Dallas billionaire Mark Cuban dispenses his no-holds-barred business advice on ABC’s Shark Tank, where budding entrepreneurs seek money from him and other high-profile investors. Now he’s offering that same brand of advice to Austin.
In a recent email interview, we asked Cuban to pinpoint the economic Achilles’ heel of Austin.
“I think it needs more than one major university,” Cuban says. “There needs to be some competition and diversity of programs like the [Silicon] Valley, Boston, Pittsburgh and other hot areas have. UT is not enough.”
“There needs to be some competition and diversity of programs like the [Silicon] Valley, Boston, Pittsburgh and other hot areas have. UT is not enough.”
What constitutes a “major” university? Cuban defines it as a school with a national consumer reputation for excellence, as opposed to a school that enjoys a solid reputation only in academic circles. To fill the void, a school would need to embrace “a very high standard for admission, education and graduation.”
As it stands now, the University of Texas dominates the local higher education landscape. But if any other school in the Austin area were poised to achieve the rank of “major,” it would be Texas State University in San Marcos.
Currently, enrollment at Texas State stands second behind UT’s among four-year colleges and universities in the Austin area, and the San Marcos school remains a notch below its larger counterpart in terms of stature.
Texas State is moving up the ladder, though. In 2012, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board classified Texas State as an “emerging research” university, in the same company as schools like the UT campuses in Arlington, Dallas, El Paso and San Antonio. That’s one step below UT’s main campus in Austin, which the state recognizes as a top-tier research university.
“It is the start of a new era for our university,” Texas State President Denise Trauth said in 2012.
Texas State is one of eight public universities in Texas that are competing to join UT, Texas A&M University and Rice University in the top tier. Among the eight contenders, Texas Tech University and the University of Houston are the closest to earning top-tier status. For all eight schools, it could take anywhere from several years to several decades — along with millions of dollars — to reach that level.
While citing the ascent of Texas State, Kelly Carper Polden, a spokeswoman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, also pointed out that Texas has 38 public universities, and many of them operate satellite campuses in the Austin area. This offers local students “a variety of high-quality choices as they pursue dreams of higher education,” she said.
“In short, the Central Texas region has a strong higher education infrastructure already in place,” Polden said, “and is poised to continue to strengthen higher education opportunities in the years to come.”
Despite the lack of more than one major university, the Dallas Mavericks owner remains high on Austin. He recently told North Carolina’s Triangle Business Journal that he thinks economic growth in areas like Austin, Dallas, Boston and Raleigh, North Carolina, will “dwarf” that of Silicon Valley.
What are Austin’s advantages? Cuban mentions low taxes, great weather and “Texas spirit,” as well as a cluster of medical, computer and “theoretical science” companies that “is growing and improving rapidly.”
“There is a wide variety of opportunity in Austin,” he says.
Cuban has invested in only a couple of Austin startups, including online auto insurance marketplace The Zebra, “but I expect that number to grow,” he says.
Who knows? Perhaps Cuban spotted one or more of his new Austin investment targets at the 2013 Longhorn Startup Demo Day, hosted by UT. At that event, Cuban listened to pitches from 14 student-led startups. He declared that some of the pitches he heard at UT “were better than ones I’ve seen on Shark Tank.”
Cuban says he’s been in touch with several of the companies that presented at the Demo Day, but he can’t discuss details.
As he has made quite clear numerous times, Cuban won’t be sinking money into any startups in Silicon Valley. So, what’s his beef with the Northern California tech hub?
“They have an insulated culture. They really don’t have a feel for what happens outside the valley,” he says. “That, plus there is a level of arrogance that inflates the valuation of startups beyond reason.”