Both commercial and residential real estate businesses have been greatly affected by social distancing mandate. These two Houston companies are using technology to help grow their business. Photo courtesy of Cameron Management

As the coronavirus impacts foot traffic throughout businesses in Houston, the real estate world is ushering in digital resources to adapt to a socially distanced city.

Mike Miller, vice president of Ashlar Development, saw the growing threat of COVID-19 in early March and knew he and his team had to find new ways to engage prospective home buyers safely. By the time Houston County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the stay-at-home order, Ashlar Development had started the process of drafting a 360-degree interactive map for its northeast Houston community, The Groves, that would allow homebuyers to virtually tour the property.

"People were scared to come out of their homes, to touch model home door knobs, and walk-in and see a sales agent," says Miller, who noted the initial decline in foot traffic.

The interactive map debuted on The Groves' website on March 30, allowing users to experience the community through 35 different touchpoints. Website visitors can peruse nearby trails, the playground, pool, community amenities, and the local elementary school to immerse yourself in the community.

"One of our mantras at The Groves is to get outside. We encourage our residents to get outside and enjoy the community, enjoy the trails, and enjoy everything. What this [interactive map] does is it allows you to safely get outside from the safety of your home," he says.

Ashlar Development launched a virtual tour tool for its northeast Houston community. Image courtesy of Ashlar Development

Commercial real estate is also paving the way for innovation amid the pandemic. Houston-based real estate group, Cameron Management, unveiled its virtual 3D office tour on Monday. Partnering with Austin-based Swivel, a digital leasing platform for office space, the real estate group's latest venture will allow tenants and brokers the ability to take a 3-D virtual tour of suites.

The SaaS-based leasing application, AgileView, will feature 50,000 square feet comprised of 12 Cameron Management suites.

"We were looking to provide a tour to a broker, [or] to a broker's client, without anybody having to put themselves at any risk," says Jano Nixon Kelley, Cameron Management's director of marketing.

Kelley had built a strong relationship with the Swivel team prior to the coronavirus outbreak. When she learned of the capabilities of AgileView, "we jumped on it," she says.

"We were so pleased that they actually got the feeling for the building," Kelley says, "It doesn't look cookie cutter."

Another way both companies are getting creative is through digital marketing. Ashlar Development pivoted to digital advertising through paid media ads, email campaigns, and social media marketing. Rather than cutting its marketing budget, the community reallocated funds to building out the 360-degree interactive map and transitioning from print ads to digital display ads.

The response equated to what Miller deems an "incredible success." In the first week of launching the 360-degree interactive map, Ashlar Development saw a 3,000 percent increase in page views. The traffic resulted in a 1,200 percent increase in views to its "Meet the Builder" page, which features various home builders partnered with The Groves community. Since the tour launch, the company has seen a 220 percent increase in first-time visitors to its website.

Ashlar Development's significant web traffic isn't just a vanity number; Miller states that the Groves has seen a 116 percent increase in April sales as compared to last year. To date, the community is seeing approximately 30 percent in year-over-year sales since the stay-at-home order took effect.

Similar to Ashlar Development's approach, Kelley says Cameron Management utilized email marketing to launch her campaign. Cameron Management is also incentivizing brokers to use the application by hosting a two-week-long scavenger hunt for a chance to win an Amegy Bank debit card in an effort to support local business. "They can choose how to use their money, but hopefully they use it locally," says Kelley.

"Even if you're at home, [AgileView] gives you something visual to look at. Maybe you've got kids at home and can say, 'look, here's a game we can play together.' It's something to get people engaged," says Kelley.

"Office space needs for organizations of all sizes are modifying quickly, and likely will be changed for the long term. As the commercial real estate community adjusts to this new normal, there are still many unknowns," Kelley says. "At Cameron Management, we believe our differentiator is the ability to be nimble and pragmatic across all areas of our business—now and well beyond COVID-19," she continues.

For Ashlar Development, foot traffic has returned "almost back to normal," according to Miller, who attributes the rise to "pent up demand" once the stay-at-home order lifted.

"We're all kind of stuck in our houses, and our only outlet is to get outside and enjoy where you live," he says. "Our residents don't have to get in the car to enjoy a nearby county park, they can enjoy the community and the great outdoors right outside of their home," he says.

