overall population has boomed. Spearman, meanwhile, has become an outspoken advocate for increasing diversity in the city's startups. "The city really embraces small companies because they are driving so much growth," he says. "But it's all too easy to give startups a pass on diversity and think of it as a big-company problem." Spearman, who has raised roughly $5 million for Localeur from angel investors, says he found it nearly impossible to raise money from local venture capital firms--in part, he suspects, because there was no precedent for founders who looked like him. As Austin's challenges with diversity have begun to attract public attention in recent years, more advocates are speaking out, and Spearman says he's beginning to see change. Kungfu.AI founder Stephen Straus, with backing from local business leaders, launched a Startup Diversity and Inclusion Pledge that he asks founders to sign and plans to take nationwide.