The winners of the hackathon included a contact tracing tool for schools, a soap dispenser to promote handwashing, a virus-killing filter, and more. Photo via Rice University Public Relations

As fall creeps closer, the need for a safe way to reopen schools becomes more and more dire. A team of Rice University students created a software that might help on that front.

SchoolTrace, a software that uses the schedules of students and faculty for COVID-19 contact tracing in schools, won top honors in the 2020 Rice Design-A-Thon, which took place July 17 to 19 online this year due to the pandemic. The hackathon was planned to be held in person during the fall semester, but organizers moved up the date to focus on coronavirus solutions. Twenty-three teams — comprised of 116 undergraduate competitors — participated.

"We wanted to provide students with a meaningful summer opportunity and the potential for a significant public health impact," says Carrigan Hudgins, a Sid Richardson College senior and co-coordinator, in a news release. "At one point, we considered cancelling, but hosting it virtually instead actually allowed us to reach a broader base of students across Texas and out of state."

SchoolTrace and its contact tracing tech that doesn't raise privacy concerns with tracking sensors or mobile phone apps took the $1,000 first price. Justin Cheung, Nick Glaze, Mit Mehta, Tyler Montague and Huzaifah Shamim — all juniors majoring in electrical and computer engineering — also received $500 for excelling in the digital age of health care track.

The teams that came in second and third place received $800 and $600, respectively, and the winners of each of the three design tracks also scored $500. The prizes were sponsored by Rice's George R. Brown School of Engineering, Rice's student chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Southwest National Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium.

Aside from the cash prizes, the students also received valuable guidances and feedback from industry experts.

"Having the judges and our team vouch for the actual solution, when we can propose it to different competitions and incubators around Texas and the country, is more important than the cash prizes," says co-coordinator Franklin Briones, a Brown College senior who competed in previous design-a-thons at Rice. Briones and Hudgins co-coordinated this year's event with Wiess College senior Eric Torres.

Here were the other award-winning innovations to come out of the program:

  • Second place and pediatric track winner — "Team SARS Wars: A New Hope." The team created a soap dispenser attachment that plays music and rewards children with stickers if they wash their hands for 20 seconds. Team members included: Anyssa Castorina, Aman Eujayl, Diego Lopez-Bernal, Janet Lu, Rubén Sebastián Marroquín, and Belén Szentes, all sophomores from Rice.
  • Third place — "The (d^3x/dt^3)(s)." COV-COM is a wall-mounted filtration system that catches and kills COVID-19 created by a team of juniors and seniors from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Team members included: Olivia Garza, Juan Herrera, Frida Montoya, Aishwarya Sathish, Samantha Strahan, and Morgan Struthers.
  • Global health track winner — "The Duncaroo Designers." The team from Rice created affordable desk partitions that could be used in schools with limited funds. Team members included: senior Rachel Bui and sophomores Jacob Duplantis, Charlie Gorton, Andrei Mitrofan, Anh Nguyen, and Vivian Wong.

Each of the teams were tasked Friday (July 17) evening with the prompt to "design and present a solution (either a product or a method) to address the treatment, prevention or non-medical related needs of the COVID-19 pandemic." Final presentations took place final presentations Sunday afternoon.

"The needs-finding for those problems was the most cumbersome part," Briones says in the release. "Not because it's hard to find problems, but because COVID-19 is so continually changing. It was hard to find which problem was the most important one."

Denise Hamilton, founder and CEO of WatchHerWork, is publishing a book that helps guide Black Lives Matter allies to make changes that will help them change the world. Photo courtesy of WatchHerWork

Houston entrepreneur tackles diversity and inclusion challenges through new book

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 39

If you went to school in America, you might have been taught that George Washington's teeth were made out of wood. While this information might have been effective in promoting oral health as a kid, it's important for you to know that George Washington's dentures were not made of wood. They were made of ivory, metal alloys, and other human teeth — usually pulled from slaves.

History seems to have been rewritten in this case, and it's not the first — nor the last — time that's happened. Denise Hamilton wants individuals to recognize moments, acknowledge them, and move forward toward the truth. That's why she's publishing a thoughtful journal entitled "Do Something: An Ally's Guide to Changing Yourself So You Can Change Your World."

"I feel really strongly that we all have these challenging stories in our minds that we have to identify and release," Hamilton shares on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I give that example so that we all are clear that we don't have the full story for a lot of these topics. To me, if you allow yourself to be humble and be open to the fact that you really cannot believe everything you think, we can make so much progress in this space."

Hamilton founded her company, WatchHerWork, five years ago to act as a platform for women seeking career advice and mentorship.

"I had been an executive for many years — around 25 years at this point — and I had been the only woman or the only African American in so many situations that people wanted to pick my brain or take me to lunch," she says. "Frankly, there weren't enough hours in the day."

The company evolved to more, and now she's focused on diversity and inclusion consulting and leadership.

In the months following the death of George Floyd, Hamilton has seen companies react in various ways to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement with marketing campaigns and initiatives for improving workplace conditions.

"The biggest challenge is the same thing that's the biggest opportunity," she says. "Every company has the opportunity to reinvent their approach to how they handle systemic racism in their organizations, and they are terrified by it."

As Hamilton has seen first hand, companies are navigating a minefield of how to react. In her consulting with companies, Hamilton has advised business leaders to be transparent and recognize if they haven't been an ally in this space — and to not act like it. Disclose the things that are being improved and amplify the work that's already been done — don't reinvent the wheel, she says.

"And if you turn this moment into a marketing event instead of a true seed change, we can spot that a mile away. Lead with authenticity, be sincere, and be honest," she says.

The other ongoing challenge Hamilton is navigating with her work is the effect COVID-19 has had on women in the workplace. The pandemic has amplified existing gender issues in the workplace and created new challenges as well. In the past, female executives have been able to climb the corporate ladder while hiring services to help on the home front, but COVID-19 pulled the rug out from under these women's feet.

"Women are starting to opt out because they are overwhelmed," Hamilton says, adding that this thought terrifies her. "We shouldn't live in a society that penalizes you for having children — that's just the bottom line."

What employers have to realize — and this is a cornerstone of Hamilton's work — is that inclusion in the workplace isn't treating everyone the same. It's factoring everyone's differences.

"I don't want you to treat me the same. I want you to look at my situation and treat me the way I need to be treated based on my situation," she says. "And that can be difficult to navigate, but that's what we help our clients do."

As challenging both the social unrest and pandemic has been, it's an opportunity to move forward and make a difference.

"It's a bittersweet experience when there's lots of change — there's always a lot of opportunity as well," Hamilton says. "Never waste a good crisis."

On the episode, Hamilton shares more details about her forthcoming book, advice for female founders, and more. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Houston researchers find new eco-friendly way to preserve produce

preventing waste

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

Celltex is looking into using stem cells to treat COVID-19, and the Houston biotech company just got the green light to go to trials. Photo courtesy of Celltex

Houston biotech company gets FDA greenlight to move forward with COVID-19 stem cell treatment

coronavirus cure?

A Houston-based biotech company announced last week that it has gotten the approval it was seeking from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to continue testing its COVID-19 treatment that uses stem cells.

Celltex has received approval from its Investigational New Drug application, or IND, to look into stem cells — specifically Autologous Adipose Tissue-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells, or AdMSCs — and their effect on COVID-19 patients.

"The FDA's approval of our IND is not only a critical milestone for Celltex, but also for everyone who has been affected by COVID-19," says David G. Eller, Celltex chairman and CEO. "I am optimistic that our findings will result in favorable outcomes that will improve lives today and for generations to come."

Celltex has been in the stem cell business for nearly a decade and has treated patients with debilitating diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, rheumatoid arthritis, and more. Eller says he's been considering how Mesenchymal Stem Cells, or MSCs, could be used amid the pandemic.

"Throughout the entire pandemic, MSCs have shown promise for combatting symptoms and complications associated with COVID-19, and as the nation's leading commercial MSC banking and technology company, Celltex has the unique ability to transition these initial findings into a clinical trial," Eller says.

The FDA clearance will allow for a phase two trial "that will evaluate the safety and prophylactic efficacy of AdMSCs against COVID-19," according to the release. There will be 200 patients across multiple centers that will be involved in the placebo-controlled study.

Celltex offices out of the Galleria area and has laboratory operations of its wholly-owned Mexican subsidiary are located in Hospital Galenia in Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Last year, Celltex planned an expansion into Saudi Arabia and also has a presence in Europe.

According to a survey from Houston Exponential, the Bayou City's startup founders see the light at the end of the pandemic's dark tunnel. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Houston founders optimistic about COVID-19 recovery, survey finds

thinking positive

Given the current economic environment, you might think founders of Houston startups would view the future with a healthy dose of pessimism. But you'd be wrong.

A survey conducted between April 23 and May 7 by Houston Exponential, a nonprofit that promotes the local innovation ecosystem, revealed that Houston startup founders largely see the future through a lens of optimism. For example:

  • More than half of the startups that said they were harmed by the coronavirus pandemic believe they'll begin bouncing back before the end of this year.
  • 70 percent of the startups that said they were hurt by the pandemic believe they'll begin recovering before they run out of cash. "They're saying, 'We're making it through this to the other side, and we're going to be better on the other side," says Bryant Chan, director of product at HX.
  • 80 percent of startups said they planned to add employees within the following 12 months.
  • Two-thirds of startups said they had a funding runway of at least six months.

"Houston is a resilient city, and its agile founders are the most adept at making the best of any situation," HX states in a summary of the survey results.

HX sent the survey to more than 1,000 startup founders in Houston. The survey results include responses from founders of companies with 30 or fewer employees.

Harvin Moore, president of HX, says he wasn't surprised by the generally optimistic outlook of Houston startup founders. In part, that's because local startups as a whole aren't swimming in deep pools of venture capital, according to Moore. Lower valuations lead to lower overhead and shorter cash runways, translating into abundant resilience, he says.

Moore suspects that if a startup founders survey were to be conducted in a VC hotbed like Silicon Valley, "we would probably find less resilience just because there were higher burn rates and, therefore, more dependence on runway."

Chan says startups in Houston hold an advantage over startups in hotspots like Silicon Valley because they're used to practicing "capital efficiency."

"Hopefully, we will maintain that as an advantage," Moore says.

Despite the optimistic elements of the survey results, Houston startups are encountering obstacles. Those include:

  • One-third of startups with at least six employees said they carried out layoffs or furloughs as a result of the pandemic-scarred economy.
  • Thirty percent of startups said they saw contracts fade and revenue shrink because of the pandemic.
  • Nearly one-fifth of startups that said they were raising capital before and during the pandemic saw their valuations decline by 10 percent to 20 percent.

One of the most noteworthy findings in the negative column was that the No. 1 hiring challenge for startups (cited by 21 percent of them) was offering competitive pay.

"Founders are finding talented candidates in Houston, but are unable to meet their salary demands," HX states. "It's common for startups to compensate early employees through company equity in lieu of salary, but with such economic uncertainty, employees may prefer that guaranteed cash and liquidity."

Before the pandemic, the top hiring challenge for Houston startups likely would have been finding the right talent, Chan says.

Despite such challenges, the path ahead for Houston's startup community seems to be pretty smooth, particularly as organizations like HX keep pursuing more access to angel, early stage, and seed funding.

"We have a strong economy, low cost of living — all these things that are solid about Houston and are not going away," Moore says. "We're confident that 2021 will be a great year. 2020 is probably going to be — for most people in Houston, just like around the rest of the country — the year of reimagining and repositioning and recovering. For some companies, it's going to be a huge inflection-point year."

A Houston real estate developer is making sure its common spaces are clean by using a new UV sanitation product from a Houston industrial services company. Photo via 255assay.com

Houston industrial tech company launches new products to sanitize shared spaces from COVID-19

UV rays to save the day

A new technology coming out of a Houston industrial services company is allowing shared spaces to reopen safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apache Industrial Services has expanded its industrial services to include SafeSpace Solutions, a new line that includes UV-C products that minimize the risk of infection by detection and decontamination systems.

Houston-based real estate developer, McCord Development, has employed this new UV sanitation technology at its new apartment complex, 225 Assay, in Generation Park to sanitize high traffic areas such as elevators, amenities, retails spaces, and apartment units before move-ins.

"The new UV technology provides an extra level of comfort and peace of mind for employees and current residents," says Levi Hermes, director of development for McCord Development.McCord Development has two Tomahawk UV-C lamps that rely on ultralight technology to detect and destroy microorganisms in the air and on hard surfaces where the light touches. The light eradicates harmful pathogens and viruses in large open spaces with 99.9 percent effectiveness.

The Tomahawk lamp can be used in closed and open spaces, made out of lightweight carbon steel with a four-wheel stand, it is portable and easy to move. The light tower is remotely operated and leaves a burnt smell after the cleaning process is done.

"The ultimate goal of using the UV technology in our real estate is for our employees, customers, and our other partners that come into our different spaces," says Hermes. "We are doing everything the Center for Disease Control recommends including sanitizing high touch areas, but this adds an extra level of protection."

The lamp is easy to operate and can be moved to common areas and offices in commercial and apartment units quickly. McCord Development has used the UV lights in a variety of settings including industrial buildings, offices, and common areas in 255 Assay such as fitness centers, mailrooms, resident rooms, and a business center, which provide residents a place to socialize and work.

Apache Industrial Services, a McCord Development tenant, has already deployed other UV-related products including Airrow 2000 UV-C Air Treatment System, an air filtration and treatment system, Airrowswift 5000, placed in external A/C packages to filtrate air for small buildings.

Hermes and his team at McCord Development are looking forward to incorporating more gadgets as they become available, because of the heightened sanitation standards which they expect will continue even after society enters a new normal post-pandemic world.

"The long term impact will be monumental," says Hermes. "A lot of the current sanitation procedures will be here to stay. However, the pendulum will swing back to normal, but it will be a new normal. It will be important for owners of real estate to provide that extra level of comfort through sanitation."

Temperature checking

Photos via apacheip.com

Apache's Mass Temperature Screening System uses cameras to detect temperature and can scan 5,000 people in 30 minutes with great accuracy, according to the website.

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Impact Hub Houston has new HQ, HCC creates AI program, and more innovation news

Short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and not all make the news. For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a Houston startup incubator has a new home, a local school creates AI-focused program, Astros manager taps into sports tech, and more.

Impact Hub Houston makes downtown partnership

Impact Hub Houston has a new headquarters in downtown. Photo courtesy of Central Houston

Impact Hub Houston, a nonprofit organization that promotes and accelerates sustainability-focused startups, is resident partner at Downtown Launchpad, according to Central Houston and the Downtown Redevelopment Authority.

The organization now has a 10-year lease and a new headquarters for its team and events. Impact Hub joins two accelerator programs — MassChallenge Texas and gener8tor — which both have a global presence and launched in Houston in the past two years.

"We celebrate Central Houston's vision in launching this 'vertical village' and appreciate their ongoing support in including Impact Hub Houston as a part of it," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston, in a news release. "It takes a village to raise an entrepreneur, and now we have that village with the infrastructure and community to raise generations of diverse innovators. It's another exciting step towards our goal to build an authentically inclusive and equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem that looks like Houston and works for all in our region."

HCC introduces artificial intelligence program

Data science startup based in Houston focus on neuroscience software nabs $3.78M grant

A local college system is training the future AI workforce. Getty Images

Houston Community College is the first community college in the state to introduce a new program focused on artificial intelligence. The new Associate of Applied Science degree program has been approved by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, according to a press release from HCC, and is available for the fall 2020 semester at HCC Southwest, HCC Northeast and HCC Southeast.