Miller himself recently bought a house from the comfort of his residence, electronically depositing his earnest money and signing for his future home.

"I think we're on the verge of a digital revolution in our industry," Miller says confidently. "Real estate has been slow to get into the digital realm, but I think this is going to force us to embrace technology."

Usually, Ashlar Development's selling point for The Groves is its access to "get outside." But, in a time of COVID-19, the company has optimized its technology to let home buying and touring stay inside for the time being. Photo courtesy of Ashlar Development

SquareFoot — a real estate tech company with Houston roots — is entering the Houston market. Getty Images

Real estate tech company founded by Houstonian launches locally, looks for office space

Homecoming

A New York-based company that uses technology to optimize the commercial real estate leasing process is expanding into Houston — and it's a bit of a homecoming for the company's CEO.

SquareFoot, which was founded by Houston native Jonathan Wasserstrum in 2011, has launched in Houston following the closing of a $16 million series B funding round led by Chicago-based DRW VC. The company uses tech tools — like a space calculator and online listings to help users find the right office space quicker and easier than traditional methods.

The Bayou City's growth in small businesses and startups makes for a great market for SquareFoot.

"Houston, in addition to being a leading market for business, is a city in transition," Wasserstrum says. "We've witnessed a growing trend of smaller companies cropping up, with startups showing that they're here to stay. I want SquareFoot to be a major part of the city's growth and evolution."

The idea for a company, Wasserstrum says, came from a friend in Houston who was struggling to find office space for his small company. Years later, that problem's solution would be SquareFoot.

SquareFoot's Houston operations are up and running online, and the listings and resources will continue to grow. Wasserstrum says the team will also open a physical office in Houston, and the team is currently looking for its own office space in a "highly-desirable" area, Wasserstrum says.

"That will not only make it easier for us to show office spaces to prospective clients, but it also sends the message that we understand these clients better than anyone," he explains. "Where you choose to open your offices is part of the story you're shaping for candidates and clients."

In regards to Houston-based employees, Wasserstrum says he will start with tapping a few Houston real estate experts. He will take the business model that was successful in New York and adapt it for Houston

"It's not only the East and West Coasts where innovation is taking place," Wasserstrum says. "We want to help Houston continue to grow as a stellar place to launch and grow a company."

National expansion is Wasserstrum's big goal, he says, and after settling in Houston, he plans to next enter into Washington, D.C., and a few other major markets.

Wasserstrum explains what the Houston expansion means to him, how tech is changing real estate, and trends he's keeping an eye on.

IM: What does it mean to be expanding in your hometown?

Jonathan Wasserstrum: Houston is where I grew up. My whole life has been shaped by what I saw and learned in Houston. I moved away for college, and have built my career on the East Coast, but Houston will always be a big part of me. My parents still live there so I have good reasons to fly home and to come home again.

As I've built out my company, SquareFoot, since 2012 at our NYC headquarters, I have dreamed of being able to expand our services nationally. We have helped over 1,200 companies find and secure office spaces in major cities. As our executive team considered where to invest in and to expand to next, Houston emerged at the top of the list. We made this decision for professional growth reasons, but that choice has an emotional element for me as well.

Going forward, I should have additional good reasons to fly home and to see my parents more often than I have had the occasion to over recent years. Plus, we save on hotel costs!

IM: What makes Houston a great place to expand into?

JW: From an office space perspective, Houston is an under tapped market. There are countless companies looking for the services we provide, but nobody has yet figured out how to build a company to serve them specifically.

We acquire many of our clients through online search — people looking for office space are literally searching online for solutions. We've seen in recent months and years a surge in searches from Houston, which indicated to us that there was a gap that had developed there. We've long had a digital presence there, thanks to these searches, but now we're increasing our physical presence on the ground. We'll hire a broker and put an office there in the coming months.

IM: What sort of trends are you seeing in office real estate? Are these trends happening in Houston already?

JW: Over the past years, we've seen a sharp increase in demand for flexible solutions. Traditional coworking spaces have worked out for many companies, but it's not for everyone.

At the same time, the long-term leases that are usually required upon signing on for an office space of your own has largely kept growing companies out of the market; it has scared them off. We realized there had to be a middle option so we launched FLEX by SquareFoot last year. Now, for the first time, all companies can find the spaces they want with the terms they want.

We are excited to introduce FLEX to the Houston market and to show companies there that there's more lease flexibility and opportunity available than they might think. Change in commercial real estate happens slowly over a long period of time. Houston has the chance now to be a part of their changing wave.

IM: How is technology changing the industry?

JW: For many decades, commercial real estate operated the exact same way. And it intended to stay that way because nobody had reason to believe anything was broken or wrong. However, there were several inefficiencies that clients just had to deal with because that was the industry standard.

The first one was the lack of transparency of which office spaces were unoccupied or what they'd cost. Brokers would lock up this information and keep clients at a distance, unless they were willing to sign on to work with them. With SquareFoot's online listings platform, we have unlocked that information, have educated countless people, and have made for a more seamless and enjoyable process for our clients as partners in their searches.

The other technological breakthrough we've made is in our mobile app. Still, in 2020, too many clients are taking tours of these offices with pen and paper and occasionally snapping a photo or video to send back to their stakeholders. Our app solved those issues once and for all, enabling better communication back and forth and a better user experience for all. Regardless of which team member goes on the office tour with our broker, everyone is clued in and on the same page.

We want everyone on the greater team to buy into the vision, and to recognize the potential, not just one representative who happened to be on the office tour one afternoon.

Houston-based real estate giant enters the coworking space with 2 locations and more in the works

Hines²

Houston-based real estate investor and developer Hines Interests LP is eyeing a piece of the burgeoning market for coworking space.

Hines just unveiled Hines², a platform for flexible office space at Hines-owned buildings. Hines² already is up and running at two locations: 717 Texas, a 33-story Class A office tower in Houston, and The Kearns Building, a 10-story office building in Salt Lake City.

Justin Boyar, director of market analytics at CoStar Group, a provider of commercial real estate data and analytics, points out that the two Hines buildings where Hines² has launched had vacancy rates of 48.6 percent (717 Texas in Houston) and 32.4 percent (Kearns Building in Salt Lake City) in the third quarter of this year.

Landlords like Hines increasingly are incorporating coworking into their office buildings "as a way to creatively entice tenants to buildings otherwise suffering high vacancy rates," Boyar says.

"Office landlords have been under siege this cycle by new space utilization trends — including increased density and efficiency, open floorplates, remote work, hoteling, and coworking," he says. "Office landlords now not only have to compete with structurally shrinking office demand but also with coworking providers who now offer hotel-like amenities and programming."

On the horizon are Hines² setups in markets such as Atlanta, Boston, Denver, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. Eventually, Hines plans to enter other markets in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.

New York City-based Industrious, a provider of flexible workspace, is Hines' operating partner for the new venture. Industrious runs more than 80 flexible-workspace sites in more than 40 U.S. cities. Additionally, Hines has teamed up with New York City-based Convene to provide event management and meeting services.

"Hines' workplace services offering will serve as a complement to our existing office capabilities, strengthening our position as the preferred partner for tenants and investors around the world, without changing our risk profile or leasing strategy. It's a natural extension of our vertically integrated operating model," Charlie Kuntz, chief innovation officer at Hines, says in a release.

Inside Hines properties, Industrious will operate centers known as The Square, which will supply coworking and flexible-workspace options, meeting and event services, food, beverages, collaboration areas, and community programming.

"The Square is a direct response to the changing needs of our current and future building tenants — our core customers. Hines has a 60-plus-year track record of providing superior space and service, and flexible workspace and office hospitality are a logical progression for us," Kuntz says.

In the coworking sector, Hines goes up against established players like Regus and WeWork. Working to Hines' advantage in the increasingly competitive coworking field is that it already owns the office buildings where Hines² will operate.

Coworking ventures like Hines² continue to emerge, given that flexible workspace and shared-amenity spaces are projected to make up about 30 percent of the U.S. office market by 2030, according to a forecast from commercial real estate services company JLL. Today, coworking accounts for less than 1 percent of the U.S. office market, according to CoStar.

CoStar says Regus ranks first among U.S. providers of coworking space, with about 16.8 million square feet. At No. 2 is WeWork, with 14.8 million square feet. Boyar predicts WeWork might surpass Regus by the end of 2019 to claim the No. 1 spot.

Boyar says that Regus and WeWork still dwarf other coworking providers in terms of lease space, although he notes that Hines partner Industrious is one of the fastest-growing providers in the U.S.

Nearly 47 percent of coworking occupancy in the U.S. is spread among six major office markets, according to CoStar. They are New York City; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco; Boston; and Chicago.

Paul Leonard, managing consultant at CoStar Portfolio Strategy, says that although coworking is experiencing rapid growth, "it remains a small piece of the office universe and today is more of a collaborator with landlords than a competitor. That may change with time, but operators like WeWork have a far smaller share of office demand compared to other disruptors like Airbnb for hotels or Uber for rideshare and taxi services."

In Houston, coworking represents less than 0.5 percent of leased office space, or about 1.4 million square feet, according to Boyar. An estimated 190 buildings in the Houston area lease space to coworking tenants.

"Surprisingly, even this little amount of coworking space puts Houston in the conversation with the largest coworking markets in the U.S.," he says.

Boyar says it makes sense for Houston-based Hines to break into the coworking market in its hometown and elsewhere.

Hines is "seen by many industry insiders as the gold standard, so their foray into the coworking space represents an acceptance, of sorts, that coworking is here to stay," he says. "Subjectively, I think their partnership with Industrious and Convene represents formidable competition in the coworking space."

That being said, Boyar doubts Hines will embark on aggressive growth in coworking, as WeWork has. But he says Hines² "will allow them the ability to offer more flexible solutions to their tenants. If I were Hines, I would see this a risk worth taking."

Finding a new, larger office space is part of the startup growth process. Getty Images

When is it time to move? How Houston's small companies can find their next office space

Move it or lose it

There are a number of ways to measure the stage of growth a company is enjoying: funding, headcount, acquisitions, exit strategy, and more. But one telling indicator that often goes overlooked is the office space they call home.

In the early days of a startup, working out of someone's garage or at a nearby coffee shop, you dream of moving into a coworking space. Such a transition can mean a financial squeeze for some, especially when your prior solution was free. But paying for a space can mark a milestone — it signifies that you've made it to the next chapter. Houston has a number of great options for the many local early-stage startups undertaking this type of move.

Over time, though, as your company continues to grow, this solution may begin to cause strain. There's a big difference between a team of six sharing a room in a WeWork, and a team that's reached double-digits having to manage within a space that it has outgrown. Even external amenities like meeting rooms can become insufficient — as your team evolves, more meetings will be necessary, and the standards and needs at play will shift.

Finding your own private office space in Houston is not a challenge; it requires, however, acknowledging that the time has come to take this next step. Signals that it's time to move out and get your own space typically surface in two ways:

  1. What used to feel like an intimate setting has turned into an untenable situation. People are spending too much time talking about the coworking space and its limits.
  2. And, on the flip side, branding your company identity becomes a topic on your radar. If you find a great software engineer interested in joining your team, they might have some reservations about coming aboard with you if they discover you're sitting in a coworking space rather than your own space.

At SquareFoot, the commercial real estate company I founded in Houston in 2011, I have given special attention to companies looking for their first office space. It can be daunting at first, but our brokers know better than anyone how to be trusted advisors for small business owners searching for their first locations.

The most important question at this stage, we've found, is not which neighborhood they'd like to be in, what their budget is, or what amenities they want. Rather, it's a common growth question: Where do you see yourself in three to five years? By asking this question of CEOs in initial conversations, we can get a better idea of what type of growth they project, and how we can most efficiently find them the right space to accommodate their current needs and future goals.

We see office space as more than segments of larger office buildings. These spaces mean a great deal to the companies that inhabit them. It's our responsibility to fit the right team into the right space, and to advocate and negotiate on their behalf.

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SquareFoot Founder and CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum, who hails from Houston, has worked for over a decade in commercial real estate. Outside of work, Jonathan is interested in the three Bs — bourbon, buffalo wings, and brass bands.

