Firms with real options thrive in uncertain situations because they have the flexibility to change their operations in a way that can amplify the effects of good news and dampen the effects of bad news. Photo via Getty Images

Volatile markets look a lot like high-stakes poker games. Wild swings make it hard to chart a course to profitability, inevitably forcing some firms to fold. At the same time, there are always investors and firms that come out as big winners. So is there is a secret to drawing a winning hand in bad times?

Working with colleagues Evgeny Lyandres of Boston University and Alexei Zhdanov of Pennsylvania State University, Rice Business professor Gustavo Grullon hypothesized that the secret to surviving market volatility has to do with managers' ability to adjust operations. The more flexibility managers have to change the course of their firms, the reasoning went, the greater the likelihood of surviving market volatility, and in some cases taking advantage of it.

Consider Amazon, founded in 1994 with the goal of becoming "the world's most consumer-centric company, where customers can come to find anything they want to buy online." From its start as a bookstore, the company turned into an ultra-diversified behemoth that can shrug off vast swings in the market. Despite high volatility in recent years, Amazon's stock price increased roughly 39 percent, from $1,901 to $2,641, over the past year.

Grullon and his colleagues theorized that having more real options ⁠— managerial choices about tangible assets such as inventory, machinery or buildings ⁠— boosts firm value in a whole range of volatile circumstances, whether demand-based, cost-based or profit-based. Firms that have these options ⁠— Amazon, for example ⁠— can act fast to mitigate bad news by changing operating and investment strategies. They might cut production, shutter operations or delay investments. Companies without these tools basically have to ride fate's rollercoaster.

To test their theory, the researchers compared firms with a plethora of investment opportunities to those with more modest real options. They analyzed returns data from 1963 to 2018 from The Center for Research in Security Prices and from Compustat ⁠— a database of financial, statistical and market information about active and inactive U.S. companies.

Grullon and his team found there was measurable value in having more real options. A bigger spread of real options allowed managers to change strategy as soon as new information arrived. The greater the number of real options, the greater the flexibility managers had at their disposal when the market got volatile.

Developing Amazon-type options and diversified assets, naturally, takes years of sweat, trial and a measure of luck. Companies that do best at creating such opportunities, the researchers note, tend to be highly sensitive to changes in volatility to begin with, leading to more opportunities to adapt. Overall, the team found, volatility-return relation was much stronger in industries already characterized by plenty of growth and strategic options. High-tech firms, pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies, for example, show especially strong resistance to idiosyncratic volatility.

In other words, while volatile markets can resemble high-stakes poker, there are a few predictable rules. When the chips are down, companies that are lucky enough to hold diversified assets, have varied investment options and can shuffle resources quickly will be the strongest players at the table.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Gustavo Grullon, a professor of finance at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Supporting the LGBTQ+ community is crucial to Houston business success. Ylanite Koppens/Pexels

Rice research on why fighting workplace discrimination of LGBTQ+ employees boosts business

Houston voices

Being gay, lesbian or bisexual in the workplace often means facing choices that are deeply unfair. Choose to come out and risk being stigmatized or hide your orientation and prepare for a career weighted with the immense stress of secrecy. Theoretically, there are good reasons for businesses to embrace a workforce with diverse sexual orientations.

First, much workplace discrimination is illegal, and litigation is pricey. More importantly, disdaining 5 to 15 percent of your workforce (the estimated percentage of the workforce population who are gay, lesbian or bisexual) means lagging behind the competition in the ability to recruit and retain top talent. But in reality, the legal protections prohibiting discrimination against employee's sexual orientation is often limited and what should be the rational business choice isn't always made.

In an article published in The Encyclopedia of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Rice Business professor Michelle "Mikki" Hebl explores the gamut of workplace challenges for gay, lesbian and bisexual workers. Misconceptions about these employees, she found, are still widespread. First of all, employers and coworkers who stigmatize homosexual or bisexual employees often misunderstand their orientation as a choice. The subsequent treatment based on this misinformation can be viciously destructive.

A common misperception is that sexual orientation can be easily concealed. To the contrary, many gay, lesbian or bisexual workers are actually outed by coworkers, Hebl notes. Because of this possibility, gay, lesbian and bisexual employees often spend an inordinate amount of their work time and energy simply managing their coworkers' response to their sexual orientation.

And while some people characterize sexual orientation as just a political issue, those who are gay, lesbian and bisexual employed in a toxic workplace are often not seen simply as undesirables. They can be considered actual threats, their sexual orientation capable of somehow altering the identities of fellow workers. In some cases, associations with HIV and AIDS can lead to gay, lesbian and bisexual workers being treated as physical risks.

Because of these obstacles, many workers are forced into painful choices at work. Do I put my partner's photo on my desk? Do I mention my weekend plans?

To reduce this burden on productive workers, Hebl writes, businesses should codify their formal rules about managing harassment. Informally, companies need to create a culture in which people of different sexual orientations are supported rather than punished for their sexual orientation.

But companies should know this road won't always be easy. Some workers will balk at a more diverse environment. The existence of clear policies, moreover, doesn't guarantee that subtle forms of discrimination won't take place. But the consequences of not establishing policies are considerable, including litigation and high turnover rates.

In the best of all worlds, the burden of change should not be on the gay, lesbian and bisexual workers themselves. But it's not a perfect world, so Hebl also proposes strategies to help employees maximize workplace acceptance.

These days, evidence suggests that in some cases, disclosing one's sexual orientation has benefits. Especially in supportive organizations, it often makes sense for people to reveal their sexual orientation after a period of time and with the support of other employees.

At the same time, Hebl notes, employees may be likely to bully gay, lesbian and bisexual employees whose orientation is the only thing that's is known about them. Thus, gay, lesbian and bisexual workers face a challenge well-known to other minority employees: delivering exceptional work and displaying exceptional character in order to attempt to allay discrimination.

From an institutional perspective, employers can support their individual gay, lesbian and bisexual employees in myriad ways. Companies can create a welcoming culture by offering same-sex partner benefits. Anti-discrimination policies, frequently voiced, send a message of safety to gay, lesbian and bisexual employees. Such measures require both awareness and real commitment, but the extra efforts pay off well beyond the day-to-day business of hiring and retention. They also encourage open-mindedness, creativity and commitment — and in the end, a more competitive work product.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom in 2018. It's based on research by Michelle "Mikki" Hebl, Eden B. King, and Charles L. Law. Hebl is the Martha and Henry Malcolm Lovett Chair of Psychology at Rice University and a professor of management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Can corporations be compassionate? Rice University researchers are figuring that out. Pexels

Rice University research looks into corporate responsibility for compassion

Houston voices

Since the early 2000s, the business of doing business has changed its looks markedly. As corporations gain power and reach, many in the public are subjecting them to increasingly insistent questions about their impact on the lives of workers, the environment and society at large.

At the same time, academics have focused more attention on compassion in management and business organizations. Today, considerable research parses the way corporate conduct affects employees, laid-off workers and the well-being of society as a whole. A considerable segment of this academic literature advocates for what once seemed like an oxymoron: compassion in corporate management.

Most of the recent research on compassion focuses on individuals and the group. Most management research, meanwhile, centers on economic performance and efficiency. In an editorial for Journal of Management, though, Rice Business Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of Management Jennifer George argues that compassion research can actually be a jumping-off point for focus on social problems, well-being and identifying the conditions under which organizations do the least harm.

But what is compassion in business, exactly? According to George, it's the practice of setting up organizations so that they respond to the vulnerable groups in their orbit. To do this, George says, companies should reconsider the concept of "American Corporate Capitalism (ACC)," which operates when corporations, workers and consumers pursue self-interest. ACC follows the laws of supply and demand, and is founded on the bedrock principles of respect for private property, an emphasis on economic growth and using profits as the measuring stick for making business decision.

Make no mistake, George adds: "ACC is an ideology." A host of institutions provide the underpinnings that allow ACC to flourish, among them the legal system, governmental agencies, stock markets, media and advertising and trade organizations.

But, notes George, the rewards from American Corporate Capitalism are narrowing sharply. ACC, she contends, now concentrates benefits upon fewer and fewer people. One article she cites suggests that outsized CEO salaries and compensation, coupled with large income inequality within a company, may result in organizations that do harm to their workers.

In fact, "the tenets of ACC seem to downplay the importance of compassionate organizing," says George. Harm done by corporations, such as laying off employees, may occur unintentionally, but those decisions still cause suffering. ACC, she says, "has the potential to create conditions under which compassion is much less likely to occur."

