Houston needs to work on developing its life sciences infrastructure, like what the TMC3 project is providing. Courtesy of Elkus Manfredi Architects

The region's health care sector has been Greater Houston's job growth engine over the past few decades — creating new jobs at a rate 75 percent greater than the overall economy — according to research published last month in Center for Houston's Future report, Houston's Economic Future: Health Care.

But data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and Bureau of Labor suggest that in many ways the economic footprint of our health care sector is not in line with the share of employment that health care commands across the region: While health care accounts for about 12 percent of the region's jobs, it is responsible for just 5.4 percent of Greater Houston's total gross domestic product.

By comparison, our energy sector holds roughly the same share of GDP as health care, but employs about just a fifth the number of employees.

To bridge this gap, Houston should focus on developing the region's life sciences sector, a promising economic development area with a potentially high economic payoff.

The life sciences represent a trillion-dollar plus global industry spanning pharmaceutical development, medical device manufacturing, research and commercialization of biotechnology and more. The employment multiplier — a measure of the economic contribution an occupation has on the greater economy — of a life sciences job exceeds that of generic jobs in health care by 40 percent.

Modeling conducted by the Center suggests a concerted effort to develop the region's life sciences industries compared to a 'business as usual' approach would yield an additional $13.1 billion in GDP and 73,000 jobs by 2036.

Historically, this industry has clustered on the East and West Coasts of the U.S., but recent efforts signal encouraging signs of progress.

Examples include the creation of TMC3 at the Texas Medical Center, a collaborative, multi-institution effort to build a life sciences research campus; the development of Houston's innovation corridor anchored by The Ion; and investment from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), a $6 billion state program to advance cancer research efforts and promote economic development.

Greater Houston has the potential to become the so-called Third Coast if we build on momentum that's starting to take hold.

Findings from our report suggest, however, that more work is needed to advance the life sciences.

This sector continues to grow rapidly—employment in this area rose by 37 percent from 2009 to 2019. Yet, the Center identified troubling data points, including that the number of people working in biotechnology and life sciences research and development declined by 13 percent from 2018 to 2008.

Our research identified several hurdles the region still faces in cultivating our still-nascent life sciences industry. First, Houston is still energy-dominant, with limited investment capital glowing to the life sciences. We must figure out how to attract venture capital, whether it be from Boston, Silicon Valley or elsewhere, to facilitate the growth of our existing biotechnology and life sciences firms and boost the rate of startup formation.

Second, Greater Houston continues to struggle with retaining life sciences talent, businesses and intellectual property. In some of the roughly 50 interviews the Center conducted with health care subject-matter experts, we heard that some businesses in the field relocate from Texas as soon as they begin growing. We believe the region should consider developing a cross-sector push for innovation that includes effectively scaling the research catalyzed by CPRIT.

By adopting a common vision and working together to grow Greater Houston's life sciences cluster, we can boost our economy and better position our health care sector to capitalize on the myriad new health care technologies that will emerge over the next couple decades.

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Steven Scarborough is manager of strategic initiatives at Center for Houston's Future and the principal author of Houston's Economic Future: Health Care.

Annabel Fowler Gatto launched her women's workwear company ahead of the pandemic. Here's how it went. Photo via Pexels

5 things this Houston-born entrepreneur learned from launching a biz during a pandemic

guest column

I realized a huge problem professional women were facing, and I launched a company to address it. But then, a pandemic hit.

Eight out of 10 women say they're frustrated and unsupported by traditional workwear brands and their offerings. For many, quality women's workwear means hefty price tags for clothes than, often, have unflattering silhouettes and difficult-to-maintain pieces. It's not a great experience.

Enter Suitably, a professional womenswear brand that offers seasonless staples—all machine washable and under $100. We launched in February 2020 with sky-high momentum. Then, six weeks later, COVID-19 shut down offices worldwide. Overnight, we saw a dip in traffic and the launch momentum slow. But we kept going — reinventing, reimaging, and engineering new ways to serve our customers during a pandemic who were, suddenly, working and interviewing from home. And, now, we're coming out the other side, a stronger, more dynamic and more customer-centric brand than ever. Here's what I learned from launching a workwear brand in a pandemic.

#1 — Be what your customers want and need 

Suitably isn't solely about fashion — it's about helping women be the best versions of themselves, personally and professionally. When COVID-19 struck, that need amplified among our core audience. From our interactions and proactive outreach we heard them loud and clear — they need help, support and guidance now.

We immediately shifted our focus from promoting the collection to doing everything we could to help our community. I made myself available for virtual coffee sessions and hosted over 100 of them during the pandemic. Next, we partnered with a good friend — a psychologist — and churned out free resources on everything from staying positive in a crisis to professional advice, life hacks and everything related to Zoom, from how to dress for a Zoom meeting in every industry to basic Zoom etiquette. The groundswell was immediate and powerful — women craved this information and this connection.

#2 — Be a voice for change

Weeks into the shutdowns when the global workforce was isolated and sweatpants-clad, we launched our next campaign, #GetUpGetDressed. So many women had shared their stories and told us they could barely get out of bed in the morning let alone get dressed and get motivated.

By encouraging women to #GetUpGetDressed — and to share their work-from-home style with Suitably's community — we knew we were doing more than promoting style. We were powering them to shake off the stress and fear, put on something that made them feel good and connect with other women in the Suitably community. Hundreds of women participated and the positive feedback we received was unparallelled. With that, our social footprint grew even more.

#3 — Be careful whose advice you take

Despite the positivity from our community, we still had the naysayers — people eager to share their unsolicited commentary on what we should be doing. The general consensus? Shut down or pivot Suitably ASAP — that a business like ours would likely never be relevant again. We were told to make "Zoom tops." We were told to explore athleisure and masks. We were told to wait for a vaccine then start over — to abandon everything we'd done, the brand equity we worked so hard to build and achieved or pause until the "world is normal".

The reality? None of those people were part of Suitably — and, like us, none of them knew how to navigate a global pandemic. Even so, it would have been easy to fall in line and let a knee-jerk moment of panic destroy everything we'd built. But, instead, we took a breath, took a beat and promised to drown out the noise and the negativity so we could move the business forward, putting the needs of our community first.

#4 — Be confident in yourself

Without the noise we were better able to reassess where we were and what came next — to go back to our roots and to the customer listening we'd been doing for the last few months and use that to set a new course. We knew there was light out there somewhere, and that if we just kept moving towards it, we'd find success.

Admittedly, that was hard sometimes. Even though I knew we had our finger on the pulse of our customers' wants and needs, every day brought a new learning. Despite the chaos, we pushed ahead, following our customers' lead. By the end of June, we had significant data to show that many women in our community, especially those outside of the tri-state area, were returning to the workplace or shopping in anticipation of returning to the workplace. We started to get customer chat's every day asking when new products would be launched, when our restock for sold out pieces was going to occur and we knew it was time to ramp Suitably 100 percent back up.

#5 — Be there for every step of the journey

While the customer journey is rarely linear, the pandemic brought new levels of uncertainty and disconnect. Based on the success of our support and engagement initiatives, we continued to follow our audience on their path — a path that, for many, led right back to the office. We immediately ramped up our messaging, with an eye on helping women get ready to go back — and to feel confident and ready for action the minute they walked through the office doors.

Because of the foundation we'd laid during those first few months — a foundation anchored in trust, understanding and support — our audience leaned in, ready to take that next step into the Suitably experience. Quickly, we were just about back to where we were before COVID-19, not just providing actionable content and a friendly ear but, also, amazing wardrobe pieces that made her feel empowered whether she was back in the office of working from home.

No one knows how to navigate a pandemic — but we all know how to build relationships. That, ultimately, was our strategy. And that, ultimately, is what helped us steer Suitably through the peak of the crisis so we could come out the other side a better, stronger, more dynamic brand than I ever could have imagined with a loyal audience who knows we're truly committed to them and to their success.

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Born and raised in Houston, Annabel Fowler Gatto is the co-founder and CEO of New York-based Suitably.

The 2020 election results will take the energy industry one of two paths — toward the energy transition or continuing the status quo. In this guest column, an energy investor assesses the situation ahead of election day. Photo via Getty Images

Energy and the election: What the 2020 outcome means for the future of oil and gas

guest column

The United States Presidential election is at our doorstep. The fossil fuel industry is under significant pressure and the outcome of the election could impact the speed at which exploration and production is impacted. This pressure is financial in nature, but also is operational, technological and all wrapped in physics. A mere 12 to 18 months ago, environmental, social and governance influences and overlays on E&P began and are only accelerating.

My company, Riverbend Oil and Gas, is beginning to see the industry rebound from a significant downturn in revenues, activity, and confidence in 2020 due to the impacts of COVID-19 and the OPEC price war earlier this year. The industry is battling with headwinds, including, lack of access to debt/equity capital, transaction valuations, commodity prices, shale well spacing, and other issues, all impairing market conditions.

At present, there is little to no lubrication in the system. With most talking about an oil and gas market cycle that is driven by supply and demand fundamentals over previous decades, now there is more discussion of a contrarian view of those confident of a demand recovery for oil and gas.

Since the start of energy private equity, funds were raised by general partners to support the small cap E&P space, in the late '80s, private equity became a significant participant in the oil and gas upstream space. Private equity firms became great in number as institutions desired exposure to a growing segment of the market outside of merely investing in the oil and gas public equities. This role, 30 to 35 years later, remains essential, but is currently stifled with thoughts of a declining fossil fuel world and with energy representing only about 2 percent of the S&P 500.

Hydrocarbon outlook

Looming headwinds in the fossil fuel industry include The Green New Deal, an accelerating consciousness of the carbon footprint, the Paris Climate Accord, ESG importance, and the growth of renewables. Additionally, the advent of electric vehicles presents a significant new entrant that is causing a substantial threat to oil's monopoly on the transportation sector. A collision of possible futures exists. Currently, around 1 billion vehicles today are using around 30 percent of the world's oil supply with an estimate of 4 million electric vehicles on the roads globally. Some forecasters predict around 400 million electric vehicles in 2040, decreasing oil supply demand by an estimated 6 percent.

These forecasts of human mobility are driven by the nature of human ambition and worldwide population growth. Africa, China, and India are expected to grow significantly through 2100. Moreover, all persons worldwide strive for a better life for themselves and their families — energy drives these ambitions.

Meanwhile, the capital markets for public fossil fuel companies has declined by over 90 percent from 2016 to 2019 with a continued dismal outcome year-to-date in 2020. The lack of cash flow and capital markets will likely drive less U.S. and non-nationalized produced oil and gas volumes and fewer sustainable companies. Many confident analysts predict a looming oil supply shortage in 2021 driven by these factors along with a federal lands development ban and the possible slowdown of fracking. However, others predict that peak oil demand is now and the need for fossil fuels has already reached a peak.

Assessing the candidates

The results of the election are anticipated to have significantly differing implications (should campaigning be a real signal) for the oil and gas industry. While a Donald Trump win would largely represent a status quo for the environment, a Joe Biden triumph could drive towards changes. Implications are wide ranging across the equity, credit and commodities market energy value chain.

It is important to evaluate who will have control of the House and Senate to pass said legislation. The House is expected to remain with the Democrats, comfortably winning at least 224 of the 435 seats. Recent polls have pointed toward a competitive Senate election cycle. The Republicans currently have a 53-47 Senate majority, but a Democrat favored majority of 51-49 is currently predicted.

The next question is whether the filibuster would be eliminated to push legislation through without a super majority needed; meaning Democrats could drive approvals with a 50-50 tie and Kamala Harris's vote. Although polls are pointing toward a "blue wave" for the Democrats, certain moderate democrats in oil and gas states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Pennsylvania may be swayed against major regulatory or legislative threats to oil and gas exploration and production. Additionally, elected authorities in anticipated Republican states such as Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Utah, and Ohio who are home to industry trade groups and fossil fuel companies will play a significant role.

The Biden Administration has discussed several energy-related policies. These include support for climate-friendly legislation, a ban on federal lands and water permits that represented 21 percent of U.S. oil output in 2019, and an increased investment of $2 trillion over four years in clean energy technologies. To put this investment into perspective, total global energy investment from 2017 to 2019 averaged $2 trillion, and Biden's plan would add $500 billion per year. Biden would target roughly two thirds of U.S. carbon emissions focusing on transportation (40 percent) and electricity production (31 percent).

Broadly, the goal is a nationwide carbon reduction to achieve net-zero emission no later than 2050 and transition to a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. In order to achieve the 2050 net zero emissions goal, the world requires 2020 COVID-19 sized reductions (8 percent) every other year for the next 25 years. Throughout this energy transition, energy prices are likely to increase, and as a result, the pace of the energy transition will likely reflect the balance of societal demand to reduce fossil fuel usage and the costs (economic, convenience, speed, satisfaction) of doing so.

Renewables and hydrocarbons

In 2019, the U.S. accounted for 15 percent of global CO2 emissions (5,130 MM metric tons of CO2), down 873 MM metric tons since the U.S. peaked in 2007. The large decrease can be attributed to coal-to-gas switching, while wind generation and solar power installations also aided the decline. From 2018 to 2019 alone, coal-to-gas switching decreased U.S. emissions by 140 MM metric tons, driving the largest decrease for the year. While shifting from one end of the carbon-emitting energy spectrum to another, it is imperative to balance costs, plausibility and expectations.

Hydrocarbons can be stored for less than $1 per barrel of oil equivalent, or BOE, while renewables cost $200 per BOE. Total U.S. renewable storage capabilities can provide two hours of national electricity demand which is stored in the utility-scale batteries on the grid and in the about 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads. Storage, physics and costs are major drivers for a hydrocarbon partnership as the U.S. transitions to a less carbon-heavy source of fuel. While costs of wind and solar have been driven down by around 70 percent and 89 percent, respectively since 2009, the Betz Limit and Shockley-Queisser Limit do have a governor on further improvements of the current technology and materials. Similarly, subsurface oil and gas reservoirs have similar boundary conditions of physics involving ultimate recovery of resources through natural production, fracking and/or enhanced recovery techniques.

The goal of providing low cost, reliable energy to consumers, enhancing lives and providing better futures can be reached through utilizing hydrocarbon technologies in tandem with renewable sources. A vast amount of investment, research and development is still required in the renewable world, including battery storage, solar/wind efficiency, electric grid expansion and electric vehicle technology/charging stations.

According to the 2020 IEA Energy Outlook, oil and gas represented 55 percent of global energy demand in 2019 and the agency predicts that oil and gas will comprise 46 percent to 54 percent of the energy stack in 2040. This is a relatively flat market share. Coal, on the other hand, cedes market share to renewables and nuclear power, decreasing from 30 percent to 10 percent. While renewables are vital to reaching the U.S. goals of net-zero emissions, hydrocarbons are essential in backstopping U.S. energy needs and ambitions throughout this energy transition. Additionally, on a global scale, cheaply sourced and stored hydrocarbons are essential for emerging economies to advance through existing carbon-emitting infrastructure, eventually leading to renewable alternatives and global carbon reduction.

We remain encouraged for the next decade of growth and performance as we look to identify unique opportunities in the space. In a dynamic oil and gas market, Riverbend has a high degree of confidence to sustain and thrive due to our culture, performance-based team and systems. Riverbend is anchored by vigorous technical subsurface reserve assessments as well as land, accounting and commercial diligence. Additionally, Riverbend, as an energy company, is investing in the alternatives segment, concentrating on materials and services in the wind, solar and battery portions of the value chain. In a world full of human ambition, we see a need for all energy to support undeveloped nations and economies to access the opportunity of the American Dream, pursuing elimination of a "have" and "have not" world.

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Randy Newcomer is president and CEO of Houston-based Riverbend Oil and Gas, a private equity investment group specializing in the energy industry.

Artificial intelligence is changing Houston — one industry at a time. Photo via Getty Images

3 ways artificial intelligence is changing Houston's future

Guest column

Artificial intelligence is the buzzword of the decade. From grocery shopping assistance to personal therapy apps, AI has sunk its teeth into every single industry. Houston is no exception to the AI boom. Enterprise-level companies and startups are already flocking to H-town to make their mark in AI and machine learning.

Since the world is generating more data every minute — 1,736 terabytes to be exact — Houston-based companies are already thinking ahead about how to make sense of all of that information in real-time. That's where AI comes in. By 2021, 80 percent of emerging technologies will have AI foundations — Houston is already ninth on the list of AI-ready cities in the world.

AI and machine learning can process large amounts of data quickly and use that data to inform decisions much like a human would. Here are three ways Houston-based companies are using these emerging technologies to revolutionize the city's future.

Health care

The health care industry is primed for AI's personalization capabilities. Each patient that doctors and nurses encounter has different symptoms, health backgrounds, and prescriptions they have to remember. Managing that amount of information can be dangerous if done incorrectly. With AI, diseases are diagnosed quicker, medications are administered more accurately, and nurses have help monitoring patients.

Decisio Health Inc., a Houston-based health tech startup has already made its mark in the healthcare industry with its AI software helping to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Their software, in collaboration with GE Healthcare Inc, allows health care providers to remotely monitor patients. By looking at data from ventilators, patient monitoring systems, health records, and other data sources, doctors can make better decisions about patients from a safe distance.

Climate change

Climate change isn't solved overnight. It's an issue that covers water salinity, deforestation, and even declining bee populations. With a problem as large as climate change, huge amounts of data are collected and need to be analyzed. AI can interpret all of that information, show possible future outcomes, track current weather patterns, and find solutions to environmental destruction.

One Houston-based company in the energy tech industry, Enovate Upstream, has created a new AI platform that will help digitize the oil and gas sector. Their AI-powered platform looks at data from digital drilling, digital completions, and digital production, to give oil companies real-time production forecasting. Their work will hopefully make their oil production more efficient and reduce their carbon emission output. Since oil drilling and fracking are a major cause for concern around climate change, their work will make a difference in slowing climate change and make their industry as a whole more climate-conscious.

Energy

Energy is an industry rich with data opportunities—and as Houston's energy sector grows, AI has become a core part of their work. Houston's large influence in the energy sector has primed it for AI integration from startups like Adapt2 Solutions Inc. By using AI and machine learning in their software, they hope to help energy companies make strategic predictions on how to serve energy to the public efficiently. Their work has become especially important in the wake of COVID-19 and the resulting changing energy needs.

Another Houston-based company using AI to influence the energy industry is the retail energy startup Evolve Energy. Their AI and machine learning system help customers find better prices on fluctuating renewable resource—helping them save money on electricity and reducing emissions. The positive feedback from the public on their AI model has shown how energy companies are using emerging technologies like AI in a positive way in their communities.

The bottom line

Houston is more primed than most cities to integrate AI and machine learning into every industry. While there are valid concerns as to how much we should lean on technology for necessary daily tasks, it's clear that AI isn't going anywhere. And it's clear that Houston is currently taking the right steps to continue its lead in this emerging AI market.

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Natasha Ramirez is a Utah-based tech writer.

Your company shouldn't be upgrading to trendy technology without a strategic purpose, writes this local expert. Photo via Getty Images

How to best strategize your company's technology adoption, according to this Houston expert

guest column

In any industry, the use of innovative technologies is often linked to an innovative company. With immersive technologies — including augmented reality, virtual reality, and interactive — heading into the mainstream thanks to COVID-19, brands are now able to reach their audiences in ways like never before. However, instead of incorporating these new technologies into their overall strategy, brands often fall into the trap of using the technology as their only strategy.

When brands are presented with a new and exciting way to interact with consumers in a world where it is hard to maintain their audiences' attention, it's easy to see why this happens. While these brands might get audiences' attention at the beginning when the technology is still novel, the campaign itself most likely won't make a lasting impression, especially as these technologies come more into the mainstream. Additionally, the new and shiny tactic may not be what best serves a brand's ultimate goal.

Starting with strategy

While the use of immersive technologies is growing, it is important to determine whether it is the right solution for the company.

To start, businesses should evaluate their target demographics and goals before investing in new technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality or animation. When taking all possible stakeholders into account, it will then be easier to shape the experience for maximum engagement and connection with target audiences. For example, in our work at VISION, we once worked with a client whose CEO had told their marketing team that they wanted Google Glass AR for a tradeshow.

The marketing team said they wanted to create an immersive experience and invite existing customers and potential new customers to a private experience using this innovative new technology. However, they did not have a plan for what the experience would be or why the customers were experiencing it. They just wanted to use word of mouth to talk about how cool it was.

Our team came in and listened to the event goals, gave our recommendations, and the client then realized they needed to determine who the customer was and what they wanted to say to the customer from a sales perspective.

That same client came back with a strategy behind the tradeshow experience and ultimately realized they actually did not want an AR experience, but that they wanted a complete immersive experience. From there, this client instead chose a 3D Interactive experience that they could deliver virtually online directly to their clients, and they didn't even use it for the tradeshow. It turned out to be the most successful sales tool they had ever produced.

What tech can do for strategy

Once brands have a broader idea for their strategy and marketing goals, they also need to understand what new immersive technologies are used to accomplish. Beyond creating "buzz," how does each technology actually drive the customer experience and end action desired?

Interactive media—Interactive media is a method of communication in which a program's outputs depend on the user's inputs, and the user's inputs, in turn, affect the program's outputs. Interactive media allows brands to connect with their audiences and making them active participants in the media they consume. Examples include digital graphics, interactive video or in-person touch screen activations.

There are a lot of different forms of interactive media, but at the heart, the goal of this tactic is to create something personalized to the user and establish a memorable connection.

Consider that people remember very little of what they read. They are likely to remember more if they view it in a video format – but they are most likely to remember something they have had a role in themselves. This makes it a particularly compelling technology if the ultimate goal is around education or awareness of a new topic.

Augmented reality – Augmented reality is the overlaying of digitally-created content on top of the real world. AR allows the user to interact with both the real world and digital elements or augmentations. AR can be offered to users via headsets like Microsoft's HoloLens, or through the video camera of a smartphone.

In both practical and experimental implementations, augmented reality can also replace or diminish the user's perception of reality. This altered perception could include simulation of an ocular condition for medical training purposes, or gradual obstruction of reality to introduce a game world. It is worth noting that there is a point when augmented reality and virtual reality likely merge, or overlap. See also, mixed reality.

Particularly in a post-COVID world, AR's applications can meet goals such as facilitating a try-on experience that can lead to direct sales or telling a brand story without the need for an in-person activation or event. We're also seeing AR being used to replace the exhibitor experiences at would-be in-person events, where AR allows the demonstration to come to the user. Now with social distancing mandates restricting in-person presentations, AR is proving even more valuable than ever before as more people begin to see the practical values beyond entertainment.

Virtual reality A high level of VR immersion is achieved by engaging your two most prominent senses, vision and hearing, by using a VR headset and headphones. The VR headset wraps the virtual world or experience nearly to the edge of your natural vision field of view. When you look around, you experience the environment the same as you do when you look around in real life. Headphones amplify the experience by blocking the noise around you, while allowing you to hear the sounds within the VR experience. When you move your head, the sounds within the VR environment move around you like they would in real life. The user becomes immersed within the virtual environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.

