Guest column

How the pandemic advanced tech in government and education, according to this Houston expert

As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. Photo via Getty Images

If you've logged onto a government website recently, you know that dealing with creaking, outdated government technology is about as much fun as a trip to the DMV. Held back by byzantine procurement rules, management-by-committee, and an aggressive commitment to decades-old UX principles, government websites and other tech tools are routinely confusing, horrible to use, and deeply inefficient.

Now, though, that could finally be changing. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our relationships with the technologies we use, from Zoom calls to e-commerce services. Increasingly, government bodies are finding themselves forced to move faster, adopt more up-to-date technologies, and work with private-sector partners to meet new challenges and quickly bring their services into the 21st century.

Getting an education

One of the most dramatic examples comes in the realm of education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 93 percent of school-age children have engaged in distance learning since the pandemic began, and four fifths of them relied on digital tech to take the place of classroom resources. But with access to digital tech at home strongly correlated to household income, governments and education departments have had to move quickly to ensure every child has access to laptops and web connections.

Not everyone is a fan of remote learning, and as a parent myself, I know how hard it can be to have kids at home. But one thing we should all be able to agree on is that if we're going to rely on digital learning, then we need to make sure it's available to everyone, including those families that don't have access to reliable computers and WiFi connections at home.

Achieving that rapidly and at scale has required remarkable flexibility and creativity from policymakers at all levels. Those that have succeeded have done so by brushing aside the red tape that has ensnared previous government tech initiatives, and instead working with private-sector partners to rapidly implement the solutions that are needed.

Lessons from Texas

Here in Texas, for instance, one in six public school students lacked access to high-speed internet connections at the start of the pandemic, and 30% lacked access to laptops or other learning devices. To speed the transition to remote learning, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched Operation Connectivity — a $400 million campaign to connect 5.5 million Texas public school students with a computer device and reliable internet connection. To date 4 million devices have been purchased and are being distributed to kids, opening doors to greater educational and economic opportunities. Further work is in progress to remove other connectivity barriers like slow connection speeds in rural areas to help students and all Texans.

Rolling out such an ambitious project to our state's 1,200 or so school districts could have been a disaster. After all, many government IT projects grind along for months or years without delivering the desired results — often at huge cost to taxpayers. But Operation Connectivity has been different because it's grounded in a true partnership between the government and private-sector players.

Facing urgent deadlines, government leaders turned to Gaby Rowe, former CEO of the Ion tech hub, to spearhead the project. As a tech innovator, Rowe brought entrepreneurial energy and a real understanding of the power of public-private partnerships, and drove Operation Connectivity from the blueprint to execution in a matter of weeks. Tech giants including Microsoft, SAP, and Hubspot also quickly joined the effort, helping to deliver cost-effective connectivity and hardware solutions to ensure that every kid in our state could get the education they deserve. Since then, Operation Connectivity has distributed over a million devices, including laptops and wireless hotspots, to families in need, with costs split between the state and individual districts.

Private sector edge

To get a sense of how private-sector knowhow can spur government tech transformation, consider my own company, Digital Glyde. As part of the Operation Connectivity effort, we were asked to help design and build the back-end software and planning infrastructure needed to coordinate effectively with hundreds of school district officials scattered all across our state.

Ordinarily, that kind of effort would require a drawn-out process of consultation, committee-work, and red tape. But facing an urgent need to help our state's children, we were given the freedom to move quickly, and were able to implement a viable system within just a few days.

By leveraging cutting-edge data-extraction and image-processing tools, we helped Operation Connectivity to automatically process invoices and match tech costs to available COVID relief funding in record time. We achieved 95% accuracy within three weeks of deployment to ensure school districts quickly received reimbursements for the hardware they were purchasing on behalf of their schoolchildren.

Building on success

Operation Connectivity is just one example of the ways in which government actors have embraced tech and leveraged private-sector assistance to chart their way through the COVID crisis. From contact-tracing programs to vaccine distribution programs, we're seeing governments taking a far more pragmatic and partnership-driven approach to technology.