"It is the latest of HCC's ongoing efforts to embrace new technologies and keep a pulse on the ever-changing needs of the industry," HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado says in the release. "Offering an innovative program like AI will allow our students to take advantage of all the accelerated job openings in Houston, in Texas and beyond."

The new program exists to fill the rising need for AI professionals. Last year, the job site indeed.com identified machine learning engineers at the top of its annual list of the 25 best jobs, citing a 344 percent increase in job postings from 2015 to 2018 with an annual base salary of $146,000.

"Because of a dire shortage of AI specialists, many companies are offering big salaries," says G. Brown, Ph.D., program coordinator of Networking and Telecommunications at HCC Southwest, in the release. "AI specialists are in high demand by companies like Microsoft, Apple and Amazon, as well as NASA and SpaceX."

Rice project re-envisions dorm layouts

The dorm design created socially-distant spaces that can be used in times of a pandemic. Photo via rice.edu

Two Rice University students received top marks in the 2020 American Institute of Architects Houston (AIAH) Gulf Coast Green Student Competition for their pandemic-proof dorm design. Carrie Li and Mai Okimoto, both 2022 Rice master's of architecture students, won first place in the competition that challenged students to design a dorm for the University of Houston-Downtown that would adhere to the Centers for Disease Control's social distancing guidelines.

"Carrie and Mai's timely and innovative proposal is beautifully conceived, highly resolved and elegantly presented," says interim dean, John J. Casbarian, in a news release. "I am particularly struck by how seamlessly it addresses the pressing issues of flooding, natural ventilation and social distancing, and how well sited it is in relation to UHD while mitigating the adversity of the freeway expansion.The competition consisted of eight teams from Texas and Louisiana which presented to judges from Kirksey, PDR Corporation, Gensler, Walter P Moore and UH-D. Li and Okimoto's project features 432 units across three villages and even factored in the area's flooding challenges.

"[Our design] aims to: allow social interaction to happen on different scales, from the one-on-one connection to larger scale gatherings; provide the users with safe but varied circulation paths, through which natural ventilation also occurs; treat dining as a key socializing program; and address the site's flooding risks and impacts of the I-45 corridor expansion," Li says in the release.

City of Houston passes small business-focused economic relief initiative

A new program from the city of Houston is helping to provide funds for businesses affected by COVID-19. Getty Images

Last week, Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston City Council passed the city's Small Business Economic Relief Program, funded with $15 million of the City's allocated CARES Act 2020 funds. Small businesses can apply for up to $50,000 and the grant can be used for payroll, accounts payable, rent, mortgage, PPE for employees, marketing strategies, including creating an online presence and other sales alternatives.

"We know small businesses throughout Houston have suffered greatly due to the global pandemic, and it could take months or years before the business climate returns to normal," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "I thank Vice Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Castex Tatum and other council members for bringing this program forward. We are working on other relief packages that will keep us Houston Strong as we navigate the public health crisis."

The program will be administered by Houston's Office of Business Opportunity and the Houston Business Development Inc.

To qualify for the SBERP, businesses must be located in Houston, have been in business for at least one year, provide evidence for revenue decrease due to COVID-19-caused closures, have less than $2 million in gross annual revenue pre-COVID-19, be in good standing with the city, and commit to complete technical assistance.

"The SBERP will help all sizes of small businesses move one step closer toward financial recovery. This program is intended to maximize the long-term, positive impact of these small businesses on our local economy through their contribution to job retention and the continued availability of their services," says Marsha Murray, director for the Office of Business Opportunity, in the release. "If our local small businesses did not qualify for other federal or local programs, or did not receive enough funds to mitigate the impact of the crisis, we encourage them to apply for this program."

