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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual economic outlook event online — here's what the numbers indicate for Houston business in the new year. Photo via Getty Images

2021 will be a 'bipolar year' and other key takeaways from the Greater Houston Partnership's economic outlook

looking forward

As much of the world is ready to celebrate a new year — one likely to be drastically less affected by COVID-19 — the Greater Houston Partnership released an annual report about what Houston's economy will look like in 2021.

Senior vice president of research Patrick Jankowski and his team put the Houston Region Economic Outlook report together and shared some its highlights at a virtual event hosted by Bob Harvey, president and CEO of GHP.

Of course, much of the study focused on how the coronavirus — as well as the impending vaccine — will affect the region's economy.

"At this point last year, neither Patrick nor any of us could have predicted the arrival of COVID-19 and its devastating impact on the global economy," Harvey says at the event. "Here in Houston COVID wreaked havoc on industries across the spectrum from energy to hospitality."

In the early weeks, the Houston region lost 350,000 jobs, according to the report, and in the months since, the region added back about half with 176,000 jobs.

Below are some more key takeaways from the report — and in most cases, the outcome depends on how COVID-19 case numbers are affected by the holidays and the accessibility of the vaccine.

"The weeks and months ahead are likely to be some of the most difficult of the pandemic," Harvey cautions. "We cannot afford to let our guard down now as we approach the finish line."

Energy will continue to struggle

Photo via Getty Images

The past six years have been rough for oil and gas, and in Houston specifically, Houston has lost nearly 100,000 upstream energy jobs, and the energy industry's share of Houston's GDP has fallen from 35 to 40 percent (a GHP '14 estimate) to 20 to 25 percent (a GHP '19 estimate).

The Russia-Saudi Oil Feud in March brought this decline to its head and it's not looking like it's getting back to normal any time soon. "Next year won't be any easier for the industry. While global demand has improved, it will remain three to five million barrels per day below pre-COVID levels," reads the report.

The new administration is expected to have several goals that will affect the industry, such as bringing the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement, negotiating new mileage and emission rules for autos and trucks, slowing or halting oil leasing on federal lands and in the Gulf of Mexico, increasing environmental scrutiny during the pipeline permitting process, and more.

Jobs in some industries will come back

Chart via GHP

According to the report, Houston's unemployment rate, at 3.9 percent in February, jumped to 5.5 percent in March, then 14.3 percent in April — the highest on record.

"Unemployment has improved — we're at 7.9 percent now," Jankowski says at the event.

But recovery depends on the industry. Jankowski predicts that retail and energy are both expected to continue to lose jobs, and other industry sectors — such as government, arts and entertainment, and educational services — aren't expected to grow by much.

However, some of the sectors hardest hit in 2020 — construction, manufacturing, support services, and restaurants — are expected to bounce back with thousands of new jobs.

The chart gives a range of job growth — there's a lower and a higher outlook. Jankowski says it depends on how well the vaccine is doing.

If by mid-year, we don't have much of the population inoculated, it's going to be closer to that lower number," he says.

2021 will be a "bipolar year"

Patrick Jankowski of the GHP. Photo via Houston.org

The first and second halves of the year are going to look different, Jankowski says, it's just a matter of how different at this point. In addition to the vaccine and COVID case numbers, the things the GHP as well as Houston businesses are watching is the new Biden Administration

"We won't see any significant growth in the economy until we get to the second half of the year," he says

The first quarter of 2021 will be especially tough for Houston, according to the report, since the region always experiences job losses in January as retail, restaurant, and transportation workers hired for the holiday season are rolled off. Additionally, contract workers employed to meet year-end deadlines are released and plans for reorganization are implemented.

"No one should be surprised when Houston loses 40,000 or more jobs this January," the report reads. "Houston's recovery will likely lag the U.S.'s by a few months, but growth will resume in the second half of '21."

Houston ranks at No. 11 in the best cities in America — and No. 1 in Texas. Getty Images

Houston scores lofty ranking in new study of America’s best cities

h-town proud

Buoyed by diversity, fine food, and Fortune 500 companies, Houston ranks as the 11th best city in the country and the top city in Texas, according to a consulting firm's annual study.

"Smart, skilled, and soulful, Houston is the American city of the future," says the study, published by Vancouver, Canada-based Resonance Consultancy Ltd., which specializes in marketing, strategy, and research for the real estate, tourism, and economic development sectors.

In last year's study, Houston also held the No. 11 ranking.

The 2020 study praises Houston for its:

  • Ethnic diversity, with more than 145 languages spoken in Houston-area homes.
  • Highly regarded restaurants, rated fourth behind Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago.
  • Healthy concentration of Fortune 500 companies, representing the country's biggest businesses. Twenty-two companies based in the Houston area are listed on this year's Fortune 500.
  • Airport connectivity (No. 7 ranking).

The study further lauds the city for development of the Houston Spaceport, a hub for the region's space industry. However, the study notes that Houston ranks 47th for prosperity, 74th for employment, and 99th (next to last) for income equality.

"From medicine to space to energy, we are at the forefront of innovation. We are resilient problem-solvers who work together to find common solutions, no matter if we're facing Hurricane Harvey or a global pandemic," real estate developer David Mincberg, chairman of Houston First Corp., says in an August 6 release. "Houston continues to grow and get better, so we invite those who live here to rediscover our city and visitors to come as soon as it is safe and enjoy all that Houston has to offer."

Houston First promotes the city as a destination for leisure and business travelers.

