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Harris County connects students in need to free high-speed internet and devices

Harris County is making sure all kids stay connected during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Pixlr

Schools around the nation are in a rush to return to normalcy despite the pandemic. So varied are the opinions on how to reopen that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo just released a "roadmap" for reopening.

One pressing issue is the massive digital divide between households that have internet access at home and those that do not — especially as school districts push for virtual learning. Roughly one-third of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual income below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, according to a 2020 Pew Research Study.

To that end, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved two programs aiming to end the digital divide in Harris County. The $32 million combined programs will provide more than 120,000 mobile hot spots (with unlimited data plans) and more than 250,000 devices (such as tablets and laptops) for students during the pandemic and for the remainder of the school year, according to a press release.

The programs use CARES Act Funds allocated by the Federal Government. A dollar-for-dollar match from the Texas Education Agency is also part of the funding. Nationwide carriers T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon are partnering with the program.

Once purchased, the devices and hot spots will become permanent property of the districts, which will then distribute to students within four and 12 weeks, according to the release.

"On one hand, I am thrilled we are offering help to families with the goal of flattening the education access curve," said Commissioner Garcia. "However, it pains me that it took a pandemic to close the gap between kids with reliable access to the internet at home and those that, in some cases are having to use mom or dad's smartphone to do their homework, if such a device is even available in the home. This is a great example of what we can accomplish when the state of Texas and local counties work together to help people in need."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Thomas Vassiliades of BiVACOR, Katie Mehnert of ALLY Energy, and Don Whaley of OhmConnect Texas. Courtesy photos

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know — the first of this new year — I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from health care innovation to energy — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Thomas Vassiliades, CEO of BiVACOR

BiVACOR named Thomas Vassiliades as CEO effective immediately. Photo courtesy of BiVACOR

Thomas Vassiliades has been named CEO of BiVACOR, and he replaces the company's founder, Daniel Timms, in the position. BiVACOR is on track to head toward human clinical trials and commercialization, and Vassiliades is tasked with leading the way.

Vassiliades has over 30 years of experience within the medical device industry as well as cardiothoracic surgery. He was most recently the general manager of the surgery and heart failure business at Abiomed and held several leadership roles at Medtronic. Dr. Vassiliades received his MD from the University of North Carolina, and his MBA was achieved with distinction at Emory University.

“I am excited and honored to join the BiVACOR team, working closely with Daniel and the entire team as we look forward to bringing this life-changing technology to the market,” says Dr. Vassiliades in the release. “Throughout my career, I’ve been guided by the goal of bringing innovative cardiovascular therapies to the market to improve patient care and outcomes – providing solutions for those that don’t have one. BiVACOR is uniquely well-positioned to provide long-term therapy for patients with severe biventricular heart failure.” Click here to read more.

Katie Mehnert, CEO and founder of ALLY Energy

Katie Mehnert joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the future of energy amid a pandemic, climate change, the Great Resignation, and more. Photo via Katie Mehnert

Katie Mehnert started ALLY Energy — originally founded as Pink Petro — to move forward DEI initiatives, and she says she started with building an audience first and foremost, but now the technology part of the platform has fallen into place too. Last summer, ALLY Energy acquired Clean Energy Social, which meant doubling its community while also onboarding new technology. On the episode, Mehnert reveals that this new website and platform is now up and running.

"We launched the integrated product a few weeks back," Mehnert says. "The whole goal was to move away from technology that wasn't serving us."

Now, moving into the new year, Mehnert is building the team the company needs. She says she hopes to grow ALLY from two employees to 10 by the end of the year and is looking for personnel within customer support, product developers, and sales and service. While ALLY is revenue generating, she also hopes to fundraise to further support scaling. Click here to read more.

Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas

Texas is about a month away from the anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — would the state fair better if it saw a repeat in 2022? Photo courtesy

The state of Texas is about a month away from the one year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri — but is the state better prepared this winter season? Don Whaley, president at OhmConnect Texas, looked at where the state is now versus then in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"Governor Abbott has gone on record guaranteeing that the lights will stay on this winter, and I am inclined to agree. With the reinforcement of our fuel systems being mandated by the Railroad Commission, 2023 to 2025 should receive the same guarantee," he writes. "Beyond that, as the demand for electricity in Texas continues to grow, we will need to rely on the initiatives under consideration by the PUCT to attract investment and innovation in new, dispatchable generation and flexible demand solutions to ensure long-term stability in the ERCOT market.

Whaley has worked for over 40 years in the natural gas, electricity, and renewables industries, with specific experience in deregulated markets across the U.S. and Canada. He founded Direct Energy Texas and served as its president during the early years of deregulation. Click here to read more.

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