From online shopping to gifting devices, technology plays a huge role in the holidays, this Houston expert says. Getty Images

Like clockwork, the holidays are here again. Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday have all successfully come and gone, but yet, many of us are still left with presents to purchase and to-do lists to complete. Houstonians are expected to spend $1,562 this holiday season completing their holiday shopping. That is up three percent from last year.

While Houstonians expect to spend over $500 on gifts for loved ones, a whopping $606 will be spent on "experiences" and $421 on non-gift items such as clothing and home furnishings as they gear up for the holiday season with parties and houseguests.

What are Americans planning to buy this holiday season? Nationwide, 74 percent of Americans are expected to spend $97.1 billion on technology gifts this holiday season. According to a survey, the number one technology gift for this year is content-related gifts such as video games or streaming services. The days of buying discs or consulting the TV Guide are long gone. Americans are looking for ways to stream music, movies, and TV shows.

Other hot technology gadgets include smart speakers, smart phones, TVs, laptops, tablets, and wearables. Smart camera doorbells, which allow residents to see who is at their door, and smart lightbulbs, which enable lighting to be controlled remotely through the internet, continue to climb the gift-giving lists.

Technology is playing a significant role in how we make our purchases. Fifty-six percent of Americans are planning to buy their holiday items online, with only 36 percent obtaining gifts and other seasonal items in brick and mortar locations. Many of us are ordering gifts right from our smart phones.

All this spending on others, while thoughtful, is bound to get some of us in financial hot water. The key is to budget. Set a budget for each person you plan to shop for, such as family members, colleagues, friends, even for service providers such as your hairstylist. Once your budget is set, stick to it. I have found that using a spreadsheet to track expenses is helpful, or good old-fashioned pen and paper works well, too. You may be surprised how quickly your expenditures add up, even the small ones. Tracking is an excellent way to stay accountable to your budget.

Last year, the average consumer racked up over $1,000 in debt as part of their holiday shopping. By budgeting wisely, you can avoid debt. While credit cards are convenient, sometimes they make it a little too easy to spend more than planned. Not staying within your budget can give you quite a spending hangover in January. To combat credit card overuse, use cash whenever possible.

Additionally, limit your shopping days. The less you visit stores or malls, the less likely you are to be tempted. Moreover, purchasing online can help you stick to your budget, just be careful not to spend more than your budget allows. Another smart strategy to cut costs is to select items with free shipping over fast shipping.

With the holidays quickly approaching, ensure you are smart about your holiday spending. Technology is a fantastic and convenient avenue for shopping. And, our smart phones have provided us another avenue in which to compare prices and look for deals. Whichever channel you choose to shop — bricks and mortar or cybershopping — ensure you stick to smart spending.

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Dominic Cellitti is a financial adviser with the Wealth Management Division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

Think about the power of impact investing this Earth Day. Getty Images

Impact investing is shaping the future of the world, says this Houston expert

Earth day

For almost 50 years, Earth Day has been recognized as the largest civic-focused day of action in the world. Since April 22, 1970, Americans have sought out ways to be stewards of the environment through planting trees, riding a bike to work, or cleaning up a community garden. While these actions are admirable, other strategies and tools are also available that can have a positive impact on the environment.

Investors are getting behind companies that put environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors as priorities in their operations. According to a 2018 survey by the Morgan Stanley Institute for Sustainable Investing and Morgan Stanley Investment Management, 84 percent of respondents are considering or currently pursuing ESG investing.

ESG policies may include issues such as safety policies, human rights, and climate change. These policies may not be part of the traditional financial analysis but can still have financial applications. Investors have the opportunity to financially support and affect change in companies that are taking the lead on ESG policies. This is impact investing. With impact investing, companies and individuals can shape the future with money that is already slated to be invested.

According to the Morgan Stanley survey mentioned above, more than $22.8 trillion is invested sustainably. As the impact investing movement continues to grow, we are seeing an increase in funds dedicated to social and environmental change. According to the 2018 survey, 77 percent of asset owners believe they have a responsibility to address sustainability through investing. And, 31 percent of the respondents said climate change is their leading focus.

If you are interested in incorporating impact investing into your portfolio, the first step is to choose your social and environmental investment criteria. In honor of Earth Day, you may be interested in focusing on green investing in industries or causes such as clean water and alternative energy. Or, you may be interested in investing in corporations that have made strides in environmental sustainability and clean technology.

Next, determine the best way for you to invest. Whether by debt, equity, or assets, impact investing can involve making the kinds of investment decisions that regular investors are generally making anyway, such as buying stocks and bonds in Fortune 500 companies or broadly diversified mutual funds. According to respondents in the Morgan Stanley survey, public equities and real assets, such as infrastructure and real estate, are the most attractive asset classes for sustainable investing.

A common concern with impact investing is whether investing with a strong focus on ESG will give investors a rate of return needed to meet their investment goals (i.e. retirement, college savings). According to a study by the Global Impact Investing Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping break down barriers to impact investing, 82 percent of respondents said their investments made an impact and 76 percent were pleased with the financial performance. Additionally, another 15 percent reported outperformance across each of these dimensions.

As investors are pursuing ESG practices and investments, a large number of companies are continuing to incorporate measures such as water and energy conservation into their ESG policies. Corporate boards and investors are incentivizing their CEOs to provide high-quality, diverse workplaces that lead to greater employee satisfaction, retention, and productivity while having a social and environmental impact. Whether investing in organizations or corporations, impact investing provides a way for investors to tackle big problems with their money. This Earth Day, on Monday, April 22, you can identify investments that can help you achieve your financial goals as well as satisfying your desire to have an impact.

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Dominic Cellitti is a financial adviser with the wealth management division of Morgan Stanley in Houston.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

coming to Hou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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