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

Rice University research: Collaboration with the community can be key to success

houston voices

In Pittsburgh, a coalition of 100 community groups brokered a deal with developers of the Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team for $8.3 million in neighborhood improvements. In Oakland, California, developers of an $800 million high-tech complex promised local residents 50 percent of its construction jobs. And in Chicago, the Obama Presidential Center is working with residents to shield them from skyrocketing rents.

Community Benefits Agreements, or CBAS, as these agreements are called, are increasingly common between businesses and the places where they want to set up shop. But are they worth the money? To find out, Rice Business professor Kate Odziemkowska joined Sinziana Dorobantu of New York University to analyze market reactions to 148 CBA announcements between indigenous communities and mining firms in Canada. The financial value of these agreements, the researchers found, was real.

While it's easy to imagine that CBAs are just costly giveaways, they're more than goodwill gestures. Instead, they are legally enforceable contracts to distribute benefits from a new project and to govern the response to any potential social and environmental disruptions. For businesses, the researchers found, they are also good strategy, because they prevent costly, drawn-out conflict.

To conduct their research, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu analyzed a sample of 148 legally binding CBAs signed in Canada between mining firms and indigenous communities between 1999 and 2013. In Canada, mining companies and indigenous communities often hammer out agreements about extraction and use of local resources. Studying only the mining sector let the researches control for the economic variations that characterize different industries.

Since CBA negotiations cannot be disclosed, the announcement of such agreements represents new market information. To conduct their study, the researchers tracked the market reaction to these announcements, using a technique that measured short-term returns.

Creating CBAs from the start, they found, can head off catastrophic costs later. That's because even when a company has disproportionate economic strength, the public relations, legal and economic costs of community conflict can be draining. Consider the 1,900-kilometer Dakota Access oil pipeline, whose developers faced six months of round-the-clock protests that included nearly 15,000 volunteers from around the world. The drumbeat of litigation and negative news coverage still continues today.

In general, the researchers found, the more experience a community has with protests or blockades, the more firms gained from signing a CBA. Property rights protections also provide strong incentive for making a deal. Mining companies, for example, need access to land to do business. Communities with robust property rights to the resource or location sought by the firm have strong standing to stop that firm if they don't make a deal.

Because access to valuable resources like land or intellectual property can mean the difference between financial success or failure, Odziemkowska and Dorobantu said, the lesson from their findings extends far beyond Canadian mines. It's a lesson Disney learned the hard way when it failed to acknowledge the culture of Norway's Sami people in "Frozen." Assailed for cultural appropriation by using, but not crediting, traditional Sami music, Disney quickly made amends. After negotiating with the Sami people, Disney pledged to consult with them and portray them thoughtfully in the film's sequel.

The deal may have cost Disney on the front end, but it was nothing compared to the advantage of freezing out years of bad press.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom. It's based on research by Kate Odziemkowska, an assistant professor of Strategic Management at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.

5 innovation-focused takeaways from the Greater Houston Partnership's annual report

BY THE NUMBERS

In an annual economic report from the Greater Houston Partnership, researchers and data scientists outlined the city's economy by the numbers, and Houston's industries such as technology, health care, energy, and more were all represented.

The 2020 Houston Facts was released in an virtual event hosted by GHP and its team of data specialists. Here's what you need to know from the event and the report, which can be found online.

The Texas Medical Center is focusing on five new institutes

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

The Texas Medical Center has established itself as a topic of its own in the Houston Facts report. The 61-member nonprofit that connects medical institutions across the city. The organization is working on a new campus, TMC3, that is expected to complete in 2022 and bring an annual economic impact of $5.2 billion to the state of Texas along with 30,000 jobs. From

According to the report, TMC is continuing to develop five institutes that compliment the organization's focus on innovation, regenerative medicine, health policy, and more:

  1. TMC Innovation Institute
  2. TMC Health Policy Institute
  3. TMC Clinical Research Institute
  4. TMC Regenerative Medicine Institute
  5. TMC Genomics Institute

Houston's port business continues to stay strong, with potential for growth following expansion

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

The Port of Houston has long been a key part of Houston's history and its economic impact. Across four seaports in the Houston area, the city moved 242.9 million metric tons of trade last year, and the district has been consistently named the busiest or one of the busiest by tonnage for over a decade.

