As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. Photo via Getty Images

If you've logged onto a government website recently, you know that dealing with creaking, outdated government technology is about as much fun as a trip to the DMV. Held back by byzantine procurement rules, management-by-committee, and an aggressive commitment to decades-old UX principles, government websites and other tech tools are routinely confusing, horrible to use, and deeply inefficient.

Now, though, that could finally be changing. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our relationships with the technologies we use, from Zoom calls to e-commerce services. Increasingly, government bodies are finding themselves forced to move faster, adopt more up-to-date technologies, and work with private-sector partners to meet new challenges and quickly bring their services into the 21st century.

Getting an education

One of the most dramatic examples comes in the realm of education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 93 percent of school-age children have engaged in distance learning since the pandemic began, and four fifths of them relied on digital tech to take the place of classroom resources. But with access to digital tech at home strongly correlated to household income, governments and education departments have had to move quickly to ensure every child has access to laptops and web connections.

Not everyone is a fan of remote learning, and as a parent myself, I know how hard it can be to have kids at home. But one thing we should all be able to agree on is that if we're going to rely on digital learning, then we need to make sure it's available to everyone, including those families that don't have access to reliable computers and WiFi connections at home.

Achieving that rapidly and at scale has required remarkable flexibility and creativity from policymakers at all levels. Those that have succeeded have done so by brushing aside the red tape that has ensnared previous government tech initiatives, and instead working with private-sector partners to rapidly implement the solutions that are needed.

Lessons from Texas

Here in Texas, for instance, one in six public school students lacked access to high-speed internet connections at the start of the pandemic, and 30% lacked access to laptops or other learning devices. To speed the transition to remote learning, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched Operation Connectivity — a $400 million campaign to connect 5.5 million Texas public school students with a computer device and reliable internet connection. To date 4 million devices have been purchased and are being distributed to kids, opening doors to greater educational and economic opportunities. Further work is in progress to remove other connectivity barriers like slow connection speeds in rural areas to help students and all Texans.

Rolling out such an ambitious project to our state's 1,200 or so school districts could have been a disaster. After all, many government IT projects grind along for months or years without delivering the desired results — often at huge cost to taxpayers. But Operation Connectivity has been different because it's grounded in a true partnership between the government and private-sector players.

Facing urgent deadlines, government leaders turned to Gaby Rowe, former CEO of the Ion tech hub, to spearhead the project. As a tech innovator, Rowe brought entrepreneurial energy and a real understanding of the power of public-private partnerships, and drove Operation Connectivity from the blueprint to execution in a matter of weeks. Tech giants including Microsoft, SAP, and Hubspot also quickly joined the effort, helping to deliver cost-effective connectivity and hardware solutions to ensure that every kid in our state could get the education they deserve. Since then, Operation Connectivity has distributed over a million devices, including laptops and wireless hotspots, to families in need, with costs split between the state and individual districts.

Private sector edge

To get a sense of how private-sector knowhow can spur government tech transformation, consider my own company, Digital Glyde. As part of the Operation Connectivity effort, we were asked to help design and build the back-end software and planning infrastructure needed to coordinate effectively with hundreds of school district officials scattered all across our state.

Ordinarily, that kind of effort would require a drawn-out process of consultation, committee-work, and red tape. But facing an urgent need to help our state's children, we were given the freedom to move quickly, and were able to implement a viable system within just a few days.

By leveraging cutting-edge data-extraction and image-processing tools, we helped Operation Connectivity to automatically process invoices and match tech costs to available COVID relief funding in record time. We achieved 95% accuracy within three weeks of deployment to ensure school districts quickly received reimbursements for the hardware they were purchasing on behalf of their schoolchildren.

Building on success

Operation Connectivity is just one example of the ways in which government actors have embraced tech and leveraged private-sector assistance to chart their way through the COVID crisis. From contact-tracing programs to vaccine distribution programs, we're seeing governments taking a far more pragmatic and partnership-driven approach to technology.

Of course, not every experiment goes to plan. In Florida, government agencies decided to use web tools to manage vaccination appointments — but implemented that idea using a commercial website built to handle birthday party e-vites. Unsurprisingly, the results were chaotic, with users having to scramble to grab appointments as they were posted to the site, and seniors struggling to wrap their head around a website designed for young parents.

