ready for liftoff

City of Houston's startup competition takes off with $30,000 up for grabs

Applications are now open for Liftoff Houston. Photo courtesy of the City of Houston

The applications for the 2021 Liftoff Houston Startup Business Plan Competition opened this week and local businesses have less than a month to get their submissions in for a chance to be one of three companies to take home seed funds.

"I am excited to see what business ideas and concepts this year's contestants will bring to the table," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release from the city. "We are grateful for Capital One Bank's commitment to helping Houstonians make their small business dreams come true. I encourage all aspiring entrepreneurs not to miss out on this wonderful opportunity that will help move our economy and city forward."

Liftoff Houston, sponsored by Capital One Bank and administered by the Houston Public Library and the Office of Business Opportunity, aims to empower Houston entrepreneurs through workshops and coaching sessions that take place from August through October. The program will name winners in three categories – service, product, and innovation – and award each $10,000 in seed money from Capital One Bank. Applications close Monday, Aug. 2.

"Startup businesses play a critical role in our City's economic future," says Houston Public Library Director Dr. Rhea Lawson in the release. "The Houston Public Library is pleased to support their development by providing access to free and vital business and investment reference resources, market research, state of the art technology equipment with high-speed Wi-Fi, and other valuable services such as fax and copy services and space for meetings and trainings."

The program, which has been supporting startups in town for almost a decade, has had over 12,623 participants and doled out more than $240,000 in prize money from Capital One Bank.

Liftoff Houston is looking for applicants who live and operate their business within the Houston city limits. Other requirements include:

  • must be a for-profit business
  • must be in operation for less than one year
  • must have verifiable revenue that does not exceed $10,000

If not selected for the program, applicants have the option to participate in the Liftoff Houston Educational Pathway, which offers access to all the business education opportunities provided by the program, but without the pitching component.

"Liftoff Houston will provide you with a wealth of knowledge and information about how to successfully start your business, and the Office of Business Opportunity is also available to assist," says Office of Business Opportunity Director Marsha Murray in the release. "I encourage contestants to connect with us for a host of free resources at our 'one stop business center' where you can receive guidance on business permitting, licenses, one-on-one business counseling, legal assistance and much more. These services can certainly supplement the learnings offered by Liftoff Houston, and assist contestants on their entrepreneurship journeys."

Past participants include:

For more information and to apply, interested parties can visit the website.

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Building Houston

 
 

From a low-cost vaccine to an app that can help reduce exposure, here are the latest COVID-focused and Houston-based research projects. Photo via Getty Images

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

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