Of course, not every experiment goes to plan. In Florida, government agencies decided to use web tools to manage vaccination appointments — but implemented that idea using a commercial website built to handle birthday party e-vites. Unsurprisingly, the results were chaotic, with users having to scramble to grab appointments as they were posted to the site, and seniors struggling to wrap their head around a website designed for young parents.

Such stories are a reminder that governments can't solve big problems simply by grabbing at whatever tech tools are nearest to hand. It's vital to find the right solutions, and to work with partners who understand the complexity and constraints that come with delivering public-sector services at scale.

As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. In recent months, we've shown what can be done when we pull together, and combine real governmental leadership with private-sector innovation and efficiency. We'll need much more of this kind of teamwork and tech-enabled creativity in the months and years to come.

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Varun Garg is the founder and CEO of Houston-based Digital Glyde

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Building Houston

 
 

Here are the Houston startups that together raised over $222 million in venture capital investment last quarter. Photo via Getty Images

Houston startups are keeping pace when it comes to venture capital raised this year. In this roundup of funding closed in the second quarter, Houston businesses across sectors and industries close significant rounds from seed to series C.

Eleven startups raised over $222 million last quarter, according to InnovationMap reporting, which is more than in the first and second quarters. In chronological order, here's what companies snagged fresh funding recently.


Houston EV charging tech company raises $6M series A

Revterra Corp. closed a $6 million series A round led by Equinor Ventures. Photo courtesy of Revterra

Houston-based tech company Revterra Corp. has picked up $6 million in a series A funding round to propel development of its battery for electric vehicle charging stations.

Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

Revterra says its kinetic flywheel battery enables quick, simple, cost-effective installation of high-powered DC chargers for electric vehicles. The technology eases the burden placed on electrical grids, the company says. Continue reading.

Houston-founded blockchain startup raises $15M series A to increase international impact

Topl's latest fundraising round includes participation from a Houston investor as well as international partners. Image via Getty Images

A blockchain technology company that was founded out of Rice University has closed its latest round of funding.

Founded in 2017, Topl is a blockchain-as-a-service company that's developing a purpose-built blockchain ecosystem to empower impact and sustainability within its userbase of businesses. The company's $15 million series A round was co-led by Houston-based Mercury, Republic Asia, and Malta-based Cryptology Asset Group.

“Topl’s blockchain was purpose built to power the next wave of supply chains and markets, that are more sustainable and inclusive,” says Chris Georgen, founder and managing director of Topl, in a news release. “Every decision we’ve made has been relentlessly focused on this problem and it’s exciting to see this approach yielding results with more than 30 different impact-forward use cases already live or approaching launch." Continue reading.

Houston-based gig economy startup raises $1.2M, launches beta platform

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Two Houstonians on a mission to enable safe and equitable entrepreneurship on college campuses have launched a new beta platform and closed pre-seed funding.

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, closed its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million – led by Precursor Ventures and other partners such as Capital Factory and HearstLab. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on. We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.” Continue reading.

Houston hydrogen startup closes $25M series B

This hydrogen company has fresh funding. Photo via utility.global

Utility Global, a Houston-based sustainable hydrogen company, has closed its series B round of funding to the tune of $25 million, Axios reports.

Houston-based private equity firm Ara Partners led the round. Other participating investors included: Samsung Ventures, NOVA, and Aramco.

Utility Global, founded in 2018, has developed a clean hydrogen solution. The proprietary tech — called the eXERO Technology Platform — includes a zero electricity process that converts sustainable waste streams into high-purity hydrogen. Additionally, the company developed its H2Gen Product Line that delivers customers reliable, low carbon, and high purity hydrogen, which offers unparalleled feedstock flexibility and highly competitive economics. Continue reading.

Industrial blockchain tech company headquartered in Houston closes $4M series C round

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that its latest round or funding. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo, a Houston-based tech startup, has picked up $4 million in a series C round from the venture capital arms of foreign energy companies Saudi Aramco and Equinor.

The funding for Data Gumbo came from Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, the VC subsidiary of government-owned oil and natural gas giant Saudi Aramco, and Equinor Technology Ventures, the VC subsidiary of Norwegian energy operator Equinor. The U.S. headquarters for both Saudi Aramco and Equinor are in Houston. Continue reading.