Such stories are a reminder that governments can't solve big problems simply by grabbing at whatever tech tools are nearest to hand. It's vital to find the right solutions, and to work with partners who understand the complexity and constraints that come with delivering public-sector services at scale.

As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. In recent months, we've shown what can be done when we pull together, and combine real governmental leadership with private-sector innovation and efficiency. We'll need much more of this kind of teamwork and tech-enabled creativity in the months and years to come.

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Varun Garg is the founder and CEO of Houston-based Digital Glyde

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ExxonMobil announces $100B carbon-capture hub for Houston area

greener thinking

In a move that would be a gamechanger for Houston, oil and gas giant ExxonMobil envisions creating a $100 billion carbon-capture hub along the Houston Ship Channel.

ExxonMobil foresees the Houston Ship Channel being the site of an "innovation zone" for carbon capture and storage. In a blog post on the ExxonMobil website, Joe Blommaert, the Houston-based president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, says Houston would be "the perfect place" for the project because:

  • The ship channel is home to dozens of refineries and petrochemical plants.
  • The geological formations in the Gulf of Mexico could "safely, securely, and permanently" store tons of carbon emissions under the sea floor, according to the blog post. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the storage capacity along the U.S. Gulf Coast could handle 500 million metric tons of CO2.

Irving-based ExxonMobil, which employs more than 12,000 people in the Houston area, says the project could capture and store about 50 million metric tons of CO2 annually by 2030. By 2040, that number could rise to 100 million metric tons.

"We could create an economy of scale where we can reduce the cost of the carbon dioxide mitigation, create jobs, and reduce the emissions," Blommaert tells the Reuters news service.

In a news release, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner applauds the ExxonMobil plan.

"This proposal by ExxonMobil is the type of bold ambition and investment we will need to meet our climate goals and protect our communities from climate change," Turner says. "ExxonMobil's proposal represents a significant step forward for the energy industry, and I hope it brings more companies to the table to help Houston lead a global energy transition."

Turner notes that the Houston area is home to some of the largest emitters of carbon in the U.S., adding that everyone has "a responsibility and role to play in decarbonization."

Blommaert says the project would require public and private funding, along with "enhanced regulatory and legal frameworks that enable investment and innovation." According to Politico, ExxonMobil wants the federal government to kick in tax breaks or to set carbon-pricing policies to help get the project off the ground.

Politico reports that the Biden administration isn't considering ExxonMobil's idea as it prepares a climate-change package.

"Meanwhile, environmental groups and many Democrats have slammed carbon-capture proposals as a climate strategy, saying the only way to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution is a wholesale switch away from fossil fuels," Politico says.

Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency maintains that carbon capture and storage "are critical for putting energy systems around the world on a sustainable path." Achieving net-zero goals "will be virtually impossible" without carbon capture and storage, the group says.

ExxonMobil announced creation of its Low Carbon Solutions business unit in February as part of its push to invest $3 billion in lower-emission energy initiatives through 2025. Low Carbon Solutions initially will focus on technology for carbon capture and storage. The business unit is exploring opportunities along the Gulf Coast, as well as in Wyoming, Belgium, the Netherlands, Qatar, Scotland, and Singapore.

Last year, ExxonMobil hit the pause button on a $260 million carbon-capture project in Wyoming due to fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Bloomberg news service.

In a December report, the Global CCS Institute, a think tank, said 65 commercial carbon-capture projects were in various stages of development around the world.

"Climate ambition, including efforts to decarbonize industry, has not been curtailed despite the adversities faced in 2020," Brad Page, CEO of the institute, says in a news release about the report. "We're continuing to see an upward trajectory in the amount of CO2 capture and storage infrastructure that is being developed. One of the largest factors driving this growth is recognition that achieving net-zero emissions is urgent yet unattainable without CO2 reductions from energy-intensive sectors."

Newly appointed innovation leader calls for more health care collaboration in Houston

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 80

Allison Post is a professional dot connector for the Texas Heart Institute. Located in the Texas Medical Center and founded in 1962, THI has long had a history of innovation — from Denton Cooley, THI's founder, performing the first artificial heart implementation in 1970.

Now, Post — who was appointed to a newly created position of manager of innovation partnerships — is focused on working with THI's latest generation of cardiac health innovators. She works internally to foster and support THI's brightest inventors as well as externally to make sure the institute is bringing in the best new technologies out there to its patients.

