Houstonians apparently aren't so good at the whole social distancing thing, according to data from a new report. Photo by Getty Images

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.

A Houston company focused on event production is helping its clients navigate a socially distant, increasingly digital time. Photo courtesy of VISION Production Group

Houston entrepreneur turns focus to digital connections during COVID-19 outbreak

Q&A

It's no secret that the events and conferences of the world have been hit hard by the coronavirus as everyone focuses on staying home and socially distant. But for a Houston entrepreneur who's worked for over a decade in event production, she sees an opportunity to advance her clients' digital presences.

Tracey Shappro, CEO and founder of Houston-based VISION Production Group, has had to reinvent the way brands and companies could interact with their audiences and get their message out.

"We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences," she tells InnovationMap. "And I think this position is really going to help our clients make the right decisions and [allow them to] have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences."

Shappro sat down with InnovationMap to talk about how to use technology to make events virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

InnovationMap: You’ve previously said you became a business owner, almost by accident. How did you decide to start a business?

Tracey Shappro: I never intended to be a business owner. I started the company, simply out of really a work ethic and a sense of responsibility. I had been working at another production company on staff for 13 years as their senior producer. One day the owner announced that he was shutting the doors down literally that same day, and I, like everyone else that worked at that company, was suddenly unemployed.

But at the same time, I was in the middle of producing all of these important projects for clients. There was just no way I was going to let these people down, and I put my own money into starting a company really quickly. I just thought I was going to finish these projects and then look for a full-time job. But, you know, fast forward that was 10 years ago.

VISION is celebrating our 10 year anniversary with a very impressive client roster started with one employee and we've grown to 10 people who are very talented producers and editors and the animators, and we have creative visual artists on staff. And through that time, we've also expanded our service offering from our core in video production to all types of event production services, and we've expanded it to interactive and virtual reality and augmented reality, projection mapping.

IM: VISION has been creating immersive experiences for Greater Houston Partnership, major sports events from the Super Bowl to the Houston Rodeo. How has technology like virtual and augmented reality and 3D mapping influenced Houston’s biggest events?

TS: Well, we're in the business of what I call experience design. We look at all the stakeholders, the clients, sponsors, attendees as the stakeholders or the audience, and we understand storytelling and the producing of content. We use all of that to create perspective and to create an experience and in tandem with that, we seek out the right presentation technology to exceed that goal to use technology to persuade, and influence opinions, change perceptions.

For all the clients that you just mentioned, we use appropriate technology, but it's not technology just for technology's sake. It has to have to work and it has to work for the audience and the intended audience, whether it's a live event, or a side of a building where we're doing projection mapping. These days, we're doing more streamed events or a pre-produced packaged event.

We're doing a lot of permanent installation and interactive touch and, and even augmented reality, which is taking off for a lot of corporate clients who are wanting to really showcase their projects or their products and how they work.

IM: The cancelation of the Houston Rodeo has affected many vendors and business owners. How has this affected VISION and its employees?

TS: Well, it's really strange and surreal across industries, many businesses and organizations are right now facing you know canceling or postponing their events or their meetings or conferences. These are engagements that they really depend on. All of these companies still have a need to get their message out and they still have a need to engage their customer and they need to sell the products or services and they need to enlist support for that.

None of that goes away. Right now this is an opportunity really for VISION to do what we do best. We help companies engage their target audiences in innovative and effective ways. We're encouraging our clients now to really shift their thinking. Instead of canceling their event, we're showing them how to reinvent their events into an alternate format.

At times when you can't meet face to face, it puts a need on more of the other things like pre-produced package events, and marketing and virtual meetings and all types of streamed events. All these things become even better business tools, and we have been in this business for a long time. It's really working with our clients to protect developing business.

We're taking the same experience that they want it to originate through live event execution and crafting it and reshaping it into a visual and sensory experience that they can still engage their audiences with remotely or bringing a brand to life remotely.

IM: As the coronavirus outbreak continues and people take social distancing measures seriously, how do you see this affecting projects for this year? How will you adapt?

TS: We actually have a pretty robust plan, in anticipation of all of this we assigned teams. We have a communication strategy, and it's in full gear for two to four weeks. So we were prepared to do all of this from home and remotely.

The thing that changes is some of the tools we use. Obviously, live events are not going to be the main focus right now, but there are other tools like staging and production. And so again, we shift to our virtual service offerings. And no matter what we're doing, clients will need our strategy. They need our producer services, they need our production management, and they need our expertise. It's just the end deliverable.

IM: How can technology help during this crisis? Does this expand or contract business?

TS: Technology is evolving. We know, it's our job to keep abreast of it. And we strive to stay one step ahead of it. And augmented reality and virtual reality is a great example. Several years ago, we went down the path of virtual reality and helped clients really understand that type of immersive experience. And then augmented reality really took off.

We've been leaders in offering all types of augmented reality services. It's really very exciting. It's like surfing the world, if you will, with your own layer, augmented reality over it. The possibilities are just endless.

But now looking at the situation we're in with the coronavirus all of these technologies are even more important. We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences. And I think this position is really, going to help our clients make the right decisions and they can have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences. We're working right now with two clients in a very progressive manner.

IM: What are those two projects and how have they pivoted?

TS: We're working with The Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Every year we produce their 1,800 attendees annual luncheon, showcasing Steven Kleinberg's renowned Houston area survey, which is a coveted piece of information and data that helps steer the community forward. We've shifted into producing and packaging their thought of it now into a pre-produced virtual experience that will air at the same time as the original luncheon. It will be available online in perpetuity for probably a year until the next one.

We're still able to use technology to still engage their audience and this will actually extend their audience to new audiences that may not have participated before, and we're also in pre-production of a broadcast version of the Holocaust Museum Houston's Moral Courage Award. It will be just like turning on a television show — we're taking them from the original goals of the live event and producing it into a 60-minute show that they can now send out to their attendees, who can still participate and we can still honor all these great amazing people who are deserving of the moral courage award. We can help them grow their audiences through virtual technology.

So again, what is the need? What is the goal, what is the best technology to use to create impact and to share brand stories? We can use our storytelling and capabilities and our production value for a really great experience for viewers at home who are watching this to be engaged in.

IM: What's next for VISION?

TS: We're going to do everything we can to help our clients in these very strange times. We're going to be leaders in helping them push out their objectives. We're going to step up and do what we can to help people communicate with you times like these, you know, communication is key. We do this for a living and we really want to help make a difference. We care. We know our clients care, and right now we're going to focus on helping our clients connect.

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This conversation has been edited for clarity.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.