Rice University will launch online classes next week for small business leaders planning their recovery. Courtesy of Rice University

Houston small businesses and startups have a long road of recovery ahead of them, and Rice University and some of its partners want to help local entrepreneurs prepare for it.

Rice University's Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies has partnered with the Ion — along with the Center for Houston's Future and Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship — to launch the Back In Business Initiative. The program will begin with three courses in the week of April 20 to 24. The three courses are:

"Glasscock's mission has always been to provide education to the residents of Houston," says Robert Bruce, dean of the Glasscock School, in a news release. "We specialize in providing responsive, practical information that will help our constituents when and how they need it most. To assist our struggling Houston small business community during this crisis, we created this trilogy of courses to help analyze their current situation, use creative problem-solving and provide meaningful communications to help them weather this situation."

More classes will be added as needed. The classes have a $25 registration fee, and anyone can enroll online.

"Today's health crisis may have changed many aspects of our daily lives, but it has not affected our commitment to providing the right tools and education to help our community succeed," says Jan Odegard, senior director of academic and industry partnerships at the Ion, in the release. "We all have a role to play in meeting the challenge of COVID-19 and we are excited to be partnering with the Glasscock School of Continuing Studies to support Houston small businesses in this time of uncertainty."

The university also touts OpenRICE as a resource for businesses. The online education platform is available to the Houston community for free. Rice also has a 20 percent discount for all professional studies courses and programs enrollment — with the ability to postpone for up to a year without a fee. This deal runs through April 30.

Rice University's Glasscock school of Continuing Studies is the Ion's first academic partnership to be announced. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion names inaugural academics partner, course programming for Houston hub

Teaming up

A burgeoning entrepreneurship hub has taken a major step forward in its development with the announcement of its first academic partner and coursework for the partnership.

The Ion has teamed up with Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies to bring programming to the to-be hub, which is expected to open in early 2021.

"We are thrilled to extend our programming to the Ion constituents and Houston's innovation ecosystem," says Robert Bruce Jr., dean of Rice's Continuing Studies school, in a news release. "Continuing education, whether that takes the form of an advanced certificate or a single course, is an important part of the innovation lifecycle, and we are excited to provide this to Houston's entrepreneurs."

The school will offer a mix of online and hybrid courses and certificate programs for personal and professional development. Select courses are slated to begin on January 13, and sign-ups for the courses are live online.

"We know business leaders have many goals and responsibilities and we look forward to supporting them to achieve new levels of success through our responsive and proven programming," Bruce adds.

Some of the first semesters programming is expected to focus on computer and data science education, corporate financial planning, leadership courses, project management, and more, according to the release. Mary Lynn Fernau, the Glasscock School's director of executive and international programs, will manage the partnership.

"As The Ion seeks to increase access to flexible career development in tech and entrepreneurial programming, our partnership with the Glasscock School serves as a model for what professional activation at The Ion can look like at its best," says Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, in the release.

Trilogy Education and Rice University have joined forces for a new program. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University teams up with workforce accelerator to create a first-of-its-kind fintech bootcamp

Back to school

As Rice University's campus continues to welcome back its students for a new year, the administration has big news about a new, innovative program to share.

Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies has partnered with New York-based workforce accelerator, Trilogy Education, to provide the first fintech boot camp on a college campus, according to a representative from the company.

"Technology skills are becoming foundational for many roles in the finance, energy and life science sectors," says David Vassar, assistant dean of professional and executive programs at the Glasscock School, in a news release. "We have partnered with Trilogy Education to bring to market a boot camp that prepares students to use their technical skills in a wide variety of fintech applications, from robo-advising to cryptocurrency. Whether you are already in finance or are looking for a way to transition into the industry, this program will prepare you to build a meaningful career in the fast-moving world of fintech."

Rice University FinTech Boot Camp is a 24-week program, and the inaugural class began in July. Enrollment for the next round is open from now until November 18. The program will provide students with core coding languages and technical tools that are crucial in the industry as well as pertinent technologies like machine learning and cryptocurrency. The participants will also have career-planning services and will receive a Certificate in Financial Technology from Rice.

The financial industry is booming in Houston, per the release, and companies are in competition for trained talent. Institutions like U.S. Bancorp and JPMorgan Chase have more coding positions open than Apple and Google, the release reveals, and according to data from Burning Glass, the country has added over 1.5 million fintech jobs in the past 8 years.

"The Rice University FinTech Boot Camp comes at a critical moment of need as the city of Houston transforms itself into a national hub for enterprise technology," says Robert Bruce, dean of the Glasscock School, in the release. "We've seen several fintech companies choose Houston to open new office locations and a rising demand from our longstanding industries like energy and manufacturing to transform themselves into technology and data-driven businesses."

Last year, the school launched its first boot camp in partnership with Trilogy. The Rice University Data Analytics Boot Camp has recently grown to expand to a new location in the Energy Corridor, the release states.

"Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies is playing an important role in building the digitally skilled workforce that Houston needs to support a growing innovation economy," says Dan Sommer, CEO and founder of Trilogy Education, in the release. "The Rice University FinTech Boot Camp will help working adults in Houston capitalize on the exploding demand for technology and data skills and spur additional investment in fintech throughout the region."

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. Getty Images

How tech boot camps can help solve the Houston innovation equation

Class project

It's been a little over a year since Houston lost out on the Amazon HQ2 bid and left the city pondering its approach to innovation. Houston is known for taking risks and bouncing back from adversity. We're known for growth and entrepreneurship. But are we still known for innovation? Are we positioned for growth as a creative class and digital skills city?

It's my belief that we need to invest in the professional skills of our local workforce and ensure we can attract companies that will help our city and Houstonians thrive. Amazon pointed us in the right direction. It highlighted our need of more professional upskilling programs and increased investment in the city's innovation infrastructure.

At Rice University, we listened, and launched fast-track, intensive tech training programs designed specifically for working adults to help solve these problems. We launched a pilot program in late 2018, a data analytics boot camp in partnership with a national workforce accelerator called Trilogy Education. It was met with such an enthusiastic response from students that we are expanding the initiative by adding programs in cybersecurity and other high demand fields later this year.

These tech boot camps are designed to augment Rice's other efforts to foster innovation in our community like a recent $100 million investment in a new innovation hub for all of Houston and an already ambitious innovation and technology ecosystem, highlighted by the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or LILIE, and the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship. Combined, we hope these efforts will help Houston to secure its position as a magnet for technology employers and workers alike.

By many standards, Houston's tech industry is booming. Digital middle-skill jobs — the kinds that provide a stepping stone between lower-paid non-tech roles and high-earning careers in tech — represent 42 percent of overall job postings in Houston. And these jobs are on the rise. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of Houston job postings requiring web development skills rose by 57 percent, earning the city 6th-place ranking among the top 10 U.S. cities for coding job growth.

With numbers like these, it's easy to grow complacent. But Houston is by no means immune to the widening digital skills gap that is holding back business growth nationwide. And unless we create programs to support upskilling and career mobility, even the people currently driving Houston's tech renaissance may struggle to keep their skills sets up to date.

These programs help us address Amazon's core area of critique: innovation. This is something Houston has historically been known for; in 1969 alone, we helped put the first astronaut on the moon and the first artificial heart in a patient. But like all important skills, innovation must be regularly nurtured, enhanced, and relearned.

New, alternative education pathways like technology boot camps bring more diversity to our tech talent pools, a critical component of fostering innovation that is still missing at most technology-focused companies. These employers are starting to look beyond traditional degrees for people who can simply prove they have the skills for the job. The relatively lower barrier to entry for a technology boot camp opens the door for candidates of all races, genders, and walks of life to bring their unique perspectives and insights to an industry sorely in need of more diversity.

As one of the country's most racially diverse metros, Houston reflects the nation's demographic future, and can make a unique contribution to the diversity of our workforce. We already rank among the top five best U.S. cities for women in tech (number four, to be exact). And if the demographics of Rice's earliest boot camp enrollees are any indication, a widespread rollout of these kinds of programs may be a part of Houston's ability to garner the number one spot in coming years. Among our boot camp students to date, 35 percent are white, 20 percent are Hispanic, 17 percent are African American, and 23 percent are Asian. Women made up 25 percent of our first class, a good start that we plan to improve.

Houston has the potential to become a nationwide leader in tech innovation. The problems we face in getting there are complicated, but like all equations, they can be solved with resilience and hard work.

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Robert Bruce is the dean of Rice University's Susanne M. Glasscock School of Continuing Studies.

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Houston energy tech investment group rebrands to address sustainability

Seeing green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

data to knowlege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UH: How biotech companies are withstanding the pandemic

Houston voices

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

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

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

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

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

Ongoing biotech challenges

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

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

Investment blues

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

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

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

Keep on keeping on

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

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

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