Here's what Houston tech is making a difference locally amid the pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

The entire world came to a standstill when the COVID-19 pandemic came knocking at the door, and Houston was no different than the rest. Businesses got shut down, people were losing jobs left and right, the medical infrastructure was wheezing from the huge patient-influx, and whatnot.

However, the Space City managed to weather the storm thanks to its firm resolve and technological interventions from Houston-based businesses and several other players. But that doesn't mean we are out of the woods yet.

The silver lining, however, is that we now know the threat can be mitigated with the help of technologies at our disposal. In this article, we'll discuss how technology has facilitated the fight against the pandemic. Some of the local businesses from Houston also had a significant role to play in providing an arsenal for this war, and we'll be discussing their contribution as well. So let's get started:

Remote healthcare assistance with smart data collection and management

The biggest challenge at the beginning of the pandemic was to provide proper care to those exposed to the virus without putting the lives of frontline workers in danger. On top of that, hospitals also had to make sure that patients suffering from other illnesses do not come into contact with the virus.

With the number of patients rising exponentially, the medical infrastructure could've never been able to cope up if it were not for telemedicine. It's a combination of remote and data technologies that allow healthcare workers to assist and treat patients without going in their physical proximity.

Houston's Medical Informatics Corp. did some exceptional work in making remote healthcare a feasible option for medical institutions. Their solution aims at collecting accurate and comprehensive data that'll further allow physicians to provide better care to the patients. While the luxury of social distancing is among the most significant benefits of this solution, there are several other benefits in the long run.

Since MIC's solution focuses on collecting quality data from all the possible data points, the information can also help identify any significant trends in how the virus is affecting the patients. Artificial intelligence and machine learning seem like the perfect allies to bolster MIC's solution further.

The tech also allows for patients to get quality consultation from experts located in other geographical locations. Hospitals can also leverage such an infrastructure to scale up and down with ease by quickly bringing in more remote caregivers in case of a spike in patients' numbers.

Telemedicine has been brilliant in helping the world deal with the coronavirus pandemic and paved the way for a revamped healthcare infrastructure in the future. The one in which affordable healthcare is a norm and physical distances are not an issue anymore.

Drones and robots for sanitization and upkeep

Once the lockdown restrictions were slowly uplifted, businesses needed to be more cautious about sanitizing the facilities and ensure there was no reason forcing them to close the shop again. The challenge turned out to be bigger for larger facilities as they can't simply deploy a large workforce to take care of it. It would be impossible to follow social distancing norms under such circumstances.

Many stadiums in Houston concluded that employing drones for the job is the way to go, and they couldn't have been more correct. Texas Medical Technology used 'SaniDrones' to spray disinfectants over large facilities and equipment. These drones are pretty much like what is used for agricultural fields and carry large amounts of spraying material at a time to get the job done.

The company also has an army of various other robots that can help businesses abide by pandemic norms. They have one that automatically puts protective coverings on the visitor's shoes to help prevent outside elements from entering the facility. Then they also have a robot that can take orders from customers in restaurants. It can show them 3-D menus and expertly ask customers what they'd like to order. They also offer SaniGate, which disinfect visitors before entering the premises, thus curbing the spread of the virus.

Airobotics is another Houston-based company coming up with technologically advanced solutions for businesses to deal with the pandemic. They provide drones to industrial players, such as oil and gas companies, to monitor and inspect the facility. The drones collect information critical to such plants' smooth functioning and prevent the analysts from going around and touching surfaces on the plant.

The pandemic made us realize that we can't always rely on human workers to care for the fieldwork. Drones and robots provide a suitable alternative to such jobs, and as these solutions get more commonplace, we can also expect them to get more affordable.

Bringing the economy back to life by keeping the virus out of the ecosystem

The economic slowdown brought by the coronavirus is unlike what most of us could even comprehend. With small businesses taking the biggest hit and a good fraction of them shutting down forever, it's necessary for the remaining ones free from the clutches of the pandemic.

And one of the better ways to do that is by minimizing the virus's spread at places where people frequent the most. One of the primary reasons for the coronavirus to be so transmissible is because of how it can travel through seemingly healthy carriers. It might cause a mild fever in some, but that usually doesn't keep people from getting out.

DataVox, a Houston based tech company, provides thermal scanners to make sure possibly infected humans stay away from the virus. The thermal scanners provided by them only check for the temperature and don't affect the privacy of those being scanned. It's a seemingly simple but effective way to deal with such a dangerous element.

Another positive news in this context is that researchers at the University of Houston have designed an air filter capable of filtering out the coronavirus to a great deal of effectiveness. Once commercially available, this can be installed in closed facilities and ensure the virus doesn't enter even through the vents.

