Houston needs to lighten up a little, sheesh. Photo by Rome Wilkerson on Unsplash

Not-so-happy news for Texans living in Houston – they're living in one of the "unhappiest" cities in the nation.

A recent SmartAsset study ranked Houston the No. 81 happiest city in the U.S., based on an analysis of 90 large cities for their residents' quality of life, well being, and personal finances.

The city's rank in the bottom 10 — alongside Texas neighbors Dallas (No. 80), El Paso (No. 83), and Laredo (No. 89) – shows not everything about Houston is as easygoing as people think it is. We can hear Ken Hoffman's disagreement from here.

The study found 28.5 percent of all Houston households make a six-figure salary or more, and 16.2 percent of residents are burdened by their housing costs. Houston's poverty rate is 20.7 percent, so maybe it really is more difficult to live comfortably in the city, after all.

Houston has a marriage rate of 39.4 percent, and its residents have a life expectancy of 79 years old. Nearly 76 percent of residents have health insurance, and a Houstonian has nearly five "mentally unhealthy" days per month on average.

Our beloved city has had some bad press recently: H-Town isn't exactly revered for having the best drivers; the city and its suburbs are apparently less appealing for new residents making the move to Texas; and its popularity in the tech industry seems to be waning.

It's not all doom and gloom, though. There's always plenty of new restaurants to try, our city's inventive art scene remains unmatched, and plenty of hometown hero celebrities, Hall of Fame athletes, and talented musicians praise Houston for its culture and hospitality.

While money can't necessarily buy happiness, SmartAsset suggests that having a higher quality of life can influence a person's financial decisions, therefore leading to a greater probability of beneficial outcomes. Of course, that's assuming high financial literacy and strong money management skills.

"Depending where you live, certain quality of life factors, including metrics like life expectancy, infrastructure and the rate of marriage, can ultimately impact your happiness," the report's author wrote.

Elsewhere in Texas, the Dallas suburb of Plano soared to the top as the No. 2 happiest city in the nation. More than half (52.5 percent) of all Plano households make a six-figure salary or more, and only 12.1 percent of residents are burdened by their housing costs. Plano's poverty rate is less than five percent, its marriage rate is 56 percent, and nearly 90 percent of Plano residents have health insurance.

Other Texas cities that earned spots in the report, that notably aren't as happy as Plano, include: Fort Worth (No. 38), Arlington (No. 47), Irving (No. 64), Austin (No. 65), San Antonio (No. 70), Corpus Christi (No. 77), and Lubbock (No. 78).

The top 10 happiest cities in the U.S. are:

  • No. 1 – Arlington, Virginia
  • No. 2 – Plano, Texas
  • No. 3 – Fremont, California
  • No. 4 – San Jose, California
  • No. 5 – Seattle, Washington
  • No. 6 – Boise City, Idaho
  • No. 7 – Raleigh, North Carolina
  • No. 8 – Chesapeake, Virginia
  • No. 9 – San Francisco, California
  • No. 10 – Anchorage, Alaska
The report ranked the 90 most populous U.S. cities based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau 1-Year American Community Survey for 2022 and from the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps for 2023. Data that factored into each city's ranking included a city's household income, poverty level, life expectancy, health insurance rates, marriage rates, overcrowding rates, and more.The full report and its methodology can be found on smartasset.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

A Houston innovator has created a video game that teaches users money fundamentals. Image via eyf.money

Houston startup launches gamified financial education tool

let's play

The fact that the average American would struggle to cover a $400 emergency expense is a sign that there’s a dire need for a better understanding of financial literacy in this country.

But where is the proper starting point? What is the best age to start learning about debt, credit, inflation, loans, stocks, index funds, and personal finance?

According to Grant Watkins, founder of Earn Your Freedom, or EYF, and the startup’s new educational video game, Money Quest, the best time for people to start learning the basics of personal finance and economics is when they’re young.

“I stress to kids that the biggest advantage they have right now is their youth,” says former salesman turned entrepreneur Watkins. “If nothing else, I want kids to play our game to learn the value of compound interest. They’re young, so they should start early, plan early, be strategic, and have fun, life isn’t just all work. But the more you invest early, the more you’re going to have later.”

After realizing that it was best to teach solid financial principles to young people, it was a no-brainer to reach the conclusion that the best way for them to learn was via an educational video game.

That’s where Money Quest comes in.

The innovative and interactive web and mobile video game, which officially launched this month to celebrate Financial Literacy Month, was designed to help kids build a strong foundation in money management, economics and investment in a fun and engaging way. It features challenges and real-world scenarios such as renting a first apartment, opening a first bank account, budgeting at the grocery store, buying stocks and index funds and renting or buying real estate.

All of this is set up in the game’s imaginary city called Prosperity Point.

But before Watkins was able to get to his own Prosperity Point, he was in dire straits financially himself.

At only 27 years old, the native of Katy, Texas, and graduate of Oral Roberts University, found himself trying to get his own personal finances in order three or four years ago and quickly realized that had he been taught how to be an adult and all of the different financial obligations that come with that, it could have saved him from racking up thousands of dollars in debt and making other costly financial mistakes.

“After diving into it, I said, ‘Well, this is a pain, but I bet whoever solves this problem, it would be pretty great for them and everyone else in society,’” says Watkins, who lived in Beijing, China and worked in contract sales, before moving back to the United States. “So, I started working on this idea for Money Quest with the central focus on how I could make financial literacy more engaging?”

With the thread of an idea, Watkins joined Houston’s startup community in August 2021 and began to pull at it and after a prompt from Gamification Advisor Cal Miller, began learning how to code so he could build out his educational video game.

“After getting to the point where it was apparent that I couldn’t afford to get someone else to do it, I rolled up my sleeves and started teaching myself how to code,” says Watkins. “I learned it from free resources like Free Code Camp and Code Academy and we started building it in this specific programming language that we built this game in and just started from scratch.

“We went from one little house, to building an 8-bit character, to building out a road, to now it’s grown into a full-fledged city, with banks and grocery stores and cafes.”

For Watkins, half of his job is building the game and the other half is learning how to be better at building it.

When it came time to market Money Quest, he turned to CMO Keely McEnery, a 22-year-old student at the University of Houston’s Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship.

“Grant is a very smart, driven person, so I’m happy to be on this team, we complement each other very well,” says McEnery. “Money Quest is still a work in progress, it has come a long way since the beginning. Moving forward, we are going to be adding content to the game on a monthly basis and always creating more value.”

The partnership between Watkins and McEnery came at the right time because Texas has started passing laws like Texas Senate Bill 1063, which requires a semester of financial literacy in schools.

“Before COVID-19, there were only three states that had any sort of financial literacy requirements,” says Watkins. “But now, post-COVID, there’s 17 states that have already passed or are in the process of passing financial literacy bills.”

To that end, EYF is working diligently to make sure Money Quest meets the requirements of school curriculums across the country.

“All the studies coming out right now about gaming and education are overwhelmingly positive,” says McEnery. “With things like higher retention rates through gaming education. In fact, it’s dramatically higher.”

In addition to working with the Texas Education Agency and school districts like HISD all over the state of Texas, Watkins and team are working with banks that want to connect with their local high schools and middle schools to talk about financial literacy.

“We’re that perfect partner to connect with those schools and banks,” says Watkins. “They need to work with us because of Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) credits and it makes it a lot easier to connect with their local communities using us instead of just using pamphlets.”

As Watkins continues to bring Money Quest to the masses, he’s experimenting with creative ways for supporters of the game to get involved such as purchasing special NPC’s.

But as EYF builds its game’s brand recognition and begins to proliferate school curriculums, Watkins remains steadfast in his original goal to empower the next generation with the knowledge and skills to achieve financial freedom, which is the best kind of freedom as far as he’s concerned.

“At the end of the day, I want kids to learn to use money wisely, and not blow all their money in their 20s and get into high debt,” says Watkins. “I want to see them learn to be very strategic with their money from the beginning because not doing so will have repercussions down the line.

“I want to instill in them the importance of financial responsibility, smart money management, and economic literacy, so they can build a better financial future for themselves and their communities.”

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.