major gift

Philanthropist gifts historic $50 million to Houston-area university

Mackenzie Scott has gifted tens of millions to Houston-area organizations and institutions, and her latest gift is to Prairie View A&M University. Photo courtesy of Prairie View A&M

Historically Black universities have traditionally been overshadowed and underfunded compared to their non-Black collegiate counterparts. But now, a major public figure's game-changing gift has helped level the playing field for a beloved Houston-area school.

Noted author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott (many know her as the former wife of Amazon CEO and billionaire Jeff Bezos) has donated a massive $50 million to Prairie View A&M University, the institution announced on December 15. The gift is the largest one-time endowment in the school's 144-year history.

Under terms of the donation, the funds can be used at the discretion of the president to support the needs of the university, per a press release. Administrators have chosen to designate $10 million of the total to create the Panther Success Grant Program, an effort to assist juniors and seniors with unpaid balances created by the financial challenges posed by COVID, the school announced.

"This is a historic gift for Prairie View, coming at a time when the university had already decided and begun to invest heavily in key areas to strengthen its academic programs and improve student success," said Ruth J. Simmons, president of Prairie View, in a statement. "The timing of this gift could therefore not be better."

Simmons adds in a statement that she had been in contact with Scott "about a matter not involving Prairie View," and thus was "stunned and, for a time speechless" when Scott's assistant phoned and revealed the donation.

Another whopping gift from Scott includes $18 million to the Greater Houston YMCA.

In a post on Medium, Scott notes that she and her advisers have disbursed over $4 billion in gifts to 384 organizations across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington D.C. over the last four months. This is in effort to "accelerate my 2020 giving through immediate support to people suffering the economic effects of the crisis," Scott writes.

Scott's generosity includes myriad Texas organizations and groups, including:

  • Easterseals of Greater Houston
  • Easterseals Rehabilitation Center, San Antonio
  • East Texas Food Bank
  • El Pasoans Fighting Hunger
  • Feeding the Gulf Coast
  • South Texas Food Bank
  • Southeast Texas Food Bank
  • Goodwill Houston
  • Goodwill Industries of Dallas
  • Goodwill Industries of East Texas
  • Goodwill Industries of Fort Worth
  • Goodwill Industries of San Antonio
  • Heart of Texas Goodwill Industries
  • Meals on Wheels Central Texas
  • Meals on Wheels Montgomery County
  • Meals on Wheels North Central Texas
  • Texas A&M International University
  • United Way of El Paso County
  • United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County
  • YMCA of Greater Houston
  • YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas
  • YWCA El Paso del Norte Region
  • YWCA Greater Austin
  • YWCA of Lubbock
  • YWCA San Antonio
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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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