From credit to crowdfunding, startups have more cash flow options now than ever before. Getty Images

When it comes to raising money for your startup, there's plenty of fish in the sea, however, navigating the rough waters can be difficult.

Houston Community College put on a Small Business Summit on June 13 and gathered a group of financial professionals to represent several types of funding options, from venture capital to microlending.

Crowdfunding

The crowdfunding game has changed, says Rhian Davies, business development manager for LetsLaunch, an equity-based crowdfunding tool.

While most people think that donation-based crowdfunding — like GoFundMe or Kickstarter that give you the product or thank-you gift when you give — are the only options, that's not the case. And, investing using these platforms doesn't mean anything to you if the company sees success.

"If it makes it big, you're not going to get anything back," says Davies of these types of platforms.

But the JOBS Act in 2012 changed everything. Now, companies fundraising on crowdfunding sites can trade in equity for funds.

"Previously, investments were reserved for wealthy individuals — accredited individuals — who had a certain amount of money could invest in businesses," says Davies. "Equity crowdfunding opened that up."

With crowdfunding, you can also run other types of fundraising efforts at the same time, spreading out your options.

"It allows (the community) to invest in your business and it allows you to pass the hat and have people come on board," Davies says.

The other benefit to using the LetsLaunch platform is the team assists the startups every step of the way, from uploading a digital pitch deck onto the LetsLaunch platform and preparing paperwork to filing with the SEC.

However, one of the major challenges for startups is deciding what their funding goal is. Davies says you do have to hit a certain funding goal to be able to take that cash home, and for LetsLaunch, they look for that figure to be $10,000 minimum. Anything less than that isn't worth it — from both the LetsLaunch and the startup's perspective. The maximum value for equity crowdfunding is capped at just over $1 million — per the SEC.

Venture capital

VC funding is where most people's minds go when it comes to startup funding. And this type of funding is in an evolution phase too, says Remington Tonar, managing director at The Cannon Houston. While traditional VCs want a three-times return in five to seven years, some firms have more on their minds then just the money.

"There's a new phenomenon in venture where a lot of early stage investors and angel investors are looking at social impact investing," Tonar says. "They want to invest in women- or minority-owned businesses or companies that have a sustainability or social impact component to them. For those investors, the return demands are much more flexible."

Not only are they more flexible on returns, but VCs want more hands-on roles at the companies they invest in. Tonar says venture capitalists don't want to give passive capital.

Another way VCs differ from other types of funding is they are looking for something different in the companies they invest in — they want the next big thing.

"What venture capitalists really look for is disruptive business that are creating value in news ways," Tonar says.

And investments can be industry agnostic — VCs aren't reserved to just tech and computing industries.

"Most people would not have thought the hotel industry was a great industry for venture capital until Airbnb came along," says Tonar. "Most people would not have thought that taxis were a great industry for venture capital until Uber came along."

Fundraising through VC firms is a very personal process — they are investing in you, the founder, just as much as they are investing in the company or idea, Tonar says. You can have a horrible credit history or have declared bankrupt in the past, and while they will find that out, it's not a dealbreaker like it would be for a bank or traditional loan process.

"But if the investor feels that the idea has value and can create value and meets their risk profile, they will look at your startup and go through their due diligence process."

Microlending

A new trend in funding options is microlending — a type of loan process that caps out at $50,000. Lisa Riley is Houston market president for LiftFund, one of the largest microlenders in the United States.

Since the amount is smaller, the risk is smaller too. The type of customer LiftFund looks for is the person or company that's been denied by other banks.

"It's not always because of something negative with the customer," Riley says. "There are certain industries where it's very difficult to get finance right now."

Just like the trend in VCs, these types of lenders want to be hands on too to help secure success and a return.

"The last thing we want to be is another monthly obligation or a debt — the noose around someone's neck suffocating their small business," Riley says. "We want to make sure and walk with you and hold your hand as long as you'll hold mine so that when we give you your loan it's the right amount for your business and the right time."

