Carolyn Rodz of Hello Alice and Aziz Gilani of Mercury Fund discuss their advice for startups looking for federal grants. Courtesy photos

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 Hello 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.

Small businesses and startups are likely to hurt — and hurt bad — from COVID-19's affect on the economy. Here are some resources to get support. Photo by Hero Images

Here's a list of resources for Houston startups and small businesses during COVID-19 shutdown

here to help

It's a trying time for the world, and Houston small businesses and startups have been put in a difficult spot. From having to work remotely or being forced to close or scale back operations due to mandates from the government, entrepreneurs are having to figure out their new normals.

However, organizations have leapt at the chance to help their fellow Houstonians, and a number of resources have appeared to provide aid to startups, from advice and resources to grants.

Editor's note: This article originally ran March 25, 2020, but has been updated and republished with more resources.

The Cannon's CERT Program

The Cannon released information about their Cannon Emergency Response Team Program, and Houston startups can apply online. The multi-week program is intended to provide aid and support for startups and small businesses experiencing a crisis caused by external forces — namely COVID-19 and its repercussions, but also natural disasters, market disruption, legislative actions, civil unrest, fraud, or theft.

Click here to apply and learn more.

The Ion's resource center

The Ion has also rounded up resources for its members and the greater Houston innovation ecosystem. It's available online, and has everything from links to national and local resources and financial assistance information to virtual events.

"While we all try and adjust to this new way of life, The Ion will continue to be a resource to our entrepreneurial community the best way we know how, by connecting our community and providing you with opportunities that you need to be resilient during these unstable times. ... We hope this page serves you well and we promise to keep you all up to date on everything innovation taking place in our community," writes Gaby Rowe, executive director of The Ion.

Rowe has also started a video series of interviews with Houston startups — the videos are also available on the webpage.

Click here to access the resource center.

Houston Exponential's virtual event calendar

Houston Exponential worked quickly to turn their online calendar featuring events across the innovation ecosystem in Houston to helpful virtual events. Anyone can submit an event for consideration.

Click here to find the calendar.

To find InnovationMap's curated list of events for April, click here.

The GHP's Greater Houston Business Recovery Center

The Greater Houston Partnership has released a one-stop shop for business help for companies large and small. The amalgamation combines several national and local options, including relevant information about the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

"We know many Houston companies are hurting and do not have the resources to sustain themselves for weeks without help," said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Partnership. "The funds provided through the CARES Act are essential to ensure Houston businesses can meet payroll and cover other expenses during this difficult time. "

Click here to visit the Greater Houston Business Recovery Center page.

Fat Finger's procedure app

In an effort to help businesses organize their response, Houston-based tech company Fat Finger has released a procedure app that is available for free. It offers employee agreements, important protocol checklists, and more.

"Our intention is to help teams of all types operate as safe and effective as possible to overcome what we are all going through," writes James McDonough, founder and CEO of the company.

Click here to learn more about the app here.

Houston PR firm to offer free services

Houston-based Paige PR is offering up $5,000 worth of its services to help out a company affected by COVID-19., which includes media relations, influencer relations, media training, employee communication, content development, social media management, corporate event planning, campaign measurement, brand management, community engagement and crisis communication, according to a news release.

"Paige PR's mission is to empower and help businesses tell their unique stories and amplify their messages," says Paige Donnell, Paige PR's founder and CEO, in the release. "Our team wanted to give back and honor a company making a positive difference, despite these uncertain times. Now is not the time to halt your company's marketing and communication efforts. However, we understand that this may be the only option for some businesses. We're in this together, and all of us at Paige PR look forward to offering our services free of charge to one deserving company."

Click here to learn more and enter your company.

Gener8tor's free 1-week response program

Just like most accelerator programs, cohort schedules and plans have been affected by COVID-19, but one new-to-Houston program is making some lemonade out of the lemons they were served. Gener8tor, along with the Downtown Redevelopment Authority, announced a partnership for one week of virtual programming for small businesses affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. It's free and an extension of the gBETA program, which launched in Houston in January.

Interested entrepreneurs must apply to be enrolled by Friday, May 27. The week of virtual assistence begins March 30 and goes until April 3. Participants will have access to virtual office hours with experts.

"We have seen firsthand the impact that entrepreneurs have on a community and we hope to call on our network of mentors, investors, and partners to support these new Emergency Response Programs," says Joe Kirgues, Co-Founder of gener8tor, in a news release.

Click here to learn more and sign up.

Hello Alice's business center

Houston-based Hello Alice is a great digital resource for startups locally and beyond. The organization recently announced its grant program that will focus on funding minority-founded startups and quickly snapped into action to create a COVID-19 Business Center free for entrepreneurs to use.

Alice is offering emergency grants to businesses affected by COVID-19 and has also gathered other resources like mental health information, tips for running a remote workforce, and more.

Click here to access the business center.

The Small Business Administration's webinars and disaster loans

Startups, nonprofits, and small businesses can apply for an Economic Injury Disaster Loans for up to $2 million. For small businesses, the interest rate is 3.75 percent, and for nonprofits, the interest rate is 2.75 percent. The SBA's Houston chapter is available for help as well.

Click here to learn more about the EIDLs.

Impact Hub Houston's comprehensive list

If this list here isn't exhaustive enough, Impact Hub Houston has gone the extra mile on their blog, creating a comprehensive and updated list of resources for small businesses and startups, as well as for people in general. There is everything from information on small business financial help and online education to tips for parents and health-related resources.

Click here to access the guide.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston's fund of funds announces 2 new investments

money moves

The HX Venture Fund, which invests in out-of-town venture capital funds that have their eyes on Houston startups, has grown its portfolio.

The fund of funds now has a portfolio of 10 VCs from across the country, across industries, and across startup stages. According to a recent announcement, the HX Venture Fund has invested in New York-based Greycroft Venture Partners and Washington D.C.-based Revolution Ventures. The announcement also included Boston-based Material Impact and San Francisco-based venBio Global Strategic Fund, however those had been previously reported by InnovationMap.

"We are delighted to partner with the general partners of Greycroft Venture Partners, Material Impact, Revolution Ventures, and venBio Global Strategic Fund," says Sandy Guitar, managing director of HX Venture Fund, in the release. "With their proven expertise and exceptional track records, we are excited to integrate them into Houston networks and not only give them access to the Fund's innovative corporate limited partners, but also harness their knowledge to empower Houston entrepreneurs."

These four VC funds join six others that HXVF has invested in: Austin-based LiveOak Venture Partners and Next Coast Ventures, Washington D.C.-based Updata Partners, Chicago-based Baird Capital, and Boston-based .406 Ventures and OpenView Venture Partners.

"The receptivity of the HX Venture Fund model has exceeded all our expectations. Since early 2019, over 217 venture capital funds across the U.S. have expressed definitive interest in participating in our model," says Guillermo Borda, managing director of HX Venture Fund, in the release.

"It is especially noteworthy that collectively, the ten funds selected for HX Venture Fund's portfolio have $3.7 billion in committed capital in their funds to be invested with Houston on their investment radar," Borda adds. "This is at a time that provides compelling investment opportunities in the economic cycle. This is an exciting time for Houston entrepreneurs and our innovation ecosystem."

Guitar previously told InnovationMap that she's looking to curate a portfolio of VCs that is diverse in industries and stage. Additionally, before investing in a VC, the HX Venture Fund looks for an interest in investing into Houston startups. The hope is that, while not required, the HXVF portfolio funds invest in a Houston startup down the road. Earlier this year, Houston-based Liongard became the fund of funds' first example of that.

"The innovation and talent in Houston are best-in-class; we want to be investing there," says Tige Savage, managing partner at Revolution Ventures, in the release.

