Over 90 percent of students will work with a digital textbook at some point this year. Getty Images

More and more students and educational institutions are opting out of physical textbooks each year. One company leading the digital textbook revolution is located right here in Houston.

OpenStax is a Rice University-based publisher of open educational resources. The company has been publishing its free resources since 2012, growing its presence to over 36 college and Advanced Placement courses, according to a news release from Rice.

This year, over 90 percent of students will log on to free textbooks digitally in some way — through a website, PDF, or on OpenStax, the release states, and OpenStax new app received almost 58,000 downloads in just a month.

"We are exceeding even our own expectations of growth and impact on a daily basis," says Daniel Williamson, managing director of OpenStax, in a release. "This tells us that people believe in what we've created and that we need to keep going."

The company, which focuses on access to textbooks for students, also provides print books at a lower cost, and OpenStax entered into a deal with Vretta Inc. to expand this print program to Canada earlier this year.

OpenStax itself is responsible for saving 9 million students over $830 million, per the release, not the mention the fact that digital resources is driving the cost of textbooks down in general.

"Until a few years ago the college textbook bubble had seen sustained growth — textbook prices had risen 800 percent over 50 years," says Mark Perry, a scholar at The American Enterprise Institute and professor of economics and finance at the University of Michigan, in the release. "In 2017, there was a market-wide drop in textbook prices, and I believe that free alternatives like OpenStax books are central to that disruption."

OpenStax has plans to continue its growth with the launch of Rover by OpenStax, which is a low-cost online math tool that incorporates a step-by-step feedback technology called Stepwise.

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Houston Rockets, BBVA launch annual startup competition

game on

It's game on for Houston startups looking to compete in the Launchpad contest backed by BBVA USA and the Houston Rockets.

Houston startups have until February 28 to submit their companies for the competition. Judges from BBVA and the Rockets will select four by late March, and fans will vote on their favorite company. The winner will be presented with a $10,000 check at a Rockets game in late April. The winning startup will also receive consultations with Rockets and BBVA USA executives.

It's the fourth time BBVA has sought out entrepreneurs, but last year the organization revamped the program to focus on technology-driven startups.

"Over the past three years, we have been proud to partner with BBVA to highlight small businesses in Houston and their contribution to our economy," says Rockets Chief Revenue Officer Gretchen Sheirr. "Entering its fourth year, the Launchpad contest seeks nominees focused on using best in class digital strategies to enhance their small business. We look forward to reviewing submissions and honoring the great work that is being done by these businesses in our community.

BBVA's new Houston CEO Dillan Knudson, who was promoted to his new position in November, is excited for his inaugural involvement in the contest.

"It's extremely exciting to collaborate with the Rockets for the first time, and for such a great initiative that helps Houston's thriving small business scene," says Knudson. "Part of my new role is to create opportunities and financial freedom for Houston's communities through the bank's ample resources, and to do that in collaboration with a staple organization of this city is an honor."

Houston-based Hamper, which makes dry cleaning convenient, won the Rockets and BBVA Compass' LaunchPad competition. Courtesy of Hamper

Last year, Launchpad's winner was Hamper. Hamper's co-founder and CEO Safir Ali started his company to use technology to optimize the dry cleaning business and compares Hamper to the "Red Box of dry cleaning." The win was big for Hamper's future.

"It was an absolute pleasure to be recognized by BBVA and the Houston Rockets as the winner of the 2019 Launchpad Contest," says Ali in the release. "It was a very exciting moment for Hamper, and we are very grateful to have the opportunity to be recognized in our community. Many thanks to both BBVA and the Houston Rockets for empowering Houston businesses and giving them such a great platform to be recognized for their efforts, and for playing an active role in empowering entrepreneurship in Houston."

Texas named second-best state for black entrepreneurs

Black history month

In honor of Black History Month, a study was conducted to see which states have the best environment for black entrepreneurs — and Texas rose to the top.

The Lone Star State was ranked No. 2 in the inaugural FitSmallBusiness study, only behind Georgia. Florida, California, and North Carolina rounded out the top five, in that order. The ranking factored in metrics such as start-up growth, cost-of-living, black business success, and social equality.

"Entrepreneurship is the backbone of the American economy and minority-owned businesses are no exception to that fact," says FitSmallBusiness's special projects editor, Michael De Medeiros, in the news release. "With this being the inaugural study, our goal was to focus on the data that paints an overall picture of what the African American entrepreneur faces in the business world."

Breaking down the metrics for the state, Texas ranked No. 4 for three metrics —black business success, startup climate and financial health. However, when it came to social and financial equality — which factored in education, health, mortality rate, etc. — the state ranked No. 17.

The study used reputable reports from the United States Census Bureau, WalletHub, U.S. News & World Report, and more. From these reports, the study found that black-owned firms have grown 34 percent from 2007 to 2012, to now over 2.6 million companies. The top 100 black-owned companies generated $30 billion in 2018, but only 1 percent of venture-backed startup founders were black.

In addition to these metrics, the study also polled over 1,300 U.S. citizens regarding their own experience with black entrepreneurship. When asked about opportunities for black entrepreneurs compared to recent history, over 21 percent of respondents said it was about the same; however, more than half responded that there were somewhat or much more opportunities than before.

"While we weren't surprised by certain findings, some of the state rankings told an interesting story of the unique journeys that African American entrepreneurs have to traverse," De Medeiros continues in the release. "Ultimately, we hope that our continuing work to identify the best states for minority entrepreneurship will lead to new businesses outside of just the most prosperous areas of the U.S."

Austin-based Capital Factory — a startup development and investment organization — in partnership with DivInc, has launched its second annual startup pitch competition for black founders. The application is live now, and the deadline is March 20. Five startups will be invited to pitch on April 14th at Capital Factory's Black in Tech Summit, and one will walk away with a $100,000 investment.

Houston energy tech entrepreneur plans for growth following $15M series B raise

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 19

After years of having to educate potential customers about the game-changing technology that artificial intelligence can be, Alex Robart, CEO of Ambyint, says it's a different story nowadays.

"We're seeing our customers spend a little more time understanding AI," Robart says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "More and more boards of mid-sized [exploration and production companies] are challenging their executive teams to do something with AI."

Ambyint, a Calgary-based energy tech startup with its sales and executive teams based in Houston, uses AI to optimize well operations — Robart describes it as a Nest thermostat but for oil rigs. On average, 80 percent of wells aren't optimized — they are either running too fast and not getting enough out of the ground or running too slow and wasting energy, Robart says.

Recently, Ambyint closed its series B investment round at $15 million led by Houston-based Cottonwood Venture Partners led the round with contribution from Houston-based Mercury Fund. Robart says these funds will go to growing their technology to work on a greater variety of wells as well as hire people in both the Canada and Houston offices.

Robart runs Ambyint with his twin brother Chris, who serves as president of the company. The pair have long careers as serial entrepreneurs and even run an energy tech investment company, called Unconventional Capital. Between the two shared companies, the brothers have their own niches.

"We've been really thoughtful about ensuring that we take on different portfolios — we don't really own things jointly. That's been really helpful for us to carve out our own spheres that we own," Robart says."Chris has really become our lead customer-facing person on all things new products."