Astros manager joins venture capital firm

Not only is Dusty Baker at the helm of the 2017 World Series-winning Astros, but he's also a founding partner of a sports-focused venture capital firm. Getty Images

The Houston Astros manager, Dusty Baker, is a founding partner of a new venture capital firm focused on sports tech and innovation. New York-based Turn2 Equity Partners is a new fund is beginning with a focus on amateur and professional baseball markets.

"For decades, baseball players, managers and executives have lended their credibility to brands as endorsers," Baker says in a press release. "With the establishment of Turn2 Equity, for the first time, faces of the game have the opportunity to own and influence people at all levels."

Co-founded by sports venture capitalists Jarett Sims and Peter Stein, the firm's team also includes Jim Duquette, New York Mets general manager; Bobby Evans, who was formerly with the San Francisco Giants as general manager; and John Haegele, the former CEO of Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment.

GotSpot Inc. wins veterans competition

A Houston startup that's using technology to optimize short-term real estate space took home a prize in a virtual pitch competition. Image via LinkedIn

Houston-based GotSpot Inc. has claimed another pitching competition prize for veteran-owned businesses. Reda Hicks, founder of the Houston startup, received third place and $10,000 at the Ford Fund Virtual Pitch Competition last month. Memphis-based Pure Light Clean Air Services took first place and $15,000 and Raleigh, North Carolina-based Blue Recruit won second place and $10,000.

"The experiences, teamwork and skills learned in service of our country can serve as a solid foundation for these men and women as they build sustainable businesses," says Yisel Cabrera, manager of the Ford Motor Company Fund, in a news release. "We're proud to work with Bunker Labs to assist these inspiring entrepreneurs as they pursue new roads to success."

Calling all energy startups

Upstream startups can submit to a new virtual pitch competition. Photo via atce.org

The Society of Petroleum Engineers is calling for applications from energy startups to compete in a virtual pitch competition. Applications for the ATCE Startup Village, which is a collaboration between SPE and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, are live online and due by August 14. The competition will take place Tuesday, October 13.

The competition is free to compete and to apply, and open to early stage upstream technology companies. Each company selected to present will have 5 to 8 minutes to provide a "quick pitch" about their company to a group of venture capitalists, angel investors, and industry leaders. Judging will be based on innovative technology, commercial strategy and business plan, market potential, and management team and advisers.

Rice University research: Collaboration with the community can be key to success

houston voices

In Pittsburgh, a coalition of 100 community groups brokered a deal with developers of the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team for $8.3 million in neighborhood improvements. In Oakland, California, developers of an $800 million high-tech complex promised local residents 50 percent of its construction jobs. And in Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center is working with residents to shield them from skyrocketing rents.

Community Benefits Agreements, or CBAS, as these agreements are called, are increasingly common between businesses and the places where they want to set up shop. But are they worth the money? To find out, Rice Business professor Kate Odziemkowska joined Sinziana Dorobantu of New York University to analyze market reactions to 148 CBA announcements between indigenous communities and mining firms in Canada. The financial value of these agreements, the researchers found, was real.

While it's easy to imagine that CBAs are just costly giveaways, they're more than goodwill gestures. Instead, they are legally enforceable contracts to distribute benefits from a new project and to govern the response to any potential social and environmental disruptions. For businesses, the researchers found, they are also good strategy, because they prevent costly, drawn-out conflict.

To conduct their research, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu analyzed a sample of 148 legally binding CBAs signed in Canada between mining firms and indigenous communities between 1999 and 2013. In Canada, mining companies and indigenous communities often hammer out agreements about extraction and use of local resources. Studying only the mining sector let the researches control for the economic variations that characterize different industries.

Since CBA negotiations cannot be disclosed, the announcement of such agreements represents new market information. To conduct their study, the researchers tracked the market reaction to these announcements, using a technique that measured short-term returns.

Creating CBAs from the start, they found, can head off catastrophic costs later. That's because even when a company has disproportionate economic strength, the public relations, legal and economic costs of community conflict can be draining. Consider the 1,900-kilometer Dakota Access oil pipeline, whose developers faced six months of round-the-clock protests that included nearly 15,000 volunteers from around the world. The drumbeat of litigation and negative news coverage still continues today.

In general, the researchers found, the more experience a community has with protests or blockades, the more firms gained from signing a CBA. Property rights protections also provide strong incentive for making a deal. Mining companies, for example, need access to land to do business. Communities with robust property rights to the resource or location sought by the firm have strong standing to stop that firm if they don't make a deal.

Because access to valuable resources like land or intellectual property can mean the difference between financial success or failure, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu said, the lesson from their findings extends far beyond Canadian mines. It's a lesson Disney learned the hard way when it failed to acknowledge the culture of Norway's Sami people in "Frozen." Assailed for cultural appropriation by using, but not crediting, traditional Sami music, Disney quickly made amends. After negotiating with the Sami people, Disney pledged to consult with them and portray them thoughtfully in the film's sequel.

The deal may have cost Disney on the front end, but it was nothing compared to the advantage of freezing out years of bad press.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Kate Odziemkowska, an assistant professor of Strategic Management at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.

5 innovation-focused takeaways from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual report

BY THE NUMBERS

In an annual economic report from the Greater Houston Partnership, researchers and data scientists outlined the city's economy by the numbers, and Houston's industries such as technology, health care, energy, and more were all represented.

The 2020 Houston Facts was released in an virtual event hosted by GHP and its team of data specialists. Here's what you need to know from the event and the report, which can be found online.

The Texas Medical Center is focusing on five new institutes

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

The Texas Medical Center has established itself as a topic of its own in the Houston Facts report. The 61-member nonprofit that connects medical institutions across the city. The organization is working on a new campus, TMC3, that is expected to complete in 2022 and bring an annual economic impact of $5.2 billion to the state of Texas along with 30,000 jobs. From

According to the report, TMC is continuing to develop five institutes that compliment the organization's focus on innovation, regenerative medicine, health policy, and more:

  1. TMC Innovation Institute
  2. TMC Health Policy Institute
  3. TMC Clinical Research Institute
  4. TMC Regenerative Medicine Institute
  5. TMC Genomics Institute

Houston's port business continues to stay strong, with potential for growth following expansion

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

The Port of Houston has long been a key part of Houston's history and its economic impact. Across four seaports in the Houston area, the city moved 242.9 million metric tons of trade last year, and the district has been consistently named the busiest or one of the busiest by tonnage for over a decade.

With over 200 companies calling the port home and a busy port district, the Houston Ship Channel has been working on an expansion project, called Project 11. Construction on the project could begin as early as next year, per the report.

Venture capital is on the rise as tech jobs stays steady

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

Again, Houston Facts has called out the growth Houston has seen in venture capital investment. According to the report, top industries for VC funding include health tech, software, and energy. Houston Facts reports the ecosystem saw $600 million invested last year. While numbers vary based on sources, Houston Exponential recently reported over $466 million of venture capital invested in Houston between January and July of 2020.

Meanwhile, when it comes to tech jobs in Houston, the city has held its place as 12th in the nation for cities with the most tech jobs. Last year, Houston had 235,802 tech workers according to data from CompTIA, Cyberstates 2020. That count is slightly increased from 2018's 223,000 tech workers in Houston.

Houston's evolving demographics continues to shape the city

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

Houston is regularly touted as the most diverse city in the nation, and that diversity has affected the city's business sector. As of last year, largest ethnic population in Houston is hispanic. Houston now has the fourth largest hispanic population in the country, however, according to the report, Houston's percent of African-American citizens has remained consistent.

COVID-19's full effect on Houston is still to be determined, but business has taken a hit

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The 2020 edition of Houston Facts doesn't have much on the impact of COVID-19 — the 2021 issue should have more facts and figures from looking back on the pandemic. However, the GHP's team did address some of the economic impacts the coronavirus had on the city.

According to Yelp data based on listings, 3,518 businesses closed due to COVID-19 — of which, only 578 had reopened by mid-June.