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Here's how COVID-19 has affected Houston startups — and what they need to know moving forward

Houston's startups and small businesses have a ways to go to truly survive the pandemic, and they should move forward with these things in mind. Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

The effect of COVID-19 on Houston's economy has been unprecedented. While evidence on this impact is only beginning to emerge, it is clear that the economic damage has been particularly severe for startups and small and growing businesses in emerging markets.

Given the importance of startups and small businesses to economic growth and job creation, the survival of these businesses must be a critical part of the global recovery. For example, there are many companies that have seen this pandemic as an opportunity and started providing COVID-19-related services.

Startups are facing financial challenges on multiple fronts

According to a study from Houston Exponential's:

  • Thirty percent of startups reported a loss of revenue due to client uncertainty or delayed contracts. With almost 85 percent of startups identifying as B2B or B2C, many companies are seeing previously guaranteed revenues shrink as enterprise clients cut costs.
  • Twenty-one percent of startups reported paying talent as their biggest talent/hiring challenge. The main concern isn't with finding qualified candidates, it's being able to pay for them. Founders stated that the talent exists, but they can't afford them, or candidates aren't willing to accept a lower salary for equity.
  • Nineteen percent of startups reported a 10 to 20 percent decrease in fundraising valuations. This statistic only includes startups that were raising before and during COVID-19. And 71 percent reported no change in valuations.
  • Fourteen percent of startups reported moving to remote work as their biggest operational challenge. This includes both internal challenges as well as working with clients and prospective customers remotely.

How startups have been using funding amid COVID-19

Post $1 million in funding, the hiring focus shifts to product development.

  • Companies that have raised less than $1 million are looking to drive growth, find sources of revenue and improve their top-line metrics through biz dev, marketing, and sales.
  • Companies that have raised more than $1 million are focusing more on building out and improving their product by hiring engineers and product managers

Note: The median seed round for Houston startups over the past 3 years was $1.9 million and the median angel deal was $610,000, according to Pitchbook.

Tips for surviving the pandemic

The Small Business Continuity Checklist is a diagnostic tool to navigate times of disruption, covering two key areas of management — financial and strategic.

Financial Management Tasks

  • Address future cash shortages, for example, what expenses could be reduced, such as travel and marketing, which operations can be temporarily paused.
  • Consider steps to increase cash coming into the business such as focusing more on product lines/ services that continue to sell well.
  • Explore what grants, subsidies, or loans are available and the eligibility requirements. For example, The Cannon's CERT Program. Here's a list of resources for Houston startups and SMBs.
  • Recycle, re-purpose, or dispose of old or slow-moving stock or inventory. Explore the possibility of sales under special conditions, in order to reduce the projected losses on inventories. Review purchasing policies to prevent overspending on stock/inventory.

Strategic Management Tasks

  • Since user retention is crucial for your future growth, you can provide free subscriptions, contactless delivery, and waive fees to address a larger user base and enhance customer experience. For example, many online learning sites are providing free access to their live and video classes. Similarly, in the healthcare and fitness space, companies can provide for free virtual classes and shift to providing online consultations. Cure.Fit, fitness startup has provided free access to their live classes for 90 days. All hyperlocal delivery companies have rolled out 'contactless delivery' to minimize any contact between the customer and the delivery executive. They have also urged customers to adopt 'digital payments' to again minimize any human contact.
  • Nowadays, most startups and SMBs rely on different kinds of software, web apps, and/or mobile apps. Furthermore, many businesses are dependent on such digital platforms. If you are developing any digital solution then you should consider outsourcing some part of development/design work to app development in Houston to reduce the cost. You can find more local options from sites like Clutch or Upcity.
  • Ensure productivity while working remotely. While fostering collaboration has long been a defined way of working in most modern businesses, proximity is a variable that has always been taken for granted. Don't just limit to video conferencing, also invest in project management tools, time tracking tools, communication tools etc.
  • Build trust, support staff, and understand emotional concerns and the importance of personal well being.

Startups are the engines of progress. Small businesses are the backbone of America. Stay safe. Stay healthy. And keep persevering. No matter how severe and disruptive this crisis is, one thing is for sure, the war on this pandemic will be won.

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Colin Simpson is project manager at BlueKite Apps, which recently started its software development services in Houston.

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A Rice University team of engineers designed a low-cost ventilator, and now the device, which has been picked up for manufacturing, has received approval from the FDA. Photo courtesy of Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A ventilator that was designed by a team at Rice University has received Emergency Use Authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ApolloBVM was worked on March by students at Rice's Brown School of Engineering's Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, or OEDK. The open-source plans were shared online so that those in need could have access to the life-saving technology. Since its upload, the ApolloBVM design has been downloaded by almost 3,000 registered participants in 115 countries.

"The COVID-19 pandemic pushed staff, students and clinical partners to complete a novel design for the ApolloBVM in the weeks following the initial local cases," says Maria Oden, a teaching professor of bioengineering at Rice and director of the OEDK, in the press release. "We are thrilled that the device has received FDA Emergency Use Authorization."

While development began in 2018 with a Houston emergency physician, Rohith Malya, Houston manufacturer Stewart & Stevenson Healthcare Technologies LLC, a subsidiary of Kirby Corporation that licensed ApolloBVM in April, has worked with the team to further manufacture the device into what it is today.

An enhanced version of the bag valve mask-based ventilator designed by Rice University engineers has won federal approval as an emergency resuscitator for use during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Stewart & Stevenson

The Rice team worked out of OEDK throughout the spring and Stewart & Stevenson joined to support the effort along with manufacturing plants in Oklahoma City and Houston.

"The FDA authorization represents an important milestone achievement for the Apollo ABVM program," says Joe Reniers, president of Kirby Distribution and Services, in the release. "We can now commence manufacturing and distribution of this low-cost device to the front lines, providing health care professionals with a sturdy and portable ventilation device for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Reniers continues, "It is a testimony to the flexibility of our people and our manufacturing facilities that we are able to readily utilize operations to support COVID-19 related need."

The device's name was selected as a tribute to Rice's history with NASA and President John F. Kennedy's now-famous speech kicking off the nation's efforts to go to the moon. It's meaningful to Matthew Wettergreen, one of the members of the design team.

"When a crisis hits, we use our skills to contribute solutions," Wettergreen previously told CultureMap. "If you can help, you should, and I'm proud that we're responding to the call."

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