With over 200 companies calling the port home and a busy port district, the Houston Ship Channel has been working on an expansion project, called Project 11. Construction on the project could begin as early as next year, per the report.

Venture capital is on the rise as tech jobs stays steady

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

Again, Houston Facts has called out the growth Houston has seen in venture capital investment. According to the report, top industries for VC funding include health tech, software, and energy. Houston Facts reports the ecosystem saw $600 million invested last year. While numbers vary based on sources, Houston Exponential recently reported over $466 million of venture capital invested in Houston between January and July of 2020.

Meanwhile, when it comes to tech jobs in Houston, the city has held its place as 12th in the nation for cities with the most tech jobs. Last year, Houston had 235,802 tech workers according to data from CompTIA, Cyberstates 2020. That count is slightly increased from 2018's 223,000 tech workers in Houston.

Houston's evolving demographics continues to shape the city

Screenshot via Houston Facts 2020

Houston is regularly touted as the most diverse city in the nation, and that diversity has affected the city's business sector. As of last year, largest ethnic population in Houston is hispanic. Houston now has the fourth largest hispanic population in the country, however, according to the report, Houston's percent of African-American citizens has remained consistent.

COVID-19's full effect on Houston is still to be determined, but business has taken a hit

Getty Images

The 2020 edition of Houston Facts doesn't have much on the impact of COVID-19 — the 2021 issue should have more facts and figures from looking back on the pandemic. However, the GHP's team did address some of the economic impacts the coronavirus had on the city.

According to Yelp data based on listings, 3,518 businesses closed due to COVID-19 — of which, only 578 had reopened by mid-June.

Houston-area student creates new app to help businesses operate safely during COVID-19

there's an app for that

A 17-year-old high school student from the Houston area stepped up to help his local community, as the coronavirus continues to keep many customers from shopping the way they used to.

The Wayt app, created during the stay-at-home order in March, presents itself as an efficient and easy-to-use platform to streamline shopping during the times of the coronavirus. The app provides businesses and their customers with a platform to communicate making curbside pickup, booking appointments, and joining a virtual line a breeze.

"The platform provides a new set of tools for both the customers and the employees of businesses," says Ethan Saadia, app developer and Wayt creator. "With the use of this app, businesses can streamline the process and remove the hassle of shopping for customers."

The app offers a new way to open businesses by using technology that can manage capacity and keep them connected as many businesses move to curbside pickup. The platform allows customers to receive notifications about their order and tap a button to tell the business they're here, removing the hassle of calling customers to tell them their order is ready.

Wayt provides businesses with the customer name and car information, it even lets them know if the customer wants the order delivered directly to their trunk or other areas of their vehicle. This instant notification system keeps businesses and clients safe allowing them to practice strict social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"The use of this app will be able to remove a lot of the anxiousness that we have currently," says Saadia. "It will allow for a more convenient shopping experience as we continue to deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic in all of our lives."

The platform also allows businesses to offer shopping appointments to abide with reduced capacity mandates, letting customers pick when they can come in within the constraints customized by the business. The app also makes standing in line while keeping social distancing recommendations easy by having customers tap a button on the app to get in line.

According to Saadia, a lot of these changes — like curbside pickup and virtual lines — are here to stay.

"From my perspective and experiences from my friends and family," says Saadia. "Curbside pickup and virtual lines are definitely here to stay because even before the pandemic, popular places used to have long lines and that presented many new challenges. The pandemic is just accelerating technological change that will make our lives easier."

Saadia, a serial innovator and app developer, started his first company in 2013 called PCs for Me where he sells DIY computer kits that help kids learn computer science. While he expects to continue that venture and Wayt, Saadia says he's conscious that things can change unexpectedly as he enters his senior year.

"I know we live under a very uncertain time and I don't really know what's going to happen with school a month from now or a year from now," says Saadia. "My plan is to keep taking it day by day working on Wayt to improve the user experience and work on other apps that I have on the pipeline."

Ethan Saadia, a 17-year-old high school student, created an app to improve the user experience of shopping during a pandemic.