The Lift Zones in low-income communities will provide free Wi-Fi for three years. Photo via comcast.com

Comcast is giving a technology lift to thousands of people throughout the Houston metro area.

The media and tech giant says it has started 50 WiFi-equipped "Lift Zones" at community centers across the region. These zones enable low-income students and their families to take advantage of free internet service. The centers will enjoy access to free WiFi for three years.

Among the local organizations hosting Lift Zones are BakerRipley, Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Houston, the Tejano Center for Community Centers, the City of Houston, Harris County, and the City of Galveston.

"The COVID-19 crisis put many at risk of being left behind, accelerating the need for comprehensive digital equity and internet adoption programs to support them. We hope these Lift Zones will help those who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to connect to effective distance learning at home," Ralph Martinez, regional senior vice president of Comcast Houston, says in a news release.

In December, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Comcast announced establishment of nine Lift Zones at city-operated community centers. These were the first Life Zones to be installed in the Houston area. The nine locations are:

  • Acres Homes Multi-Service Center.
  • DeZavala Community Center.
  • Emancipation Community Center.
  • Hartman Community Center.
  • Kashmere Multi-Service Center.
  • Magnolia Multi-Service Center.
  • Melrose Community Center.
  • Southwest Multi-Service Center.
  • Third Ward Multi-Service Center.

"The pandemic has underscored the need for students to have internet access to support their education and not fall behind in the classroom. Parents must also have options that work for them," Turner said in a December news release.

At no cost, Comcast outfits each Lift Zone location with a WiFi setup powered by Comcast Business. At each site, users can tap into a combination of Comcast Business' internet, WiFi Pro and SecurityEdge offerings.

Lift Zones complement Comcast's Internet Essentials program, which has helped connect about 10 million low-income Americans to the internet at home, including nearly 1 million Texans.

According to the Pew Research Center, roughly one-fourth of adults with annual household income below $30,000 don't own a smartphone, while about four in 10 lack home broadband services or a desktop or laptop computer. In March, President Biden signed legislation providing more than $3 billion in subsidies to boost broadband access in low-income areas.

Comcast recently unveiled a $1 billion, 10-year commitment to support digital equity, including the Lift Zones initiative. The initiative, introduced in September, aims to establish WiFi-connected safe spaces at more than 1,000 community centers nationwide for students and adults by the end of 2021.

"For nearly a decade, Internet Essentials has helped to change the lives of millions of people by providing low-income families with internet access at home," Dave Watson, president and CEO of Comcast Cable, said in a September news release. "These Lift Zones, which will be installed in community centers in local neighborhoods that our partners have identified and will run, will be places where students and families can get online and access the resources they need, especially while so many schools and workplaces have gone virtual."

The Comcast RISE program will give $10,000 grants to 100 BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston, and 150 other BIPOC entrepreneurs will receive technology and marketing assistance. Photo via Getty Images

Comcast to dole out $1M in grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston

fresh funding

Grants totaling $1 million are being given to 100 BIPOC-owned small businesses in the Houston area through the Comcast RISE program.

In addition, more than 150 BIPOC-owned small businesses in the region will receive technology and marketing assistance from Comcast RISE. BIPOC stands for Black, indigenous, and people of color.

"COVID-19 made a tough year of 2020. As a small business, what hurt most was being deemed nonessential and having to close our doors," Angelus McFarlane, owner of Houston's Ravlin Martial Arts, says in an April 27 news release from media, cable TV, and internet services giant Comcast. "I'm extremely excited that a business like Comcast has taken an interest to support small businesses. I believe that the technology resources from Comcast will help us, which will then bring more people back and help us grow."

Here's a sampling of recipients of the $10,000 grants in the Houston area:

  • Advantage Motorsports
  • Beyond Music Management
  • Candid Smiles Dentistry
  • Dumpling Haus
  • Hortiprocess
  • Million Cakes
  • OutSmart Media
  • Phuong My Music
  • Trinity Freight Services
  • True Image Orthodontics
  • Wonder Wall Wraps

Houston is among five places where small businesses are getting Comcast RISE grants of $10,000 each. The others are Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia.

