Both commercial and residential real estate businesses have been greatly affected by social distancing mandate. These two Houston companies are using technology to help grow their business. Photo courtesy of Cameron Management

As the coronavirus impacts foot traffic throughout businesses in Houston, the real estate world is ushering in digital resources to adapt to a socially distanced city.

Mike Miller, vice president of Ashlar Development, saw the growing threat of COVID-19 in early March and knew he and his team had to find new ways to engage prospective home buyers safely. By the time Houston County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the stay-at-home order, Ashlar Development had started the process of drafting a 360-degree interactive map for its northeast Houston community, The Groves, that would allow homebuyers to virtually tour the property.

"People were scared to come out of their homes, to touch model home door knobs, and walk-in and see a sales agent," says Miller, who noted the initial decline in foot traffic.

The interactive map debuted on The Groves' website on March 30, allowing users to experience the community through 35 different touchpoints. Website visitors can peruse nearby trails, the playground, pool, community amenities, and the local elementary school to immerse yourself in the community.

"One of our mantras at The Groves is to get outside. We encourage our residents to get outside and enjoy the community, enjoy the trails, and enjoy everything. What this [interactive map] does is it allows you to safely get outside from the safety of your home," he says.

Ashlar Development launched a virtual tour tool for its northeast Houston community. Image courtesy of Ashlar Development

Commercial real estate is also paving the way for innovation amid the pandemic. Houston-based real estate group, Cameron Management, unveiled its virtual 3D office tour on Monday. Partnering with Austin-based Swivel, a digital leasing platform for office space, the real estate group's latest venture will allow tenants and brokers the ability to take a 3-D virtual tour of suites.

The SaaS-based leasing application, AgileView, will feature 50,000 square feet comprised of 12 Cameron Management suites.

"We were looking to provide a tour to a broker, [or] to a broker's client, without anybody having to put themselves at any risk," says Jano Nixon Kelley, Cameron Management's director of marketing.

Kelley had built a strong relationship with the Swivel team prior to the coronavirus outbreak. When she learned of the capabilities of AgileView, "we jumped on it," she says.

"We were so pleased that they actually got the feeling for the building," Kelley says, "It doesn't look cookie cutter."

Another way both companies are getting creative is through digital marketing. Ashlar Development pivoted to digital advertising through paid media ads, email campaigns, and social media marketing. Rather than cutting its marketing budget, the community reallocated funds to building out the 360-degree interactive map and transitioning from print ads to digital display ads.

The response equated to what Miller deems an "incredible success." In the first week of launching the 360-degree interactive map, Ashlar Development saw a 3,000 percent increase in page views. The traffic resulted in a 1,200 percent increase in views to its "Meet the Builder" page, which features various home builders partnered with The Groves community. Since the tour launch, the company has seen a 220 percent increase in first-time visitors to its website.

Ashlar Development's significant web traffic isn't just a vanity number; Miller states that the Groves has seen a 116 percent increase in April sales as compared to last year. To date, the community is seeing approximately 30 percent in year-over-year sales since the stay-at-home order took effect.

Similar to Ashlar Development's approach, Kelley says Cameron Management utilized email marketing to launch her campaign. Cameron Management is also incentivizing brokers to use the application by hosting a two-week-long scavenger hunt for a chance to win an Amegy Bank debit card in an effort to support local business. "They can choose how to use their money, but hopefully they use it locally," says Kelley.

"Even if you're at home, [AgileView] gives you something visual to look at. Maybe you've got kids at home and can say, 'look, here's a game we can play together.' It's something to get people engaged," says Kelley.

"Office space needs for organizations of all sizes are modifying quickly, and likely will be changed for the long term. As the commercial real estate community adjusts to this new normal, there are still many unknowns," Kelley says. "At Cameron Management, we believe our differentiator is the ability to be nimble and pragmatic across all areas of our business—now and well beyond COVID-19," she continues.

For Ashlar Development, foot traffic has returned "almost back to normal," according to Miller, who attributes the rise to "pent up demand" once the stay-at-home order lifted.

"We're all kind of stuck in our houses, and our only outlet is to get outside and enjoy where you live," he says. "Our residents don't have to get in the car to enjoy a nearby county park, they can enjoy the community and the great outdoors right outside of their home," he says.

Miller himself recently bought a house from the comfort of his residence, electronically depositing his earnest money and signing for his future home.

"I think we're on the verge of a digital revolution in our industry," Miller says confidently. "Real estate has been slow to get into the digital realm, but I think this is going to force us to embrace technology."

Usually, Ashlar Development's selling point for The Groves is its access to "get outside." But, in a time of COVID-19, the company has optimized its technology to let home buying and touring stay inside for the time being. Photo courtesy of Ashlar Development

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Annual student startup competition in Houston names teams for 2024

ready to pitch

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship announced the 42 student-led teams worldwide that will compete in the highly competitive Rice Business Plan Competition this spring.

The annual competition, known as one of the world’s largest and richest intercollegiate student startup competitions, will take place April 4 to 6 in Houston. Teams in this year's competition represent 35 universities from four countries, including two teams from Houston and four others from Texas.

Teams, made up of graduate students from a college or university anywhere in the world, will present their plans before 350 angel, venture capital, and corporate investors to compete for more than $1 million in prizes. Last year, teams were awarded $3.4 million in investment and in-kind prizes, the largest total awarded thus far in the decades-old competition after some investors doubled — or even tripled — down on investment awards.

The 2024 RBPC will focus on five categories: Energy, Cleantech and Sustainability; Hard Tech; Life Sciences and Healthcare Solutions; Digital Enterprise; Consumer Products and Services.

Invitees include:

  • AIRS ML, Imperial College London (United Kingdom)
  • Blaze Power, UCLA
  • ChiChi Foods, Washington University in St. Louis
  • CureWave Sciences, Rutgers University
  • CurveAssure, Johns Hopkins University
  • D.Sole, Carnegie Mellon University
  • Dendritic Health AI, Northwestern University
  • Dialysis Innovations, University of Michigan
  • FlowCellutions, University of Pittsburgh
  • HEXAspec, Rice University
  • HydroPhos Solutions, University of New Hampshire
  • Icorium Engineering Company, University of Kansas
  • Informuta, Tulane University
  • Kiwi Charge, York University (Canada)
  • Korion Health, University of Maryland, College Park
  • Limitless Aeronautics, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University
  • LiQuidium, University of Houston
  • Malleous, University of Pittsburgh
  • MesaQuantum, Harvard University
  • MineMe, University of Pennsylvania
  • NaviAI, Cornell University
  • NutriAI, Tufts University
  • OSPHIM, RWTH Aachen University (Germany)
  • Overture Games, Northwestern University
  • OX SOX, University of Georgia
  • Oxylus Energy, Yale University
  • Palanquin Power, University of Texas at Austin
  • Paradigm Robotics, University of Texas at Austin
  • Particle-N, University of Connecticut
  • Poka Labs, Harvard University
  • Power2Polymer, RWTH Aachen University (Germany)
  • ProPika, University of Arkansas
  • Protein Pints, Michigan State University
  • Samtracs, Oklahoma State University
  • Sancorda Medical, University of Texas at Dallas
  • Side Coach Sports, Baylor University
  • Socian AI, Rochester Institute of Technology
  • Somnair, Johns Hopkins University
  • TouchStone, University of California, Berkeley
  • Vita Innovations, Stanford University
  • WattShift, University of Chicago
  • ZebraMD, UCLA

The companies join more than 700 RBPC alumns that have collectively raised more than $5.5 billion in funding. More than 269 RBPC companies are in business or have made successful exits, according to the Rice Alliance's website.

Last year, Texas A&M-based team FluxWorks took home $350,000 and won the competition based on judges scores. The company's technology includes magnetic gears that are four times quieter than standard with 99 percent efficiency.

Sygne Solutions and TierraClimate, two Rice-led teams, won second and fourth places, respectively. Zaymo, from Brigham Young University, took home the most in investment dollars. Click here to see the full list of 2023 teams.

Texas is the No. 1 destination for Gen Zers on the move, study says

by the numbers

A new population analysis by real estate marketplace Zillow has pegged the Lone Star State as the No. 1 destination for adults born between 1996 and 2004 – also known as Gen Z.

Using data from the 2022 U.S. Census Bureau, the report identifies the Top 10 states to which Gen Zers are moving, and Texas was the runaway winner – far outranking No. 2 destination, California, with 76,805 Gen Z movers, versus California's 43,913.

Reasons for moving vary, but the report says young adults from 18 to 24 years old may prefer to live in states with high performing job markets, especially in a place like San Antonio where one of the nation's top employers resides. San Antonio is also a great place for remote work, according to estimations by Forbes.

Favorable weather also may play a factor in the high migration of Gen Z'ers, the report suggests. Texas' mostly year-round sunshine makes it more attractive to younger crowds who are looking for fun activities around the state, not to mention the advantageous impact on dating opportunities.

Other top states with high influx of Gen Z movers include Washington (No. 5), which added over 33,500 Gen Z movers in 2022, and Colorado (No. 6) with less than 31,000 new Gen Z residents.

Their least favorite destination was Michigan, and the Northeast also ranked poorly, with four New England states – Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine – all in the bottom 10.

State with a high cost-of-living like Washington, Colorado, and Virginia (No. 7) are places where young adults are more likely to have a bachelor's degree, work in tech, or serve in the military, according to Zillow principal population scientist Edward Berchick.

However, becoming a homeowner is much more difficult, as the report found 77 percent of the Gen Z workers in these states are renters.

"Gen Z movers are likely drawn to the job opportunities in these states, despite the higher costs of housing," Berchick explains. "They may also be in a stage of life where they're willing and able to be flexible in their standards of living while starting their careers."

The top 10 states for Gen Z movers are:

  • No. 1 – Texas
  • No. 2 – California
  • No. 3 – Florida
  • No. 4 – North Carolina
  • No. 5 – Washington
  • No. 6 – Colorado
  • No. 7 – Virginia
  • No. 8 – Illinois
  • No. 9 – Georgia
  • No. 10 – Arizona

The full report can be found on zillow.mediaroom.com.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Op-Ed: Black-owned businesses are making history in Texas, across America

guest column

In recent years, our small business community has weathered a global pandemic, persistent supply chain issues, sometimes volatile prices, and a tight labor market—and Black-owned businesses in our state have faced disproportionate impacts from these pandemic challenges.

Despite those headwinds, Black-owned businesses across Texas are fueling one of the largest and most diverse waves of new business creation America has ever seen—what President Biden calls America’s Small Business Boom.

As we mark America’s 48th national celebration of Black History Month, the SBA is highlighting Black-owned businesses’ achievements here in Texas and throughout the nation. The past three years have been the three strongest years of new business formation in American history.

The 16 million new business applications filed during this period show Americans starting businesses at nearly twice the rate—86 percent faster—compared to the pre-2021 average. During that time, U.S. small businesses have created more than 7.2 million net new jobs. And Black-owned businesses are responsible for some of the most significant gains.

The Invest in America agenda is powering the Biden Small Business Boom, and unlike many economic recoveries of the past, this one includes entrepreneurs of color. One of the reasons for that is the SBA’s Community Navigator Pilot Program (CNPP). This innovative hub-and-spoke partnership connected hundreds of community organizations around the country - like the U.S. Black Chambers of Commerce and the National Urban League - with entrepreneurs, helping them make the most of SBA resources. “The SBA CNPP allowed the

Houston Area Urban League Entrepreneurship Center to leverage existing partnerships with organizations that offered services to socially and economically disadvantaged business owners and women-owned businesses,” states Eric Goodie, Executive Vice President of the Houston Area Urban League. “Through the CNPP we provided comprehensive business planning and support, e-commerce technical assistance, financial and credit education, opportunities for business networking, access to capital and procurement opportunities,while providing assistance with obtaining various business certifications. We also found theSBA Lender match portal to be a critical resource in the capital acquisition process."

Under Administrator Isabel Guzman, the SBA has also delivered record-breaking government contracting for small businesses—including the most federal contracting dollars going to Black-owned businesses in history. And we’re addressing longstanding gaps in access to capital for Black entrepreneurs, more than doubling our small business loans toBlack-owned businesses since 2020.

These investments are making a big impact. Black business ownership is growing at the fastest pace in 30 years. The share of Black households owning a business doubled between 2019 and 2022. In 2023 alone, Census data showed Americans filed 5.5 million new business applications across the country, including over 500,000 here in Texas. That success is creating a rising tide. Black wealth is up a record 60 percent from before the pandemic, and Black unemployment has reached historic lows since 2021.

The SBA also understands that the work must continue. Black entrepreneurs and other historically underserved communities still face obstacles accessing capital. That's why President Biden and the SBA are committed to ensuring that anyone with a good idea can pursue that opportunity, and the Small Business Boom speaks to that success. We're helping more Americans than ever access the funds they need to realize their dreams of small business ownership – and that means more jobs, more goods and services, and more resilient communities, no matter the zip code.

To learn more about SBA resources, entrepreneurs are invited to join the SBA Houston District Office as it teams up with the Emancipation Economic Development Council and dynamic community organizations to celebrate Black History Month. The organizations will host the Resources to Empower Entrepreneurs event at the Emancipation Cultural Center on Wednesday, February 28, and will feature discussions surrounding resources, funding, and training available for small business owners.

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Mark Winchester is the SBA Houston District Office's acting district director.