Traditional loans and factoring

Of course, conventional loans is still an option, as is factoring — the process in which a business sells its accounts receivables to a third-party entity, called a factor.

Peter Ellen, senior vice president at Amegy Bank, explains the process as being pretty traditional. His bank wants to see a secure and profitable business on trach for growth.

"Typically, we look for a business that's been established for two years, that has generated a profit, and can show a clear path of repayment," Ellen says.

Again, like other funding options, Ellen says a relationship with the company is important.

"That's really what we look to do, is to form a relationship at an early stage with a company, really understand what they do, and help assist in the growth and success of their company," he says.

SBA loans

SBA loans are another lending option for startups to consider, Aziz Rahim, senior vice president at Wallis Bank, explains.

Different from a traditional loan process, SBA loans are guaranteed by the Small Business Association up to 85 percent, which lowers the risk for then lending partner.

Other benefits to SBA loans are lower down payments, generous term lengths, and caps on interest rates.

"The good thing about SBA loans compared to conventional loans is SBA loans do not balloon," Rahim says.

Houston-based NextSeed has been approved as a broker-dealer platform, allowing for larger investments. Getty Images

Houston-based investment platform expands capabilities for local deals

Nextseed's next phase

NextSeed, which launched in Houston four years ago as a crowdfunding online investment platform, has expanded its services to become a broker-dealer. The platform also rolled out a new website.

Now that NextSeed Securities LLC is a SEC-registered broker-dealer, NextSeed campaigns aren't limited to the $1 million cap instated by crowdfunding rules, according to a news release. The new function also means that, rather than just debt securities (where investors are paid back based on revenue of the company), investors can also engage in equity investing (where money can be exchanged for ownership of the company).

"We previously focused only on debt securities, in part because we wanted to facilitate the right type of capital to the local small business community," says CFO Tae Mi Lee in the release. "With the launch of our broker-dealer practice, we are able to expand our services to offer both debt and equity offerings for different types of issuers and investors."

In the past, NextSeed deals have focused on local brick-and-mortar companies. However, this new capability opens doors to other types of deals.

"We have always wanted investors on the platform to have the ability to diversify their investment portfolios across multiple industries and asset classes, while providing the right investment structure for our business clients through a broader range of options," Tae Mi Lee continues. "We are excited about what this expansion means for our NextSeed community."

The broker-dealer model shifts more responsibility on NextSeed as the vehicle for trading securities, but also represents a growth in investing in Houston.

"The standards of review and compliance obligations for both issuers and investors become stricter and more comprehensive for offerings made via our broker-dealer, but we wanted to be able to offer a more extensive and flexible service to our community," says CEO and Co-Founder Youngro Lee in the release. "Since day one of our funding portal operations, we tried to adhere to certain standards above and beyond the minimal legal requirements. We're now just taking another leap forward into a new phase of NextSeed."

Since its launch in 2015, NextSeed has raised $11 million for companies on its platform. While not all in Houston, NextSeed focuses on funding its portfolio by locals who want to support nearby establishments. Here are some examples of deals made on the platform:

  • Buffalo Bayou Brewery in Houston raised $1,000,000.
  • Alkalign Studio in Menlo Park, California, raised $100,000.
  • The Native Hostel Bar & Kitchen in Austin raised $396,500.
  • Fair Isle Brewing in Seattle raised $327,800.

Earlier this year, NextSeed announced another new capability for its portfolio of companies. NextSeed Space launched to help provide local entities turnkey retail space with short-term leases. The space is located in Greenway Plaza, and the first tenant was announced as The Waffle Bus, however NextSeed moved in traditional Mexican restaurant, Tlahuac, which will reside in the food court until the end of June.

LetsLaunch, a Houston-based fundraising platform, has teamed up with The Cannon. Courtesy of LetsLaunch

Houston fintech startup partners with local coworking space to grow investment opportunities

Funding friends

A Houston fintech software company has joined forces with The Cannon to help connect its members to capital. LetsLaunch, a platform that allows for smaller investments from non-accredited investors, and The Cannon — along with its venture arm, Cannon Ventures — have officially entered a partnership as of this month.