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.

Overall, Comcast RISE is supporting 13,000 BIPOC-owned small businesses with monetary grants; a TV campaign, production of a TV commercial, or consulting services from Effectv; or computer equipment, internet, voice, or cybersecurity from Comcast Business.

In addition, Comcast RISE has teamed up with Ureeka, an online platform for entrepreneurs, to provide grant recipients with business coaching to help build their skills. The Ureeka platform also will offer access to education and expertise.

"Comcast RISE represents a holistic program that can help advance BIPOC entrepreneurs. The commitment to coaching, capital, and connections is critical for historically overlooked communities in achieving economic prosperity," says Melissa Bradley, co-founder of Ureeka.

Comcast RISE was formed in late 2020 to give BIPOC-owned small businesses various tools to survive and thrive. Among BIPOC-owned small businesses, those run by Black, Hispanic, and Asian entrepreneurs were hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"When we launched Comcast RISE, we knew a profound need existed in many of the communities we serve," says Ralph Martinez, Comcast's regional senior vice president in Houston. "We now see firsthand how the program's marketing and technology resources are benefiting Houston business owners, who are working to rise above 2020. We anticipate these awards will have a long-lasting, positive economic impact on these businesses and beyond."

RISE stands for representation, investment, strength, and empowerment.

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

Tech company to grant funds to Houston-area BIPOC small business owners

comcast cares

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."

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Houston energy blockchain company announces $7.7M in funding, plans to expand to the Middle East

money moves

A Houston-based tech company has announced another round of funding to support its blockchain network growth as well as to establish a presence in the Middle East.

Data Gumbo has closed its series B funding round totaling $7.7 million with follow-on investments led by Equinor Ventures. The round includes participation from Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures and Bay Area and Houston-based venture firm L37. The round's first close was announced in September 2020 at $4 million. The additional funds to close the Series B will be used to scale Data Gumbo to serve demand for GumboNet™ and GumboNet™ ESG. Additionally, Data Gumbo plans to establish a presence in the Middle East to cover expected demand growth in the region.

"The successful close of our series B is continued proof of the efficacy and booming interest in our ability to capture critical cost savings, deliver trust and provide transparency across commercial relationships," says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "Compounded by the growing demand for transparent, accurate sustainability data and the launch of our automated ESG measurement solution, GumboNet™ ESG, Data Gumbo's trajectory is well-positioned to serve our growing customer base by ensuring economic productivity and value. This infusion of capital will support our expansion efforts as we bring more international users to our network."

With this latest raise, Data Gumbo's total funding raised to date is $18.4 million.

"Data Gumbo's success is marked by a wide variety of business use cases and opportunities for expansion," says Bruce Niven, chief investment officer at Aramco Ventures, in the release. "Our continued investment is a testament to our continued support as the company attracts new customers, experiences further demand for its network and gains traction in new markets."

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

"Data Gumbo is the market leader for smart contracts backed by blockchain, and the coming year will be a period of exponential growth for the company as they penetrate new industrial markets," says Kemal Farid, partner at L37, in the release. "We believe strongly that GumboNet will become the de facto network for smart contracts across industries for capturing value and solving enormous pain points in contractual relations. Additionally, as companies move to meet increasing sustainability measurement demands and ESG improvements, there is a huge growth path available for Data Gumbo with the launch of GumboNet ESG."

Earlier this year, the company announced its environmental, social and corporate governance tracking and reporting tool.

"Equinor's recent pilot at the Johan Sverdrup field has demonstrated that GumboNet can create strong value for the partnership," says Gareth Burns, head of Equinor Ventures, in the release. "Our follow-on investment confirms Equinor Ventures' confidence in Data Gumbo's solution for our company and the broader energy industry."

3 Houston startups announce strategic appointments across health tech, materials, and software

short stories

Three Houston tech startups have new hires they're excited about this summer. From new board members to c-level execs, here's who's moving and shaking in Houston innovation.

