The Equitable Access Fund is designed to meet demand for business credit among small businesses, especially those run by women, military veterans, people with disabilities, and members of the BIPOC, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities. Photo via HelloAlice.com

Houston-based fintech startup Hello Alice and the nonprofit Global Entrepreneurship Network have teamed up to create a $70 million fund that’ll help enable access to credit for small businesses.

Initial funding for the Equitable Access Fund, which debuted today, comes from Wells Fargo. GEN, which helps people start and build businesses, will manage the fund. Hello Alice’s fintech platform offers credit, loans, and grants to U.S. small business owners.

The new fund will provide credit enhancements — such as loan guarantees, loan-loss reserves and cash-collateral deposits — to ease risks for financing partners and free up money for underserved small business owners who face credit challenges.

The fund’s financing partners include First National Bank of Omaha, which issues Hello Alice’s small business credit card, and certain participants in Hello Alice’s financing marketplace. Other partners include the Mastercard payment network and the Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that fosters entrepreneurship.

The fund is designed to meet demand for business credit among small businesses, especially those run by women, military veterans, people with disabilities, and members of the BIPOC, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities. Hello Alice data shows that only one-fourth of small business owners have applied for a business credit card, and 85 percent of those applications were rejected due to poor credit or lack of credit.

Through the Equitable Access Fund, small business owners will be able to obtain a business credit card, build their credit profile, and eventually qualify for traditional credit and lending products. The $70 million fund seeks to unlock as much as $1 billion in credit for thousands of small business owners.

“We’re looking forward to creating more partnerships and bringing more institutions on board to the fund to achieve the goal of equitable access to credit,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release.

Wells Fargo Foundation is backing the Equitable Access Fund.

“Small businesses are a critical contributor to the economy and to building generational wealth,” says Otis Rolley, president of the foundation. “We need to create more pathways for historically marginalized small businesses to grow and prosper.”

In conjunction with GEN and Hello Alice’s Equitable Access Program, small business owners will receive credit-building education and technical assistance through a tool called the Business Health Score. The tool, which Hello Alice launched in April 2023, supplies an overview of a business’ financial condition.

Hello Alice Co-Founders Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore announced their latest opportunity for founders from marginalized communities to access funding. Photos via helloalice.com

Attention small business owners: it's time for a financial wellness exam. And Hello Alice has just the tool for you to use. Photo by Hero Images

Houston fintech company launches new tool for startups and small businesses

wellness check

Much like the humans that run them, businesses need the occasional wellness exam. A fintech company founded in Houston has created a tool for conducting that health check.

Hello Alice announced that its new tool Business Health Score has launched today. The assessment tool can be used by startups and small businesses to navigate their financial and business health. The tool is the first product rolling out from the Equitable Access Program, a new initiative from Hello Alice and the Global Entrepreneurship Network with support from Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Mastercard, and the Kauffman Foundation.

Hello Alice was co-founded by Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz and has worked with over one million small businesses to help them access capital. The idea of the Score is to give business owners "a comprehensive overview of a business's financial health," according to the news release from Hello Alice. This information is critical for decision making and works hand-in-hand with all of Hello Alice's existing resources.

Operating as a self-assessment questionnaire, the Score will provide entrepreneurs with a composite number by evaluating three business aspects: financial and business management practices, financial performance and position, and credit history.

“Over the last two years, Americans have applied to start 10.5 million new businesses, leading to a surge in the small business economy and more entrepreneurs who need support to properly grow their businesses," say Gore and Rodz in the release. "We recognized data was missing from the market that would give enterprise partners and financial institutions a clearer picture of the potential that small business owners possess for massive growth and investment."

The Score will help Hello Alice and its partners, which includes financial institutions, navigate the business's unique needs and provide the appropriate financial services and resources.

“We are providing unparalleled visibility through the Business Health Score that will empower small business owners to make more strategic decisions and optimize their growth while giving partners and institutions the insight to best help them through personalized service and product recommendations," the co-founders continue. "The Score and the larger Equitable Access Program we have launched with GEN are a huge step forward in opening up more growth opportunities for small businesses and ecosystem partners.”

Hello Alice and GEN are on a mission of democratizing access to capital so that entrepreneurs from all communities have the ability to grow their businesses sustainably. Last year, Hello Alice launched an entrepreneur-focused credit card that helped businesses more easily set up a line of credit.

“Entrepreneurs are well-equipped to deal with disruption and changing dynamics, but while talent is plentiful, opportunity is not,” says Jonathan Ortmans, founder and president of the Global Entrepreneurship Network, in the release. “The Equitable Access Program and Business Health Score will open doors for small business owners to better manage and grow their businesses, which will lead to more strategic partnership and funding opportunities.”

Houston's ranking on this global report improved 14 spots between now and last year. Photo via Getty Images

Houston tech ecosystem ranks as No. 5 in the world for emerging startup hubs

tech in texas

As a startup hub, Houston is movin’ on up.

In a new report from Startup Genome and the Global Entrepreneurship Network, Houston ranks fifth among the world’s top 100 emerging ecosystems for startups. Last year, the groups’ report put Houston at No. 19 in the same category.

Ahead of Houston on the list of the top emerging ecosystems for startups are first-ranked Detroit; second-ranked Hong Kong; third-ranked Dublin, Ireland; and fourth-ranked Minneapolis.

Further bolstering Houston’s status as a rising startup hub, Bayou City ranks third among the top North American challengers to traditional startup anchors like Silicon Valley, Boston, and Seattle. Joining Houston on the challengers’ list are first-ranked Detroit; second-ranked Minneapolis; third-ranked Research Triangle, North Carolina; and fifth-ranked Pittsburgh.

A recent report from Houston Exponential, which was recently acquired, emphasizes Houston’s position as the third fastest-growing tech ecosystem in the U.S. for early-stage startups. Houston sits behind Miami (No. 2) and Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Connecticut (No. 1).

Houston startups at all stages raised $2.34 billion in 2021, setting a record for the region’s annual VC haul, the HX report says. Of that total, early-stage startups collected $618.9 million in 46 deals.

Health and information technology startups dominate the VC landscape in Houston, with each accounting for 30 percent of VC deals in 2021, according to the HX report.

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranks 25th among the world’s top 100 ecosystems for startups, while Dallas ties for 31st place, according to the Startup Genome and Global Entrepreneurship Network report. San Antonio is wedged into the 91-to-100 range in the ranking of the world’s top 100 ecosystems.

“The importance and dispersal of tech startups have amplified the influence — for both good and ill — of geopolitics,” the report notes. “Where once the sector was sufficiently small to avoid the kind of pressures experienced by large industries such as energy and travel, those garage-spawned entrepreneurs have grown into a major economic force. Keeping their heads down is no longer an option.”

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

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.