The telework paradigm may be here to stay in research long after the COVID pandemic tapers off. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

How many of the research administrator's duties can be done from home? COVID-19 is showing us emphatically that the answer is many.

There are some aspects that take a little bit of inventive scheduling to make happen, but overall, the telework paradigm may be here to stay in research long after the COVID pandemic tapers off.

Meetings and more meetings

Research professionals know that there are always meetings to attend – with faculty colleagues, research coordinators and institutional review boards. These can be accessed easily over the internet. Back-to-back meetings are much easier to jump on these days.

Sign away

The Society of Research Administrators International blog reminds us that contracts can be sent electronically for signatures: "Sponsors large and small have implemented electronic portals for proposal submissions. Is there a need to be at the office on campus? That is so pre-COVID."

Transportation

Transportation difficulties are all but eliminated in between meetings, and we spend little to no time commuting (as an aside, check out work-from-home discounts for work-from-home car insurance). "More than 30 minutes of daily one-way commuting is associated with increased levels of stress and anxiety," states flexjobs.com. So the telework environment helps to offset that stress. And that doesn't even take into account the environmental impact of fewer cars on the road!

The kids are alright

Childcare. When schools went virtual while some of us worked from home, a crisis was averted. Except for the danger of easy distraction that multi-tasking presented, families often grew closer in the home while working side by side. But essential personnel had a different tale to tell. For instance, Kelly Heath, the director of University of Nebraska – Lincoln Institutional Animal Care Program, said: "Organizing child care is particularly complicated for essential employees and it's added stress to the situation." His team has implemented a three-day consecutive schedule, alternating two teams. This schedule has helped, he said. "Staff are working the same number of hours, but the division provides protection so that if someone on Team A gets sick, Team B has not been exposed."

David Brammer, executive director of Animal Care Operations (ACO) at the University of Houston, developed a similar plan, segregating teams according to geographic location and limiting interaction between the teams. "UH also limited investigators' access to the animal facility until the ACO staff could complete their duties within the facility. The major concern for ACO was to have staff available to care for the animals in the event that a team was either ill or in quarantine due to contract tracing."

Saving money

"People who work from home half time can save around $4,000 per year," states flexjobs.com. "Car maintenance, transportation, parking fees, a professional wardrobe, lunches bought out, and more can all be reduced or eliminated from your spending entirely."

A word on animal care operations

Animal care in the research enterprise poses a significant hurdle. The veterinary care personnel have always been considered "essential." Creative scheduling, like the aforementioned three-day on, three-day off, two-team model has helped to offset the difficulty of having animals fed, watered and cared for.

For University of Nebraska – Lincoln, winter break and blizzards had always required this model to be the plan, but the duration of COVID has simply required this to go on longer than before. The animal care operation, "slowed down its work when possible and delayed taking on any new research projects …Those deemed mission critical or related to addressing COVID-19 got top priority," said a communicator.

The big idea...

Are we better off working at home? The argument can certainly be made that we are. There are aspects that aren't ideal – "Zoom Fatigue" comes to mind – but, overall, telework may be the new normal for many universities.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

Here's your university research data management checklist. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Tips for optimizing data management in research, from a UH expert

Houston voices

A data management plan is invaluable to researchers and to their universities. "You should plan at the outset for managing output long-term," said Reid Boehm, research data management librarian at University of Houston Libraries.

At the University of Houston, research data generated while individuals are pursuing research studies as faculty, staff or students of the University of Houston are to be retained by the institution for a period of three years after submission of the final report. That means there is a lot of data to be managed. But researchers are in luck – there are many resources to help navigate these issues.

Take inventory

Is your data

  • Active (constantly changing) or Inactive (static)
  • Open (public) or Proprietary (for monetary gain)
  • Non-identifiable (no human subjects) or Sensitive (containing personal information)
  • Preservable (to save long term) or To discard in 3 years (not for keeping)
  • Shareable (ready for reuse) or Private (not able to be shared)

The more you understand the kind of data you are generating the easier this step, and the next steps, will be.

Check first

When you are ready to write your plan, the first thing to determine is if your funders or the university have data management plan policy and guidelines. For instance, University of Houston does.

