Guest column

Houston data startup analyzes COVID-19 risks as companies return to work

Statistical Vision shares key data points it's watching as companies return to work amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Getty Images

In an effort to better help our clients, and frankly all of us, maneuver these uncertain times and to better understand what the upcoming months are likely to bring, we have applied our data science expertise to create a structural model of the spread of COVID-19. The aim of the national model is to determine specifically how mobility and weather impact the local transmission rates while controlling for population density, population immunity rate and the fact that people are taking more precautions.

When I discuss COVID19 with other Houstonians, I'm often asked "We're going back to work — there's traffic! Why haven't cases spiked?"

First, it is worth noting that cases and deaths have increased again in Harris County. But, the question is still valid. Greg Abbott started allowing things to open six weeks ago and we are only starting to see a rise now.

Fortunately, our model (being quantitative and multivariate) can explain why cases may not have 'spiked' the way that was expected. There are four main reasons why cases are only starting to tick up now:

  1. There has not been a 'spike' in people leaving their homes. While Greg Abbott did allow restaurants, movie theaters and malls to begin re-opening on April 30, there was not a sudden spike in people leaving their homes. Indeed, the "people staying home" index, according to Google Mobility Data, peaked on April 1 at 22 percent above normal and has gradually decreased ever since. In Harris County, the extent people are staying at home stands at 14 percent above normal as of May 29 (unfortunately, Google Mobility Data reports 7 to 10 days after the fact.) So, from the peak 'stay at home' measure, we were only a third the way back to normal last week.
  2. Temperatures have increased. Our model indicates that warmer temperatures decrease the transmission rate of COVID19. Our model does not posit a mechanism, but we can rule out both geographic explanations and behavioral explanations, which leaves us with the compelling reason to believe that temperatures matter.
  3. People's behaviors when they do go out have changed. These changes — everything from masks, to skipping hand shakes, to readily available hand sanitizer, to keeping your distance, to staying home when you're feeling sick — have an important and measurable impact on the spread.
  4. Kids are not back in school yet. While our model does not directly measure the impact of kids being in school, the estimate our model produces measuring the importance of staying at home (2.6) is higher than they should be (2, mathematically speaking). We suspect that's because we are missing an important cohort that started staying at home at the same time mobile phone users started staying at home - kids that don't have cell phones. So, while it may seem like we are most of the way back to normal, with regards to going out, being summer time in Houston, kids are not at school, which is likely keeping the rate of spread down.
All of that said, the gradual increase in people leaving their homes has had an impact. And now, cases and deaths are starting to increase. Our model reminds us that there are a variety of factors impacting the transmission rate. Right now, temperatures, people's behaviors and schools being out work in our favor. Come September, two of those three will turn the other way.
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Michael Griebe is the co-founder and chief statistical officer at Houston-based Statistical Vision. To read more about the company's initiative, click here.

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Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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