Federal relief efforts can be confusing — are are four options from a local tax expert that are reliable for small business owners. Getty Images

There's been a lot in the news lately about large companies securing large federal grants to soften the financial blow of the CORONA shutdown — to the exclusion of smaller businesses. And even with new legislation that could provide additional funding, small companies could still be left out.

Here are four ways that companies can garner some financial relief in these challenging financial times:

1. Delay of employer FICA contributions 

While most of the attention has been focused on the forgivable loans that are part of the CARES Act, the good news is that — if you dig deeper — the legislation also provides a postponement (not forgiveness) of the employer portion of FICA payments. These are available for payroll taxes due beginning on March 27 through year's end. Payments can be deferred with half due on December 31, 2021, and the remaining half on December 31, 2022.

2. Employee retention credits

This is fully refundable tax credit available for employers equal to 50 percent of qualified wages paid to employees. The retention credit applies to qualified wages paid after March 12, 2020, though the balance of this calendar year.

There is a cap to the amount of the credit, and the credit is only available to companies that either:

  1. Fully or partially suspended operation during any calendar quarter in 2020 due to orders from an appropriate governmental authority limiting commerce, travel, or group meetings (for commercial, social, religious, or other purposes) due to COVID-19; or
  2. Experienced a significant decline in gross receipts during the calendar quarter.

3. Carrying back Net Operating Losses (NOL)

Another often missed provision of the CARES Act is the ability for companies to carry back net operating losses from 2018 or 2019 to prior years (going back 5 years) and obtain refunds of previously paid taxes. The 2017 tax reform eliminated the ability to carry back NOLs, but the CARES Act has resurrected them.

4. Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) 

Employers with fewer than 500 employees may qualify for tax credits under the FFCRA, which was enacted on March 18. The legislation has two main sections: the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act (EPSLA), and the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Expansion Act (FMLA Expansion).

An eligible employer may claim a fully refundable tax credit equal to 100 percent of the qualified family leave wages (and allocable qualified health plan expenses and the eligible employer's share of Medicare tax on the qualified family leave wages) it pays.

Each company's situation is different, so we strongly suggest you speak with your tax adviser to see how these provisions might apply to you.

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Jason Sharp, CPA, is tax partner at Briggs & Veselka, Houston's largest locally owned CPA firm. He can be contacted a jsharp@bvccpa.com.

Houston startup Grant Source, which helps its clients find the right grants to apply for, has seen a surge in business amid the coronavirus shutdown. Getty Images

This Houston tech startup is helping businesses find the funds during COVID-19 crisis and beyond

Taken for granted

Since 2015, Grant Source has perfected the art of helping businesses, foundations, and organizations find and secure grant funding — and now their expertise has become vital to COVID-19 response initiatives.

With the devastation caused by the novel coronavirus, America's medical organizations have been scrambling to obtain the funds required to purchase the testing kits, masks, PPE, and other life-saving products needed to help curb the effects of the global pandemic and now, thanks to the mobile and web platform, they're getting the assistance they need to accomplish that goal.

"COVID-19 response is actually our claim to fame right now," says Allen Thornton, founder and CEO of Grant Source. "We have probably done more business in the last few months than we have since we started. Simply because we are helping people find grants with the CARES Act. There's over $500 billion out there, which has created overnight a $40 billion market opportunity for us."

Grant Source has worked extensively with city, county, state, and government agencies to secure grant funding, which is why they have become a game changer for those that need emergency capital to combat COVID-19's challenges.

"Initially, it was scary because we lost some of our clients, but then a bunch of medical clients came to us and asked if we could help them find funding for COVID-19 outreach," Thornton says. "We've found that they have a higher probability of success right now because with COVID-19 outreach, the procurement cycle has gone from six to nine months down to 30 days, which is unheard of."

In addition to telemedicine companies, Grant Source has been helping write grants for clients that range from airports to technology companies in order to help provide them with a path forward in the fight against the novel coronavirus.

Grant Source has created a database and a suite of resources for companies looking for grants. Photo via grantsource.com


Preventing federal funding waste

Outside of the context of a pandemic, the government uses grants as a way to fund ideas and projects that provide public services and stimulate the economy.

Grants are also essential when it comes to supporting critical recovery initiatives and innovative research, but on a fundamental level, very few even know how or where to start when it comes to applying for one and it becomes even more esoteric when it comes to getting funded. That's why so much grant money goes unclaimed, with millions of nonprofits and businesses going underfunded and not maximizing their impact.

"Over $3.2 billion in grant money goes unclaimed every single year," says Thornton. "We have a broken system and we wondered what we could do to change it, so we started Grant Source, our revolutionary grant funding system, to help organizations find and secure money for their mission."

Client-focused services and support

In addition to helping clients find grants, Grant Source assists with the necessary pre-work to apply for a grant.

"We started out as just a database where you could find grants and grant writers," says Thornton. "But in listening to our customers, they wanted us to do everything full service, too. So, I flew all across the country from Minneapolis to Kansas to Los Angeles to Toronto and put all the top grant writing associations on retainer and created what is Grant Source today, which is pretty much mobile for grants."