It is also important to distinguish between types of planning documents. For example:

A Data Management Plan (DMP) is a comprehensive, formal document that describes how you will handle your data during the course of your research and at the conclusion of your study or project.

While in some instances, funders or institutions may require a more targeted plan such as a Data Sharing Plan (DSP) that describes how you plan to disseminate your data at the conclusion of a research project.

Consistent questions that DMPs ask include:

  • What is generated?
  • How is it securely handled? and
  • How is it maintained and accessed long-term?

However it's worded, data is critical to every scientific study.

Pre-proposal

Pre-proposal planning resources and support at UH Libraries include a consultation with Boehm. "Each situation is unique and in my role I function as an advocate for researchers to talk through the contextual details, in connection with funder and institutional requirements," stated Boehm. "There are a lot of aspects of data management and dissemination that can be made less complex and more functional long term with a bit of focused planning at the beginning."

When you get started writing, visit the Data Management Plan Tool. This platform helps by providing agency-specific templates and guidance, working with your institutional login and allowing you to submit plans for feedback.

Post-project

Post-project resources and support involve the archiving, curation and the sharing of information. The UH Data Repository archives, preserves and helps to disseminate your data. The repository, the data portion of the institutional repository Cougar ROAR, is open access, free to all UH researchers, provides data sets with a digital object identifier and allows up to 10 GB per project. Most most Federal funding agencies already require this type of documentation (NSF, NASA, USGS and EPA. The NIH will require DMPs by 2023.

Start out strong

Remember, although documentation is due at the beginning of a project/grant proposal, sustained adherence to the plan and related policies is a necessity. We may be distanced socially, but our need to come together around research integrity remains constant. Starting early, getting connected to resources, and sharing as you can through avenues like the data repository are ways to strengthen ourselves and our work.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

The University of Houston explores how research is being conducted in the age of the pandemic. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Here's how Houston researchers are doing their work amid COVID-19

houston voices

As far as COVID-19 goes, Level 1 is the worst threat level. Harris County remains at Level 1, or "Severe Threat" for infection of the novel coronavirus. Yet, as they say in the theater, "The show must go on!" And for the most part, research is continuing in many ways. Surveys, interviews and other socially-distanced research has been easy to keep up during the COVID crisis.

How far away is six feet?

Some research must be done in person, though. Try to picture two golden retrievers standing nose to tail. Or a regular mattress. Or even the width of the front of your car. All of these measure in at about six feet. The droplets in the air are what can get you sick and when you stand at least six feet away from a person who is talking, laughing or coughing, you have a better chance of not breathing those virus molecules.

In the beginning... 

In human subjects research, the safety of participant volunteers is always of the utmost importance. This has only become more critical with the entrance of the pandemic in March 2020, and remains so today. In early March, PIs at the University of Houston were asked to review each of their studies and to let the University know whether missing visits would be detrimental to the safety or well-being of human subjects.

Some clinical studies (specifically those taking part in clinics that provide paid health services) were often allowed to continue under COVID precautions adopted by the medical community. Just as if you went to a doctor's office, there were rules: the 6-foot apart rule, mandatory mask-wearing, extra disinfecting and temperature checks. In some cases, modifications made such as the addition of plexiglass to instrumentation increased the safety of research procedures. Additional protections are in place to protect research staff and students; student involvement in research remains strictly voluntary.

What about IRBs?

At the University of Houston (UH), the Research Integrity and Oversight office is working with groups of faculty investigators, general counsel, Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management to put in place safety precautions for re-starting human subjects research where subjects are within six feet of the research team. This will happen once Judge Lina Hidalgo determines that Harris County may be downgraded to Level 2. These institutional requirements are in addition to and on top of the normal precautions taken by the Institutional Review Board, which is formally designated to, among other tasks, review, approve, require modifications in (to secure approval), or disapprove all research activities involving human subjects.

Up close and personal

In the instance Harris County is downgraded to Threat Level 2, COVID-19 procedures have been approved for subjects undergoing research procedures at the UH College of Optometry and in Health and Human and Performance exercise physiology studies. Physiology test subjects are often on treadmills or are exhaling more droplets into the air through exertion brought on by exercise.