Rentable lab space is hard to come by. Getty Images

Finding lab space for startups and independent researchers in Houston needs to be easier, according to this expert

Lab space race

Finding coworking space is getting easier and easier for startups, but the same can't be said for startups looking for lab space. If Houston wants to continue to grow and develop its innovation ecosystem — specifically within research and development in the health sciences industry — the city needs more opportunities for small lab space real estate.

A little history

Houston has increasingly become a magnet for innovative life science companies, seeking to benefit from the Texas Medical Center's cadre of connections and the city's deep talent pool. While cutting edge research and licensed technology has long been a part of the TMC institutions and Houston landscape, until 2016, independent lab users had few options to start and grow their companies.

In March of 2016, JLabs at TMCx opened its doors, offering 34,000 square feet of shared office space, 22 private labs and two shared lab spaces. University of Houston's Innovation Center, located in a repurposed Schlumberger campus, began operation in September of the same year, offering 16 private labs and two shared lab spaces.

These two alternatives are fit out with benches and other specialized equipment and price their space similar to a furnished coworking model. However, both facilities have a preference for certain users.

In the case of UH's space, its priority is to accommodate companies that are licensing and commercializing university technology. JLabs also has a curated tenant pool — drawn from the local and national companies that fit their specific profile. Sharing lab space is not a fit for every company — especially those that are regulated or prohibited from doing so. What appears to be an unmet need is affordable independent lab space for companies ready to launch from shared space.

Unique requirements

Aside from equipment that must be purchased and installed, lab users require more electrical power, plumbing, and air-conditioning than typically found in available suites in independent office parks. Second generation lab space under 2,000 square feet is extremely hard to find, and traditional landlords prefer a 5-year lease commitment.

While several new projects have been announced — and a new crop of landlords are trying to capitalize on the city's increased demand for specialized space — their pricing model is a better fit for established companies. From a user perspective, given the capital constraints of early stage life science companies, it is worth exploring the option to convert traditional warehouse space for lab use in exchange for a medium term commitment.

Buyer beware

Migrating from a full service lab to an independent suite does come with a warning, however, especially if a company is regulated and the condition of the space is subject to inspection. Lab tenants are well advised to factor in issues like the age of the air-conditioning units, whether a future backup power source is permitted, and the method for removal of medical waste. For firms that are in the pre-revenue stage, they should also be prepared to pay some amount of prepaid rent and the cost of customized alterations.

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Julie King is president of NB Realty Partners. She has mentored and provided commercial real estate advice to technology, biotech, and early-stage companies for over 20 years.

Natalie Goodman founded Incentifind, which connects home builders and commercial developers with green incentives. Courtesy of Incentifind

Unique Houston startup is finding ways for developers to go green — and save money in the process

Seeing green

When asked about the origin story of IncentiFind — a Houston-based startup that connects real estate developers and home builders with green construction incentives — founder Natalie Goodman doesn't mince words.

"We're a complete accident," Goodman says. "I'm an architect. We didn't set out to have a startup."

IncentiFind's mission is to increase the amount of green developments and construction projects in the U.S. The company is equipped with a massive database of green incentives that are offered by utility, county, city, state and federal agencies. Many home builders or commercial developers don't take advantage of green incentives because they're simply not aware of them, Goodman says.

"The government is strapped — they have all this money that they want to give away, but not the (marketing) money to get the word out," Goodman said. "That's where IncentiFind stepped in."

Goodman said IncentiFind's goals differ slightly for commercial and residential developers. For commercial developers, the database is built to be simple, predictable and intuitive. For home builders, the model is to make IncentiFind as simple and inexpensive as possible, since new homeowners are already shelling out cash for home improvement projects.

Commercial developers can expect to spend around $1,500 with IncentiFind, while homeowners can expect to spend between $50 and $150.

By tapping into IncentiFind's resources, Goodman says that clients can expect up to a tenfold increase on their investment with IncentiFind — all while developing in an environmentally conscious way.

An 'overnight' surge in demand
Goodman started building the infrastructure for IncentiFind several years ago, and long before she thought she'd one day be running a startup. She was a sustainability architect, living overseas and seeing that green architecture was far more common around the world than it was in the U.S.

