Comcast is looking out for the one-third of businesses in the Houston metro area that are minority-owned. Photo courtesy of comcast.

Comcast, the telecom, media, and entertainment conglomerate, is awarding $1 million in grants to small businesses in Houston owned by entrepreneurs who are Black, indigenous or people of color (BIPOC).

In all, 100 grants of $10,000 each will be given to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston. Local businesses can apply for the grants March 1-14. Grant recipients will be announced in April and awarded in May.

"Unfortunately, many small businesses in Houston were not able to withstand the many months of suppressed revenues [amid the pandemic]. While we remain optimistic about our economic recovery, public-private partnerships will play a vital role in minimizing the disruptions that so many small businesses, specifically minority-owned businesses, are facing," says Vice Mayor Pro Tem Martha Castex-Tatum, who chairs the Houston City Council's Economic Development Committee.

The Houston grants are part of a $5 million investment fund sponsored by Comcast RISE, which launched last year to provide resources to BIPOC-owned small businesses around the country. Under this initiative, grants also will be awarded in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

Studies show BIPOC-owned small businesses have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, and recent research by JPMorgan Chase Institute found that Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Houston and Philadelphia were among the top markets for sharp declines in local spending. Additionally, the majority of applications for the marketing and technology services component of Comcast RISE are from these five cities.

To qualify for a Comcast RISE grant in Houston, a BIPOC-owned small business:

  • Must be located in either Harris County or Fort Bend County.
  • Must have been in business for at least three years.
  • Must employ no more than 25 people.

To drive outreach about the program and provide support, training, and mentorship, Comcast also has awarded more than $2 million to six Houston business groups: Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston Black Chamber, Asian Chamber of Commerce, Greater Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Houston East End Chamber, and Cámara de Empresarios Latinos de Houston.

"Small businesses have always played an integral role in Houston's growth and future," Ralph Martinez, senior vice president for Comcast's Houston region, says in a February 9 release. "In the midst of the pandemic, these entrepreneurs provided many of the services and resources that have kept our communities up and running."

About one-third of businesses in the Houston metro area are minority-owned. Among largest metros in the U.S., Houston ranks fifth for the percentage of minority-owned startups (30.45 percent).

Comcast RISE is part of a broader $100 million diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative that launched last summer. In June, Comcast NBCUniversal announced a multiyear plan to allocate $75 million in cash and $25 million worth of media over the next three years to fight injustice and inequality against any race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ability.

The city of Houston has implemented a new free internet program in collaboration with Comcast. Photo via Getty Images

City offers internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians amid pandemic

tech support

It's an increasingly digital world, and COVID-19 has just accelerated that trend exponentially. Yet, there are still tons of Houstonians operating offline due to socioeconomic inequities.

The Houston City Council recently approved a $624,960 program with funding from the CARES Act to help bridge this gap. The program, by Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response (H.E.R.) Task Force in partnership with Comcast, will provide 5,000 internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians. Applications for the vouchers are open from now until December 20, 2020, and will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. They will provide internet for one calendar year.

"This pandemic has highlighted the importance of quality internet service particularly for those vulnerable populations who must stay at home to stay safe," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "This program will provide a lifeline for citizens that have struggled through the pandemic without internet access and a way to stay informed, connected and safe during these challenging times."

To be eligible for the voucher, applicants must live in the city of Houston and have a Comcast serviceable address, as well as meet two personal sets of criteria. First, they must prove that their total household income before February 2020 was lower than 80 percent of the area median income, and second, they must either be over age 65, a person with disabilities, households with children less than five years of age, or a person between 16-24 who is not currently enrolled in school or participating in the workforce.

"During this unprecedented time, it is vital for Houstonians to stay connected to the Internet — for education, work, and personal health reasons," says Comcast's Melinda Little, director of Government Affairs in the Houston Region, in the news release. "We're proud to partner with the City of Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response Task Force to help keep Houstonians connected through our Internet Essentials Program."

While there are existing internet access programs, this program, which is complementary to the city's Computer Access Program, is specifically targeting critical groups that have been overlooked.

"The shift online in everything from grocery shopping to accessing healthcare has been an additional barrier that Houstonians with disabilities have been forced to confront as a result of COVID-19," says Gabe Cazares, director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, in the release. "Thanks to Mayor Turner's commitment to equity and accessibility and the City Council's support, this program will breakdown that barrier by providing in-home internet access for qualifying Houstonians with disabilities, enhancing their independence and self-determination."

The Easter Seals of Houston demonstrated new vision control technology from Comcast. Photo courtesy of Easter Seals

Houston nonprofit tests Comcast's new vision control technology for viewers with disabilities

tech for good

A local nonprofit organization has tapped into new technology from Comcast to benefit the community of people with visual disabilities and impairments.

In November 2014, the company announced the industry's first voice-enabled television user interface, a solution that allowed those who are blind or visually impaired to navigate the platform. In May 2015, Comcast announced the Xfinity remote with voice control. Later that same year, the company produced the first live entertainment show in U.S. broadcast history to be accessible to people with visual disabilities.

Continuing on this track of innovation, in June 2019, the company announced eye control for television. Any Xfinity user can now change the channel, set a recording, and search for a show using eye movement, working seamlessly with existing eye gaze hardware and software.