Thornton says Grant Source has more than 1,500 consultants across the U.S. and Canada, and these professionals each have different specialties — much like a lawyer or a doctor — and relationships in different states.

For a flat fee that ranges from $500 to $5,000 per month, Grant Source will set out to procure its clients grants that range anywhere from $50,000 to $1 million based on their goals. To date, Grant Source has helped businesses and organizations find and secure over $6 million in grant funding.

New clients first sign up for an assessment with Grant Source that establishes what the client's goals are and how the company is set up. Once Grant Source has established a few options for the client, they get started on submitting to the grants. In order to protect its customers from the uncertainty of the process, Grant Source offers investment protection for 12 months.

"We have the investment protection so customers won't be left empty handed," says Thornton. "It's risk free, so if they don't at least get their investment back within the first 12 months, we'll either continue their grant at no cost or we'll give them a credit for the difference."

Founded from a personal need

Treating customers with fairness is important for Grant Source because they started out as a nonprofit seeking grant funding themselves and soon learned that there was a lot that they did not know about the process.

"When I was at UTSA in 2006, the African American graduation population was less than 6 percent, which was unacceptable, so we started a nonprofit," says Thornton. "We made a lot of impact in just a few years. We increased the graduation population from 6 percent to about 38 percent, And, for the 2008 election, we were able to register over 3,200 students."

After graduation, Thornton says he saw an opportunity to expand to other colleges, but lacked funding to do so.

"We saw grants as a huge opportunity and they are, but unfortunately, they're also a huge hassle and it takes a lot of time and energy and effort to even find one that you qualify for," he remembers. "And even when you do, if you don't know how to write the proposal, you're dead in the water."

After the grant process failed, Thornton's money was gone with no communication or valid reason as to why. That frustrated him to the point where he wanted to provide coherent solutions to the problem himself.

"I spent a ton of money on education and researching top grant writing associations," says Thornton. "Most people don't know where to find grants, and there are so many different types of grants and places you can find them. For instance, we're working on a federal proposal with the federal government, there's 26 different agencies that still don't even know how to talk to each other."

Creating a lasting impact

From the outset, Grant Source started creating corporate responsibility programs and impact within a cost center for organizations that were for profit companies. They seek to put them in ideal situations to create the kind of impact that warrants grant funding.

"What we teach our clients is that you can't approach the process with the idea that you will get the grant money and then go out and create come impact," says Thornton. "You have to focus on being able to showcase the impact that you're already creating and then we can go find money for that. If you can articulate the impact of whatever you're doing is creating, we can find the person that cares about that.

In addition providing the software and platform for grant seekers, Grant Source offers a book, courses, seminars, workshops, and conferences that offer the baseline information needed to secure grant funding.

"At the end of the day, Grant Source is a technology platform that helps organizations find money for their mission," says Thornton. "We've streamlined the grant writing process and the grant finding process. At Grant Source, we don't focus on the money, we focus on the impact and then we give people a clear path to make it happen."

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Chevron's Houston-based venture arm launches $300M fund focusing on low-carbon tech

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Chevron Corp.'s investment arm has launched a $300 million fund that will focus on low-carbon technology.

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. In 2019, the investment arm started a $90 million fund to invest in startups that can help accelerate the oil and gas business of San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

Chevron Technology Ventures' portfolio for low-carbon technology comprises a dozen companies: Blue Planet, Carbon Clean, Carbon Engineering, ChargePoint, Eavor, Infinitum Electric, Natron Energy, Spear Power Systems, Svante, Voyage, Vutility, and Zap Energy.

Only one of the companies in the low-carbon portfolio is based in Texas — Infinitum Electric, located in Round Rock. However, Chevron Technology Ventures is active in the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem as a participant in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and The Ion. Chevron's investment arm was the first tenant at The Ion.

In an August 2020 interview with InnovationMap, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, said the investment arm places a priority on helping advance entrepreneurship in Houston. "It is our home court," she said.

Burger said that for Houston to succeed in energy innovation, companies, government agencies, investment firms, and universities must rally around the city.

"We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. … I think constancy of purpose is important," she said. "Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that."

Burger noted that innovation "is not a straight path."

"We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden," she said.

Now's the time to find innovation opportunities in a trustless world, says this Houston expert

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Hidden beneath all the recent events in the technology work, stock market, political landscape, and most of the social problems we see today lies one underlying trend. A trend so powerful that it's causing disruption in nearly every institution out there, and changing the business landscape faster than anyone can keep up.

Trust is gone. I mean completely gone.

At this point, the examples of this are too numerous to list but let's look at the past several months in the United States. In that short period, we saw an incredibly contentious election process, big tech disable the primary communication of a world leader, a mass exodus do decentralized messaging, an explosion in the defi industry and crypto, and a once promising vaccine process somehow not be effective despite being the primary conversation topic for everyone.

And this was all before a bunch of social media users treated the world's greatest stock market like a game, and far after we saw a country divided into two by racial movements, and we have yet to even get to things such as the Russian hacks.

We're left with an absolute mess of a situation where every social contract seems to be broken and the default response to any sort of central authority is being reevaluated. Without doubt we'll eventually figure out some great long-term answers, but at the speed at which the business world works today, it's going to be messy.