Virtual Reality has some great applications for training, particularly in healthcare fields or for active shooter preparation. In marketing, companies are implementing VR to enable the consumer to interact with products without having it in their hands — this is particularly applicable for selling luxury properties or furniture that consumers like to touch and feel prior to purchase.

The caveat with virtual reality is consumers cannot typically access this reality without VR goggles, and it is not conducive for a shareable experience that the audience can relive. So, particularly with this tactic, it's crucial to make sure that the "wow-factor" isn't the only goal.

As with anything, knowing what you want to achieve paves the way to get there. Each campaign should start off with establishing the goals. Once companies know what success looks like, they can then utilize creative and effective audience engagement strategies to reach these goals with presentation technology that helps get there.

Every single project is unique and custom. It's impossible to say that one tactic is right for a specific goal. There are ways to think about technology when it comes to those tactics. While a product launch may be great for AR, a real environment visualization is great for VR, or that a multi-user experience is a great way to utilize a permanent interactive display. But the truth is that if you have great strategy and you engage with a great content provider, who truly knows how to develop any type of content, they will be able to guide you in the execution of that tactic and the right technology to support your needs.

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Dan Pratt is the creative director at Houston-based Vision Production Group.

Houston's startups and small businesses have a ways to go to truly survive the pandemic, and they should move forward with these things in mind. Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

Here's how COVID-19 has affected Houston startups — and what they need to know moving forward

guest column

The effect of COVID-19 on Houston's economy has been unprecedented. While evidence on this impact is only beginning to emerge, it is clear that the economic damage has been particularly severe for startups and small and growing businesses in emerging markets.

Given the importance of startups and small businesses to economic growth and job creation, the survival of these businesses must be a critical part of the global recovery. For example, there are many companies that have seen this pandemic as an opportunity and started providing COVID-19-related services.

Startups are facing financial challenges on multiple fronts

According to a study from Houston Exponential's:

  • Thirty percent of startups reported a loss of revenue due to client uncertainty or delayed contracts. With almost 85 percent of startups identifying as B2B or B2C, many companies are seeing previously guaranteed revenues shrink as enterprise clients cut costs.
  • Twenty-one percent of startups reported paying talent as their biggest talent/hiring challenge. The main concern isn't with finding qualified candidates, it's being able to pay for them. Founders stated that the talent exists, but they can't afford them, or candidates aren't willing to accept a lower salary for equity.
  • Nineteen percent of startups reported a 10 to 20 percent decrease in fundraising valuations. This statistic only includes startups that were raising before and during COVID-19. And 71 percent reported no change in valuations.
  • Fourteen percent of startups reported moving to remote work as their biggest operational challenge. This includes both internal challenges as well as working with clients and prospective customers remotely.

How startups have been using funding amid COVID-19

Post $1 million in funding, the hiring focus shifts to product development.

  • Companies that have raised less than $1 million are looking to drive growth, find sources of revenue and improve their top-line metrics through biz dev, marketing, and sales.
  • Companies that have raised more than $1 million are focusing more on building out and improving their product by hiring engineers and product managers

Note: The median seed round for Houston startups over the past 3 years was $1.9 million and the median angel deal was $610,000, according to Pitchbook.

Tips for surviving the pandemic

The Small Business Continuity Checklist is a diagnostic tool to navigate times of disruption, covering two key areas of management — financial and strategic.

Financial Management Tasks

  • Address future cash shortages, for example, what expenses could be reduced, such as travel and marketing, which operations can be temporarily paused.
  • Consider steps to increase cash coming into the business such as focusing more on product lines/ services that continue to sell well.
  • Explore what grants, subsidies, or loans are available and the eligibility requirements. For example, The Cannon's CERT Program. Here's a list of resources for Houston startups and SMBs.
  • Recycle, re-purpose, or dispose of old or slow-moving stock or inventory. Explore the possibility of sales under special conditions, in order to reduce the projected losses on inventories. Review purchasing policies to prevent overspending on stock/inventory.

Strategic Management Tasks

  • Since user retention is crucial for your future growth, you can provide free subscriptions, contactless delivery, and waive fees to address a larger user base and enhance customer experience. For example, many online learning sites are providing free access to their live and video classes. Similarly, in the healthcare and fitness space, companies can provide for free virtual classes and shift to providing online consultations. Cure.Fit, fitness startup has provided free access to their live classes for 90 days. All hyperlocal delivery companies have rolled out 'contactless delivery' to minimize any contact between the customer and the delivery executive. They have also urged customers to adopt 'digital payments' to again minimize any human contact.
  • Nowadays, most startups and SMBs rely on different kinds of software, web apps, and/or mobile apps. Furthermore, many businesses are dependent on such digital platforms. If you are developing any digital solution then you should consider outsourcing some part of development/design work to app development in Houston to reduce the cost. You can find more local options from sites like Clutch or Upcity.
  • Ensure productivity while working remotely. While fostering collaboration has long been a defined way of working in most modern businesses, proximity is a variable that has always been taken for granted. Don't just limit to video conferencing, also invest in project management tools, time tracking tools, communication tools etc.
  • Build trust, support staff, and understand emotional concerns and the importance of personal well being.