The Easter Seals Greater Houston demonstrated the new technology with their community, posted on the its YouTube page. The demonstration showcased the web-based remote for tablets and computers that pairs with an eye gaze system allowing viewers to control their smart TV.

"While eye gaze technology has existed for quite some time, last summer Comcast launched the Xfinity X1 eye control, which is a web-based TV remote for tablets and computers that pairs with an existing eye gaze system," says Cristen Reat, founder and program director of Easter Seals' BridgingApps. "This feature allows people with physical disabilities, such as Cerebral Palsy, ALS, and spinal cord injuries the ability to change the channel, set a recording and search for a favorite TV show with just their eyes."

Reat tells InnovationMap that most people who have significant physical disabilities are also nonverbal or have nonstandard speech, making a voice remote not a possibility.

"Now, with this new feature, they can do things without relying on a caregiver," says Reat.

The Comcast website states that X1 eye control is free and uses a web page remote control that works seamlessly with existing eye gaze hardware and software, Sip-and-Puff switches, and other existing assistive technologies. To use eye control, Xfinity customers can visit xfin.tv/access and use their Xfinity login credentials to pair the web-based remote with their set-top-box. Then, each time the customer gazes at a button, the web-based remote will send the corresponding command to the television.

"The response from clients we have demonstrated this with has been ecstatic," says Reat. "Something as simple as being able to change the channel independently, without relying on another person's help, can be life-changing."

Reat tells InnovationMap that Comcast and Easter Seals have collaborated in the past.

"We've been great partners, especially over the past few years," says Reat. "Because of that partnership, they reached out to us when they wanted to create awareness about this new feature."

"Changing the channel on a TV is something most of us take for granted but until now, it was a near-impossible task for millions of viewers," says Tom Wlodkowski, vice president of accessibility at Comcast in the product launch news release. "When you make a product more inclusive you create a better experience for everyone and we're hoping our new X1 feature makes a real difference in the lives of our customers."

The new $16 million Comcast facility is another feather in the cap of Fort Bend County, which is booming with new business. Courtesy of Comcast

Comcast unveils its $16 million technology center in a growing suburb just outside of Houston

Cable news

At Comcast's new $16 million technology center in Missouri City, technicians for the internet and cable TV provider can "test drive" new product and services at a demo lab and can take classes at Comcast University. It's a far cry from the stereotypical workplace of the "cable guy."

The center represents a cutting-edge expansion for Comcast — and represents yet another feather in the economic-growth cap of Missouri City and Fort Bend County.

On June 19, officials from Comcast, Missouri City government, and the Fort Bend Economic Development Council debuted the 32,000-square-foot center. The center is at 551 Buffalo Lakes Dr., near the intersection of Texas Freeway and Independence Boulevard. Aside from the demo lab and Comcast University classrooms, the center features more than 100 workstations and 15 conference rooms.

The center employs more than 300 technicians, Comcast Business and Xfinity sales professionals. Service technicians install and maintain internet, video, voice, and home security services for residential and business customers in Missouri City and nearby areas, while network technicians build and maintain Comcast's local fiber-optic system.

Employees at the new center previously worked at other offices in the Houston metro area but live in Missouri City and surrounding communities. More than 1,200 people work at Comcast's 10 technology centers throughout the Houston area.

Michael Bybee, director of external communications at Comcast, says Missouri City was picked for the new center because of its strong economic growth and its proximity to major highways and, ultimately, "to bring our employees closer to customers."

Missouri City and Fort Bend County are gaining more potential Comcast customers by the day. From April 2010 to July 2018, the population of Missouri City grew 12.3 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. For Fort Bend County, the population growth rate during the same period stood at 34.7 percent.

Economic growth has accompanied that population growth. Last year, the Comcast center was among several economic development wins scored by Missouri City. An $85 million, 550,000-square-foot Best Buy distribution center and a 200,000-square-foot Warren Valve warehouse and distribution center were two of the other wins.

Fort Bend County as a whole is enjoying economic success. For instance, discount retailer Dollar Tree said in February that it's building a $130 million distribution center on a 140-acre site in Rosenberg that will employ more than 300 people. The company operates more than 1,600 Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores in Texas.

The 1.2-million-square-foot distribution center, on Spur 10 near Klosterhoff Road, is scheduled to open in the summer of 2020.

"When you have a company like Dollar Tree seeing the opportunity that we offer, it just adds to our strengths and builds on our assets," Bret Gardella, executive director of Rosenberg Development Corp., said in a Dollar Tree news release.

The economic growth in Missouri City, Rosenberg and other places in Fort Bend County isn't likely to subside, at least for the next several decades. A report from the University of Houston's Hobby School of Public Affairs predicts Fort Bend County will end up being the state's third-fastest-growing county from 2010 to 2050.

"Fort Bend County has continued to top lists for livability and economic success — and there is no sign of slowing down," the Fort Bend Economic Development Council says on its website. "Residents and businesses agree that there's no place better to live or work."

Contributing to Fort Bend County's draw is the presence of five business parks — two in Missouri City, and one each in Rosenberg, Sugar Land, and Stafford. The council touts Fort Bend County as "the hub for industrial development."

Courtesy of Comcast

Aside from the demo lab and Comcast University classrooms, the center features more than 100 workstations and 15 conference rooms.

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5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

Rice University develops 2 new innovative tools to detect COVID-19

pandemic tech

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.