Spark Biomedical took home first place at the Texas A&M New Ventures Competition. Courtesy of Texas A&M

Earlier this month, 16 startups competed in the 2019 Texas A&M New Ventures Competition for more than $350,000 in cash and in-kind services — the largest pool of prizes in the contest's history.

Houston had a huge presence at TNVC this year. Several Houston startups competed in the technology- and science-focused pitch competition, and the top three prizes were claimed by Houstonians. Of the 13 health and life science companies that were named semifinalists, seven were related to the TMC Innovation Institute.

Here are the Houston companies that walked away from the TNVC with cash and/or prizes.

Spark Biomedical

Friendswood-based medical device company Spark Biomedical took home the top prize at TNVC, which came with a $50,000 check. Spark's technology uses a noninvasive neurostimulation treatment for opioid addiction recovery.

"I'm very humbled and grateful," says Daniel Powell, CEO of Spark, in a release. "This award means a lot because Texas A&M is my alma mater. Being back here is fantastic, and this win is a testament to the work we're doing and our dedication to making a difference with this product."

Spark also was recognized with the Southwest Pediatric Device Prize and the Aggie Angel Network Investment Prize. Recently, Spark announced a partnership with another Houston startup, Galen Data.

SurfEllent

Photo via surfellent.com

Coming in at No. 2 overall and receiving a $35,000 prize was Houston-based advanced coating company, SurfEllent. The company, which is based out of the University of Houston's Technology Park, has designed an anti-icing technology that can be used in any type of situation from de-icing cars to aeronautical applications.

SurfEllent was also recently recognized as one of the top three innovators at NASA's 2017 iTech forum, out of 130 entries across the US.

The company also walked away with the TEEX Product Development Center Prize.

Intelligent Implants

Photo by Cody Duty/TMC

Intelligent Implants called Houston home during the 2018 TMCx medical device cohort and still has a presence in town. The company, which created a, implantable wireless device that stimulates bone growth using electrical stimulation, claimed third prize and $25,000.

Last fall, following its success at TMCx, Intelligent Implants was named the "Most Promising Life Science Company" at the 2018 Texas Life Science Forum hosted by the Rice Alliance and BioHouston.

VenoStent

Photo via venostent.com

Another 2018 TMCx medical device cohort member competed at the TNVC and left with fresh funds. VenoStent took fifth place and a $10,000 prize. VenoStent has a device that allows a successful stent implementation on the first try, called the SelfWrap. The device is made from a shape-memory polymer that uses body heat to mold the stent into the vein-artery junction.

VenoStent, which has its headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee, also won the Ramey & Schwaller IP Legal Services Prize.

PolyVascular

Courtesy of TMC Innovation

Houston-based PolyVascular walked away a big winner of multiple prizes. The company, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, creates polymeric transcatheter valves for children with congenital heart disease.

PolyVascular won the TNVC pitch competition, which came with a $5,000 prize. The startup also walked away with the Biotex Investment Prize, the Amerra Visualization Services Prize, and the GOOSE Society Investment Prize.

Ictero Medical

Ictero Medical, which operates out of JLABs at TMC, took home several prizes, including the Thomas | Horstemeyer IP Legal Services Prize, the TMC Accelerator Admission Prize, and the Engineering Vice Chancellor Innovation Prize — a new award that came with a $15,000 prize.

Ictero created the CholeSafe System — a minimally invasive device that treats gallstone disease patients in a procedure with "only minimal local anesthesia to defunctionalize the gallbladder without having to remove it," according to the website.

Sun Co. Tracking

Sun Co. Tracking was the other of the two startups to receive the new Engineering Vice Chancellor's Innovation Prize and its own $15,000 prize. The Houston-based company is developing shape memory alloy actuators for solar panels.

"This unique prize is intended to help the awardees access the world-class engineering capabilities at Texas A&M to obtain technical assistance toward solving their most challenging technical problems in product design, manufacturing or testing," says Dr. Balakrishna Haridas, TEES director for technology commercialization and entrepreneurship, in a release.

"These collaborations between the prize winners and Texas A&M Engineering will generate technical data to support on Small Business Innovation Research/grant proposal funding or private capital investments to the company."

GaitIQ

Photo via LinkedIn

GaitIQ is based in San Antonio, but is automatically accepted into TMCx's tenth cohort if they'd like, since the company won the TMC Investment Prize. The company, which created a primary care app that uses artificial intelligence and cloud-based technology, also won sixth place overall and $5,000.

GaitIQ also won the Ark Pharmacies, Inc. Regional Prize, the Hollinden Marketing and Strategists Services Prize, and the Schwegman Lundberg and Woessner IP Legal Services Prize.

Houston-based PolyVascular earned recognition in two categories, as well as nabbing up to $25,000. Courtesy of TMC Innovation

2 TMCx companies leave SXSW with awards and grant money

Med tech

Two Houston companies are walking away from SXSW with awards and grant funds.

PolyVascular, a member of TMCx's 2017 medical device cohort, won the fifth annual Impact Pediatric Health pitch competition's medical device and health disparities and equity categories. Additionally, the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium granted the company up to $25,000.

PolyVascular co-founder Henri Justino represented his company in three-minute pitch, and team members Dan Harrington and Kwon Soo Chun were also in attendance.

The company was one of 12 finalists in the competition, which took place on March 8 at SXSW in Austin. Among the judges was Houston doctor, Chester Koh, professor of urology, pediatrics, and OB/GYN at Baylor College of Medicine and Pediatric Urologist at Texas Children's Hospital.

"At the Southwest National Pediatric Device Consortium, we are always looking for the next cutting-edge breakthrough in the world of medical devices," says Koh in a release. "Impact Pediatric Health's reputation for bringing together the leaders in pediatric medical technology innovations makes it the perfect venue to help identify and accelerate the next generation of medical device companies impacting our youngest of patients."

Founded in 2014, PolyVascular produces polymeric transcatheter valves for children with congenital heart disease — the most common birth defect and number one cause of infant mortality in the developed world. The company's goal is to reduce that number of infant deaths by introducing a higher quality of valves.

Meanwhile, VastBiome, a 2018 biodesign TMCx company, received a $1,000 grant and is now one of two finalists for the San Francisco-based Illumina Accelerator program. The company works with scientists with ongoing clinical trials focusing on the microbiome as it pertains to therapy.

Another TMCx company, Zibrio, was up for an award in the 2019 SXSW Pitch event, but left the contest empty handed.

TMCx has multiple representatives at the festival, and the organization partnered with Energizing Health to host events throughout the first weekend of the conference.

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Economists dive into the economic impact of COVID-19, low oil prices on Houston

double teamed

Houston's economy continues to suffer as a result of the coronavirus-fueled economic slide and the collapse in oil prices. But just how much are these twin crises injuring Bayou City?

Economic data and forecasts present an increasingly grim outlook for Houston.

A new Moody's Analytics analysis commissioned by the Wall Street Journal provides one measurement of the economic damage being inflicted on Houston. The analysis, published April 2, indicates business closures in Harris County — which represents two-thirds of the region's population — have caused a 27 percent drop in the county's daily economic output.

Ed Hirs, an economics lecturer at the University of Houston, says the 27 percent figure is likely lower than the actual number. He thinks it's closer to 50 percent.

"The reason is that we are talking about output — actual work getting done — and not including monetary transfers from the bailout bill or unemployment insurance," Hirs says.

The lingering daily decline undoubtedly will bring down the Houston area's total economic output for 2020. In 2018, the region's economic output (GDP) added up to nearly $478.8 billion. By comparison, the 2018 economic output for the nation of Austria totaled $455.3 billion, according to the World Bank.

Harris County ranks as the third largest county in the U.S., as measured by population. The Moody's Analytics study shows the country's two largest counties — Los Angeles County in California and Cook County in Illinois — have been hit with even bigger decreases in daily economic output. Los Angeles County's loss sits at 35 percent, with Cook County's at 30 percent.

Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership, says in a podcast interview published April 2 that it's difficult to accurately gauge how the economic climate is hurting Houston right now. That's because economic data lags present-day economic reality.

"The situation is changing daily," Jankowski says. "There's so many unknowns out there. This is unprecedented."

Economists predict the Houston area's workforce will see massive losses as a result of the coronavirus and energy downturns.

Economist Bill Gilmer, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business, says a moderate recession could siphon as many as 44,000 jobs from the region's economy by the end of this year. A more dire forecast from The Perryman Group, a Waco-based economic analysis firm, envisions the Houston area losing nearly 256,000 jobs due to the COVID-19 shutdown and racking up $27 billion in coronavirus-related economic losses.

Jankowski anticipates the Houston area tallying job losses of at least 200,000, meaning losses would be less severe than the 1980s energy bust but more severe than the Great Recession.

"If we're still working from home after May, everyone's job is at risk," says Jankowski, adding that this would trigger more furloughs, layoffs, and pay cuts.

Aggravating Houston's situation is the coronavirus clampdown on restaurants and hotels.

According to survey data released March 30 by the Texas Restaurant Association, 2 percent of the state's more than 50,000 restaurants already had closed permanently, and another 32 percent had closed temporarily. An additional 12 percent of Texas restaurants anticipated shutting down within the next 30 days.

If you add the 2 percent of restaurants that have closed to the 12 percent that expect to close, that would equal roughly 7,000 shuttered restaurants.

"Restaurants are in a fight for survival. The statistics from this survey provide a mere snapshot of the extreme economic impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on one of the most important industries in Texas," Emily Williams Knight, president and CEO of the Texas Restaurant Association, says in a release.

In the lodging sector, Texas is projected to lose 44 percent of its jobs, or more than 64,000 positions, according to a mid-March forecast from the American Hotel & Lodging Association. Experts predict some Texas hotels won't survive the coronavirus crisis.

"COVID-19 has been especially devastating for the hotel industry. Every day, more hotels are closing, and more employees are out of a job," Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the hotel association, says in a March 26 release.

While the restaurant and hotel sectors face a shaky future, the energy industry is grappling with the oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia as well as depressed demand for crude oil and gasoline. Jankowski says gas prices could stay low through mid-2020 or even the end of 2020 as the energy industry copes with a prolonged oil glut.

Relief funds coming from Washington, D.C., will help stabilize the energy sector and other industries, Jankowski says, but will not "juice" the economy and spark growth.

"We're going to need to move beyond the pandemic," he says, "and we're going to need for some consumer confidence and business confidence to come back before we start to see growth returning again."

Houston bakery startup dishes out healthy, low-calorie treats

SWEET ON THESE SWEETS

A Houston bakery is helping Houstonians satisfy their sweet tooth and while also counting their calories. ChipMonk Baking, a local, mail-order bakery, has seen significant growth since the start of the coronavirus pandemic as people look for healthier snacks than what they might find in a typical grocery store.

Founded by David Downing and Jose Hernandez, ChipMonk makes cookies, brownie bites, and other snacks using monk fruit and allulose, a low-calorie (0.4 calories per gram) rare sugar that's found naturally in foods such as raisins, dried figs, and kiwi. Hernandez began developing ChipMonk's recipes to satisfy his taste for cookies after being diagnosed with type-2 diabetes.

"We've refined these recipes and now offer numerous different cookies, dry mixes, and brownie bites which all taste delicious and won't spike your blood sugar," Hernandez says in a statement. "While they're great for people with diabetes, Celiac disease, or those who follow a keto diet, anyone who tries them will enjoy the taste and texture."

Jose Hernandez and David Downing founded ChipMonk Bakery. Photo courtesy of ChipMonk Baking

ChipMonk offers all the usual flavors — white chocolate-macadamia, chocolate chip, lemon, snickerdoodle, etc. — as well as dry mixes for those who want to bake at home. Recently, the company introduced red velvet brownie bites that use gluten-free sunflower seed flower. All of these products, as well as sample boxes, are available via ChipMonk's website; the company does not have a brick-and-mortar storefront.

Based on samples sent to CultureMap, the cookies have a chewy, slightly under-baked texture and a mild sweetness that's similar in flavor and appearance to cookies without their low-carb credentials.

Business has grown steadily over the its first year, according to the company, which has it looking to move from a shared commercial kitchen into its own space. Slated to open this summer, the dedicated bakery would allow Downing and Hernandez to expand both their offerings and the number of people they employ.

"We've received extremely positive feedback from our customers who appreciate having delicious, low-carb treats to enjoy while at home during this difficult time," Downing says. "We're seeing more and more people order for themselves as well as sending our products to friends, relatives, and co-workers."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston experts give advice for startups seeking financial aid from the CARES Act

from the profesisonals

The United States Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, and it includes several initiatives that provide financial relief for startups and small businesses — but there are a few things these companies should know about the programs.

Houston Exponential hosted a virtual panel with Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Alice, and Aziz Gilani, managing director of Mercury Fund. They broke down some of the concerns with some of the most popular programs.

The Payroll Tax Deferral stipulation allows you to push back paying your payroll tax, which is 6.2 percent of payroll, Gilani says in the livestream. Companies will be required to pay back half that tax in a year's time and the other half in two year's time.

Small businesses can also apply for emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loans, or EIDL loans, that won't require the first payment for a full year. The interest rate is 3.75 percent for for-profit businesses and 2.75 percent for nonprofits with up to a 30-year term. Businesses could even submit to receive a $10,000 grant on their application.

Then, there's the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

"The PPP program is probably the most lucrative of the three programs for startups," says Gilani, "It's the one that has the largest financial impact."

To submit for PPP, business owners look at their last year's worth of payroll and utility expenses, then average out their monthly expenses, and multiply that by 2.5. Small businesses can submit for that amount or up to $10 million. If the loan is spent on their employees and utilities, it's turned into a grant and not required to be paid back. Gilani recommends checking with the SBA for the specific details, but notes that contract workers can't benefit from PPP and must submit individually for aid.

Regarding these programs, Rodz and Gilani shared some other advice as it pertains to Houston's small businesses and tech startups.

Apply ASAP

Banks are already overwhelmed with applications, and some have paused accepting new applications from some entities. Plus, you have no excuse, Rodz says, since the application is simple and can be completed in one sitting.

"Compared to what a normal government loan application looks like, it is light years better in terms of simplicity," says Rodz.

Go to your own bank

Banks are giving priority to existing customers, Rodz explains.

"Go talk to your banker, and really take the time," Rodz says. "They are prioritizing the clients they have relationships with."

There's a technical reason too, Gilani adds. It's easier for banks to submit for a pre-existing customer, and new customers require more paperwork.

Document everything

Currently, Gilani says, the way the program is working right now is it relies on good-faith self-certification of the business owner. The banks, based on approval, will just put the federal money into your bank account. However, there are people put in roles for this act that will come back to verify that everything was honest.

"Lying to the federal government about money they grant you is a felony that comes with jail time," Gilani says. "It's very important that — after all this craziness passes by and the government comes back to audit what happened — you have a lot of documentation in place in order to show that you were fulfilling your good-faith requirement of answering these questions honestly."

Gilani recommends keeping track of how you calculated your payroll, as well as being able to show the effect of the crisis is key. Then, after you receive the funds, you need to be able to show that you used the funds on your employees.

Consult a lawyer if you have questions on eligibility

There's been a lot of discussion on whether or not venture-backed startups qualify for PPP.

"One of the challenges of the program is that it is being administered by the Small Business Administration, which traditionally hasn't worked with venture-backed and angel-backed companies," Gilani says.

Usually, the SBA requires startups to indicate their employee count, which is not to exceed 500. However, if the company is venture-backed, the SBA requires the inclusion of all the employees of all the portfolio companies. Certain legislators have expressed that this wasn't the intention of the program and are working to provide solutions, Gilani explains, and he and Mercury Fund have been working with a legal team to find immediate work arounds.

There have been lots of lawyers who have been working really hard on trying to solve this problem," Aziz "If anything, we've now created the lawyer stimulus act in the amount of billable hours we've had trying to figure out this problem."

Gilani also recommends getting your lawyer to sign a document confirming that, especially if you are a venture-backed company, that you intended to adhere to the rules of the program.