Things seem to be ever-so-slowly improving. Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

While COVID-19 cases are alarmingly surging in Texas, here in Houston, businesses are slowly returning to a new normal (for now). So, just how well is the Bayou City recovering economically from the pandemic, compared to other big-city counterparts around the United States and in Texas?

So-so, according to a revealing new report.

A new list, published July 29 by financial advice website SmartAsset, ranks the U.S. cities with the strongest economic recoveries from the pandemic.

SmartAsset looked at five data points for 49 of the largest U.S. cities to determine the economic winners:

  • Percentage change in consumer spending
  • Percentage change in small businesses that are open
  • Percentage change in small business revenue
  • Percentage change in job postings
  • March 2021 unemployment rate

Houston performed slightly better than the studywide average in three of the metrics, (although some of the numbers still look pretty bleak). The Houston stats are:

1. Change in consumer spending (January 2020-April 2021)

  • Houston: 11.7 percent
  • Studywide average: 7.3 percent

2. Change in small businesses open (January 2020-April 2021)

  • Houston: -34.5 percent
  • Studywide average: -32.51 percent

3. Change in small business revenue (January 2020-April 2021)

  • Houston: -36.6 percent
  • Studywide average: -30.9 percent

4. March 2021 unemployment rate

  • Houston: 10.6 percent
  • Studywide average: 6.6 percent

Elsewhere in Texas, The SmartAsset ranking puts Dallas at No. 19, and Fort Worth, at No. 11. Among the most populous cities in the SmartAsset study, Dallas ranks highest. Austin lands at No. 23 for pandemic economic recovery, with San Antonio at No. 38.

Only one other Texas city, El Paso, appears in the top 20 (No. 8). Salt Lake City, Utah tops the list.

University of Houston's Bauer College of Business recently analyzed Houston's pandemic recovery. In its report, the Bauer study notes a bigger bounce-back in the U.S. than Houston — and that oil and gas downturns selectively hurt Houston more than the rest of Texas.

In some good news, the Bauer study reports the biggest sectors that have the biggest recoveries: healthcare, retail, and food service.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Despite the hit on the economy from the pandemic, Houston's prosperous economic development activity from 2020 has earned it a top spot on a new nationwide ranking. Photo via Getty Images

The future of Houston's economy shines bright, according to new report

we're No. 3

The Houston metro area shed 141,300 jobs last year — the worst one-year job loss ever recorded in the region — and the area's unemployment rate peaked at 14.3 percent last April. But, according to a new ranking, there's at least one bright spot in Houston's economy.

Site Selection magazine's latest report shines a bright light on last year's economic development activity in the Houston area and on the future of the region's economy. The area ranks No. 3 among major U.S. metro areas for the number of economic development projects secured last year (213). Houston shares the top 10 with two other Texas metro areas: Dallas-Fort Worth (ranked second with 262 projects) and Austin (tied for No. 6 with 84 projects). Chicago claimed the top spot, landing 327 economic development projects last year.

Site Selection lists several Houston-area projects among the top projects that Texas gained last year, including:

Measured another way, Houston ranked sixth for the number of economic development projects per capita last year (32.8) among major metro areas. Austin grabbed the No. 2 spot (43.2 projects per capita), and Dallas-Fort Worth appeared at No. 3 (37.7 projects per capita).

In remarks January 26 at the 2021 annual meeting of the Greater Houston Partnership, board Chairwoman Amy Chronis cited the 1,000-job Axiom Space project as one of last year's economic highlights for the region.

"This is a game-changing project for Houston as we position our region as one of the country's leading tech hubs," Chronis said. "It is the type of catalytic project that will drive meaningful growth of the commercial aerospace sector in Houston."

Chronis noted that Houston already is home to nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals, along with more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, "but the potential is so much greater."

"The space race is shifting to a commercially funded and operated industry, and it is critical that Houston maintains our leadership position," Chronis said.

NASA announced the Axiom Space project — the world's first commercial space station — in January 2020. Axiom Space aims to begin attaching its space modules to the International Space Station in 2024.

"NASA has once again recognized the hard work, talent, and experience of Houstonians as we expand the International Space Station and promote commercial opportunities in space," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said in a release touting the Axiom Space project.

Just last month, Axiom Space raised $130 million in a Series B round led by London-based investment firm C5 Capital. The funding will go toward bulking up the company's workforce and developing the space station.

Rob Meyerson, operating partner at C5 and a new member of Axiom Space's board of directors, called the company "a force in the space sector," and the startup's space station "the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space" and a launchpad for exploration of the moon and Mars.

"Axiom's work to develop a commercial destination in space is a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research, and technology demonstrations in low-Earth orbit," Jim Bridenstine, a Rice University graduate who resigned earlier this year as NASA administrator, said in January 2020. "We are transforming the way NASA works with industry to benefit the global economy and advance space exploration."

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.