As a result, it's crucial to closely examine the tensions and contradictions between ACC and compassion. A focus on compassion would "identify the conditions under which organizations inflict the least harm and alleviate the most suffering," George writes.

She proposes a wide-ranging agenda to achieve this. First, researchers should look at organizational decision-making to track the influence of ACC values and whether criteria such as dominance or hierarchy override harmony and egalitarianism. Identifying the factors that spur organizations to favor only shareholders and customers over employees and neighboring communities could offer insights for management. Other research, George suggests, ought to examine a range of companies operating in the same sector, tracing which cause more damage and which are more successful at reducing suffering.

Finally, George says, academics should develop case studies of organizations that successfully pursue policies such as employing the disabled – policies designed to promote the well-being of vulnerable groups inside and outside the company.

Because corporations wield such vast influence, the harm they do can reach wide swaths of the population. It's time, George writes, for researchers to examine the disconnects between prevailing corporate culture and compassion. Effectively done, she says, such research could vault over the ivory battlements into the heart of everyday life.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom in 2019.

Based on research from Jennifer M. George, the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of Management in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.
By accounting for both known and unknowable factors, managers can identify salespeople with traits that work best in different types of sales. Getty Images

Rice University research uses data to spot your best sales team members

Houston Voices

When you're a manager, decisions barrage you each day. What product works? Which store layout entices? How will you balance the budget? Many of these decisions ultimately hinge on one factor: the skills of your sales force.

Often, when managers evaluate their salespeople they contend with invisible factors that may not show up in commissions or name-tagged sales rosters — intangibles such as product placement, season or simply a store's surrounding population. This makes it hard to fully evaluate a salesperson, or to spot which workers can teach valuable skills to their peers and improve the whole team.

But what if you could plug a few variables into a statistical model to spot your best sellers? You could then ask the star salespeople to teach coworkers some of their secrets. New research by Rice Business professor Wagner A. Kamakura and colleague Danny P. Claro of Brazil's Insper Education and Research Institute offers a technique for doing this. Blending statistical methods that incorporate both known and unknown factors, Kamakura and Claro developed a practical tool that, for the first time, allows managers to identify staffers with key hidden skills.

To test their model, the researchers analyzed store data from 35 cosmetic and healthcare retail franchises in four South American markets. These particular stores were ideal to test the model because their salespeople were individually responsible for each transaction from the moment a customer entered a store to the time of purchase. The salespeople were also required to have detailed knowledge of products throughout each store.

Breaking down the product lines into 11 specific categories, and accounting for predictors such as commission, product display, time of year and market potential, Kamakura and Claro documented and compared each salesperson's performance across products and over time.

They then organized members of the salesforce by strengths and weaknesses, spotlighting those workers who used best practices in a certain area and those who might benefit from that savvy. The resulting insight allowed managers to name team members as either growth advisors or learners. Thanks to the model's detail, Kamakura and Claro note, managers can spot a salesperson who excels in one category but has room to learn, rather than seeing that worker averaged into a single, middle-of-the-pack ranking.

If a salesperson is, for example, a sales savant but lags in customer service, managers can use that insight to help the worker improve individually, while at the same time strategizing for the store's overall success. Put into practice, the model also allows managers to identify team members who excel at selling one specific product category — and encourage them to share their secrets and methods with coworkers.

It might seem that teaching one employee to sell one more set of earbuds or one more lawn chair makes little difference. But applied consistently over time, such personalized product-specific improvement can change the face of a salesforce — and in the end, a whole business. A good manager uses all the tools available. Kamakura and Claro's model makes it possible for every employee on a sales team to be a potential coach for the rest.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Based on research from Wagner A. Kamakura, the Jesse H. Jones Professor of Marketing at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

From new tech jobs in Houston to an entrepreneurship minor at Rice University, here are some short stories in Houston innovation. Shobeir Ansari/Getty Images

Rice creates entrepreneurship minor, Houston tech jobs grow, and more innovation news

Short stories

While much of the city's news — along with the rest of the country — has been focused on COVID-19, headlines are starting to resemble some sense of normalcy again.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, there's a mix of news items pertaining to the coronavirus, as well as news items outside of the pandemic — from a new minor program at Rice University to Baylor College of Medicine testing for a COVID treatment.

Rice University introduces entrepreneurship minor

Rice University plans to offer undergraduate students an opportunity to minor in entrepreneurship. Courtesy of Rice University

Three of Rice University's programs — the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Jones Graduate School of Business, and Brown School of Engineering — are teaming up to provide undergraduate students an opportunity to minor in entrepreneurship.

"Entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses and industries are critical to Houston and Texas' future prosperity and quality of life," says Yael Hochberg, Rice finance professor who leads Lilie, in a release. "Rice students continuously seek to lead change and build organizations that can have real impact on our world. In today's new and uncertain world, the skills and frameworks taught in the new minor are particularly important."

According to a news release, the minor's curriculum will provide students with professional skills within entrepreneurship, such as problem solving, understanding customers and staff, communication, and more. The program will be housed in Lilie, which features a coworking space, graduate and undergraduate entrepreneurship courses, the annual H. Albert Napier Rice Launch Challenge, and other courses.

Houston named No. 12 for tech jobs

Houston's tech jobs are growing — just not at an impressive rate, according to a new report. Christina Morillo/Pexels

CompTIA has released its Cyberstates 2020 report that identifies Houston as No. 12 in the country for tech jobs. However, the Bayou City was ranked No. 38 for job percent growth. Austin and Dallas appear in the top 10 of each of the Cybercities rankings.

According to the report, Houston has a net total of 235,802 tech jobs, an increase of 826 jobs between 2018 and 2019. This figure means a growth of 25,904 jobs between 2019 and 2010. The full report is available online.

While Houston misses the top 10 metros, Texas ranks No. 2 for net tech employment and net tech employment growth. The Lone Star State came in at No. 4 for projected percent change in the next decade. The state was also recognized as No. 2 for number of tech businesses.

Baylor College of Medicine tests existing drug for COVID-19 cure

A Houston institution is looking into an existing vaccine for coronavirus treatment. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

Baylor College of Medicine researchers — along with colleagues at four other institutions — are testing to see if the bacille Calmette-Guerin vaccine, known as BCG, can work against COVID-19.

"Epidemiological studies show that if you're BCG vaccinated, you have a decreased rate of other infections," says Dr. Andrew DiNardo, assistant professor of medicine – infectious diseases at Baylor, in a news release.

The vaccine has been found to help protect against yellow fever and influenza, and, according to DiNardo, the vaccine could show 30 to 50 percent improvement in immune response in patients with the coronavirus. The team is currently looking for subjects to participate in a clinical trial to test the vaccine.

While research is preliminary, the theory is that BCG changes the way the body responds to a pathogen, according to the release.

"Think of DNA like a ball of yarn," DiNardo explains in the release. "Some pieces of the ball of yarn are open and able to be expressed. Other pieces are wrapped up tight and hidden away, and those genes are repressed. It's a normal way for cells to turn certain genes on and off. BCG opens up certain parts of this ball of yarn and allows the immune system to act quicker."

Plug and Play announces physical space in Houston

Plug and Play Tech Center's local team will work out of the Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Since entering the Houston market last year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play Tech Center has hosted numerous events, named its first cohort, and hired Payal Patel to lead the local operations. However, the local operations still, until recently, lacked a plan for a physical space in town.

"Plug and Play intends to set up its permanent office in Houston in Rice's Ion development," says Patel in a statement. "We have engaged in preliminary discussions with Rice Management Company to secure office space for the building's expected Q1 2021 opening."

Until then, says Patel, who is director of corporate partnerships for Plug and Play in Houston, the Plug and Play team will have its base at Station Houston, which recently merged with Austin-based Capital Factory. At present, the local team is hiring to build up its team and has five open jobs on HTX Talent, a job portal for Houston tech.

UH professor named a Guggenheim fellow

A University of Houston professor has been honored with a prestigious award. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

A University of Houston mechanical engineer has been selected for a Guggenheim Fellowship. Pradeep Sharma is the only recipient in the engineering category.

The M.D. Anderson Chair Professor of mechanical engineering and chairman of the department, Sharma uses mathematics and technology to breakdown physical phenomena across a number of disciplines.

The Guggeinheim Foundation has funded more than $375 million in fellowships to over 18,000 individuals since its inception in 1925. This year, the organization selected 173 individuals.

