Launched in Houston, Umanity's new tool aims to better connect nonprofits with supplies and volunteers amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photos via umanity.io

A Houston startup that has been working in a pilot program capacity with the city of Houston has accelerated the rollout of its platform to help connect and coordinate people's needs to resources in real-time during the coronavirus outbreak.

Umanity, which is a part of the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator's first cohort, has created a philanthropic supply chain tool that's now available as an app or through desktop. The software can match and map local individual or nonprofit needs to organizations or volunteers, plus provide real-time analytics. During the coronavirus outbreak, they have mobilized its resources connecting supplies with nonprofits and volunteers with safe ways to help organizations that need it most during this crisis.

The Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator launched in 2019 to provide technology-driven solutions to Houston's most prevalent challenges. The accelerator is backed by Intel and Microsoft and partnered with the city of Houston and Station Houston.

"Our first cohort focused on transportation, resiliency, and connectivity," says senior director of the Ion Smart Cities Accelerator, Christine Galib. "It was tightening much of the ways in which a vast and expansive city like Houston can come together and feel connected and supported as a city."

These themes are exemplified by Umanity, who is working with several city of Houston officials to direct citizens the resources they need during the crisis, and creating a network of communities to efficiently provide them the resources they need. The centralized platform shows a complete picture of who needs help and who can help all on the same platform while measuring the real-time economic impact of donations and every volunteer hour.

"I started this company because I wanted to transition everyday acts of service into actual data-driven solutions," says Ryan-Alexander Thomas, CEO and founder of Umanity. "My goal is that during the next crisis, for example, hurricane season, if somebody needs something they have access to get it when they need it, not two years later or after the crisis."

The platform has already rolled out in other cities such as Hyattsville, Maryland, to help connect their network of nonprofits with individuals as part of their crisis response as a result of supply shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic.

With the help of their accelerator, Umanity is currently working with a number of the city of Houston's mayor's directors, including education and health leaders to create a broader coalition designed to collaborate and coordinate more efficiently by aggregating information from these sources.

"Having some of the mentors in the accelerator put us in touch with decision-makers in the city has really given us the boost we need to get a chance to show that we can do something good for the people and the community," says Thomas.

Thomas says Umanity is ready to be implemented in a dozen cities in the next few months. Their team is already close to signing partnerships with additional municipalities across the country.

"Our platform is available right now for download and we're growing," says Thomas. "We've tripled the number of organizations in the past week and we are always looking for new nonprofits, churches, and organizations to partner with to help those in need."

Coronavirus likely will affect your supply chain — here's what to keep in mind. Getty Images

Houston expert: Here are 3 tips for a resilient supply chain during the coronavirus outbreak

Guest column

Consumers rarely consider the intricacies of managing a cohesive supply chain when the process needed to deliver product to market is free of disruptors. In short, engineering and design work is completed, a bill of materials is established, material is sourced, and product is manufactured.

Manufacturers often expect to easily purchase product off the shelves or online. When external factors come into play that have the potential to disrupt supply chains and the quick availability of product, proper management is even more critical for businesses and their customers.

During my 23 years at Smith, the world's largest open-market distributor of electronic components, I've witnessed various market disruptions and shifting supply chain dynamics. I can confidently say that the coronavirus outbreak is heavily uncharted territory for the technology industry. Mitigating supply chain disruptions during troubling times, however, is familiar to us. Even through uncertainty, I want companies to know that there are many options to keep their supply chains active.

Here are my top three tips for properly managing your supply chain during the coronavirus outbreak:

Assess inventory levels and run outages scenarios

It is important to not only assess your on-hand inventory levels but to quickly gauge the impact and availability of product from key suppliers. As a precaution and to prevent further spread of the virus, many electronic component manufacturing plants in China were shut down for weeks, and some are still running at limited capacity with prominent labor shortages.

Finding out which manufacturers have been shut down or are affected by the virus will help determine lead times and availability requirements. Surveying suppliers is an efficient way to gauge manufacturers' levels of impact and determine your own needs. Bear in mind what possible logistics delays you may encounter when assessing your material levels.

Build contingency plans with alternative sources.

With supply constraints from traditional sources being almost an inevitability, having flexible sourcing options and relationships with key suppliers is a prime strategy for contingency planning.

On top of that, make sure your sourcing partner has put stringent quality procedures in place and is certified to the highest industry standards. Expanding your AVL (approved vendor list) and qualifying other manufacturers will help keep lines running according to forecast.

Ensuring heightened supplier screenings with end-to-end evaluation transparency is even more essential during times of disruption. Trusted, multichannel sourcing capabilities are prime options in the face of the consistently evolving global situation.

Stay vigilant, and work closely with your emergency response team.

Uncertainty will continue to play a major role throughout the outbreak situation. From my experience, staying up to date with the latest news and maintaining frequent communication with both internal and external parties is one of the most proactive approaches to disruptive situations.

Smith's shipping and logistics hubs have mirrored capabilities and are located in Houston, Hong Kong, and Amsterdam, so we have been able to keep our operations running throughout the outbreak. Although Smith's business operations have continued without any shutdowns, the electronics supply chain has been significantly impacted, and disruptions will be felt for some time. The effects of the coronavirus are expected to trickle down to end consumers, as new product introductions for some consumer electronics have been delayed. Reports are even indicating that the supply and availability of technology products during the peak holiday season may be disrupted.

With the millions of components that go into everything from consumer electronics to oil and gas and medical equipment, our industry could see notable shortages in supply throughout the year. I encourage all companies and especially our friends here in Houston to thoroughly evaluate their supply chains. Utilizing these tips to implement a resilient supply chain will help build a strategic business outlook.

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Todd Burke is president at Houston-based Smith and Associates.

GoExpedi's innovative platform makes it easier for oil and gas companies to find important parts and tools. Getty Images

Houston oil and gas startup closes $25M series B round

Money moves

Following its most recent funding round, a Houston e-commerce startup specializing in the oil and gas industry has big plans for growth.

GoExpedi has closed its $25 million series B funding round that was San Francisco-based Top Tier Capital Partners, with Houston-based Blue Bear Capital, Houston-based CSL Ventures, San Francisco-based Crosslink Capital, New York-based Bowery Capital, and other investors contributing too.

Founded in 2017, the e-commerce, supply chain, and analytics company, which closed its $8 million series A in January, is using the funds to up the ante on its growth plans.

"This round of funding allows us to significantly accelerate our geographic expansion across North America as well as globally, further build out our technology platform, and expand our reach from the land drilling market to the offshore, midstream and downstream markets," says Tim Neal, CEO of GoExpedi, in a news release.

"Since announcing our Series A round of financing in January 2019, we have signed several major customers and are expanding to meet their needs across the globe. This also positions us to take on other significant customers as we build out and deliver our unique capabilities as well as a value proposition that is revolutionizing the industry."

The company has over 200,000 parts and supplies on its e-commerce platform for oil and gas companies to have easy access to along with price transparency and supplier choice.

"It is clear that GoExpedi is onto something very unique," says Garth A.L. Timoll, Sr., managing director at Top Tier Capital Partners, in the release. "In our conversations with GoExpedi's customers, they made clear that the significant cost savings, combined with the platform's capability to provide spend transparency, order accuracy and speed, all customized to their workflow processes are providing major benefits to their businesses."

GoExpedi's clients, according to the release, includes over 20 companies with two if the top five drilling contractors in the United States. The platform operates with Amazon-like transparency, optimizing technology to provide tracking and timely delivery.

Photo via goexpedi.com

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Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco