A new tech tool is helping United Way of Greater Houston to connect nonprofits to those who need their services. Photo via Getty Images

A first-of-its-kind tech tool will help thousands of people in the Houston area get on their feet financially.

United Way of Greater Houston says the new Integrated Client Journey Technology Tool will eventually connect more than 100 nonprofits serving financially struggling households in the United Way’s four-county service area (Fort Bend, Harris, Montgomery, and Waller). Houston’s nonprofit Patient Care Intervention Center developed the cloud-based tool.

The tool is expected to launch in the fall of 2022.

A team of navigators will use the tool as they steer families and individuals toward financial stability. The tool will help navigators and clients identify and access services based on clients’ needs and goals. Among these services are workforce development, financial coaching, early childhood and youth development, and physical and behavioral healthcare.

According to United Way, 14 percent of Houston-area households live on incomes below the federal poverty line, and another 33 percent of working households don’t earn enough money to afford basic necessities.

“At United Way, we’re focused on connecting people with possibility,” Amanda McMillian, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Houston, says in a news release.

“When you’re working multiple jobs, caring for a family and living paycheck to paycheck, navigating the network of social service resources can be a daunting task,” she adds. “The goal of our technology tool is to dramatically improve access to these resources by making it easier for you to connect with the services you need, assisted by a skilled navigator who knows your goals.”

McMillian says United Way’s overarching vision for the tool is to connect all nonprofit service providers in the area in an effort to improve access for clients and enhance coordination among providers.

On a pro bono basis, Boston Consulting Group, which has an office in Houston, came up with the proof-of-concept version of the United Way tool.

Kettering, Ohio-based Reynolds and Reynolds, a developer of software for car dealerships, made the initial donation to help underwrite the tool. Reynolds and Reynolds has offices in Houston and College Station.

DonateStock, a Houston fintech company that simplifies the stock donation process, has officially launched. Image courtesy of DonateStock

Impact-driven Houston fintech startup officially launches after successful beta

it's go time

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Launched in Houston, Umanity's new tool aims to better connect nonprofits with supplies and volunteers amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photos via umanity.io

Philanthropic supply chain tool connects Houstonians with resources during coronavirus crisis

oh the umanity

A Houston startup that has been working in a pilot program capacity with the city of Houston has accelerated the rollout of its platform to help connect and coordinate people's needs to resources in real-time during the coronavirus outbreak.

Umanity, which is a part of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator's first cohort, has created a philanthropic supply chain tool that's now available as an app or through desktop. The software can match and map local individual or nonprofit needs to organizations or volunteers, plus provide real-time analytics. During the coronavirus outbreak, they have mobilized its resources connecting supplies with nonprofits and volunteers with safe ways to help organizations that need it most during this crisis.

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator launched in 2019 to provide technology-driven solutions to Houston's most prevalent challenges. The accelerator is backed by Intel and Microsoft and partnered with the city of Houston and Station Houston.

"Our first cohort focused on transportation, resiliency, and connectivity," says senior director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, Christine Galib. "It was tightening much of the ways in which a vast and expansive city like Houston can come together and feel connected and supported as a city."

These themes are exemplified by Umanity, who is working with several city of Houston officials to direct citizens the resources they need during the crisis, and creating a network of communities to efficiently provide them the resources they need. The centralized platform shows a complete picture of who needs help and who can help all on the same platform while measuring the real-time economic impact of donations and every volunteer hour.

"I started this company because I wanted to transition everyday acts of service into actual data-driven solutions," says Ryan-Alexander Thomas, CEO and founder of Umanity. "My goal is that during the next crisis, for example, hurricane season, if somebody needs something they have access to get it when they need it, not two years later or after the crisis."

The platform has already rolled out in other cities such as Hyattsville, Maryland, to help connect their network of nonprofits with individuals as part of their crisis response as a result of supply shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With the help of their accelerator, Umanity is currently working with a number of the city of Houston's mayor's directors, including education and health leaders to create a broader coalition designed to collaborate and coordinate more efficiently by aggregating information from these sources.