"It's exceptionally encouraging to be able to share such positive news at this terribly challenging time," Sharma says in a news release from UH. "The artists, writers, scholars and scientific researchers supported by the fellowship will help us understand and learn from what we are enduring individually and collectively."

Houston health system to participate in coronavirus plasma study

HCA Houston Healthcare is participating in a plasma treatment program. Getty Images

HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division has announced that it will be participating in a national study to see if plasma from recovered COVID-19 patients can help current COVID patients in severe conditions.

"We are proud to take part in this important study. We are asking for the help of our community to spread awareness about plasma donation for patients facing COVID-19 not only in Houston, South Texas and Corpus Christi, but also around the world," says Mujtaba Ali-Khan, chief medical officer at HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division, in a news release.

Per the study, the following HCA Healthcare Gulf Coast Division Hospitals will be participating:

  • HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Conroe
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Kingwood
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Southeast
  • HCA Houston Healthcare West
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball
  • HCA Houston Healthcare North Cypress
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Northwest
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Mainland
  • HCA Houston Healthcare Medical Center
  • Corpus Christi Medical Center
  • Rio Grande Regional Hospital
  • Valley Regional Medical Center

"This trial is just the first step, but hopefully it will help us determine if plasma transfusions can be a treatment for critically ill patients with COVID-19," says Carlos Araujo-Preza, MD, critical care medical director at HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball, in the release.

Dr. Araujo-Preza safely discharged his first plasma patient last week. The patient is recovering from home following their treatment.

The hospital system is looking for eligible volunteers to donate plasma via the American Red Cross to help treat current patients.

Early stage energy venture firm calls for startups

Industrial software

BBL Ventures is looking for energy companies to pitch. Getty Images

Houston-based BBL Ventures, which looks to connect tech startups to industrial and energy corporations, is seeking energy tech startups to pitch.

"Digital transformation, automation, emerging technologies and sustainability have never been more important to these industries than in this challenging macro environment," says Patrick Lewis, founding managing partner of BBL Ventures, in an email. "We are launching a 6-week challenge campaign to find BEST in class solutions to BIG pain points in the energy and industrial sectors."

In the email, Lewis lists over a dozen challenges or pain points from the organization's corporate partners. The goal would be to find startups with to solutions to any of these identified pain points. Winners of the pitch competition are eligible for POCs, pilots, and funding.

For more information and to submit a pitch, visit BBL's website. BBL is also introducing the program with a virtual kick-off panel on May 21 at 2 pm. Registration is available online.

When companies plan to restructure, it makes a difference if the new CEO is hired from inside or outside. Pexels

Houston companies looking for a new CEO must decide where exactly to look

Houston voices

Star Co. is a hot mess. The business is bloated and sprawling. Its stock is tanking. Profits are down. It's clearly time for a new CEO.

But where to look — inside the company or outside? It's a decision every restructuring company faces.

Cenovus Energy tapped an outsider in 2017. General Electric, the same year, went with a longtime insider. Though it's too soon to know yet for sure, which one likely made the right choice?

Rice Business emeritus professor Robert E. Hoskisson, with coauthors Shih-chi Chiu, then at Nanyang Technological University (now at the University of Houston), Richard A. Johnson of University of Missouri, Columbia and Seemantini Pathak of University of Missouri-St. Louis, set out for an answer: Where is the best place for a restructuring company to get its next CEO?

According to conventional wisdom and some past research, change is more likely under an outside CEO. He or she can start fresh, armed with a greater mandate to shake things up.

Recent evidence, though, suggests that outsiders may actually have more trouble succeeding. That's because they lack the institutional knowledge to make the most informed choices, and the existing relationships needed to ease change with minimal pain. Insiders, this research shows, have the advantage of key "firm-specific" knowledge on everything from customers to suppliers to workforce composition.

To pin down an answer on whether it's better to stay inside or go outside, Hoskisson's team decided to look at corporate divestiture — asset sales, spinoffs, equity carve-outs — as a proxy for overall strategic change. (It's already well documented that a new CEO makes organizational changes such as personnel changes and culture shifts.)

Next, they distinguished between scale and scope. The scale of a divestiture reflects magnitude: How many units were sold? The scope reflects diversification portfolio adjustment: Does the company have fewer business lines?

Focusing on 234 divestitures at U.S. firms that voluntarily restructured between 1986 and 2009, the authors defined a new inside CEO as having been in that role two or fewer years, and with the company previously for more than two years. They defined a new outside CEO as someone who had been at the company for a maximum of two years in any role.

