SXSW is back for 2021 — and applications are open for the startup pitch competition. Photo by Marie Ketring via sxsw.org

On March 6, just days before the 2020 SXSW festival was scheduled to begin, local officials issued an emergency order, effectively banning large-scale events in Austin as the novel coronavirus began spreading across the U.S. As a result, SXSW canceled its flagship 10-day festival for the first time ever.

In retrospect, the decision likely saved lives and helped curb the spread of COVID-19, but SXSW's corporate fallout was fast and brutal. Within days, SXSW laid off 30 percent of its Austin-based workforce, and many were left wondering if the festival would ever return.

Finally, a bright spot of news in a dark time: SXSW is back. Yes, it will look different than years past, but beginning Tuesday, November 10, registration is open for SXSW Online, taking place March 16-20, 2021.

"This year has been one like none of us have faced. At SXSW, the impact has been profound and has involved substantial changes in how we work, so it means a lot for us to have the chance to plan a 2021 digital event where we can share experiences and exchange ideas at this crucial time," says SXSW co-founder and CEO Roland Swenson in a release.

Since its founding in 1987, SXSW has grown from a little Texas music festival to an internationally renowned festival that attracts the brightest minds in technology, film, music, and comedy. The 2021 digital version will capture much of that spirit, with signature keynote addresses, conference sessions, music showcases, comedy sets, film screenings, and other "unexpected discoveries."

Badges are on sale beginning today, and are priced at $149 for a limited time. By March 2021, that rate will go up to $399. Student and group discounts are also available. Digital passes grant access to the following:

  • SXSW Keynotes and Featured Speakers
  • Mentor sessions and workshops
  • SXSW Film Festival screenings, events, and exclusive premieres
  • SXSW Music Festival showcases and events
  • SXSW Comedy Festival content
  • Online exhibitions
  • Networking opportunities
SXSW's startup pitch competition will return in 2021 too. Applications are open online — early bird applications for $29 will be accepted until November 24, and regularly priced submissions are accepted up to January 8 for $59.

A lineup isn't yet available — SXSW usually announces details in the two months leading up to the festival — but community voting on SXSW session proposals is currently underway through November 20. Peruse the more than 1,500 panels here, and vote for the ones you want to attend next year.

"It's a new day for America and for the world," Swenson adds. "We have the opportunity to face challenges that affect us all, and we're honored to bring you the conversations that will renew your hope in tomorrow."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston's Nobel Prize winner, Jim Allison, is the star of Breakthrough, which premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App. Photo via SXSW.com

Documentary featuring Houston Nobel Prize winner to air on PBS

to-watch list

Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, our current coronavirus heroes are donning face masks as they save lives. One local health care hero has a different disease as his enemy, and you'll soon be able to stream his story.

Dr. James "Jim" Allison won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in battling cancer by treating the immune system — rather than the tumor. Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has quietly and often, singularly, waged war with cancer utilizing this unique approach.

The soft-spoken trailblazer is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Jim Allison: Breakthrough, which will air on PBS and its streaming channels on Monday, April 27 at 9 pm (check local listings for channel information). Lauded as "the most cheering film of the year" by the Washington Post, the film follows Allison's personal journey to defeat cancer, inspired and driven by the disease killed his mother.

Breakthrough is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features music by Willie Nelson, adding a distinct hint of Texana. (The film was a star at 2019's South by Southwest film festival.) The documentary charts Alice, Texas native as he enrolls at the University of Texas, Austin and ultimately, cultivates an interest in T cells and the immune system — and begins to frequent Austin's legendary music scene. Fascinated by the immune system's power to protect the body from disease, Allison's research soon focuses on how it can be used to treat cancer.

Viewers will find Allison charming, humble, and entertaining: the venerable doctor is also an accomplished blues harmonica player. Director Bill Haney weaves Allison's personal story with the medical case of Sharon Belvin, a patient diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 who soon enrolled in Allison's clinical trials. Belvin has since been entirely cancer-free, according to press materials.

"We are facing a global health challenge that knows no boundaries or race or religion, and we are all relying on gifted and passionate scientists and healthcare workers to contain and ultimately beat this thing," said Haney, in a statement. "Jim Allison and the unrelenting scientists like him are my heroes – and I'll bet they become yours!"

Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Three Houston-based startups logged on to pitch digitally this week since SXSW was canceled. Getty Images

Houston startups turn to digital pitches during coronavirus shutdown

available online only

When SXSW canceled a couple weeks ago, event organizers were sent into a frantic scramble of how to salvage some aspect of their plans while also balancing lost deposits, canceled travel, and so much more.

Three pitch events associated with SXSW and featuring Houston startups went on in a digital capacity, and the social distancing has only just began. Michele Price who leads Startup Grind Houston says the Google-backed organization with locations everywhere is aware of the need for digital networking options.

"We are all going to be in some education training ourselves learning how to deliver value to our communities from the digital space," Price says during her video pitch conference call, "and how to take our face-to-face opportunities and events and work them over so that they can meet the needs of where we all are right now."

Here are the Houston companies who had to switch up their pitches for an online audience this week.

Footprint App takes 3rd place in Hatch Pitch

footprint

Climate change sparked a young Houstonian to create Footprint, an app that tracks a person's ecological impact. Photo courtesy of Footprint

On Monday, Houston-based Hatch Pitch was supposed to have its annual pitch competition from SXSW in Austin. Per usual, Hatch was going to stream the invite-only competition to online viewers. However, with SXSW being canceled, the program went completely online. The four entrepreneurs who were selected to pitch for the panel of judges presented online and each of the judges chimed in with questions and feedback.

The four startups that pitched were Los Angeles-based Mi Terra, Canada-based Byte Sight, New Jersey-based Well Power, and Houston-based Footprint. WellPower won first place, as well as the crowd award, Byte Sight took second and the audience award, and Footprint won third.

Dakota Stormer founded Footprint last year and said this was his first pitch competition. Footprint is an app that tracks the carbon footprints of users. It works similar to diet-tracking apps like MyFitnessPal, but it doesn't count the calories; instead, it logs the emissions of their eating and travel habits. Read more about Footprint here.

Hatch Pitch has plans to have a second pitch competition later next month focused on cybersecurity. It's, at the moment, still planned to take place in person at the Houston Cyber Summit.

For All Abilities pitches for Startup Grind Houston

for all abilities

Betsy Furler founded For All Abilities to use technology to support employees with disabilities. Photo courtesy of For All Abilities

With so many startups' plans to attend SXSW ruined, Startup Grind Houston planned an online pitch event. There weren't any prizes, but it was a good way to virtually network and share stories. Houston-based For All Abilities founder, Betsy Furler, explained her software company that aims to help businesses support employees with ADHD, Dyslexia, learning differences, and Autism.

The company, which launched in April 2019, was founded by Betsy Furler, who specializes in workplace disability issues. Furler created a strengths, needs, and preferences assessment to uncover the needs and preferences of employees to prescribe specific, individualized, inexpensive, and easy-to-use support.

Furler called for potential partners as she scales her growth.

"Ideal customer is the large companies who care about their employees," she says in her pitch, explaining that she thinks companies on the West Coast would be particularly interested.

Velour Imports presents for The Established's Startup of the Year competition

Velour Imports makes it easier for big resorts to get wholesale craft drinks. Pexels

The Established House has hosted a pitch competition every year at SXSW, and this year was no different — except that it went on online only. Fourteen companies from across the country pitched, including one Houston representative.

Velour Imports is a beverage wholesale marketplace that uses a similar concept as Uber Eats to connect resorts and hospitality clients to pallets of craft beer, wine, hard cider, and spirits from a digital menu and then watch orders arrive from any smartphone or web device. It's usually quite difficult to order craft beverages on a large scale, and Velour Imports provides that solution in an innovative, digital form.

"Luxury resorts and hotels have an annual challenge of creating exciting, new food and beverage experiences to attract guests," says founder Brooke Sinclair in her pitch, "but rarely do they have the time and resources to go shopping."

While Velour didn't win any of the top five spots in the competition, she did get positive feedback on her presentation.

SXSW was canceled this year due to the rising threat of COVID19, aka the coronavirus, but these events are still ones to check out if you are still planning on attending. Marie Ketring/via sxsw.org

The show must go on with these SXSW-related events in Houston and Austin

Texas strong

With SXSW canceled — and now the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has followed suit — and Austin and Houston entrepreneurs are reeling from the loss of networking, pitch competitions, and business opportunities. But unaffiliated organizations are trying to keep some of the spirit of SXSW alive in both Texas cities and online.

"Coronavirus dropped an economic bomb on Austin, and we are trying to triage the scraps," says Marc Nathan, vice president of client strategy at Egan Nelson, an Austin-based, startup-focused law firm.

The economic impact of SXSW 2019 was reported by the organization to have been over $350 million, and, even assuming this year's festival was on par with that, the city of Austin has lost more than that — from the affect on restaurants, lodging, and more. At this point, refunds are not being given out to badge holders.

Additionally, the organization itself is hurting. The 10-day festival has a year-round staff of over 150 people, and SXSW has recently laid off around 30 percent of those employees. Nathan, who says he highly suspects the organization will have to look into restructuring or even bankruptcy, also notes the cancelation will hurt individuals in a way that's not so easy to track.

"This did affect individuals," Nathan says. "Yes, the big brands were hurt and lost a lot of money, but it's not about them. It's about the little guys — the startups that wanted to launch, the bands that wanted to play, or the films that were selected for the contest. It's all the people who use SXSW as a platform, and that platform just disintegrated."

A group of scrappy Austinites have banded together to create Rally Austin and are putting together resources and events online for those still coming into the city and are looking to network responsibly. A few events are also taking place digitally. Here's a list of events to attend, and keep an eye on Rally Austin for any last-minute updates.

Houston-based WatchHerWork's Female Founders Day (March 12 in Austin)

Two Houston female founders — Reda Hicks and Denise Hamilton — saw an opportunity to make SXSW more female friendly, and that's what they've done by introducing this new unofficial SXSW event. Click here for more.

Hicks recently joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the opportunity. Click here to listen.

SoFin @ SXSW 2020 (March 13 in Austin)

Focused on fintech solutions, SoFin will go on as planned and will feature Houston-based iownit.us, a blockchain-enabled investment platform. Click here for more info.

The Austin Tech Happy Hour will also still be held on Friday, March 13, in Austin. Click here for more info.

Houston-based Hatch Pitch Competition (March 16 hosted online)

The annual pitch competition, which is usually streamed online, will switch to completely online only. Click here for more info.

Hatch Pitch is also expected to host a Houston-based, cybersecurity-focused competition next month. Click here to read more.

OpenCoffee Club (March 16 in Austin)

Open Coffee Club, a monthly networking opportunity, will continue as planned. Networking is encouraged, handshaking is not. Click here for more info.

Digital Pitch - An Alternative to SXSW2020 (March 17 hosted online)

Houston's Startup Grind has organized a digital pitch competition that will be hosted completely online. Click here for more info.

Startup of the Year Virtual Pitch Competition (March 17 hosted online)

The Established's annual pitch competition is going online, despite The Established House's physical location being canceled. A Houston-based company will still pitch and the competition has Houston judges involved as well. Click here for more info.

A Houston startup that uses tech to speed up and lower the cost of home building will pitch at SXSW this year. Photo via 3spacemakers.com

Houston-area construction tech startup prepares for next phase at SXSW

homes for everyone

Conroe-based construction tech company that specializes in creating technology to develop cost-efficient high-quality homes built in half the time is gearing up for new growth due to their recent selection as a finalist in SXSW Pitch 2020.

3Space Makers was at first selected as an alternate in the "Artificial Intelligence, Robotics & Voice" category for the 12th annual SXSW Pitch, formerly known as SXSW Accelerator, but was recently bumped to finalist.

"It's gratifying to learn that we have been selected," Ted Cox, CEO and co-founder of 3Space Makers, tells InnovationMap. "Our team has been working really hard for this moment. I think that not only do we have a good product, but the mission that we are on is what is resonating the most."

3Space Makers uses robotics, artificial intelligence, and 3D printing to spur innovation in the construction industry, allowing for faster manufacturing processes which, according to Cox, will enable homes to be built better, faster, and cheaper. The typical 3Space Makers home takes one month to build, drastically reducing the time frame of construction projects and thus reducing their cost.

"Everything in the construction industry right now is manual and human-driven," says Cox. "Until now that has been enough to get the job done. A typical home currently takes 3 to 6 months to build, 3Space Makers dramatically takes the inefficiencies out of the construction industry."

The company is developing new innovative technology marrying autonomous robotics and cloud-based control systems to produce detailed data to validate building standards. Their Fab & Fill process uses eco-friendly material known as BioSilicate to manufacture complete metal-framed walls and roofs using semi-automated processes.

The eco-friendly material can be made from natural materials native for particular regions such as corn husks and sugar cane, converting waste material into revenue for local farmers.

"We are building homes that are safe, durable, and affordable to those who are most in need using our processes," says Cox "We can cut the time of construction in about half along with the cost, that makes homes available for those who couldn't afford it otherwise, it's a bringing the promise of technology to the construction industry."

The idea for 3Space Makers was born out of the need to help vulnerable members of society, including low-income families and homeless veterans who cannot afford to buy a home with current high real estate prices.

The construction start-up aims to meet its '50/50/50' performance target to benefit veterans and low-income families.

"Any technology or process we develop," says Cox. "Must be 50 percent faster, 50 percent less expensive and 50 percent better than current methods on the market."

At their SXSW pitch, 3Space Makers will premiere as Integra Homes, a rebrand that represents a focus on increasing affordability for homes. The company is also currently working on raising a round of funding this year, along with gearing up to grow their facilities to finish their current projects, including building 5,000 homes in the U.S. and Jamaica.

"When we were originally founded, our focus was on serving homeless veterans, that remains to this day," says Cox. "But we also found that there is quite a need, not only in the U.S. for affordable homes. By being able to come in and build high-quality affordable homes with the help of our technological processes, it's going to make a big difference for many individuals."

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Unique Houston-based venture studio looks to double portfolio in 2021

startup support

Lauren Bahorich is in the business of supporting businesses. In February 2020, she launched Cloudbreak Enterprises — B-to-B SaaS-focused, early-stage venture studio — with plans to onboard, invest in, and support around three new scalable companies a year. And, despite launching right ahead of a global pandemic, that's exactly what she did.

Bahorich, who previously worked at Golden Section Ventures, wanted to branch off on her own to create a venture studio to get in on the ground level of startups — to be a co-founder to entrepreneurs and provide a slew of in-house resources and support from development and sales to marketing and administration.

"We start at zero with just an idea, and we partner with out co-founders to build the idea they have and the domain expertise and the industry connections to take that idea and built a product and a company," Bahorich says.

Bahorich adds that there aren't a lot of venture studios in the United States — especially in Houston. While people might be more familiar with the incubator or accelerator-style of support for startups, the venture studio set up is much more intimate.

"We truly see ourselves as co-founders, so our deals are structured with co-founder equity," Bahorich says, explaining that Cloudbreak is closer to a zero-stage venture capital fund than to any incubator. "We are equally as incentivized as our co-founders to de-risk this riskiest stage of startups because we are so heavily invested and involved with our companies."

Cloudbreak now has three portfolio companies, and is looking to onboard another three more throughout the rest of the year. Bahorich runs a team of 15 professionals, all focused on supporting the portfolio. While creating the studio amid the chaos of 2020 wasn't the plan, there were some silver linings including being able to start with part-time developers and transition them to full-time employees as the companies grew.

"Within the first month, we were in shutdown here in Houston," Bahorich says. "But it's been a great opportunity for us. Where a lot of companies were pivoting and reassessing, we were actually able to grow because we were just starting at zero ourselves."

Cloudbreak's inaugural companies are in various stages and industries, but the first company to be onboarded a year ago — Relay Construction Solutions, a bid leveling software for the construction industry — joined the venture studio as just an idea and is already close to first revenue and potentially new investors. Cloudgate is also creating a commercial real estate data management software and an offshore logistics platform. All three fall into a SaaS sweet spot that Bahorich hopes to continue to grow.

"We are looking to replace legacy workflows that are still performed in Excel or by email or phone," Bahorich says. "It's amazing how many opportunities there are that fit into that bucket — these high-dollar, error-prone workflows that are still done like it's 1985."

Given the hands-on support, Bahorich assumed she'd attract mostly first-time entrepreneurs who don't have experience with all the steps needed to launch the business. However, she says she's gotten interest from serial entrepreneurs who recognized how valuable the in-house support can be for expediting the early-stage startup process.

"What I'm realizing is a selling point is our in-house expertise. These founders are looking for technical co-founders," Bahorich says. "We can both provide that role and be capital partners."

Expert: Texas must grow its solar infrastructure to prevent more weather-related power outages

guest column

As Texans begin to recover from last month's once-in-a-century winter storm, many wonder how the state — an icon of the oil and gas industry and home to Houston, "the energy capital of the world" — was thrust into darkness for days on end.

When the Texas power grid began failing in communities statewide, many in positions of power quickly laid the blame at the feet of the renewables industry. But with solar and wind power accounting for only 28.6 percent of the state's energy supply, clearly, renewables were not the sole, or even primary, culprits responsible for the massive outages. The facts point to a much more complex set of circumstances — a series of extreme weather events, one after the other; a burgeoning population; and a grossly unprepared system — all of which combined to cause an increasingly strained, aging grid to fail spectacularly.

The events of last month were a not-so-subtle demonstration of the inadequacy of our current power structure, but what does that mean for the future of Texas energy? Obviously, Texas leaders and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) must begin updating the state's grid with the resources necessary to sustain the rapidly increasing demand for reliable power. Undoubtedly, that will cause a hike in consumer energy costs, especially in deregulated markets like Houston, where profitability and demand drive prices.

Widespread distributed generation of solar energy—rather than the state's current emphasis on utility-scale solar generation — would provide a highly effective, long-term solution to minimizing strain on Texas' power grid. This means dramatically increasing the number of local solar installations on residential and commercial properties statewide. Think about it: The distance and infrastructure required to bring power from West Texas solar farms to the state's urban centers leaves too much room for vulnerabilities. Solar makes more sense on-site, behind the meter, and paired with storage for backup power.

Simply stated, the more businesses and residences who have solar power, the less burden on the grid and the more insulated the grid is against failure. Further, by installing batteries such as the Tesla Powerwall for backup power, solar customers control their own power supply and ensure its reliability, even during extreme weather events like the one we just experienced. These batteries are mass market-ready, reliable and cost-efficient today.

With the increasing volatility of the Texas energy market, home and business owners are finding solar is a more appealing investment than ever before.

The amount of solar power required to power a home or business depends on the amount of energy the owner seeks to offset. For example, a solar array geared toward reducing an energy bill will be significantly smaller than a system designed to take the customer off the grid entirely. Backup power solutions are similarly dependent, with options ranging from a single battery capable of powering small household appliances to a bank of several batteries or a generator able to power a whole household or commercial space. Either way, the combination of solar power and backup provides reliability many Texans wished they had during the record freeze we just endured.

The public outcry over the massive power outages has laid a mandate at the feet of state leaders: Do what is necessary to make the power grid sustainable. At the same time, utilities statewide are looking at what they can do to increase reliability in their own communities. Deregulated energy prices will only rise because of continuing population growth and the need to update grid infrastructure.

No matter how you look at it, enlarging the state's independent solar infrastructure is a reliable way to protect businesses and homeowners alike against surging energy costs and weather-related power outages.

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Bret Biggart is the CEO of Texas-based Freedom Solar.

New app gives good shot at finding COVID-19 vaccination in Houston

HELP WITH HEALTHCARE

Are you frustrated by the hoops you're jumping through to get a COVID-19 vaccination? The GoodRx drug-price-comparison app has stepped in to help.

GoodRx just rolled out a guide so you can learn about the COVID-19 vaccine, track its availability, and set up a vaccination appointment in Houston or elsewhere in Texas.

"Vaccine information has been fragmented and availability unclear, so GoodRx has built the go-to destination for all Americans to track the vaccine rollout locally," the company says in a statement.

GoodRx is collecting data from more than 15,000 vaccination sites and is monitoring the country's 70,000 pharmacies as well as state-specific sites to update appointment availability. New information is added as it becomes available.

Among other things, the GoodRx guide tells you who's eligible for vaccinations where you live, who's next in line, and how you can make a vaccination appointment. You can even sign up to receive text messages that alert you when vaccination eligibility changes in your area.

This news comes as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has reopened the state and lifted the mask mandate — which could put Houstonians at even greater risk.

Meanwhile, throughout Texas, the recent winter storm, power outages, and water shortages hampered the ability to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. As of March 3, Harris County shows some 351,063 confirmed COVD cases, according to most-recent data, and 2,297,878 cases statewide. Information about the Texas vaccination plan is available on the Department of State Health Services website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.