"Having some of the mentors in the accelerator put us in touch with decision-makers in the city has really given us the boost we need to get a chance to show that we can do something good for the people and the community," says Thomas.

Thomas says Umanity is ready to be implemented in a dozen cities in the next few months. Their team is already close to signing partnerships with additional municipalities across the country.

"Our platform is available right now for download and we're growing," says Thomas. "We've tripled the number of organizations in the past week and we are always looking for new nonprofits, churches, and organizations to partner with to help those in need."

At a startup pitch competition, a local nonprofit won free coworking space for a year to continue their impactful work with individuals with special needs. Photo courtesy of Macy's Miracles

Houston nonprofit wins coworking space in Shark Tank-inspired pitch competition

winner, winner

Macy's Miracles, a local nonprofit that helps people with special needs, had a special need of its own: a place to call home. Now, thanks to coworking operator WorkLodge LLC, it has one.

On February 27, representatives of Macy's Miracles and Houston-based WorkLodge held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the nonprofit's first-ever office. The organization (not affiliated with the Macy's department store chain) won the second annual Shark Tank-inspired Ignite by WorkLodge pitch contest, which awards a one-year WorkLodge lease to a local nonprofit. Macy's Miracle now occupies space at WorkLodge's site in The Woodlands.

Previously, leaders of the nonprofit had carried out business at various public places like coffee shops. Today, the nonprofit enjoys a startup-style setting — including access to meeting rooms and common areas — that enables it to operate more like a business and less like an organization on a shoestring budget.

Haley Ahart-Keiffer, founder and president of Macy's Miracles, says the free one-year lease of a four-person office at WorkLodge (valued at $24,000) is "priceless."

For one thing, being located at WorkLodge opens up fundraising opportunities. In the past, Macy's Miracles ran into roadblocks when prospective corporate sponsors inquired about meeting at the nonprofit's office, Ahart-Keiffer says. But the nonprofit had no formal address to give them.

Now that Macy's Miracles is housed at WorkLodge, folks associated with the nonprofit can more professionally host potential corporate donors and can network with Houston businesses, Ahart-Keiffer says.

As a matter of fact, that networking paid off at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, according to Ahart-Keiffer. For instance, it exposed WorkLodge tenants to potential employees — people attending the ceremony who benefit from services delivered by Macy's Miracles. In addition, the event paved the way for meetings with three businesses interested in assisting Macy's Miracles.

Aside from fostering opportunities for networking, the WorkLodge space lets Macy's Miracles more easily conduct mentorship programs and put on events, according to Ahart-Keiffer.

Being based at WorkLodge "has allowed us to really take it to the next level by being able to seek out even larger corporate sponsors and donors to be a part of the mission," she says.

That mission, carried out since the formation of Macy's Miracles in 2018, centers on elevating the education, networking skills, and employability of people with special needs. Aside from boosting the ability to raise more money for that mission, the WorkLodge space introduces high-functioning people with special needs to a work environment, Ahart-Keiffer says.

In a short amount of time, setting up shop at WorkLodge "has changed the trajectory of where we see that we can go now," she says.

Part of the nonprofit's new trajectory is its soon-to-launch Adaptive Center of Excellence, featuring a vocational/trade initiative and an adaptive sports program.

Ahart-Keiffer didn't envision the current scenario when she established Macy's Miracles two years ago. She established the nonprofit as a "grassroots movement" after her daughter Macy Savoy, who is part of the special needs community, faced a less-than-ideal future in the workforce after graduating from high school. Savoy is CEO of the volunteer-run nonprofit.

Mike Thakur, founder and CEO of WorkLodge, says Ignite by WorkLodge is designed to offer free high-quality space so that nonprofits like Macy's Miracles "take their game up a notch and attract some more support." The contest is geared toward smaller nonprofits making a "hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves" difference in the community, he says.

In addition to Macy's Miracles securing space at WorkLodge's location in The Woodlands, Ignite by WorkLodge recently granted space to a Dallas nonprofit that's now a tenant at the coworking company's location in the Dallas Design District.