Houston company raises $138M for next-generation geothermal energy

The future of geothermal energy is here — and just got a big payday. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based startup Fervo Energy has picked up $138 million in funding to propel its creation and operation of carbon-free power plants fueled by geothermal energy.

Fervos says the series C round will help it complete power plants in Nevada and Utah and evaluate new projects in California, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, and New Mexico, as well as in other countries.

California-based investment firm DCVC led the round, with participation from six new investors. Continue reading.

Houston 'sneakerheads' raise $8.9M to further develop digital marketplace

Tradeblock's three co-founders have known each other since childhood. Photo via tradeblock.us

A Houston-based company is kicking it with some fresh funding with plans to expand development of its marketplace platform.

Unique sneaker trading platform, Tradeblock, has raised $8.9 million in funding from investment partners Courtside VC, Trinity Ventures, and Concrete Rose Capital. Per the news release, the company expects additional funding of around $4.5 million to its seed round.

Tradeblock — founded in 2020 by self-proclaimed "sneakerheads" and childhood friends Mbiyimoh Ghogomu, Tony Malveaux, and Darren Smith — will use the fresh funding to expand and improve its digital marketplace for shoes. Continue reading.

Health tech startup with Houston HQ raises $14M series A

Optellum, which has its United States operations based in the TMC Innovation Institute, has raised fresh funding. Photo via Getty Images

A Oxford-based health tech startup that has its United States headquarters in Houston has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Optellum, which has created a breakthrough AI platform to diagnose and treat early-stage lung cancer, has raised $14 million in a series A funding round. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Mercia, with additional investors California-based Intuitive Ventures and New York-based Black Opal Ventures. Existing investors, including St John's College in the University of Oxford, IQ Capital, and the family office of Sir Martin & Lady Audrey Wood, also participated in the round, per a news release.

"Lung cancer is an urgent public health crisis and Optellum's groundbreaking approach utilizing AI to accelerate early detection and intervention may fundamentally alter the healthcare community's approach to combating this disease," says Dr. Oliver Keown, managing director of Intuitive Ventures, in the release. "Optellum is uniquely positioned to align and provide considerable value to patients, providers, and payers alike. Intuitive Ventures is thrilled to provide our full arsenal of financial and strategic support to Optellum as we work towards a world of better outcomes for cancer patients." Continue reading.

Houston-based biomaterials company raises $1.1M to grow team, build new HQ

BUCHA BIO has raised over $1 million to grow its team, build a new headquarters, and accelerate its go-to-market strategy. Image courtesy of BUCHA BIO

A Houston company that has created a plant-based material that can replace unsustainable conventional leathers and plastics has announced the close of its oversubscribed seed funding round.

BUCHA BIO announced it's raised $1.1 million in seed funding. The round included participation from existing partners New Climate Ventures, Lifely VC, and Beni VC, as well as from new partners Prithvi VC, Asymmetry VC, and investors from the Glasswall Syndicate, including Alwyn Capital, as well as Chris Zarou, CEO & Founder of Visionary Music Group and manager of multi-platinum Grammy-nominated rapper, Logic, the startup reports in a news release.

“I’m excited to back BUCHA BIO’s amazing early market traction," Zarou says in the release. "Their next-gen bio-based materials are game-changing, and their goals align with my personal vision for a more sustainable future within the entertainment industry and beyond.” Continue reading.

Houston-based Codenotary has expanded its series B fundraising round

Codenotary's software enables tools for notarization and verification of the software development life cycle. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston software startup that raised $12.5 million earlier this year has announced additional funding of $6 million. Codenotary, whose technology helps secure software supply chains, closed its series B round in January. The fresh funding brings the company's total investment raised to $24 million — thanks to investors Bluwat and Elaia.leaders and following a series A round that was announced in 2020.

Codenotary, formerly known as vChain, was founded in 2018 by CEO Moshe Bar and CTO Dennis Zimmer. The additional capital, which will go towards scaling up sales in the U.S. and Europe as well as entering the Asian market, was raised as an extension of the series B round. Continue reading.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

VR training startup, HTX Labs, has raised funding from an outside investor for the first time. Courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. Continue reading.

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