Once she returned to the U.S., Goodman called a good friend at the Department of Energy, and asked where she could find a central database for green construction incentives in the U.S. She was told that a central database didn't exist, and probably never would.

"So, I created it selfishly just for me," Goodman says. "I thought [that I was] going to have this tiny little architecture firm, and we're going to do all things green."

At that time, several outdated incentive databases were still funded by public agencies. But at the end of 2017, a massive defunding of databases meant that Goodman's resource was the only one of its kind in the U.S.

Following the defunding of those databases, Goodman saw a surge of activity to her website from people who used to rely on those databases as go-to resources.

"Overnight, we saw that traffic come to us," Goodman says. "We didn't do any marketing — it was all organic. People were desperate to find this information. We weren't high on Google."

From Houston, to Austin, to Houston again
From there, Goodman decided to take her database to the next level. Six employees were hired, and in April 2018, IncentiFind officially launched in Austin in The Capital Factory, a major startup incubator. Goodman and the IncentiFind team were commuting from Houston. She wanted to launch the business in Houston, she said, and while there were a lot of exciting developments underway at Station Houston, Houston's startup scene was still clouded with uncertainty.

"There's already so much instability with a startup, and we can't surround ourselves with more instability," Goodman said.

IncentiFind graduated from The Capital Factory's startup accelerator in August 2018. From there, IncentiFind landed at The Cannon, and is continuing to grow in Cannon Ventures. In less than twelve months, Goodman said she's seen Houston's startup scene undergo a nearly 180-degree shift, in large part due to the growth of The Cannon.

"I truly think that they're going to put Houston on the map for a radically new service, because they'll actually roll up their sleeves and do work with you," Goodman said. "[They'll do more] than just send you links or give you 15 minutes to ask someone a question. They'll give you all the time in the world, and [give] as many hours as you want."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

As Houston transitions into summer, the city's tech and innovation ecosystem enters a new season — but with the same level of entrepreneurialism and can-do spirit.

This week's innovators to know includes a Houston tech founder fresh off fundraising, an architect with the future of the workplace, and a startup leader with a way to digitally connect churches to their congregations.

Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard

Courtesy of Liongard

After raising a $17 million round for his startup, Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss fundraising during a pandemic and how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem grow.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding." Listen to the episode and read more.

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Photo courtesy of Church Space

Large gathering places have been shut down for months at this point, and that includes places of worship. Houston entrepreneur Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, usually focuses on connection organizations to spaces for worship or events. But, she is now focused on getting services online for congregations to connect with.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," says Edwards. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time." Read more.

Larry Lander, principal at PDR

Photo courtesy of PDR

While much of the country has been working from home for weeks, Larry Lander opines that this has made physical office space more important than ever.

"As a place to provide a technology offering we don't enjoy at our kitchen table, as a place to better support small group work beyond the tiny real estate of our laptop screens, and as a place that physically represents what our organizations are truly all about," he writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. The role of the workplace has never been more critical to business success." Read more.

Houston area gets failing score on social distancing, according to report

We got an F

According to a study that evaluated social distancing execution in counties, the Houston area didn't do so well and earned failing scores all around.

A widely used social distancing scoreboard from Unacast, a provider of location data and analytics, shows only one county in the Houston area — Austin County — received a grade above an F for social distancing as of May 20. But Austin County doesn't have much to brag about, since its social-distancing score is a D-. The Houston area's eight other counties, including Harris, flunked.

Relying on a huge storehouse of cellphone data, the Unacast scoreboard measures social distancing activity on a daily basis in every state and county compared with activity before the coronavirus outbreak. The scorecard assigns a letter grade of A through F based on current social-distancing behavior.

Each grade takes into account three factors:

  • Percentage change in average distance traveled compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Percentage change in visits to nonessential places compared with the pre-coronavirus period
  • Decrease in person-to-person encounters compared with the national pre-coronavirus average

So, how did Harris County, for instance, fare in those three categories? On May 20, its grade in each category was an F. Why? Because it had less than a 25 percent reduction in average mobility (based on distance traveled), less than a 55 percent reduction in nonessential visits, and less than a 40 percent decrease in "encounters density" compared with the national average.

The scoreboard indicates Harris County's grades have bounced around. On April 4, for example, Harris County received an A in the nonessential-visit category for reducing those visits by at least 70 percent.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in an interview published May 20 that he's worried the easing of social distancing in Houston will lead to a spike in coronavirus cases.

"I think here in Houston we're underachieving in a lot of aspects in public health, and it's no fault of the … public health leaders," Hotez said.

In Texas, the Houston area isn't alone in its apparent failure, at least recently, to adhere to social-distancing guidelines.

On May 20, not a single county in the Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio metro areas earned higher than a D on the Unacast report card.

All five counties in the Austin area got F's, as did all 13 counties in Dallas-Fort Worth, according to the scoreboard.

But as with Harris County, other metro areas' scores in individual categories have fluctuated over time. Here are a few examples:

  • On April 4, Travis and Dallas counties earned an A for at least a 70 percent reduction in nonessential visits.
  • On April 11, Tarrant County received a B for a 55 percent to 70 percent drop in average mobility.

In the San Antonio area, Bandera County earned the highest grade (D) of any county in the state's four major metros. Atascosa and Medina counties eked out grades of D-, while the remainder of the area's counties wound up in the F column.

In line with trends for its major-county counterparts, Bexar County's social distancing scores in individual categories have gone up and down. On April 11, for example, Bexar County earned a B for a 55 percent to 70 percent decline in average mobility.

The scores for the state's major metros appear to reflect the recent loosening of stay-at-home restrictions across Texas. But health experts still recommend sticking with social-distancing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In fact, Unacast points out that the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cite social distancing as the "most effective way" to combat coronavirus infections.

Unacast says it launched the social-distancing scoreboard in March to enable organizations to measure and grasp the efficiency of local social-distancing efforts.

"Data can be one of society's most powerful weapons in this public health war," Thomas Walle, co-founder and CEO of Unacast, says in an April 16 release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Texas startup’s at-home COVID-19 test finally approved by feds

CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE

After its earlier effort was tripped up, Austin-based startup Everlywell on May 16 finally gained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to launch its at-home coronavirus test.

In a May 18 release, Everlywell says the self-administered test will be available later this month. The company, which specializes in at-home tests for an array of conditions, is the first to receive approval from the FDA for an at-home coronavirus test that's not associated with a lab or a manufacturer of diagnostic products.

The FDA's emergency authorization allows Everlywell to work with a number of certified labs that process authorized tests, rather than just a single lab.

"The authorization of a COVID-19 at-home collection kit that can be used with multiple tests at multiple labs not only provides increased patient access to tests, but also protects others from potential exposure," Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says in a release.

Everlywell's at­-home test determines the presence or absence of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID­-19 illness. Everlywell's test kit uses a short nasal swab and includes:

  • A digital screening questionnaire reviewed by a healthcare provider.
  • Instructions on how to ship the test sample to a lab.
  • Digital results within 48 hours of the sample being received by the lab.
  • Results reviewed by an independent physician.

Anyone who tests positive test will receive a telehealth consultation. All positive test results are reported to federal and local public health agencies when mandated.

On March 23, Everlywell was supposed to start shipping 30,000 coronavirus test kits to U.S. consumers. But before a single test was sent, the FDA blocked distribution of at-home, self-administered tests from Everlywell and other companies. After that, Everlywell pivoted to supplying coronavirus tests to health care providers and organizations.

As with the company's previously approved coronavirus test, Everlywell says its test for individuals is sold at no profit. The $109 price covers costs such as overnight shipping to a lab, lab-processing fees, and kit components. Some health insurers cover coronavirus tests.

Everlywell says it's working with members of Congress to enable companies that are neither healthcare providers nor labs to be directly reimbursed by health insurers. The startup also is exploring how its coronavirus test could be made available for free.

"Widespread access to convenient testing will play a crucial role in the country's ability to address the pandemic and prevent overburdening our healthcare facilities. As the national leader in connecting people with high­-quality laboratory testing, we are committed to fighting the spread of this virus in America," Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of Everlywell, says in the Everlywell release.

The company continues to supply its coronavirus tests to qualified healthcare organizations and government agencies.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.