"We're basically providing a transactional tool to allow Cannon Ventures to access more members who, legally, they couldn't access before," says Nick Carnrite, co-founder and CEO of LetsLaunch. "For us, it's a good thing because instead of having to go out and create a community of startups and investors, that gets brought to us."

The partnership will allow for The Cannon's members to have access to the platform, and LetsLaunch can piggyback off the Cannon's existing network and programming. For instance, if The Cannon hosts a pitch night, LetsLaunch could enable live investing so that anyone in the crowd could invest that night.

Additionally, companies backed by Cannon Ventures can easily do a dual raise — one side open to accredited investors writing big checks and the other on LetsLaunch open to anyone. For this setup, LetsLaunch investors get the perk of having the company vetted by the Cannon Ventures investors.

"[The partnership] allows us to further the vision of Cannon Ventures, which is to truly democratize angel investing," says Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon and Cannon Ventures. "We want to activate and allow anyone who is interested in making investments of any size and in any way." (Gow is the son of the CEO of InnovationMap's parent company.)

LetsLaunch opened for business at the end of last year. The site works, in many ways, like a crowdfunding site, only investors receive equity for their money. Due to regulations, investment campaigns max out at around a million dollars, and how much one can invest depends on their annual income. For LetsLaunch's demographic, most users can invest up to $20,000 a year, Carnrite says. There is a minimum of a $250 investment per transaction, but Carnrite says he expects the average investment to be closer to $1,000 per transaction.

According to Carnrite, LetsLaunch is solving the exclusivity problem that traditional investing creates. Such a small pool of people can invest in companies for equity.

"There's something like 30 million people globally that have a $1 million net worth, which is the definition of being an accredited investor," Carnrite says. "Thirty million people out of 7.7 billion, so it's a little less than half a percentage."

And, according to Gow, this is a huge problem in Houston for companies who don't have access to funding.

"We had a company leave The Cannon last week and move to New York because they couldn't get funding in Houston," Gow says. "We're still losing battles every day — and one of the main reasons is getting early stage funding in companies."

Startups have more cash flow options now than ever before. Getty Images

From credit to crowdfunding, experts discuss how startup lending has evolved

Houston Voices

For companies trying to get off the ground, one of the biggest hurdles normally revolves around acquiring funding. Whether it's a friends and family round, early seed stage or a full blown series round, finding funding is a difficult process. This augments the importance of entrepreneurs understanding the full arsenal of tools at their disposal.

Late last month, Cannon Ventures and Texas Citizens Bank teamed up to host a Lunch and Learn at The Cannon's Main Campus to help describe some of the different options for fundraising and explain the evolution of fundraising over the past few years.

This Cannon Lunch and Learn consisted of a panel of industry experts from varying backgrounds answering questions from the crowd about fundraising. The session was moderated by Cannon Ventures' investment analyst, Kristen Philips, where she was joined by the below panelists:

Each of the below strategies were highlighted by our panel of experts, offering a number of potential options for entrepreneurs in search of the best fundraising strategy for their company:

Factoring

Factoring is a form of financing in which a business will sell its accounts receivable (invoices) to a third-party at a discount. This option gives businesses access to immediate funds that can be used to pay for business expenses. This can be an effective option when working with a client who has outstanding invoices and may not be able to pay you back in a timely manner.

Credit insurance

Credit Insurance protects the policyholder in the event that a customer becomes insolvent. Insolvency in business can be a more common scenario than many realize, so credit insurance can serve as a solution if a customer isn't able to pay its debts. Industry standards for credit insurance will often cover around 90 percent of your accounts receivable.

SBA loans

Contrary to popular belief, SBA loans are not direct loans made by The Small Business Administration to entrepreneurs to grow a small business. Instead, an SBA loan provides a guarantee to banks and authorized SBA lenders for the money they lend to small businesses. If a business owner defaults on a loan, the SBA will promise to pay a portion of the loan back. This can alleviate the risk associated with lending money to small business owners and startups that may not qualify for traditional loans. SBA loans open up lending opportunities to thousands of entrepreneurs. In 2017 alone, SBA approved over 68,000 loans and provided over $30 billion to small businesses.