There is no doubt that leveraging technology is the way to go forward despite how the situation unfolds. Houston is now implementing smart city solutions with the same thing in mind, and we should also be following their lead.

With a workforce of skilled software developers in Houston, and the city's rich background in technology, the adoption of tech measures should not turn out to be a tough deal. And Houston-based firms coming up with advanced solutions is only a good sign for the city.

Let's hope we'll be seeing more of these in the future, and more Houston businesses will help the city and the world fight this pandemic.

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Colin Simpson is project manager at BlueKite Apps, which recently started its software development services in Houston.

Houston's startups and small businesses have a ways to go to truly survive the pandemic, and they should move forward with these things in mind. Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

Here's how COVID-19 has affected Houston startups — and what they need to know moving forward

guest column

The effect of COVID-19 on Houston's economy has been unprecedented. While evidence on this impact is only beginning to emerge, it is clear that the economic damage has been particularly severe for startups and small and growing businesses in emerging markets.

Given the importance of startups and small businesses to economic growth and job creation, the survival of these businesses must be a critical part of the global recovery. For example, there are many companies that have seen this pandemic as an opportunity and started providing COVID-19-related services.

Startups are facing financial challenges on multiple fronts

According to a study from Houston Exponential's:

  • Thirty percent of startups reported a loss of revenue due to client uncertainty or delayed contracts. With almost 85 percent of startups identifying as B2B or B2C, many companies are seeing previously guaranteed revenues shrink as enterprise clients cut costs.
  • Twenty-one percent of startups reported paying talent as their biggest talent/hiring challenge. The main concern isn't with finding qualified candidates, it's being able to pay for them. Founders stated that the talent exists, but they can't afford them, or candidates aren't willing to accept a lower salary for equity.
  • Nineteen percent of startups reported a 10 to 20 percent decrease in fundraising valuations. This statistic only includes startups that were raising before and during COVID-19. And 71 percent reported no change in valuations.
  • Fourteen percent of startups reported moving to remote work as their biggest operational challenge. This includes both internal challenges as well as working with clients and prospective customers remotely.

How startups have been using funding amid COVID-19

Post $1 million in funding, the hiring focus shifts to product development.

  • Companies that have raised less than $1 million are looking to drive growth, find sources of revenue and improve their top-line metrics through biz dev, marketing, and sales.
  • Companies that have raised more than $1 million are focusing more on building out and improving their product by hiring engineers and product managers

Note: The median seed round for Houston startups over the past 3 years was $1.9 million and the median angel deal was $610,000, according to Pitchbook.

Tips for surviving the pandemic

The Small Business Continuity Checklist is a diagnostic tool to navigate times of disruption, covering two key areas of management — financial and strategic.

Financial Management Tasks

  • Address future cash shortages, for example, what expenses could be reduced, such as travel and marketing, which operations can be temporarily paused.
  • Consider steps to increase cash coming into the business such as focusing more on product lines/ services that continue to sell well.
  • Explore what grants, subsidies, or loans are available and the eligibility requirements. For example, The Cannon's CERT Program. Here's a list of resources for Houston startups and SMBs.
  • Recycle, re-purpose, or dispose of old or slow-moving stock or inventory. Explore the possibility of sales under special conditions, in order to reduce the projected losses on inventories. Review purchasing policies to prevent overspending on stock/inventory.

Strategic Management Tasks

  • Since user retention is crucial for your future growth, you can provide free subscriptions, contactless delivery, and waive fees to address a larger user base and enhance customer experience. For example, many online learning sites are providing free access to their live and video classes. Similarly, in the healthcare and fitness space, companies can provide for free virtual classes and shift to providing online consultations. Cure.Fit, fitness startup has provided free access to their live classes for 90 days. All hyperlocal delivery companies have rolled out 'contactless delivery' to minimize any contact between the customer and the delivery executive. They have also urged customers to adopt 'digital payments' to again minimize any human contact.
  • Nowadays, most startups and SMBs rely on different kinds of software, web apps, and/or mobile apps. Furthermore, many businesses are dependent on such digital platforms. If you are developing any digital solution then you should consider outsourcing some part of development/design work to app development in Houston to reduce the cost. You can find more local options from sites like Clutch or Upcity.
  • Ensure productivity while working remotely. While fostering collaboration has long been a defined way of working in most modern businesses, proximity is a variable that has always been taken for granted. Don't just limit to video conferencing, also invest in project management tools, time tracking tools, communication tools etc.
  • Build trust, support staff, and understand emotional concerns and the importance of personal well being.

Startups are the engines of progress. Small businesses are the backbone of America. Stay safe. Stay healthy. And keep persevering. No matter how severe and disruptive this crisis is, one thing is for sure, the war on this pandemic will be won.

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Colin Simpson is project manager at BlueKite Apps, which recently started its software development services in Houston.

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Innovative coastline project on Bolivar Peninsula receives federal funding

flood mitigation

The Galveston’s Coastal Barrier Project recently received federal funding to the tune of $500,000 to support construction on its flood mitigation plans for the area previously devastated by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Known as Ike Dike, the proposed project includes implementing the Galveston Bay Storm Surge Barrier System, including eight Gulf and Bay defense projects. The Bolivar Roads Gate System, a two-mile-long closure structure situated between Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, is included in the plans and would protect against storm surge volumes entering the bay.

The funding support comes from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and will go toward the preconstruction engineering and design phase of Ecosystem Restoration feature G-28, the first segment of the Bolivar Peninsula and West Bay Gulf Intracoastal Waterway Shoreline and Island Protection.

Coastal Barrier Project - Galveston Projects

The project also includes protection of critical fish and wildlife habitat against coastal storms and erosion.

“The Coastal Texas Project is one of the largest projects in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” says Col. Rhett A. Blackmon, USACE Galveston District commander, in a statement. “This project is important to the nation for many reasons. Not only will it reduce risk to the vulnerable populations along the Texas coast, but it will also protect vital ecosystems and economically critical infrastructure vital to the U.S. supply chain and the many global industries located here.”

Hurricane Ike resulted in over $30 billion in storm-related damages to the Texas coast, reports the Coastal Barrier Project, and created a debris line 15 feet tall and 40 miles long in Chambers County. The estimated economic disruption due to Hurricane Ike exceeded $150 billion, FEMA reported.

The project is estimated to take two years to complete after construction starts and will cost between $4 billion and $6 billion, reports Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Houston organization selected for program to explore future foods in space health

research and development

What would we eat if we were forced to decamp to another planet? The most immediate challenges faced by the food industry and astronauts exploring outside Earth are being addressed by The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine’s newest project.

Earlier this month, TRISH announced the initial selection for its Space Health Ingress Program (SHIP) solicitation. Working with California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baylor-based program chose “Future Foods for Space: Mobilizing the Future Foods Community to Accelerate Advances in Space Health,” led by Dr. Denneal Jamison-McClung at the University of California, Davis.

“TRISH is bringing in new ideas and investigators to propel space health research,” says Catherine Domingo, TRISH operations lead and research administration associate at Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. “We have long believed that new researchers with fresh perspectives drive innovation and advance human space exploration and SHIP builds on TRISH’s existing efforts to recruit and support new investigators in the space health research field, potentially yielding and high-impact ideas to protect space explorers.”

The goal of the project is to develop sustainable food products and ingredients that could fuel future space travelers on long-term voyages, or even habitation beyond our home planet.

Jamison-McClung and her team’s goal is to enact food-related space health research and inspire the community thereof by mobilizing academic and food-industry researchers who have not previously engaged with the realm of space exploration. Besides growing and developing food products, the project will also address production, storage, and delivery of the nutrition created by the team.

To that end, Jamison-McClung and her recruits will receive $1 million over the course of two years. The goal of the SHIP solicitation is to work with first-time NASA investigators, bringing new minds to the forefront of the space health research world.

“As we look to enable safer space exploration and habitation for humans, it is clear that food and nutrition are foundational,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of the SHIP advisory board, in a press release. “We’re excited to see how accelerating innovation in food science for space health could also result in food-related innovations for people on Earth in remote areas and food deserts.”

Clean energy nonprofit CEO to step down, search for replacement to begin

moving on

Greentown Labs, which is co-located in the Boston and Houston areas, has announced its current CEO is stepping down after less than a year in the position.

The nonprofit's CEO and President Kevin Knobloch announced that he will be stepping down at the end of July 2024. Knobloch assumed his role last September, previously serving as chief of staff of the United States Department of Energy in President Barack Obama’s second term.

“It has been an honor to lead this incredible team and organization, and a true privilege to get to know many of our brilliant startup founders," Knobloch says in the news release. “Greentown is a proven leader in supporting early-stage climatetech companies and I can’t wait to see all that it will accomplish in the coming years.”

The news of Knobloch's departure comes just over a month after the organization announced that it was eliminating 30 percent of its staff, which affected 12 roles in Boston and six in Houston.

According the Greentown, its board of directors is expected to launch a national search for its next CEO.

“On behalf of the entire Board of Directors, I want to thank Kevin for his efforts to strengthen the foundation of Greentown Labs and for charting the next chapter for the organization through a strategic refresh process,” says Dawn James, Greentown Labs Board Chair, in the release. “His thoughtful leadership will leave a lasting impact on the team and community for years to come.”

Knobloch reportedly shifted Greentown's sponsorship relationships with oil companies, sparking "friction within the organization," according to the Houston Chronicle, which also reported that Knobloch said he intends to return to his clean energy consulting firm.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.