COVID-19 procedures for other research that include test subjects that need to be closer than six feet apart (examples: applying sensors, walking in an exoskeleton, completing manual tasks, etc.) have been submitted for review and are currently being evaluated. As this group encompasses such a wide variety of research procedures, it has taken the longest to draft.

Contact tracing

Screening questions, non-recorded temperature checks and a log of updated contact information are now required for all research endeavors. Screening questions mirror those recommended by CDC, including attestations as to whether the participant has had symptoms, travelled out of the country, or has been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID.

The contact information is so that correct information is available should the researcher be contacted by a city or county health department for contact tracing purposes if a positive test result is reported for a subject or research team member. Finally, all subjects are asked to read and sign a document (in addition to the consent form) that explains the increased protections the university has put in place for those coming to campus during the pandemic, including face coverings, social distancing when possible and additional protections depending on the type of research being conducted.

Exceptions

Kirstin Holzschuh, executive director of UH's Research Integrity and Oversight office said, "If there is a compelling justification – for example, a PI is conducting a long-term longitudinal study and missing data points might invalidate the study, or we are one of many research sites and are in jeopardy of losing funding because other (typically non-academic) sites are enrolling and we are not – the PI can contact the Research Integrity and Oversight office and request to use the procedures approved for Level 2 under Threat Level 1." But this also goes through a review process and requires a signed agreement by the investigator that they will follow all approved COVID procedures.

Better safe than sorry

There are always risks and benefits to participating in research, but what must be kept at the foreground of one's human subjects research is that we are considering volunteers. Research subjects must always weigh the risks and benefits of participating in research; a researcher must provide these risks and benefits in clear language that allows the subject to make an informed decision.

"During times of increased risk, such as a pandemic, the university must take further precautions to protect and inform our research subjects regarding the risks of being on campus during a pandemic. Research subjects and their commitment to the greater good fuel our research enterprise, and their safety is always paramount," said Holzschuh.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

In these highly divisive times, it can be a struggle to curb political discussions in the workplace. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

How Houston companies big and small should approach politics in the workplace

Houston voices

Politics has always managed to find its way into the workplace. Casually popping up in conversation here and there. Usually reserved for the water cooler. It always managed to seep through the cracks like a gentle breeze. But, what was once just a breeze, has now become a tsunami.

Politics in the workplace doesn't just casually pop up anymore. In many respects, it has consumed it. According to Harvard Business Review writer Rebecca Knight, companies themselves are now taking political stances. With the advent of social media, political grandstanding is more prevalent and even encouraged in the workplace in many places, than ever before.

The problem is obvious. Few things are as divisive as politics. With emotions often running at a fever pitch, you're bound to see tension and friction in the workplace. Once it starts to disrupt business and the flow of work, it's time to rethink your company's approach to political discourse on the boss's dime.

Establish a policy for politics in the workplace

You have a right to free speech, even in the workplace. Read that again. Because it's completely WRONG.

You don't have a right to free speech in most workplaces. A private employer can and usually does establish a set of rules for politics in the workplace. If you're an employer and you don't want to completely ban political discussion, you can still establish policies to prevent the display of political support in the office. The golden rule here is to stay neutral. Don't highlight a specific political view or party or candidate over another.

"Talking politics can be tricky, but, like many things it's an unavoidable part of the workplace. Hold strong, the presidential race will be over (soon), and everyone will be back to talking shop (at least until inauguration)," said Lynze Wardle Lenio, in her article for The Muse.

Handling complaints

This depends on your particular company's policy on politics. Does your company prohibit all conversations about politics? Can your employees talk politics on lunch breaks? If someone is in violation of your policy, the first action should be to confront them privately and remind them of the policy.

"If your policy is more lax, you might want to encourage the complainant to respectfully ask the person engaged in political talk to take their conversation somewhere else," said Macy Bayern of TechRepublic.

"Never discipline an employee for having a different political opinion from another employee. The discipline should only come within the framework of the company's policy," she continued. Are they making someone uncomfortable? Are they wasting company time? Creating workplace hostility? These are all grounds for serious reprimanding.

Handling harassment

Now we're venturing into more serious territory. It's one thing to have complaints about people talking about an election out in the open. It's another to have complaints that someone was attacked for their political beliefs. "You're the employer. You have a responsibility to keep your employees safe above all else. That means protecting them from bullying," Bayern expressed.

This is a situation where you should be more firm in your reprimanding. Although it's not illegal per se, since political leanings aren't a protected class, you still want to nip this in the bud before it compromises the integrity of the entire office. The last thing you want is for employee morale to dip because of bullying. If allowed to go unpunished, this could easily spill over into bullying because of race, sex or religion. Then you have a legal problem.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Reports find that more and more tech companies are leaving the bustling Silicon Valley. But where exactly are they going? Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

If Silicon Valley is experiencing a tech exodus, what does that mean for growing startup hubs like Houston?

houston voices

It started with prunes. Long before Silicon Valley was the innovation capital of the world, it was a giant valley of fruit trees and verdant hills. The primary crop in the then called Santa Clara Valley was the French plum, which was sun-dried to turn into the valley's most popular export and métier: prunes.

By the late 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had produced myriad millionaires, billionaires by the boatload and tons of tycoons. Among them was Leland Stanford, a railroad king. Stanford owned an 8,100-acre ranch in Santa Clara Valley near Palo Alto. That's where he founded and established Stanford University. It was also here that the region transformed into the valley of technology known today as Silicon Valley.

In 1925, Stanford alum Frederick Terman, considered the father of Silicon Valley, returned to teach radio engineering. Over the next decade, Terman noticed something quite concerning. He recognized that Stanford produced elite, highly-educated grads who continually opted to leave town for jobs in New York City. Terman expressed his desire for Stanford alumni to stay in the valley to grow the region's business sector and feed the local economy. The first company to heed this advice was Hewlett-Packard.

Terman encouraged Stanford grads William Hewlett and David Packard to partner up and thus, we saw the first ever "garage-startup" born. Anon this historic partnership, more alumni and faculty at Stanford began to found their own companies in the valley. Soon, a massive network of companies was formed, bound by their shared connection with the university. Terman had essentially built a pipeline through which Stanford grads poured into the valley, a process that is still in full swing today.

In a sense, Silicon Valley was the first academic incubator. One that is stronger than ever today. Or is it?

The great tech-xodus?

According to The Economist, "[In 2018,] more Americans left the county of San Francisco than arrived. According to a recent survey, 46 percent of respondents say they plan to leave the Bay Area in the next few years, up from 34 percent in 2016. So many startups are branching out into new places that the trend has a name, 'Off Silicon Valleying.'"

Business Insider's Melia Robinson writes, "Silicon Valley is on the brink of an exodus" and that "the tech elite are abandoning Silicon Valley in droves."

More tellingly, Kevin Roose wrote in his New York Times article "Silicon Valley Is Over, Says Silicon Valley," that "This isn't a full-blown exodus yet. But in the last three months of 2017, San Francisco lost more residents to outward migration than any other city in the country."

Roose followed 12 venture capitalists on a bus trip throughout the heartland. They were looking for hot startups in lesser-visited areas of America. The venture capitalists were in awe of how inexpensive the home prices were in the Midwest compared to the Bay Area. To add to this, a public-relations firm named Edelman conducted a survey of 500 residents in the Bay Area and found that almost half of all Bay Area residents "said they would consider leaving California because of the cost of living."

Moreover, Eric Rosenbaum wrote in his CNBC article "Silicon Valley Edged Out: Google Employees Aren't the Only Ones Walking Away From Elite Tech Headquarters," that "Silicon Valley is not about to lose its dominant position as the home of billion-dollar technology start-ups and hub for top talent, but there are a growing number of reasons why more workers and new companies are choosing other cities, far from San Francisco."

The common theme in most of the aforementioned articles is that the reason behind this mini-exodus is the high cost of living in the Bay Area. The Economist states that "young startups pay at least four times more to operate in the Bay Area than in most other American cities."