The evolution of lending

The panelists also remarked on how the industry of traditional lending has grown over the years and suggested to be wary of new predatory lending entities. When lending entities do not use depository funds, they are not subject to the same level of regulation that more traditional establishments like banks do. Because of this, predatory lenders can offer large amounts of capital quickly but lock founders into unsustainable interest rates and mechanisms that can trap clients into long-term agreements.

It is important for founders to do their homework and understand the terms whenever you are accepting a loan regardless of how established they may seem, or your need for capital.

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding is a relatively new phenomenon that has started to become more mainstream after a change of regulation in 2016 by the SEC to allow non-accredited investment in private companies. Crowdfunding is typically done to supplement efforts to an offline fundraise and a way to both market your opportunity to a wider base as well as directly raise funds. These platforms offer the flexibility of either a straight equity raise or a convertible note.


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This is content from our partner, which originally ran on The Cannon.


via thecannonhouston.com

From debt and equity funds to crowdfunding and angel investment, here's what you need to know about the fundraising world from an expert who's in it. Getty Images

Houston entrepreneur gives his advice on navigating the evolving fundraising process

know before you grow

New businesses face many challenges when getting started, but perhaps none are as challenging and intimidating as how to secure the funding needed to start and grow your business.

Funding options have evolved considerably over the past several years, providing business owners with more choices than ever to fund their business. Founders should not just think about selecting one option but how to combine multiple options into a funding strategy that best suits their business needs.

Over 600,000 new businesses are started in the United States each year, and even with more fundraising options, we are increasingly seeing businesses struggle to get funded, so businesses need to be smart about putting together a funding strategy.

The traditional way to fund a business
With that piece of advice out of the way, there are two primary categories of capital: debt and equity. For your business, debt options may include personal loans, business loans, asset-based loans, revenue participation notes and factoring (where you sell your receivables at a discount in order to collect cash now).

Debt is great as it means you're not giving away equity, but, at the same time, the loan must eventually be paid back (with interest) and some businesses such as technology start-ups may not generate the cash flow needed to make this happen from day one. Loans can also be difficult to access or may require the business owner to put up a personal guarantee, although there are organizations that facilitate this such as Small Business Association. If this is the best route for your business, take the time to find the right lending organization.

Equity options include common stock and preferred stock, as well as convertible note instruments that are initially treated as debt but "convert" to equity at a future financing event. Unlike traditional equity, convertible note instruments allow you to delay establishing a valuation for your business, which can be challenging for startups. SAFE (Simple Agreement for Future Equity) and KISS (Keep It Simple Securities) Notes are emerging securities which are less frequent but are seen as more Founder friendly and are similar in some ways to convertible notes.

There are a lot of business owners that are cautious of giving away equity (and rightly so) but with the right advice on structuring securities and valuation, this can be a great source of capital, as well as knowledge and support if you find the right investors and partners.

Sources of funding for both debt and equity include friends, family, banks, angel investors, venture capital, private equity, and organizations such as the Small Business Association. The accessibility of these various options will depend on the maturity of your business, your industry and the needs of your company. Often, early-stage companies may source "seed" funding from friends, family, and angel investors, while venture capital, private equity, and debt become increasingly accessible at later stages as revenues grow.

How is funding changing?
Options for funding a business and investing have evolved considerably in recent years. Crowdsourcing, which can be defined as the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, has taken the world by storm. Companies such as Uber, AirBnb, and Grubhub all leverage "the crowd" to provide a service.

Crowdsourcing has made its way to finance as well, where companies such as GoFundMe and KickStarter have provided new tools to fund charitable causes and projects. The Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act (JOBS Act) of 2012 set in motion a series of regulatory changes that allowed anybody (not just high wealth individuals) to invest in private businesses and provided crowdfunding as an option to raise capital for small businesses.