"The whole mission of the Texas Heart Institute is to help our patients. If that means that someone else has an incredible idea we want to jump onboard and bring it to people," Post says in this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Post, who has a bioengineering background and has worked on both sides of the table as an entrepreneur and a startup mentor, is looking to support breakthrough cardiac innovations within stem cells, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and more. And unfortunately, the cardiac health space has an increasing need to develop new health care solutions.

"Because of the growing burden of heart disease, heart failure, coronary artery disease, the unfortunately long list of things that can go wrong with someone's heart means the pressing need for therapies is just growing," she says on the show. "We're trying to keep up and break into things that people haven't done a lot of work on, such as women's heart health."

Another factor in Post's role, which she's had since last fall, is to bring THI further into both the TMC's innovation efforts as well as the greater Houston innovation ecosystem — as well as beyond. To her, Houston has a huge opportunity to lead health care innovation.

"It makes no sense that we aren't the health care leaders yet in med tech development. It should not be Boston, San Francisco, or Minneapolis. It should be Houston," Post says. "We have everything we need to do it. We just need to bring it all together."

The key to getting there, she says, is further collaboration. If there's one thing the world has learned about health care innovation from COVID-19, it's that when experts are rallying behind and collaborating on solutions, the speed of development is much faster.

"The more minds we have the better the solutions I going to be," she says.

Post says that she hopes her work at THI can inspire other institutions to collaborate ‚ since everyone has the same goal of helping patients.

"I only see just phenomenal things for Houston, and what I really want is for the Texas Medical Center to become even more interconnected. We've got to be able to transfer ideas and thoughts and intentions seamlessly between these institutions and right now there are a lot of barriers," Post says. "And I really think Texas Heart is hopefully going to serve as an example of how to take down those barriers."

Post shares more about what she's focused on and where THI is headed on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

New Houston accelerator supporting BIPOC in aerospace announces inaugural cohort

out of this world

A new accelerator program that is focused on aerospace innovation and supporting entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color has announced its first cohort.

The Ion's Aerospace Innovation Accelerator for Minority Business Enterprises, or AIA for MBEs, has named the four companies that well be a part of its inaugural cohort. The 12-week program will guide the entrepreneurs through the development of their innovations, the growth of their businesses, and the development of relationships with mentors, corporate partners, and stakeholder networks.

"Aerospace contains a myriad of dimensions and by demystifying the industry in the form of the AIA for MBEs, we are able to build a more inclusive innovation ecosystem," says Christine Galib, senior director of programs at The Ion, in a news release. "It's our goal to not only support participants to be successful, but to open the playing field for other minority business enterprises hoping to enter the space."

The program's existence was possible through a partnership with NASA's Johnson Space Center, DivInc, and The Ion — as well as a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency.

Here are the four companies to take part in the cohort, according to the release:

  • Axialnics Systems Inc., led by Vincent Mbuvi, is an aerospace technology platform developing a Disc-wing Rotor Aircraft Concept, which takes-off as a helicopter, carries as much payload as an airplane and flies just as fast beyond the range of typical helicopters. The innovation solves runway inefficiencies and enhances military efficiency.
  • Boozed Beverages LLC, led by Damyanna Cooke and Jim Luu, specializes in intelligent vending in the liquor industry. The company provides a contactless, AI-driven cocktail making and dispensing vending machine, for locations such as weddings and events, sporting venues, festivals, restaurants, and nightclubs and lounges.
  • NANCo Aero, led by Shern Peters, provides urban air vehicles and drones to commercial, small business, government, and nonprofit organizations. It is working to develop the first Hybrid Personal Air Vehicle capable of transporting a family over the city of Houston.
  • Stratos Perception LLC, led by Rube Williams, develops artificial intelligence solutions for space systems to benefit human productivity, safety, and enterprise. It is also developing an intelligent transducer, a tool that can monitor and control multiphase flow, for use in space such as lunar water extraction and waste processing.

The hub and its associated accelerator will be housed at The Ion when it opens up later this year — along with the organizations other accelerators — but the program is being launched virtually on Wednesday, April 21, at noon.

"The Aerospace Innovation Hub came from the idea that the aerospace industry is well-known in Houston but for many people, particularly underrepresented communities, there have been barriers in entering the aerospace industry," says Jan E. Odegard, executive director of The Ion, in the release. "By offering mentorship, introduction to capital and training opportunities, with significant backing from Microsoft, The Ion is working to remove the barriers."