Luckily, mess creates opportunity and within all this disruption lies many golden nuggets of opportunity. The last twelve months was likely a watershed moment in key areas and as innovators, and business people — and it's our job to find them. It's what we signed up for and, for many of us, why we do what we do.

If there was ever a time to invest heavily in innovative technologies, today is it. Most of the time businesses are very resistant to change. Their default answer is always "no," and this puts innovators in a constant search of early adopters. But today, we see a different landscape. Businesses of all sizes and industries have been tossed around like a toy ship in an ocean. They do not know which way is up and business as usual seems like an old campfire story. Everyone, everywhere is looking for creative ideas to improve their business, and creative ideas is at the heart of true entrepreneurship and innovation.

Within this disruption also lies a few other key support pillars that should benefit all innovative minded individuals.

  • Despite terrible economic conditions, those invested in tech over the past year have done incredibly well. These individuals should be primed to reinvest their profits into bigger wins.
  • The workforce is truly global, and people are scrambling. The ideas of location being an advantage to hiring is truly disappearing. This means talent acquisition costs are falling through the floor and availability through the ceiling.
  • Consumers and businesses alike have been introduced to new technology so the legwork of explaining things such as defi and blockchain is much easier. It's also easy to find numerous use cases for anything involving proximity, health, privacy, and security.
  • The new administration will be eager to find wins, and invest money in different technologies than the previous. No matter what you think politically about this strategy, the reality is that areas such as healthcare, education, and will offer innovation opportunities. Even regulation itself, which we are likely to see increased, can be a great playground for innovation.

Twenty years ago, the way that business was done is unrecognizable in some industries. Many of the successful business today did not even exist then. Technology has a tendency to change things exponentially so imagine what the next ten years will look like. What are we not seeing today that will be the new business as usual?

The future is ours to create

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Cody Caillet is the founder at Gulf Coast Solutions, a Houston-based technology firm with speed-to-value approach in delivering business technology to impact top-line and bottom-line numbers for a business.

These 3 Houston researchers are revolutionizing health science innovation

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Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, a couple local scientists are honored by awards while another duo of specialists tackle a new project.

University of Houston professor recognized with award

Mehmet Orman of UH has been selected to receive an award for his research on persister cells. Photo via UH.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. The award comes with a $500,000 grant to study persister cells — cells that go dormant and then become tolerant to extraordinary levels of antibiotics.

"Nearly all bacterial cultures contain a small population of persister cells," says Orman in a news release. "Persisters are thought to be responsible for recurring chronic infections such as those of the urinary tract and for creating drug-resistant mutants."

Previously, Orman developed the first methods to directly measure the metabolism of persister cells. He also developed cell sorting strategies to segregate persisters from highly heterogeneous bacterial cell populations, and, according to the release, he will be using his methods in the NSF research project.

Houston researchers collaborate on oral cancer innovation

Dr. Simon Young of UTHealth and Jeffrey Hartgerink of Rice University are working on a new use for an innovative gel they developed. Photo via Rice.edu

Two Houston researchers — chemist and bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink at Rice University and Dr. Simon Young at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — have again teamed up to advance their previous development of a sophisticated hydrogel called STINGel. This time, they are using it to destroy oral cancer tumors.

SynerGel combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors. Once there, the gel controls the release of its cargo to not only trigger cells' immune response but also to remove other suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment. The duo reported on the technology in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

SynerGel, combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors, where they not only control the release of the drugs but also remove suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment.

"We are really excited about this new material," Hartgerink says in a news release. "SynerGel is formulated from a specially synthesized peptide which itself acts as an enzyme inhibitor, but it also assembles into a nanofibrous gel that can entrap and release other drugs in a controlled fashion.

In 2018, the pair published research on the use of a multidomain peptide gel — the original STINGel — to deliver ADU-S100, an immunotherapy drug from a class of "stimulator of interferon gene (STING) agonists."

The research is supported by the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Welch Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.

Texas Heart Institute researcher honored by national organization

Dr. James Martin of Texas Heart Institute has been named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo courtesy of THI

The National Academy of Inventors have named Houston-based Texas Heart Institute's Dr. James Martin, director of the Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab, a senior member.

Martin is an internationally recognized developmental and regenerative biologist and his research is focused on understanding how signaling pathways are related to development and tissue regeneration.

"Dr. Martin has long been a steward of scientific advancement and has proven to be a tremendous asset to the Texas Heart Institute and to its Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab through his efforts to translate fundamental biological discoveries in cardiac development and disease into novel treatment strategies for cardiac regeneration," says Dr. Darren Woodside, vice president for research at THI, in a news release. "Everyone at the Texas Heart Institute is thrilled for Dr. Martin, whose induction into the NAI as a Senior Member is well-deserved."

Martin has authored over 170 peer-reviewed papers in top journals he holds nine U.S. patents and applications, including one provisional application, all of which have been licensed to Yap Therapeutics, a company he co-founded.

The full list of incoming NAI Senior Members, which includes three professionals from the University of Houston, is available on the NAI website.