Online crowdfunding portals such as LetsLaunch, SeedInvest, and WeFunder offer both debt and equity options for investors to invest in your business. Not only can this be a great way to build up a loyal customer base, test your product and get some great marketing exposure but it can also be a great way to supplement the traditional funding strategies mentioned above.

However you choose to fund your business, take the time to work through the options (both traditional and emerging) and find the right option or combination of options to meet your business needs.

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Nick Carnrite is managing director of Carnrite Group and co-founder and CEO of LetsLaunch.

LetsLaunch, a new Houston-based fundraising platform, helps companies of all sizes get funding from any type of investor. Courtesy of LetsLaunch

Houston fundraising platform launches for the next generation of investors

Future funders

Millennials are expected to exceed the Baby Boomer generation for the United States' largest living adult generation this year, and this massive population of people have a completely different approach to investing.

Nick Carnrite saw that Millennials were to a point where they had extra income, but when he looked at the statistics, he noticed they aren't buying houses for the most part and were turned off of the stock market. There was a huge amount of stranded capital, and he wanted to figure out how to get that invested into businesses.

"The younger generation isn't interested in typical investing, but they are absolutely interested in supporting their community and the businesses in it, especially if the investment lets them experience the business and come along for the ride if it works," Carnrite, who is the co-founder and CEO of LetsLaunch, says.

Houston-based LetsLaunch is a new investment platform that launched December 28, though has been in the works since January 2018. The site works, in many ways, like a crowdfunding site, only investors receive equity. Due to regulations, investment campaigns max out at around a million dollars.

In the past, entrepreneurs have had to seek out major investors through venture capitalists or large funds, since taking smaller investments is tedious and almost more trouble than its worth. However, LetsLaunch provides a platform where smaller investments are streamlined and encouraged.

"Our goal in all of this is just to take a complicated process and make it simple, the same way Turbotax takes something awful like taxes and makes it simple, we are trying to do that with investing," Carnrite says.

Investors don't have to be accredited or invest a certain amount of money — something that for so long has hindered startups' ability to raise money.

"For whatever reason, we've decided to alienate about 95 percent of Americans as far as being able to invest in private businesses," Carnrite says. "Finally, we're at the point where all of that capital that was stranded and not allowed in private companies is being funneled into that cause."

According to Carnrite and his associate, Rhian Davies, who is the company's director of business operations, the mission is to educate and simplify the investing process.

"For us, one of the things we're working on with other organizations is putting together a next-gen investor series, where we are teaching the next generation of investors how to invest and give them a platform to do it," Davies says.

Much like in a normal investment process, the companies provide a pitch deck for potential investors that outlines the business plan and scope of the company. The company simply creates an account and uses the website to develop those materials.

"We standardize that process, so from a user standpoint, everything looks fairly similar on our site and it's a pretty tried and true template," Carnrite says.

While LetsLaunch does its due diligence making sure the business is legitimate and makes sure the pitch deck is sufficient, the investors take it from there.

Since ease of access to funds is the top priority for LetsLaunch, the investment platform has a much lower fee for companies. While some crowdfunding platforms take 10 to 12 percent, LetsLaunch's fee is around 3 percent.

"We really want it to be simple and affordable to businesses and for investors as well," Davies says. "We maintain a much lower fee than other crowdfunding sites."

LetsLaunch will continue to fine tune its existing features on the site, while also adding more tools for businesses, including an iOS mobile app, which Carnirite says will be ready this year. In addition to fundraising tools, Carnrite wants to help their businesses after the campaigns with software that streamlines investor relations and reminds business owners of important deadlines.

"We want to evolve into a website that not only helps you raise capital for a company, but that also helps you run that company after your raise, Carnrite says."

While Houston is home base for the company, the team expects to expand to other markets where fundraising is hard, like Denver, Atlanta, Dallas, and more. Strategic partnerships are another opportunity for LetsLaunch, and the company expects to finalize some of those moving forward.

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Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco