A Houston startup is using technology to provide on-demand educators. Educational First Steps/Facebook

A Houston-area early childhood care and education startup and MassChallenge Texas in Austin 2020 participant, recently launched its 24/7 on-demand, two-sided marketplace platform that provides benefits for both parents and guardians or child care operators who need qualified educators quickly.

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, many parents are still juggling a full-time job and childcare at the same time. The launch of a marketplace platform app like OpenStaff aims to solve that problem, providing temporary or permanent childcare and teacher personnel to families and childcare operators across the Houston area, until children are able to safely go back to their daycare centers or classrooms.

"OpenStaff's Educational Mentors provide a structure that allows your child and family to retain some much-needed normalcy," says Jose Rodriguez, CEO and founder. "Our fully certified early childhood teachers and practitioners use their knowledge and experience to further a child's education while providing a safe, fun, and caring learning experience at home."

The app was launched on iOS platforms and is actively being user tested while they continue to build their database of qualified early childhood educators and substitute teachers for families and centers. All their educators comply with child care licensing regulations, completing a rigorous vetting process before they are allowed to join the platform.

"When you hire someone through our platform," says Rodriguez, "you have the peace of mind and our assurance that this teacher has been qualified, certified, background checked, and licensed in order to become a member of the OpenStaff educator community."

The early-stage startup came about from Rodriguez's first business, a childcare center that he took over six years ago with his wife. For them, the biggest challenge in this industry was staff management, dealing with unplanned absences would change plans drastically, sometimes changing teaching plans or restructuring classes.

"Even though we have an amazing team, sometimes life happens and they are not available to come into work that morning," says Rodriguez. "It was very stressful for office managers and owners as well as the rest of the team and if we were unable to find anyone to cover, even my wife or I would end up in the classroom."

That's when he started using staffing agencies for unplanned temporary workers but those, he says, are time-consuming and overpriced.

"We wanted to offer a different option that really works for everyone, not just parents during this crisis but also daycare centers," says Rodriguez. "Our app provides an open marketplace where centers can post a job by simply using their phone and receive applicants in minutes."

OpenStaff is currently focused on taking its service to the market, using the data and feedback as a way to make their offering better to then accelerate and scale, as many childcare centers continue to struggle to operate or find a sense of normalcy amid the social distancing measures that are the new normal.

"Many childcare centers have been hard hit during the coronavirus pandemic," says Rodriguez. "Many are struggling, closing their business, or operating with limited staff and children. With our app, we can, in the short term, help Houston families by providing quality education for their children."

A new business accelerator is launching to help grow access to child care. Educational First Steps/Facebook

Business accelerator focused on child care centers launches in Houston following $3M grant

for the kids

A Houston-based organization has launched the state's first business accelerator program focused on child care centers in order to strengthen Texans' access to child care.

The Texas Workforce Commission has awarded Collaborative for Children a $3 million grant as the organization has rolled out an eight-week business training program that will provide instruction and guidance for budgeting, performance management and emergency preparedness within the K-12 space.

"We are thrilled that the state has entrusted us with this grant to build a program that will provide the support so many child care programs need, particularly those in quality child care deserts," says Melanie Johnson, president and CEO of Collaborative for Children, in a news release. "Child care is a priority for every community. It makes it possible for parents to earn a living and for businesses to have a stable workforce, but most importantly, it prepares our youngest citizens for the 21st century workforce. We must gird our child care system so that child care programs not only survive, but also thrive after the next crisis."

The program is a collaboration between Collaborative for Children and Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Policy Center for Nonprofits and Philanthropy. The school will be providing resources and will develop several online modules for the accelerator.

Collaborative for Children has also created a Centers of Excellence program as a part of the accelerator, and the Houston area has 24 locations within the program. The COEs will receive support within the program and have been recognized as providing "high-quality early childhood education." The type of support the COEs receive include professional development, emotional support, access to tallent, marketing help, and more.

The organization has been in Houston supporting local child care professionals since the late 1980s. Collaborative for Children has several programs for educators and families and has specialized COVID-19 help online as well.

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Chevron's Houston-based venture arm launches $300M fund focusing on low-carbon tech

show me the money

Chevron Corp.'s investment arm has launched a $300 million fund that will focus on low-carbon technology.

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. In 2019, the investment arm started a $90 million fund to invest in startups that can help accelerate the oil and gas business of San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

Chevron Technology Ventures' portfolio for low-carbon technology comprises a dozen companies: Blue Planet, Carbon Clean, Carbon Engineering, ChargePoint, Eavor, Infinitum Electric, Natron Energy, Spear Power Systems, Svante, Voyage, Vutility, and Zap Energy.

Only one of the companies in the low-carbon portfolio is based in Texas — Infinitum Electric, located in Round Rock. However, Chevron Technology Ventures is active in the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem as a participant in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and The Ion. Chevron's investment arm was the first tenant at The Ion.

In an August 2020 interview with InnovationMap, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, said the investment arm places a priority on helping advance entrepreneurship in Houston. "It is our home court," she said.

Burger said that for Houston to succeed in energy innovation, companies, government agencies, investment firms, and universities must rally around the city.

"We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. … I think constancy of purpose is important," she said. "Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that."

Burger noted that innovation "is not a straight path."

"We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden," she said.

Now's the time to find innovation opportunities in a trustless world, says this Houston expert

guest column

Hidden beneath all the recent events in the technology work, stock market, political landscape, and most of the social problems we see today lies one underlying trend. A trend so powerful that it's causing disruption in nearly every institution out there, and changing the business landscape faster than anyone can keep up.

Trust is gone. I mean completely gone.

At this point, the examples of this are too numerous to list but let's look at the past several months in the United States. In that short period, we saw an incredibly contentious election process, big tech disable the primary communication of a world leader, a mass exodus do decentralized messaging, an explosion in the defi industry and crypto, and a once promising vaccine process somehow not be effective despite being the primary conversation topic for everyone.

And this was all before a bunch of social media users treated the world's greatest stock market like a game, and far after we saw a country divided into two by racial movements, and we have yet to even get to things such as the Russian hacks.

We're left with an absolute mess of a situation where every social contract seems to be broken and the default response to any sort of central authority is being reevaluated. Without doubt we'll eventually figure out some great long-term answers, but at the speed at which the business world works today, it's going to be messy.

Luckily, mess creates opportunity and within all this disruption lies many golden nuggets of opportunity. The last twelve months was likely a watershed moment in key areas and as innovators, and business people — and it's our job to find them. It's what we signed up for and, for many of us, why we do what we do.

If there was ever a time to invest heavily in innovative technologies, today is it. Most of the time businesses are very resistant to change. Their default answer is always "no," and this puts innovators in a constant search of early adopters. But today, we see a different landscape. Businesses of all sizes and industries have been tossed around like a toy ship in an ocean. They do not know which way is up and business as usual seems like an old campfire story. Everyone, everywhere is looking for creative ideas to improve their business, and creative ideas is at the heart of true entrepreneurship and innovation.

Within this disruption also lies a few other key support pillars that should benefit all innovative minded individuals.

  • Despite terrible economic conditions, those invested in tech over the past year have done incredibly well. These individuals should be primed to reinvest their profits into bigger wins.
  • The workforce is truly global, and people are scrambling. The ideas of location being an advantage to hiring is truly disappearing. This means talent acquisition costs are falling through the floor and availability through the ceiling.
  • Consumers and businesses alike have been introduced to new technology so the legwork of explaining things such as defi and blockchain is much easier. It's also easy to find numerous use cases for anything involving proximity, health, privacy, and security.
  • The new administration will be eager to find wins, and invest money in different technologies than the previous. No matter what you think politically about this strategy, the reality is that areas such as healthcare, education, and will offer innovation opportunities. Even regulation itself, which we are likely to see increased, can be a great playground for innovation.

Twenty years ago, the way that business was done is unrecognizable in some industries. Many of the successful business today did not even exist then. Technology has a tendency to change things exponentially so imagine what the next ten years will look like. What are we not seeing today that will be the new business as usual?

The future is ours to create

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Cody Caillet is the founder at Gulf Coast Solutions, a Houston-based technology firm with speed-to-value approach in delivering business technology to impact top-line and bottom-line numbers for a business.

These 3 Houston researchers are revolutionizing health science innovation

research roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, a couple local scientists are honored by awards while another duo of specialists tackle a new project.

University of Houston professor recognized with award

Mehmet Orman of UH has been selected to receive an award for his research on persister cells. Photo via UH.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. The award comes with a $500,000 grant to study persister cells — cells that go dormant and then become tolerant to extraordinary levels of antibiotics.

"Nearly all bacterial cultures contain a small population of persister cells," says Orman in a news release. "Persisters are thought to be responsible for recurring chronic infections such as those of the urinary tract and for creating drug-resistant mutants."

Previously, Orman developed the first methods to directly measure the metabolism of persister cells. He also developed cell sorting strategies to segregate persisters from highly heterogeneous bacterial cell populations, and, according to the release, he will be using his methods in the NSF research project.

Houston researchers collaborate on oral cancer innovation

Dr. Simon Young of UTHealth and Jeffrey Hartgerink of Rice University are working on a new use for an innovative gel they developed. Photo via Rice.edu

Two Houston researchers — chemist and bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink at Rice University and Dr. Simon Young at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — have again teamed up to advance their previous development of a sophisticated hydrogel called STINGel. This time, they are using it to destroy oral cancer tumors.

SynerGel combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors. Once there, the gel controls the release of its cargo to not only trigger cells' immune response but also to remove other suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment. The duo reported on the technology in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

SynerGel, combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors, where they not only control the release of the drugs but also remove suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment.

"We are really excited about this new material," Hartgerink says in a news release. "SynerGel is formulated from a specially synthesized peptide which itself acts as an enzyme inhibitor, but it also assembles into a nanofibrous gel that can entrap and release other drugs in a controlled fashion.

In 2018, the pair published research on the use of a multidomain peptide gel — the original STINGel — to deliver ADU-S100, an immunotherapy drug from a class of "stimulator of interferon gene (STING) agonists."

The research is supported by the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Welch Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.

Texas Heart Institute researcher honored by national organization

Dr. James Martin of Texas Heart Institute has been named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo courtesy of THI

The National Academy of Inventors have named Houston-based Texas Heart Institute's Dr. James Martin, director of the Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab, a senior member.

Martin is an internationally recognized developmental and regenerative biologist and his research is focused on understanding how signaling pathways are related to development and tissue regeneration.

"Dr. Martin has long been a steward of scientific advancement and has proven to be a tremendous asset to the Texas Heart Institute and to its Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab through his efforts to translate fundamental biological discoveries in cardiac development and disease into novel treatment strategies for cardiac regeneration," says Dr. Darren Woodside, vice president for research at THI, in a news release. "Everyone at the Texas Heart Institute is thrilled for Dr. Martin, whose induction into the NAI as a Senior Member is well-deserved."

Martin has authored over 170 peer-reviewed papers in top journals he holds nine U.S. patents and applications, including one provisional application, all of which have been licensed to Yap Therapeutics, a company he co-founded.

The full list of incoming NAI Senior Members, which includes three professionals from the University of Houston, is available on the NAI website.