Companies with resources to spare should step up to help support small and minority-owned businesses. Photo via Getty Images

It's clear that the pandemic continues to negatively impact many businesses, and chief among them small, minority-owned businesses. In fact, a study from late last year revealed that minority-owned organizations have been hit disproportionately hard – Black business owners experienced a 41 percent drop in business activity, while Latinx business activity dropped by 35 percent and Asian business activity dropped 26 percent.

Of course, COVID-19 is not the only obstacle that small and minority-owned businesses face. They are also contending with systemic social and economic injustices, civil and social unrest, as well as environmental events. In fact, the pandemic has further spotlighted these ongoing inequities in our communities.

In Houston, nearly 30 percent of startup companies are minority-owned, and studies indicate that Black neighborhoods have driven the majority of start-up growth during the pandemic. These small businesses and their owners have been in survival mode, using their skills, creativity, resources and capacities to keep their doors open and their businesses profitable — but this heavy burden should not fall on them alone.

After all, small businesses are the backbone of our economy. When they don't make it, our nation as a whole suffers: skyrocketing unemployment rates, reduced consumer spending and less optimistic long-term forecasts for all businesses, among other effects. But when they succeed, we all succeed.

Companies with resources to spare should step up to help support small and minority-owned businesses — and that's why last year Comcast created its initiative, Comcast RISE, to help these businesses resolve their challenges and find long-term success.

As part of the first wave of RISE — which stands for "Representation, Investment, Strength and Empowerment" — we gave eligible minority-owned small businesses located in Houston (and in four other U.S. cities severely impacted by COVID-19) the chance to apply for direct grants of $10,000. More than 700 small businesses received these grants, including more than 200 businesses based in the Houston area. Now, the second round of applications for RISE grants is open, and 100 lucky applicants will be chosen to each receive $10,000.

Two local businesses have already experienced the positive impact that these grants can provide. Ashley Gomez, 132 Design partner – a brand and web design company for small businesses – used their business' RISE grant to invest in technology and professional development for the staff. Since then, 132 Design has seen a 30 percent increase in revenue. Meanwhile, Cori Xiong, owner of the Houston-area staple Mala Sichuan Bistro, was able to pay off her extra business expenses associated with the pandemic, as well as invest in publicity and marketing efforts for her storefronts.

Here's what you need to know if you're a small business owner interested in applying for a grant. If your minority-owned business is eligible — that is, at least 51 percent minority-owned, independently owned and operated, registered as a business in the U.S., in operation for more than a year, and located in Harris or Fort Bend county— simply fill out the form on the Comcast RISE website between October 1 and 14, 2021.

We, at Comcast, are deeply committed to helping drive change and bolster the process of correcting social and economic injustices. The Comcast RISE program helps meaningfully impact and support the small businesses that are shaping our communities. At the end of the day, our economy's success is just part of the equation. It's on all of us to ensure equity, diversity, and inclusion for our communities.

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Vince Margiotta is the vice president at Comcast Business.

Here's your latest roundup of innovation news you may have missed. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

Google grants Houston founders funds, The Ion looks for artists, and more local innovation news

short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem is bursting at the seams with news, and for this reason, local startup and tech updates may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, the Comcast RISE program expands to grant more funds, Google names Houston-area recipients from its Black Founder Fund, The Ion is looking for artists to participate in a new initiative, and more.

Google cohort awards Black founders $100,000 each

Google has granted funds to two Houston companies. Photo via Pexels

DOSS and SOTAOG, two Houston-based startups, have received $100,000 each as a part of the second cohort of the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund, a $10 million initiative for Black founders. Originally reported to be a part of Google's accelerator early this summer, DOSS is a digital brokerage that uses tech to make homeownership more affordable, and SOTAOG is an enterprise solutions provider within the oil and gas and heavy industrial industries.

"The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund embodies our mission of helping underrepresented founders grow their businesses. We are excited to continue the fund and contribute funding to Black founders, with no strings attached. Black founders currently receive less than 1 percent of total VC funding," says Jewel Burks Solomon, head of Google for Startups US, in a news release. "We heard loud and clear from the 2020 fund recipients that Google for Startups and Goodie Nation have been crucial to their success not only through funding, but through community, mentorship, network connections and technical expertise."

Last year, Google for Startups awarded 76 Black-led startups up to $100,000 in non-dilutive funding, as well as technical support from tools and teams across Google, including as much as $120,000 in donated search Ads from Google.org and up to $100,000 in Google Cloud credits, according to the release.

In addition to the two companies from Houston, eight companies from Austin and Dallas were also chosen for the second program.

The Ion calls for local artists

The Ion is looking for local artists to create innovative window displays. Photo courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, a Midtown innovation hub that's owned and operated by Rice Management Company, is looking for local artists to work on two prominent display windows at the front of the newly renovated historic Sears building.

"As a nexus for creativity of many different kinds, The Ion welcomes Houston's talented artists to tap into their unique skill sets and diverse backgrounds to submit inventive proposals that will ultimately comprise two different art installations. Each installation will contribute to Houston's innovation ecosystem by inspiring the growing community of creators who will see the building's display windows on a daily basis," says Artistic Consultant Piper Faust in a news release.

The two art installations will reside for six months — from February to August of next year. The submissions will be evaluated by a team of experts identified by Rice Management Co. and Piper Faust. The budget for each project will be $20,000.

According to the release, the submissions are open to Houston-area artists and should be in line with The Ion's "vision and mission of accelerating innovation, connecting communities and facilitating partnerships to create growth and opportunity in Houston."

Artists can apply online until October 1 at 5 pm.

Comcast RISE announces additional $1 million for Houston founders

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

The Comcast RISE program will give out another batch of $10,000 grants to BIPOC-owned small businesses in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which announced funding for 100 small businesses in Houston earlier this year, has expanded to provide an additional $1 million in support. The program is focused on BIPOC-owned small businesses in Harris and Fort Bend Counties that have been in business for three or more years with 1 to 25 employees.

Eligible businesses can apply online at ComcastRISE.com beginning October 1 through October 14 for one of the one hundred $10,000 grants.

Houston startup wins $25,000

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, won $25,000 for her company. Photo courtesy of Church Space

Dallas-based Impact Ventures, a nonprofit startup accelerator focused on empowering women and communities of color, hosted its bi-annual event, The Startup Showcase. A Houston-based company, Church Space, took the top prize of $25,000.

Billed as the "Netflix of churches," Church Space originally started as a way to allow groups to rent spaces for worship. But, in light of the pandemic, the company is pivoted to launch Church Space TV, a streaming program that allows churches and ministries to stream worship services for free.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, previously told InnovationMap. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time."

The company is also one of MassChallenge Texas's 2021 cohort.

Houston health care leader receives prestigious award

Dr. Peter Hotez, a leader in the development of Texas Children's and Baylor's COVID-19 vaccine construct, has been named the recipient of a prestigious award. ​Photo courtesy of TCH

Dr. Peter Hotez, Texas Children's Hospital Chair in Tropical Pediatrics, has been awarded the 2021 David E. Rogers Award. Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

The annual award, presented by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Association of American Medical Colleges, "honors a medical school faculty member who has made major contributions to improving the health and health care of the American people," according to a news release.

"I am thrilled to be honored with the David E. Rogers Award," Hotez says in the release. "As we continue this fight against COVID-19, having the additional support from the AAMC will amplify our efforts to improve public health nationally and globally."

The award will be presented to Dr. Hotez at the 2021 AAMC Awards Recognition Event on Wednesday, October 27.

Hotez is leading the development of Texas Children's and Baylor's COVID-19 vaccine construct, according to the release, and he has dedicated much of his time to vaccine advocacy efforts, countering rising antivaccine and anti-science sentiments in the United States while promoting vaccine diplomacy efforts globally.

It's time for large corporations to step up to support small businesses founded by people of color. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Corporations can help level the playing field for BIPOC-owned businesses

Guest column

There were times when I wasn't sure what to do next.

When I started Connect the Dots PR in 2012, I wrote out detailed business plans, saved startup dollars, and leaned heavily on people in the PR industry to guide me in terms of pricing and feedback. Of course, we had contingency plans for unexpected hardships, but you hope not to use them.

My contingency plans went out the window when we saw we were looking at more than a year of pandemic-related shutdowns and slowdowns. I didn't have time to wait it out or say let's see what happens. It was time to move strategically.

Like most businesses, we hit a snag. A big chunk of our client base was reeling with corporate layoffs, shutdowns and revamped budgets. We've held on, but at times, it was overwhelming. I remember when the pandemic initially shut everything down, my fear was what is going to happen to my business and those that depend on me, such as employees, vendors, clients and contractors? At the onset of the pandemic, an employee came to me and said if I needed to let them go they understood. It hurt to do so, but it was a mutual decision and he landed on his feet and relocated to another state.

For a business owner of color, the hurdles are higher. When building Connect the Dots PR, the most important driver was access to startup capital. But studies have shown that white entrepreneurs are able to contribute considerably more personal equity to their new businesses than entrepreneurs of color, because white American families have nearly 10 times as much wealth as Hispanic or Black American families.

While inequities existed before the pandemic, over the last year, they've gotten worse. Beyond the physical toll of COVID-19, which affected BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities, which includes Hispanic and Asian American communities among others, more severely than white ones, BIPOC-owned businesses have had less of a safety net to fall back on, have been more likely to close, and have had a harder time getting Paycheck Protection Program loans. Studies last summer showed that the pandemic shuttered Black-owned businesses at more than double the rate of white-owned businesses. It all leads to the deeply unequal recovery that we're just now embarking upon.

The journey ahead can feel discouraging, but the good news is that now I have a much better idea of what it will take to build an equitable road back and get businesses like mine on even footing.

First and foremost, there needs to be an investment in people of color-owned businesses from the public, private and nonprofit sectors. Six months ago, I applied to the Comcast RISE program which, since late last year, has invested in 2,500 BIPOC-owned businesses nationwide with monetary grants, technology makeovers and marketing services. I received the Comcast RISE Investment Fund for Connect the Dots PR, which provided relief when it was most needed. With this grant, I have been able to focus on the business and invest in my brand.

We're not the only ones. Comcast RISE plans to name 13,000 recipients by 2022. Houston was also one of five cities selected to award a $10,000 grant to 100 local businesses from the Comcast RISE Investment Fund, which is the grant I received. We need similar commitments from other corporations to level the playing field for people of color business owners.

Federal, state and local recovery programs need to target minority entrepreneurs. Too many of the existing relief efforts have had limited application windows or been first-come-first-served, which disadvantages businesses that are already starting from behind. Local organizations like the Greater Houston Black Chamber of Commerce can be useful allies in reaching businesses owned by historically disadvantaged groups.

Finally, financial institutions need better guardrails to ensure that they don't discriminate against nonwhite business owners. When accessing startup capital, barriers still exist for minority entrepreneurs, and keeping checks and balances on those with the balance sheets is the only way to make sure all businesses are starting on equal footing.

That way, when the next crisis hits, you'll have fewer businesses starting from behind, and we'll all find our way to recovery much faster. For all of us, that's a business plan worth holding onto.

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Vanessa Wade, is the founder and owner of Houston-based PR firm Connect the Dots.

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.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.