Former Memorial Hermann CEO joins board of ZIBRIO

This Houston medical device startup has added a big name to its board. Photo courtesy of ZIBRIO

Dan Wolterman, who served as president and CEO of Memorial Hermann Health System for 15 years, has been named to the board of directors of Houston-based ZIBRIO. The health tech company, which was founded based on NASA technology, has developed a device that measures balance.

"We're delighted to have Dan on the team," says Katharine Forth, ZIBRIO CEO and co-founder, in a news release. "He understands ZIBRIO's vision to work across the full continuum of care, empowering older patients and clinicians with quantifiable fall prevention. His experience and enthusiasm will be invaluable in helping us to achieve it."

Falling is the top cause of trauma injury and trauma death across all age groups, according to ZIBRIO's release, and the current cost of falls in people over 65 is $50 billion – which is expected to double.

"ZIBRIO is coming to market at a time when population health and prevention are key for Healthcare systems to generate outcomes. They have a strong team and an elegant solution to a complex problem that will help millions," Wolterman says in the release.

Inhance adds to its C-suite

Inhance Technologies has added an integral member to its leadership. Photo via inhancetechnologies.com

Inhance Technologies, an international provider of polymer material science solutions based in Houston, has named its new CFO. Andrew Leeser, previously at Cimarron Energy, has joined the company to lead global finance, accounting and treasury functions, as well as human resources and information technology.

"I'm delighted to welcome Andrew to the Inhance Technologies family. He has an excellent track record in organizations spanning a range of industries, and I'm sure that his experience will help us continue on our upward trajectory," says Andrew Thompson, president and CEO of Inhance Technologies, in a news release. "We look forward to working with him to build a bright future for the company and our customers as we help them make a conscious choice towards more sustainable plastics."

The company just recently announced its expansion, including another new C-level exec and a new 75,000-square-foot site in St. Louis.

"I'm very pleased to have joined Inhance Technologies and I look forward to helping the organization achieve its goals over the next few years. With the significant growth in demand for our fully recyclable barrier technology Enkaseä, as well as our global expansion, there is no doubt I'm joining the company at an exciting time," says Leeser in the release.

Houston fintech unicorn names new council

Meet the new council dedicated to supporting HighRadius's new platform. Photo via LinkedIn

HighRadius, a Houston-based fintech company that reached unicorn status last year, has announced the members of its advisory council for its new microlearning and community platform Highako Academy.

Bob Shultz, managing partner of Quote-to-Cash Consulting, will serve as chairman of the council.

Other council members include:

  • John LaRocca, Sr. Director of Global Credit, Hitachi Vantara
  • Roger Torneden, Director of Business, Management and Legal Programs for UCLA Extension
  • R. Britt Hastey, Chair, Business Administration Department, Los Angeles City College
  • Bruce Lynn, Managing Partner, the FENG LLC
  • Scott Blakeley, Partner, Blakeley LLP

The council "will identify and improve courseware, certification programs and the methods of delivery based on current and future industry and professional trends," according to an email from the company. Highako Academy is aimed at helping teams and customers develop critical industry skills.

"Our customers have asked us for an online self-service learning platform, and that led us to launch highako.com as a beta platform last year," says Urvish Vashi of HighRadius in a recent release. "With 10,000+ users on the platform and a vibrant partner ecosystem consisting of credit groups, collection agencies, attorneys and industry associations, we see this echoing a larger trend of millennials and Gen Z gravitating towards microlearning platforms."

Expert: How to ensure your tech is ready for a hurricane in Houston

Guest column

Houstonians are no strangers to hurricanes. We've already seen some activity this summer, and we still have a few months to go. Although we can't prevent every negative situation when it comes to weather, AT&T has picked up a few tried and true tips that can help you stay safe prepared during this hurricane season.

Tips to plan ahead:

  • Save your smartphone's battery life. In case of a power outage, extend your device's battery life by putting it in power-save mode, turning off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, deleting apps, or putting your phone in Airplane Mode. This may prevent you from using certain features but will ultimately save battery power.
  • Keep your mobile devices charged. Be sure to have another way to charge your smartphone if the power goes out. One option might be using your car's USB port or a USB car charger.
  • Keep your mobile devices dry. Mobile phones can be a critical lifeline during a storm. To protect yours, store it in a water-resistant case, floating waterproof case, or plastic bag. A car charger or back-up battery pack can come in handy. If you have multiple devices to keep charged, consider a multi-port back-up battery pack.
  • Back up important information and protect vital documents. Consistently back up insurance papers, medical information and the like to the Cloud or your computer. With cloud storage, you can access your data from any connected device.
  • Have a family communications plan. Choose someone out of the area as a central contact in case your family is separated. Most importantly, practice your emergency plan in advance.
  • Store emergency contacts in your mobile phone. Numbers should include the police department, fire station, hospital, and family members.
  • Forward your home number to your mobile number in the event of an evacuation. Because call forwarding is based out of the telephone central office, you will get calls from your landline phone even if your local telephone service is down.
  • Track the storm on your mobile device. If you lose power at your home during a storm, you can use your mobile device to access local weather reports.

Likewise, we take a series of steps to ensure our Houston area network is ready to withstand the storm season each year.

Preparing our network in Houston:

When we know a storm is coming, we immediately assess what is needed to prepare our network. Some of those measures include:

  • Engaging Network Operations Center to monitor the network and partner with local personnel for recovery efforts.
  • Maintaining backup generators at cell sites and switching facilities in case of power loss.
  • Staging portable generators at strategic locations for deployment after an event.
  • Working with State and Federal Emergency Operations Centers to ensure first responders have the mobile connectivity they need before, during and after an event.

Keeping first responders connected:

Communication is critical to rescue and recovery efforts. That's why we were selected by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet Authority) – an independent agency within the federal government – to deliver FirstNet® to first responders and the extended public safety community. FirstNet is the only nationwide network built with and for America's first responders. In the Houston area, agencies using FirstNet include Law Enforcement, Fire, EMS, and Emergency Management, among others. FirstNet is used in day-to-day operations and during emergency response, including hurricane preparedness and response. In addition, organizations and agencies that could be called on to help support public safety also use FirstNet. These include healthcare, public works, essential government services, school security, utilities, energy, and transportation that operate in support of primary public safety entities and are critical to the response efforts. Together, these agencies utilize the FirstNet network for broadband connectivity for voice and data to prepare for and respond to hurricane events. FirstNet provides the connectivity they need with:

  • Priority & Preemption: In emergencies and disasters, commercial networks can quickly become congested. That's why FirstNet is the only nationwide network that gives first responders always-on priority and preemption. It puts them at the front of the "communications line."
  • Greater Command & Control: Public safety agencies have access to a fleet of more than 100 dedicated mobile cell sites that link to FirstNet via satellite and do not rely on commercial power availability. New this storm season, there's a giant addition to the FirstNet disaster response arsenal: FirstNet One – an approximately 55-foot aerostat, more commonly known as a blimp. And, to give first responders greater command and control of their network, the FirstNet Response Operations Program aligns with the National Incident Management System to better guide the deployment of these assets.
  • Enhanced Coverage and Capacity: We've also deployed FirstNet Band 14 spectrum. Band 14 is nationwide, high-quality spectrum set aside by the U.S. government specifically for FirstNet. We refer to it as public safety's VIP lane- during an emergency, this band can be cleared and locked just for FirstNet subscribers.

Recovery and relief:

During those unfortunate times when recovery response is needed, our Natural Disaster Recovery program and FirstNet Response Operations Group have technology and equipment to help with relief efforts such as:

  • Mobile cell sites and mobile command centers, like Cell on Wheels (COWs) and Cell on Light Trucks (COLTs)
  • Emergency Communications Vehicles (ECVs)
  • Flying Cell on Wings (Flying COWs)
  • Drones
  • A self-sufficient base camp: complete with sleeping tents, bathrooms, kitchen, laundry facilities, an on-site nurse, and meals ready to eat (MREs)
  • Hazmat equipment and supplies
  • Technology and support trailers to provide infrastructure support and mobile heating ventilation and air conditioning
  • Internal and external resources for initial assessment and recovery efforts

Together, let's have a smart and safe hurricane season.

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Luis Silva is vice president and general manager at AT&T.