Resonance Consultancy ranks large U.S. cities by relying on a mix of 26 performance and quality measures. This year, New York City tops the list, followed by Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; Las Vegas; San Jose, California; Miami; and Boston.

Three spots behind Houston is Dallas, at No. 14. Austin comes in at No. 17 and San Antonio at No. 28. Fort Worth isn't included in the ranking.

Highlights for Dallas include:

  • No. 1 ranking for airport connectivity, thanks largely to the presence of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
  • Country's highest concentration of corporate headquarters (more than 10,000).
  • Country's third largest grouping of Fortune 500 companies (24 in Dallas-Fort Worth).
  • Sixth largest LGBTQ community in the U.S.
  • Dallas Arts District, the country's largest contiguous urban arts district.

"Dallas inspires big ideas. This big and bold approach has resulted in world-class arts, culture, architecture, dining, business, and more, which are changing the face of the city," VisitDallas, the city's convention and tourism arm, says on its website.

Sitting at No. 17, Austin boasts No. 8 rankings for educational attainment and nightlife, the study says, along with a vibrant cultural scene anchored by events such as SXSW and a flourishing tech landscape dotted by the likes of Apple, Dell, Facebook, Google, and Oracle.

Austin's showing in the Resonance Consultancy study comes on the heels of the city being hailed by U.S. News & World Report as the No. 1 place to live in the country, with particularly high marks for desirability, jobs, and quality of life.

"With a strong, continually growing tech-talent labor force and an overall lower cost of living and doing business, I think Austin could end up being a beneficiary market in the recovery of the pandemic as many tech users look to move out of more densely populated areas like New York City or San Francisco," Erin Morales, senior vice president of commercial real estate services company CBRE, said in a July news release.

At No. 28, San Antonio earns kudos from Resonance Consultancy for its plethora of attractions, including the River Walk, five colonial missions, San Antonio Zoo, San Antonio Museum of Art, and Texas Golf Hall of Fame. Alamo City shows up at No. 7 in the study's attractions category.

In addition, the study highlights San Antonio's popular mixed-use Pearl district, whose assets include a campus of the Culinary Institute of America. "Around the esteemed school, a host of grads and chefs have clustered, creating a smorgasbord of choices from Italian to 'cue to bakery to vegetarian cuisine," according to the study.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Texas was named the second best state for business by Forbes, and Oxford Economics predicted Houston's economic growth to be more significant over the next few years than most other major metros. Getty Images

Texas recognized as second best state for business, while Houston expected to see key economic growth

Feathers for our cap

Houston and the rest of Texas received two early Christmas presents signaling that their economies continue to percolate.

In a report released December 23, economic forecasting and analysis firm Oxford Economics predicted Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth will enjoy a greater share of economic growth through 2023 than any other mega-metro area in the U.S. except San Francisco.

Meanwhile, Forbes magazine declared on December 19 that Texas is the second best state for business, behind only North Carolina. Texas previously sat in the No. 3 spot on the Forbes list, preceded by North Carolina and Utah.

Through 2023, Oxford Economics forecasts average compound GDP growth of 2.4 percent in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. Among the country's 10 biggest metro areas, only the projection for San Francisco is higher (2.7 percent).

For Houston, the 2.4 percent figure would be an improvement over recent economic performance. From 2014 to 2018, the region's GDP growth rate was 1 percent, while it was 1.5 percent for 2015-19. In the 2020-21 timeframe, the growth rate for Houston is expected to be 1.9 percent.

In a recent forecast, the Greater Houston Partnership envisions the Houston area adding 42,300 jobs in 2020, mostly outside the energy sector. Among the region's top-performing sectors in 2020 will be healthcare, government, food services, and construction, the partnership says. Meanwhile, the energy, retail, and information sectors are expected to shrink.

In November, Robert Gilmer of the University of Houston's Institute for Regional Forecasting explained that by the end of 2022, job losses in the oil industry should have a limited effect on the region's economy. Still, he anticipates Houston's job growth through 2024 will be "moderate and just below trend."

In forecasting strong economic growth for Houston and DFW, Oxford Economics says the "industrial structures" of the two regions "are not exceptional, but low costs and low regulation mean that the industries that they do have grow faster than elsewhere."

"San Francisco's very high costs are creating affordability problems and rising inequalities that may eventually undermine its model," Oxford Economics adds. "Competitive advantages never last forever. The Sunbelt cities [including Houston and DFW] may yet give it a run for its money."

Houston's and DFW's competitive advantages mesh with those of the entire state. Texas' high points include lower taxes, lower labor expenses, lower cost of living, and low levels of regulation, Oxford Economics says.

As noted by Forbes, Moody's Analytics predicts Texas businesses will add close to 1 million new jobs by 2023, which would be the third highest average annual job growth rate among the states. Meanwhile, the share of Texans who launched businesses last year was the fourth highest in the country, according to Kauffman Foundation data cited by Forbes. And just three states — California, New York and Washington — saw more venture capital flow into them in 2018 and 2019 than Texas did, according to PwC.

Texas earned these rankings on the Forbes list:

  • No. 1 state for growth prospects
  • No. 1 state for business costs
  • No. 4 state for economic climate
  • No. 10 state for labor supply
  • No. 15 state for quality of life
  • No. 21 state for regulatory environment
In his 2019 State of the State address, Gov. Greg Abbott praised Texas as "the most powerful state in America," thanks in part to healthy job growth, low unemployment, and rising wages. "Texas is the premier economic destination in the United States," he said.
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Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco