Guest column

Houston expert: Three steps community organizations can take to close the digital divide

In times of crisis, communities are disproportionately affected and access to tech is limited. Here's what one organization is doing to bridge that gap. Photo courtesy of Medley Inc.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on low-income communities. On top of job losses and a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, people in disadvantaged neighborhoods face another significant hurdle: access to technology.

In communities like Houston's Fifth Ward, owning a device with internet access can be an almost insurmountable challenge, as residents are 53 percent more likely to lack access to basic technology than the greater Houston area.

Technology has the power to help level playing fields, providing information and resources and even programming and socialization to all who have access, but for communities where the median household income is roughly $18,308, or less than half of Houston's median income, organizations must bridge the gap and support residents' access to and adoption of technology.

Here are three steps the Julia C. Hester House, a community center serving the greater Fifth Ward in Houston, has taken in order to provide successful virtual programming and services to ensure that everyone from children to seniors can benefit.

Provide greater access

The first barrier disadvantaged communities face is access: both to devices and to the internet. A 2019 study from the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of low-income adults lack a computer, and a majority are not tablet owners. However, many residents have access to landlines and smartphones, offering a starting point for virtual engagement. Community centers can start with partnerships with tech companies to help bridge the gap by securing and distributing tablets and internet-ready devices to provide an initial step toward connectivity.

On top of low device adoption rates, the recurring cost of home broadband internet creates another hurdle. When the City of Houston used a portion of CARES act funds to provide one-year internet vouchers to 5,000 low-income households, Hester House worked to spread the news quickly to the Fifth Ward. Hester House also recently partnered with the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation, which has taken on a leadership role in this regard, to get internet service into the homes of local seniors and families with young children. Public-private partnerships and policies that provide free or low-cost internet services across communities can enhance connectivity and improve outcomes for families and neighborhoods.

About 4 percent of Fifth Ward residents possess a college degree, and while that's not required to browse the web, it suggests a lack of exposure to technology, particularly among seniors who came of age before widespread adoption of the internet.Beyond securing greater access to broadband, new approaches to providing computer training and teaching tech fundamentals such as how to access and participate in Zoom meetings go a long way toward increasing new technology adoption rates. Zoom program participants may be reticent at first, but practice and support offer opportunities for greater community adoption.

Innovate program models

As internet, hardware and software access has increased in the community, the next step requires adjusting programming to meet new virtual parameters. Hester House moved many of their programs online and developed new programs to replace what was offered in person prior to the pandemic. Shifts to virtual programming can include virtual tutoring and youth classes, mental and social support programming, exercise and activity based video programming and purely social engagements such as group dinners and games.

The acclimation to virtual programming at Hester House has been a challenge, particularly for youth, however program managers continue to make adjustments to program models to strengthen engagement. Recurring programs that make use of music, guest speakers and pre-planned topics of conversation can help strengthen engagement and encourage participant retention, providing more shared experiences that uplift communities.

Measure and iterate results

As virtual programming continues to grow and find its cadence, program managers must continue to survey participants and make adjustments. Understanding the experiences and needs of participants will help guide planning and execution of changes that ensure participants will not only come back but will bring friends. Utilizing appreciative inquiry to improve programming benefits attendees and ensures that mission-oriented goals are met with regard to service to the community. For example, recent virtual gardening and food preservation classes, aimed at teaching healthy food growth and storage practices, has been so popular that the Hester House is assessing ways to expand the program and dive more deeply into specific topics.

Feedback from the community through surveys and qualitative data collection through individual interviews offer the space to understand the experience from members of the community, allowing organizations to focus on testing and iterating new approaches to foster successful engagement, continuing to meet the needs of the community.

It's no surprise that during difficult times, there's an even greater squeeze on nonprofits serving at-risk communities, which is why Hester House launched its Technology and Innovation Access Campaign in December. Campaign goals include funding long-term internet access, computer training, tech education classes and support, real-time tech support, helping residents navigate online applications for local, state, and national resources, and more. Community centers are focused on a successful continuation of service in these changing times, and the steps above offer a model for technology innovation for other organizations looking to provide continuity of service in difficult times.

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Lis Harper is a strategist and account executive at Houston-based Medley Inc.

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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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