Heading into the analysis, the researchers expected they would reach different conclusions for scale vs. scope. And the results were just that.

New inside CEOs, they found, did carry out more divesture activities than new outside CEOs. Not having as much inside knowledge, the outside CEO was more likely to prefer a simpler divesture plan, one that didn't require evaluating each unit or asset. Instead, the professors hypothesized, an outsider was more likely to follow investors' general preferences about firm strategy.

"When a higher magnitude of corporate divestures is required, internal successors are more astute than external successors in accomplishing this objective," the researchers write. On the other hand, when a company wants to shrink the diversified scope of a business portfolio, "external successors are more likely to bring their firms to a more focused position."

The researchers also suggested future lines of study about new CEOs and strategic change. What happens when firms want to buy and sell at the same time? Does the CEO selection process itself affect restructuring scale and scope? And does an inside chief executive who won a power struggle against a predecessor perform differently than an inside CEO named in orderly succession planning?

In the meantime, the findings are clear. If your corporate board is hunting for a new CEO, it may pay to go for the fresh face. But depending on your goals, your best option may also be a top executive sitting at a desk a few steps away.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Houston energy tech investment group rebrands to address sustainability

Seeing green

As the pandemic took its hold on the economy and the energy industry's commodity crisis did its damage, Patrick Lewis understandably assumed that maybe sustainability initiatives might be on the back burner for his network of energy companies.

"We thought we would hear that sustainability in this environment may have slipped down the priority list, but it was the exact opposite," Lewis says. "Pretty consistently across all the operators, sustainability, reducing emissions, and greenhouse gases — those are all even more important today."

This confirmation that the energy industry is committed to innovative sustainability projects led Lewis to rebrand his energy tech investment group from BBL Ventures to Sustainability Ventures Group, or SVG. The investment team focuses on reverse engineering the startup innovation process by sourcing the concerns and goals of the energy companies, then finding solutions from the startup world through reverse pitch competitions and challenges.

"We're not fundamentally changing our business model or investment strategy, but we just wanted to make sure our messaging was crystal clear," Lewis tells InnovationMap.

Lewis says he and his team really thought through the definition of sustainability, and he specifies that, "we're not doing this to go chase solar or wind power — those are on the table — but we think there are two primary opportunities: Digital transformation and emerging technologies in the existing fossil fuel industry," Lewis says.

He adds that oil and gas is going to be around for a long time still, and he cites that by 2040, it's predicted that 40 percent of energy will still come from fossil fuels. It's the big energy companies and providers — which he's working with — that have the power to move the needle on these changes.

"We think there's a real opportunity to pursue efficiencies and reduce emissions and footprint in that existing traditional oil and gas sector," he says.

Earlier this year, Lewis was addressing these concerns by working on standing up a group of industry experts for regular meetings to discuss innovation needs. What started as a call with a handful of people, now hosts 40 people across 14 energy operator and major tech platforms.

"The whole purpose of this group is to share best practices, collaborate on common pain points, risk manage pilots," Lewis says. "We continue to build that group — it's going to be a nonprofit governed by a steering committee."

While SVG has held off on its reverse pitch events, the organization along with the University of Houston Center for Carbon Management submitted a proposal to host the National Science Foundation's Convergence Acceleratoronvergence Accelerator virtual conference at the end of September.

"The goal is to bring together multidisciplinary stakeholders — industry, nonprofit, academics, NGOs, public policy experts — to solve big problems," Lewis says. "Sustainability is a problem they really want to address."

Rice University's data-focused lab presents unique opportunity for startups and small businesses

data to knowlege

A data-focused lab a Rice University is training the next generation of data scientists. However, the students at the Rice D2K Lab are doing more than just learning about the significance of data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence — they're working as data scientists now.

Businesses — large and small — can come into the lab and have Rice students and staff work on data projects in both short-term and long-term capacity. One semester, a group of students worked with 311 call data for the city of Houston so that officials can figure out what parts of town were in the most need of support, says Jennifer Sanders, program administrator at the Rice D2K lab.

"They were able to show on a Houston map the areas where most of these 311 calls were coming from," Sanders tells InnovationMap. "That allowed the city to focus on those areas."

Lately, the lab has been focused on a several COVID-19 Houston Response Projects, which addressed issues ranging from homelessness in the time of a pandemic, ventilator distribution, and more. One team even made a recommendation to the city after a data project determined that adding five ambulances to southwest neighborhoods served by the Houston Fire Department Emergency Medical Services program would optimize response times.

The lab has two avenues to help businesses: a semester-long capstone course and a clinic for one-time sessions. This upcoming semester, the capstone course has 60 students signed up to work on 10 to 12 projects from corporate sponsors. These lab members — which support the program monetarily — are selected based on their fit within the program.

The D2K Consulting Clinic also offers free one-hour sessions on campus. At the clinic, students look at the data and assess the possibilities and advise on how to use that data for business gain or growth.

"The consulting clinic can be a starting point if a business is not sure what to do with their data," says Shanna Jin, communications and marketing specialist at the D2K Lab.

The clinic also presents a special opportunity for small businesses and startups, a niche Sanders says they haven't tapped into enough yet. She says most of the companies they've worked with are larger organizations, usually in the energy industry.

"We really want to broaden the scope to smaller startups, tech companies, and nonprofits," Sanders says. "We really don't have to limit ourselves. I would really love to expand our reach."

Membership dues for companies, which provides a more structured, long-term access to data consulting, range from $25,000 to $75,000 a year. However, Sanders says the lab is willing to work with startups on a cost that's more accessible.

Ultimately, the goal of the program is to connect the dots for businesses that have data and don't know how to use it.

"To realize the potential of big data, we need people — people who can transform data to knowledge," says the lab's founder, Genevera Allen, in a promotional video. "That's what we're doing with the Rice D2K Lab."

UH: How biotech companies are withstanding the pandemic

Houston voices

At a time when the business world is reeling, biotech companies are still hanging on. Many biotech startups have successfully pivoted their entire platforms to focus on coronavirus-related work.

Of course, these companies aren't without their struggles. Clinical trials have come to a pause, finding investors has become more difficult and financing rounds have been surceased.

Even then, there are many biotech startups that have managed to snag government loans via the Paycheck Protection Program among other financial assistance. According to Vivian Doelling, the vice president of emerging company development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, COVID-19 has not impacted the bio science industry as much as it has others.

"Some of the smaller biotech companies have pivoted research to be more COVID-centric. This is also true particularly for companies with open platforms or who were developing products in the antiviral space," Doelling told BioSpace, an online biotech publication.

"To add to that, there are research organizations that are receiving more pandemic-centric business from biotech. And that includes clinical trial work," she continued.

Ongoing biotech challenges

It's no surprise that there have been some concerns regarding the delay of clinical trials for products that have nothing to do with coronavirus. It is feared that the delays might create product pipeline problems in the long run. See, companies usually file patent applications before trials even start. So, delays in clinical trials, according to Doelling, "could take up a big chunk of the time in which treatments can have patent exclusivity before generic competition intensifies."

Delays negatively impact smaller biotech startups. These startups' futures typically rely on the success rate of trial outcomes. Any delay in these trials subsequently hurts the small biotech startup. But, even then, the pandemic still doesn't seem to be affecting these startups.

Investment blues

"The expectation is investors are going to hold back more funds than they projected for their portfolio companies. There could be less funding available for new investments," expressed Doelling. However, it is her belief that biotech companies are hot investments right now, and sees new investments on the horizon.

"Investors are cautious at the moment," said Marty Rosendale, the CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, to BioSpace. "They're going to analyze their own portfolio to make sure those companies are solid."

Rosendale, echoing Doelling's investment concerns, says investors want to be more careful right now. They are making it a point to invest less money, which makes it difficult for startups seeking funding.

Keep on keeping on

Many startups are continuing to operate because they've found their rhythm in the virtual workplace. "I have not come across any biotech startup that has closed its doors during the pandemic," Rosendale said. "Sure, some have faced delays and temporarily stopped operations, but overall, haven't heard of any closing for good."

There are a few forces at play when it comes to helping biotech startups stay afloat during the pandemic storm. Landlords are forgiving rent and government loans are helping companies pay employees. "I know of companies that have been out there fundraising since the beginning of the COVID crisis. And they're still out there doing it," Rosendale said. "But I still haven't heard of one company that was forced to end or even delay a round of funding, not one."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.