WorkLodge currently operates five coworking spaces: two in the Houston area, two in Dallas-Fort Worth, and one in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida.

Thakur says one of the reasons Macy's Miracles received the free space at WorkLodge is that it serves both children and adults.

"But I think the main thing was just the fact that they were delivering help in a way that could then create self-sustainability," says Thakur, whose company runs its own nonprofit foundation. "That's a really big deal for us."

It's also, of course, a big deal for Macy's Miracles. The nonprofit's free one-year lease expires around the end of the year, but Ahart-Keiffer says the Macy's Miracles plans to carve out money in its budget to pay for space at WorkLodge. In conjunction with that, Macy's Miracles will teach some of the members of its mentorship program about fundraising and budgeting.

"I don't think it's a place that we'll ever want to leave," Ahart-Keiffer says. "WorkLodge is definitely the perfect spot for us and what we do."

A Houston-based app, SAFE 2 SAVE, rewards drivers for putting their phones away while driving. Pexels

Houston safe driving app backed by Memorial Hermann plans Texas expansion

Put the phones down

Between 2016 and 2017, distracted driving accidents in Harris County rose 62 percent, according to the Texas Department of Transportation, and a local hospital system is stepping up to keep drivers and their passengers out of their emergency rooms.

Memorial Hermann's critical care air transport service Life Flight is partnering with app SAFE 2 SAVE to reward drivers who keep their minds focused and their eyes on the road. The app launched in Houston in January of 2016, and wants to expand to other Texas markets this year.

"Part of our role as trusted providers of high-quality trauma care for our community is to educate and empower people across the region to change behaviors that cause preventable traumas," Tom Flanagan, Memorial Hermann's vice president of Trauma Service Line and System Integration, says in a press release. "We are tapping into the technology that has become such a large part of people's lives and coincidentally, a major part of distracted driving."

The idea for SAFE 2 SAVE began when College Station pastor's wife Marci Corry, who previously worked for Merck — a large pharmaceutical company, met with a college student she was mentoring to discuss how to help the student's peers detach from their phones. They agreed that incentives, particularly food, were the key, and not just for college kids. Corry was inspired by the news of a Chick-fil-A franchise that used a "Cell Phone Coop" challenge to get customers to talk to each other and rewarded them for restricting their cell use with free ice cream at the end of the meal. "Let's do an app version of that!" she remembers saying at the time.

That was October 2016. In that time, the app has blown up to include a fan base of more than 148,000 users. The company has 20 employees, including two based full-time in Houston.

"We're so fortunate we have a product that everyone is interested in," says vice president of operations, Christina Rudolph. "We have such a unique place in the market because everyone likes our app. There aren't a lot of products to change behavior and food is such a motivator."

The sales team at SAFE 2 SAVE works hard to make the rewards appealing to a broad swath of users, not just college students, so while there are discounts at Chick-fil-A and Dave & Buster's, it's far from the whole story. In Houston, food options include free dishes at State Fare and discounts at Cacao & Cardamom, but also 20 percent off at Rooftop Cinema Club or discounted classes at Pure Barre.

For every minute of driving over 10 miles per hour without using their phones, users rack up two points. As long as users set navigation apps and music before they start driving, they can use those, too.

They can also earn more by referring friends. With enough friends on board, it's easy to organize a competition, a great incentive for family and friends to keep each other in check about safe driving.

"To get people to live a life that's less distracted, there's a ripple effect for users," Corry says of the human connection the app helps to foster.

SAFE 2 SAVE launched in Houston in January of 2018. Before that, Corry connected with Memorial Hermann at a Lifesavers National Conference on Highway Safety Priorities.

"They said, 'We want this to stop happening. We don't want these people being pushed through our door on a stretcher and this is epidemic in Houston,'" Corry says.