Startups are the engines of progress. Small businesses are the backbone of America. Stay safe. Stay healthy. And keep persevering. No matter how severe and disruptive this crisis is, one thing is for sure, the war on this pandemic will be won.

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Colin Simpson is project manager at BlueKite Apps, which recently started its software development services in Houston.

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These are the latest COVID-19-focused research projects happening at Houston institutions

research roundup

Researchers across the Houston area are working on COVID-19 innovations every day, and scientists are constantly finding new ways this disease is affecting humankind.

From a COVID breathalyzer to a new collaboration in Houston — here's your latest roundup of local coronavirus research news.

A&M System to collaborate on a COVID-19 breathalyzer

A prototype of the device will be used on the Texas A&M campus. Photo via tamu.edu

Researchers at Texas A&M University System are collaborating on a new device that uses artificial intelligence in a breathalyzer situation to detect whether individuals should be tested for COVID-19. The technology is being developed through a collaboration with Dallas-based company, Worlds Inc., and the U.S. Air Force.

The device is called Worlds Protect and a patient can use a disposable straw to blow into a copper inlet. In less than a minute, test results can be sent to the person's smartphone. Worlds Inc. co-founders Dave Copps and Chris Rohde envision Worlds Protect kiosks outside of highly populated areas to act as a screening process, according to a news release.

"People can walk up and, literally, just breathe into the device," says Rohde, president of Worlds Inc., in the release. "It's completely noninvasive. There's no amount of touching. And you quickly get a result. You get a yay or nay."

The university system has contributed $1 million in the project's development and is assisting Worlds Inc. with engineering and design, prototype building and the mapping of a commercial manufacturing process. According to the release, the plan was to test the prototypes will be tried out this fall on the Texas A&M campus.

"Getting tech innovations to market is one of our sweet spots," says John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, in the release. "This breakthrough could have lasting impact on global public health."

Baylor College of Medicine researchers to determine cyclosporine’s role in treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients

BCM researchers are looking into the treatment effect of an existing drug on COVID-19 patients. Photo via BCM.edu

The Baylor College of Medicine has launched a randomized clinical trial to look into how the drug cyclosporine effects the prevention of disease progression in pre-ICU hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drug has been used for about 40 years to prevent rejection of organ transplants and to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

"The rationale is strong because the drug has a good safety profile, is expected to target the body's hyperimmune response to COVID and has been shown to directly inhibit human coronaviruses in the lab," says Dr. Bryan Burt, chief of thoracic surgery in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor, says in a press release.

Burt initiated this trial and BCM is the primary site for the study, with some collaboration with Brigham and Women's. The hypothesis is that the drug will help prevent the cytokine storm that patients with COVID-19 experience that causes their health to decline rapidly, according to the release.

The study, which is funded by Novartis, plans to enroll 75 hospitalized COVID-19 patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center who are not in the ICU. There will be an initial evaluation at six months but Burt expects to have the final study results in one year.

Rice launches expert group to help guide pandemic response

A new response team is emerging out of a collaboration led by Rice University. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University is collaborating with other Houston institutions to create the Biomedical Expert Panel, supported by Texas Policy Lab, to assist officials in long-term pandemic recovery.

"Not all agencies and decision-makers have an in-house epidemiologist or easy access to leaders in infectious disease, immunology and health communications," says Stephen Spann, chair of the panel and founding dean of the University of Houston College of Medicine, in a news release. "This panel is about equity. We must break out of our knowledge siloes and face this challenge together, with a commitment to inclusivity and openness."

The purpose of the panel is to be available as a free resource to health departments, social service agencies, school districts and other policymakers. The experts will help design efficient public health surveillance plans, advise on increasing testing capacity and access for underserved communities, and more.

"The precise trajectory of the local epidemic is difficult to predict, but we know that COVID-19 will continue to be a long-term challenge," says E. Susan Amirian, an epidemiologist who leads the TPL's health program, in the release. "Although CDC guidelines offer a good foundation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when managing a crisis of this magnitude across diverse communities with urgent needs."

Houston Black-owned beauty biz gets major holiday shout out from Oprah

favorite things

Every holiday season, Oprah Winfrey and her elves work hard to put together her namesake list of Favorite Things. The 2020 list of must-have gifts highlights Black-owned or led businesses, including a Houston-based beauty line, 54 Thrones.