Rice University rises to top of Texas schools in prestigious U.S. News & World Report ranking

Head of class

Rice University continues to rise in national surveys. The latest: U.S. News & World Report's 2021 Best Colleges, released September 14, anoints Rice as the best university in Texas. The prestigious Houston school — dubbed the "Ivy League of the South" — ranks No. 16 among national universities, up one spot from last year.

This is in step with last year's U.S. News & World Report's Best Colleges list, which also named Rice the best university in Texas.

The trusted report compared more than 1,400 undergraduate institutions across 17 measures of "academic quality" this year. Acknowledging the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic on students and schools, the publication made several updates to its methodology, notes a release.

For 2021, U.S. News added two new metrics to measure student debt. It also increased the weight of the outcome category, which measures graduation rates, retention rates, and social mobility, and reduced the weights for standardized test scores, high school class standing, and alumni giving. And, for the very first time, the report ranks test-blind schools (those that don't require an SAT or ACT score for admission).

"The pandemic has affected students across the country, canceling commencement ceremonies and switching classes from in person to remote," said Kim Castro, editor and chief content officer, in a release. "Whether students have slightly altered their college plans or changed them entirely, it remains our mission to continue providing students and their families with the tools they need to help find the right school for them."

Now, on to the rankings. Here's how Rice scores in the prestigious report:

  • No. 6 in Best Undergraduate Teaching
  • No. 8 in Best Value Schools
  • No. 18 in Most Innovative Schools (tie)
  • No. 224 in Top Performers on Social Mobility (tie)
  • No. 19 in Best Undergraduate Engineering Programs (tie)

For 2021, the University of Texas at Austin ranks No. 42 nationally, up a significant six spots from 2020. It's also the school's highest ranking on the report since 1985, touts a news release from the university. Among the country's public universities, UT Austin climbed four spots from the previous year, landing at No. 13.

As for Texas' other top schools, Southern Methodist University and Texas A&M University are tied at No. 66 nationwide, while Baylor University and Texas Christian University rank No. 76 and No. 80, respectively.

The lofty U.S. News & World Report ranking is just the latest in accolades for the Owls. Rice was recently named the seventh best college in the U.S. and the best college in Texas by Niche.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Trusted Houston bank identifies 4 coronavirus-related scams you need to know

On Your Side

As the COVID-19 pandemic has grown, so has the confidence of fraudsters who are hoping to scam people out of money. A large portion of our everyday lives have moved online and onto our phones, so it's more important than ever that you know what common tricks to watch out for.

Texas Citizens Bank continually looks out for its customers, creating tip sheets that help everyone become more educated about different types of fraud, from email scammers to debit and credit card crooks.

Here, they outline four common COVID-19 schemes that are making the rounds:

1. Fake offers of info, supplies, or payments
If it sounds official and mentions COVID-19 or the CARES Act, it must be legit, right? Wrong. These websites, mobile apps, and emails with links or attachments are entirely fake. Do not open, click, or download anything sent to you — instead, go directly to the official website on your own to find the info.

2. Someone posing as a doctor or ill family member
If you get a call claiming that someone you love is ill with coronavirus — and too ill to come to the phone, at that — and needs money for treatment, don't believe it. Hang up immediately and call that family member yourself.

3. Claims that your Social Security benefits are suspended
If you receive a letter or email, no matter how official-looking, that says your SSA benefits have been suspended due to COVID-19, know that it's not true. The SSA has not suspended or reduced any benefits, pandemic or not. Be sure to report this scam to the government here.

4. Offers of COVID-19 tests and vaccines
If someone is claiming they can send coronavirus tests directly to your house, they're lying. If they claim they can do the same with a vaccine, they're really lying. You can only obtain tests at hospitals, urgent care facilities, and your doctor's office, and we're still waiting on a reliable vaccine to be approved. Until then, be extra careful about who you believe.

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Texas Citizens Bank is an independently owned, FDIC-insured bank that specializes in Houston's small and medium-sized business owners. If you have questions about financial options during coronavirus or how to keep your money safe, contact a TCB banker today at 713-948-5700.