Aside from the cost of living, one often-cited reason why entrepreneurs leave the Valley is groupthink. Again, The Economist sheds light on this stating that, "The Valley does many things remarkably well, but it comes dangerously close to being a monoculture of white male nerds. Companies founded by women received just 2 percent of the funding doled out by venture capitalists last year (2017)." Entrepreneur Tim Ferriss told Business Insider that the tech scene in Silicon Valley can be brutal for people who deviate from the political echo chamber. After ten years in the Valley, Ferriss moved to Austin in 2017. Business Insider also tells the account of Peter Thiel, a billionaire-investor who was all but ostracized from Silicon Valley because of his support for President Donald Trump. He told Insider that "Network effects are very positive things, but there's a tipping point where they fall over into the madness of crowds."

Even if not quite an exodus, there are many accounts like the aforementioned that point to the fact that startups are indeed looking for greener pastures. Just where are these greener pastures? They are located in the business districts and technology parks that are smaller versions of Silicon Valley in cities all over the country. However, one green pasture in particular has taken the startup world by storm in recent years: the rise of the academic incubator.

A tech-splosion of university parks

"In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in public and private investment in university research parks (URPs). URPs are important as an infrastructural mechanism for the transfer of academic research findings, as a source of knowledge spillovers, and as a catalyst for national and regional economic growth," wrote Albert N. Link and John T. Scott in the highly regarded journal Oxford Review of Economic Policy, in their article "The economics of university research parks."

One of the biggest reasons universities have become hotbeds for tech startups is that campuses provide a means for people with multidisciplinary backgrounds to intermingle within the same space. A mechanical engineering student with a great idea might meet an MBA during a startup launch party. Together they can build and market their time-traveling DeLorean, or whatever actually-realistic idea the student has.

In essence, academic incubators are courting tech entrepreneurs because universities offer an ecosystem designed to support and grow startups from conception to commercialization. This ecosystem includes a space where researchers, faculty and students of all disciplines interact and form working relationships. In many cases, it also includes university owned equipment and laboratories for use by startup researchers.

"I feel that organizations working to commercialize university IP realize a great source of off-the-shelf technology that small businesses can use to either augment their own offerings or exploit something not currently found in the marketplace," said Michael Tentnowski, the director of entrepreneurship for Innovation Park of Tallahassee.

"Basically, the potential business can work with university staff to perfect, enhance or create new versions of various innovations to appeal to consumer demands. Taking the technology risk out of the equation helps new businesses focus on customer discovery and market penetration," Tentnowski explained.

Faye Liu, founder and CEO of RevoChem, a hot startup that recently launched out of UH's Technology Bridge, expressed that "one key benefit is the easy access to great talents and research resources from both students, researchers and professors from the university with flexibility."

Liu goes on to explain, "We have successfully hired multiple UH students and alumni through internships to work full time. We have also sponsored UH research that is relevant to our work which is a win-win for both of us."

It is true that universities position aspiring entrepreneurs to network with the right people for building their company from the ground up. Even the Innovation Leadership Forum attests that innovation is born when different ways of thinking clash.

"Providing a high-density area for collisions between thoughts and ideas to occur is driving innovation. Our urban location – adjacent to a Tier One research university – provides the chance for success to increase exponentially," said Carrie Roth, the president and CEO of Virginia Bio Tech Park.

"Our experience demonstrates that startups come here for a competitive advantage – and that is being in an environment where they can keep costs lower and accelerate their startup," she continued.

Academic incubators exude a different aura from non-academic parks. There's a certain sense of prestige they carry because they are based in universities. Perhaps it is the idea of working with professors and using university labs and equipment that resonates. "University research parks offer the opportunity for startups to be at the nexus of technology, talent and opportunities. The UH Technology Bridge, for example, offers a unique setting where companies from a broad range of technology areas can come together and have access to a variety of different resources, including wet lab space," explained Christopher Taylor, the executive director of University of Houston's Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation.

"Locating in a research park near a major university offers startups a chance to engage and collaborate with academic researchers in their field and leverage the vast talent pool of students through internships and part-time employment to develop their technology and grow their company," Taylor proceeded.

Yes, it is no wonder that so many entrepreneurs are choosing to leave Silicon Valley. They actually have options now. There are a ton of alternatives available all over the country now that are just as "top tier" as Silicon Valley, without the drawbacks of living there. Chief among these alternatives are academic incubators. The explosion of university investment in these tech parks has opened, nay, kicked down, the door for startup founders looking to venture outside of the Bay Area.

Say what you will about the mini-exodus from Silicon Valley. The high cost of living, the echo chamber and political groupthink, the lack of diversity. All valid points. But one thing is for certain, there are no academic incubators today without Silicon Valley. Its influence on modern tech parks may be taken for granted, but it is real.

It was once said that as gigantic and unfathomably massive as the sun is, it still manages to gently reach out with its light, millions of miles away, to ripen a vine of grapes as if it had nothing better to do. That's how Silicon Valley's influence is felt. Except instead of ripening grapes, it's drying plums. And today, academic and non-academic incubators merely operate in its shadow. The shadow of the valley of tech.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Startup founders seek answers to how PPP loan funds provide their companies security and support. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

What Houston startups need to know about PPP loans

Houston voices

Unless you've been vacationing on Mars for the past six months, you know that a $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) was recently approved by Congress. Business owners are sifting through the fine print to see if they qualify for PPP loans for startups.

The stimulus package carries provisions that will surely assist startups and small business during our current state of national emergency. The most notable part of this legislation is known as the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

"Under the PPP, startups can qualify to attain a forgivable loan of 2.5 times the average monthly payroll, with restrictions, of course," explained the vice president of communications for Zeni Inc., Emilie Pires.

Emilie Pires oversees Zeni, a company that helps startups manage financial affairs and helps clients apply for PPP loans.

The federal government has a history of lending to small businesses through the Small Business Administration. The PPP loan differs from past loans, however, because it can be forgiven, and because it doesn't require a personal guarantee.

"Loan forgiveness is the most notable aspect of the PPP. It is significant because if you comply with the requirements, the loan actually functions like more of a grant. It's non-dilutive capital from the federal government to keep your company alive," Pires continued.

Perks of PPP

According to Bloomberg business writer Sara McBride, not requiring a personal guarantee gives startup founders a much needed boost.

"If a loan requires a personal guarantee, the founder would likely be weighed down with heavy personal debt if the startup ended up failing. A loan like this is not very appealing, so it's a big deal that the PPP loan doesn't require a personal guarantee."

Here are the two requirements if you want the loan to be forgiven. Per Bloomberg:

1) You must spend the money within 24 weeks of receiving funds, and;

2) You must use the loan on payroll, rent, mortgage, interest, or utilities.

The affiliate rule

Here's where it gets a little dicey. First off, it's best to consult a lawyer regarding the specifics of the affiliate rule. The affiliate rule essentially states that, if you own multiple startups, you have to count all the employees of all your companies when determining if you qualify for the PPP loan, which requires you to have less than 500 employees total to qualify.

With that said, here is an interpretation given by tech industry venture capitalist and lawyer Ed Zimmerman: "You might be able to skate by the affiliate rule if no one who owns other companies has more than a 20 percent stake in your company, and if no one in your company has enough control to veto any actions from your board."

Qualifying for PPP

Zimmerman also lays out a three-question test that might help you determine if your venture capitalist-supported startup qualifies for a PPP loan. The three questions are:

1) Does your venture capitalist hold 50 percent of your company's equity?

2) Even aside from that, does at least one venture capitalist control the majority of the company's board?

3) Further, does any venture capitalist control large portions of protective provisions, allowing him or her to veto corporate action, giving this venture capitalist control of the startup?

According to Zimmerman, if your answer to any one of the above is yes, you should attain legal counsel. If you answered no to all three, that's great news for you (but should still seek out legal counsel).

It is worth noting that the CARES Act does offer a program for companies with up to 10,000 employees. But those rates will be higher and will come with much bigger caveats.

Again, it's best to consult a lawyer to decide if you qualify to avoid the affiliate rule.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.