For the past six years, Oprah's Favorite Things are available for purchase in the Oprah's Favorite Things storefront exclusively on Amazon, including the 54 Thrones African Beauty Body Butter Collection Gift Set.

The limited-edition Holiday Deluxe Tin contains five individually packaged African Beauty Butters. The Beauty Body Butters are infused with African-grown, pure, and organic plant botanicals which help protect, soothe, and nourish the skin. These Beauty Butters nourish and revitalize the skin; repair dry, tired, or cracked skin; and hydrate the body, hands, elbows, and feet.

Founder Christina Funke Tegbe was inspired by her Nigerian aunt and the tubs of shea butter she sent from Nigeria. In 2015, Tegbe left the corporate world of high-powered consulting and founded 54 Thrones, named after Africa's 54 countries.

This year, more than 50 of the 72 featured products on the Oprah list come from Black-owned businesses, according to Amazon.

"As so many continue to look for ways to support Black lives any way they can, we found dozens of absolutely gorgeous gifts from Black-owned businesses that we wanted to share and celebrate as part of this year's Favorite Things," said Winfrey, via Amazon.

Founder of 54 Thrones, Christina Funke Tegbe. Photo courtesy of 54 Thrones

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert: New technologies are improving lives of those living with type 1 diabetes

Guest column

Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune disease where insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are mistakenly destroyed by the body's immune system. Insulin is vital in controlling blood-sugar or glucose levels. Not only do you need proper blood-sugar levels for day-to-day energy, but when blood-sugar levels get too high (hyperglycemia) or too low (hypoglycemia), it can cause serious problems and even death. Because of this, those with T1D are dependent on injections or pumps to survive.

The causes of T1D are not fully known, and there is currently no cure; however, advancing technologies are making it easier to live with T1D.

Monitoring

Those who have had T1D for decades might recall having to pee into a vial and test reagent strips in order to check their blood-sugar levels. Thankfully, this evolved into glucometers, or glucose meters. With a glucometer, those with T1D prick their finger and place a drop on the edge of the test strip, which is connected to the monitor that displays their results. Nowadays, glucometers, much like most T1D tech, can be Bluetooth enabled and sync with a smartphone.

From there, scientists have developed the continuous glucose monitor (CGM) so that those with T1D can monitor their blood sugar 24/7. All you need to do is insert a small sensor under the skin. The sensor then measures glucose levels every few minutes, and that information can then be transmitted to smartphones, computers and even smart watches.

Monitoring blood-sugar levels is vital for those with T1D, particularly because it helps them stay more aware of their body, know what to do and even what to expect, but they also have to actively control those levels by injecting insulin. Think of a monitor as the "check engine" light. It can tell you that there may be a problem, but it won't fix it for you. To fix it, you would need an injection or a pump.

Pumps and artificial pancreas

The development of insulin pumps has made a huge impact on the lives of those with T1D and parents of children with T1D by making it easier to manage their blood-sugar levels. 50 years ago, the prototype of the insulin pump was so large, it had to be a backpack, but with today's technology, it is about the size of a smartphone. The pump is worn on the outside of the body, and it delivers insulin through a tube which is placed under the skin. Insulin pumps mimic the way a pancreas works by sending out small doses of insulin that are short acting. A pump can also be manipulated depending on each person's needs. For example, you can press a button to deliver a dose with meals and snacks, you can remove it or reduce it when active and it can be programmed to deliver more at certain times or suspend delivery if necessary.

One of the most recent and trending developments in T1D research is the artificial pancreas, or more formally referred to as the automated insulin delivery (AID) systems. Essentially, the artificial pancreas is an insulin pump that works with a CGM. The CGM notifies the insulin pump of your blood-sugar reading, which acts accordingly to restore your blood sugar to the target level. The artificial pancreas allows those with T1D to be even more hands off, as it does essentially everything: It continuously monitors blood-sugar levels, calculates how much insulin you would need, which can be done through smart devices, and automatically delivers insulin through the pump.

Living with T1D is a 24/7/365 battle; however, the advances in technology make it easier and safer to live with the disease. Organizations like JDRF play a huge role in investing in research, advocating for government support and more.

November was National Diabetes Awareness Month, and this year is particularly special for JDRF, as it is the 50th year of the organization. JDRF was founded in 1970 by two moms. The community grew to include scientists, lobbyists, celebrities and children—all determined to improve lives and find cures.

Bound by a will stronger than the disease, this year during National Diabetes Awareness Month (NDAM), JDRF celebrates "The Power of Us." We are reflecting on the power of our community and reminding ourselves and the public of how far we've come in the fight against T1D.


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Rick Byrd is the executive director of the JDRF Southern Texas Chapter.