The sponsorship means that whenever users in Houston open the SAFE 2 SAVE app, they are met with the words, "Is it really worth it? Memorial Hermann Life Flight says no." The hospital logo is accompanied by a photo the user downloads of themselves with a loved one to remind themselves why their behavior matters.

"Our first step is to continue to go deep in Houston. If you can win Houston, you can win anywhere — it's the most distracted city in the nation," Corry says.

Already expanded to San Antonio, the company hopes to expand to Austin and Dallas this year. Once they hit 500,000 users, online brands are likely to join, making it easier to go nationwide. But until then, Houston has some serious work to do.


Marci Corry (left) started SAFE 2 SAVE in January of 2018. Christina Rudolph is the company's vice president of operations.

Nine companies committed to Houston Exponential's first round of funding. Shobeir Ansar/Getty Images

Houston Exponential's ambitious venture fund closes first round with $25 million

Money moves

Houston Exponential closed the first round of funding for its fund of funds with $25 million in commitments from nine companies. The money will go to non-Houston venture capitalists to invest back into Houston startups.

HX Venture Fund's first-round partners include: Insperity, Chevron, Shell, Quanta Services, Westlake Chemical, The Plank Companies, PROS, HEB, and Camden.

Kingwood-based Insperity was the anchor investor, committing to $5 million last October, according to the release. The company also provided an undisclosed amount of resources support the operations of the fund as it launched.

"This is another transformational moment for Houston," says Gina Luna, chair of Houston Exponential, in the release. "From day one at Houston Exponential, we have been executing a plan to accelerate the growth of the ecosystem, including connecting Houston startups with the capital they need to grow their businesses. This is a significant, tangible milestone. Houston's leading companies have stepped up in a big way to make this happen, and this is a clear signal that Houston is committed to success."

Houston-based venture capital firm Mercury Fund's co-founder and managing director, Blair Garrou, chaired the fund's advisory board. He's also a board member for HX.

The fund of funds won't donate to Houston organizations directly, Garrou says in a statement. The fund's organizers had a different approach to growing funds in Houston's startup space.

"The HX Venture Fund will invest in venture capital funds outside of Houston – generating investment and interest in the region while increasing the investable capital available to Houston-based startups," says Garrou. "The HX Venture Fund is built upon a proven model that provides multiple benefits to its investors."

The benefitting venture capital funds haven't yet been named.

HX modeled the fund after the Renaissance Venture Capital Fund in Michigan, from which 10 outside venture capital firms benefitted —Mercury Fund was one of the 10. It was Garrou who led the movement to get Renaissance Fund's CEO and Fund Manager, Chris Rizik, as a part of the HX Venture Fund from the start as a member of the investment committee.

The Michigan fund launched 9 years ago and exceeded all expectations. For ever dollar Rizik and his team invested, $17 came back into the Michigan area, he told the Houston Business Journal. He says Houston has the same potential.

"I've spoken to many cities about Renaissance's fund of funds model and the impact it has had on Michigan," says Rizik in the release. "Houston has leaned into this model and it is impressive what they have been able to accomplish in a short time. It is a testament to the commitment of Houston's business and tech leaders to growing the ecosystem. It's really exciting to see."

In October 2017, Houston Exponential was launched by Mayor Sylvester Turner's Innovation and Technology Task Force in collaboration with the Greater Houston Partnership's Innovation Round Table and the Houston Technology Center. HX's launch included three main goals, according to the release: "make Houston a top 10 innovation ecosystem, generate $2 billion in venture capital annually and create 10,000 new technology jobs a year by 2022."

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Houston energy storage startup secures $10M in federal funding

seeing green

A Houston-based company that's got a solution to renewable energy storage has just secured funding from a federal entity.

The U.S. Department of Energy Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, is granting Quidnet Energy $10 million in funding, the Houston company announced this week. The funding is a part of the ARPA-E Seeding Critical Advances for Leading Energy technologies with Untapped Potential, the SCALEUP program. This initiative is aimed at providing funding to previous ARPA-E teams "that have been determined to be feasible for widespread deployment and commercialization domestically," per a news release.

“We’re honored that ARPA-E has selected Quidnet Energy as an awardee of the SCALEUP program,” says Joe Zhou, CEO of Quidnet Energy, in the release. “This funding will support continued work on our Geomechanical Pumped Storage (GPS) project with CPS Energy, which will demonstrate the benefits of using proven pumped hydro technology to create a long-duration energy storage resource that doesn’t require mountainous terrain. We look forward to continuing our partnership with CPS Energy and thank ARPA-E for acknowledging the potential of GPS for long-duration storage.”

The company's technology can store renewable energy for long periods of time in large quantities. The process includes storing pressurized water underground and, when the stored energy is needed, the water propels hydroelectric turbines and produces the electricity to support the grid at a fraction of the cost, per the news release. The concept is similar to existing gravity-powered pumped storage, but with less land required.

The fresh funding will be used toward Quidnet Energy’s ongoing project with San Antonio-based utilitary provider CPS Energy. This collaboration is scaling the company's GPS to a 1 MW/10 MWh commercial system, per the release, that will provide CPS Energy with over 10 hour long-duration energy storage system.

In 2020, Quidnet closed its $10 million series B financing round and secured a major contract with the New York State Energy Development Authority. The series B round included participation from Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Canada-based Evok Innovations, which both previously invested in the company, as well as new investors Trafigura and The Jeremy and Hannelore Grantham Environmental Trust.

New Texas-based mental health subscription box plans national launch at SXSW 2023

speak now and hold your peace

Mental health apps are so alluring, but once you’ve recorded your two-week streak and things are feeling a little more organized, it can be hard to keep going. It’s hard enough to keep up with journaling and a great bedtime routine, and many lovely self-help tools also lose their effectiveness when the novelty wears off.

A smart company might harness that novelty as its hook — and an easily distracted self-helper won’t fall off the wagon. Like many other companies in the mental health space, Speak As One will work on a subscription model, but this one won’t languish, unused on a credit card statement. The service, which plans to launch during SXSW 2023, delivers boxes of tangible mental health tools, inspiration, games, and even sensory objects that act as a monthly nudge to try something new, and curiosity takes care of the rest.

A sample box included:

  • Stress balls with short inspirational phrases by MindPanda
  • An Emotional First Aid Kit containing advice for situations as they come up, like sleeplessness and feelings of inadequacy
  • Tiny colorful putties at different resistances by Flint Rehab
  • A notebook, and two books: Athlete Mental Health Playbook and 1000 Unique Questions About Me
  • Other small items

It’s more than packing and shipping out a few toys each month. The boxes are curated with help from a licensed therapist, who leaves a personal note along with tips on how to use the items inside and additional resources. There is one type of box right now that aims to “reduce anxiety, increase mindfulness, and promote peace and balance,” but for further customization (for $10 more), the team is working on boxes tailored to first responders, veterans, athletes, and people in “recovery.”

Speak As One emphasizes community stories in its branding outside the delivery box, and uses inspiration from “influencers” (less content creators and more so people who can embody a relatable story) to build the specialty boxes. The company’s YouTube channel shares dozens of interviews with founder Julie Korioth, a former board member for Austin’s SIMS Foundation, a well-respected mental health resource for members of the local music industry.

“With hundreds of millions of people struggling with mental health, and COVID making the issue much worse, society continues to ostracize those who openly discuss mental health issues,” said Korioth in a release. “I founded this company so we can change the way the world sees, discusses, and supports mental health. Our goal is to promote empathy, connectedness, acceptance, and thoughtfulness with an innovative toolkit that caters to specific needs."

In addition to offering a nudge, these boxes could make great care packages for a loved one who is feeling introspective or going through a significant life event. It is possible to buy gift boxes, if presentation is your thing, but it’d be just as easy to repackage a box that comes before the receiver ready to appreciate the items at home.

The cost of one box is manageable at $49.99 (especially considering the retail value of products included, which the sample box far exceed), but for many subscribers this adds up fast. Luckily, there is no pressure to continue a lengthy commitment — subscriptions last between one and six months, so users have plenty of time to reconsider and sit with the items that have already been delivered.“

The goal is to meet our audience at any phase of their mental health journey,” said Korioth. “We’re creating change and a global life-long support system for children and adults dealing with mental health challenges. We simultaneously highlight businesses, the tech community, athletes, and artists doing wonderful work in this space.”

The company plans to partner with corporations to connect with employees and provide boxes to individuals the company chooses, and will turn some content into session albums with sales proceeds dedicated to mental health research.

More information and links to preorder are available at speakasone.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston expert shares tips for navigating cybersecurity challenges amid the holiday season

guest column

It’s a grinch's cyber-playground, and this holiday season, you’re at risk — even if you think it won’t happen to you.

The good news is you can protect yourself from scams and fraud. Just remember that cybercriminals don’t discriminate, they can prey on anyone.

These statistics may surprise you:

  • Anxiety about having a mobile device hacked differs by demographic; low-income Black women rank mobile security as their number one concern, while the general population ranks mobile security as their third largest concern, according to a recent Recon Analytics survey of more than 3,297 U.S. consumers.
  • 44 percent of millennials have been victims of online crime in the last year and 31 percent admit they share their passwords with others.
  • Romance scams resulted in the most financial losses for adults aged 60 and over
  • Younger consumers took fewest actions after being notified of a data breach affecting their identity/online accounts in Q1 2022
  • Nearly 50 percent of American gamers have experienced a cyberattack on their gaming account or device
  • 47 percent of women who live in cities say their identities and/or data has been compromised in the past 6 months due to lack of home internet protections, compared with 53 percent of city men who say the same thing, according to a recent Recon Analytics survey.

People everywhere, regardless of gender, race, income level, education, or age, deserve to feel safe online. And yet, many aren’t aware how to protect themselves, don’t make it a priority, or wait to act until they are alerted to suspicious activity.

With words like malware, phishing, spoofing, and encryption, learning to protect yourself can feel like a college-level course. But it doesn’t have to be that complicated.

Top 5 ways to guard against cyberthreats

By following five simple steps, you can start to protect your network, devices and data from many digital threats.

  1. Understand cyberattacks are real. One of the first hacks was documented in 1963 and today, nearly 60 years later, hackers are attacking phones and computers every 39 seconds. Cyberattacks continue to grow in number every year.
  2. Be proactive. Don’t wait for an attack to happen. Monitor your accounts daily so you are the first to know if suspicious activity is occurring. Check with your wireless carrier to see if they have tools to help. AT&T customers can download the free ActiveArmor mobile security app to help block spam calls and secure their personal data. And ask your internet provider about extra layers of security available to you at home. AT&T Fiber customers can access AT&T ActiveArmor internet security features at no additional cost to them.
  3. Step up your mobile security. Mobile devices now account for more than 60 percent of digital fraud. Mobile banking, online shopping, streaming videos and storing documents make our phones a central location for sensitive information. Your wireless carrier may be able to help. AT&T offers advanced security like Public Wi-Fi Protection, Identity Monitoring and Safe Browsing for no extra charge with some of our plans. Check with your carrier to make sure they’re doing what they can to keep you safe.
  4. Protect your passwords. We all know it’s necessary, but not all of us take steps to do it. 68 percent of people admit to using the same password across multiple logins. Using a strong password that differs from site-to-site will help decrease your chances of being hacked. If you struggle with passwords, consider getting a password manager.
  5. Report suspicious text messages. As mobile operators have more success blocking illegal robocalls, scammers have turned to text messages. But now it’s easier than ever to report spam texts to help block and control them. The latest iOS and Android operating systems have a simple reporting feature in their Apple and Google messaging apps.
Dedicate some time to safeguard your information this holiday season. For more cybersecurity resources (regardless of your carrier), visit att.com/CyberAware. If you or someone you know is new to computers or mobile devices, click here for more information on our free digital literacy courses.

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Luis Silva is vice president and general manager at AT&T.