Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion."

To focus on the Ion's Academic Partner Network, Jan E. Odegard has been appointed senior director of industry and academic partners. Odegard's background includes research and leadership at Rice University in computing. Odegard will also oversee The Ion's labs, which include human/robotics interaction lab, an immersive reality lab and an industrial prototyping lab.

Deanea LeFlore has been named senior director of community and corporate engagement. Like Rowe, LeFlore had a similar role at Station Houston before this new position. Before that, she spent most of her career working for the city of Houston and served under four Mayors over 17 years.

Lastly, Chris Valka, has been hired as senior director of operations, overseeing finance, accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management. Prior to this position, Valka served in the president's cabinet overseeing a similar spectrum of responsibilities at the University of St. Thomas.

"As we prepare for The Ion's opening in early 2021, we are excited to welcome Deanea LeFlore, Dr. Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka, to our growing team," says Rowe in the release. "I am excited to see what this diverse group of experts will bring to our efforts to build an inclusive innovation hub in a tech-forward environment that promotes all that is great about Houston."

The 270,000-square-foot Ion building broke ground in July of last year and is slated to open in 2021. Recently, the organization announced its first programming partner — Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, and select courses have already begun.

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Houston bakery startup dishes out healthy, low-calorie treats

SWEET ON THESE SWEETS

A Houston bakery is helping Houstonians satisfy their sweet tooth and while also counting their calories. ChipMonk Baking, a local, mail-order bakery, has seen significant growth since the start of the coronavirus pandemic as people look for healthier snacks than what they might find in a typical grocery store.

Founded by David Downing and Jose Hernandez, ChipMonk makes cookies, brownie bites, and other snacks using monk fruit and allulose, a low-calorie (0.4 calories per gram) rare sugar that's found naturally in foods such as raisins, dried figs, and kiwi. Hernandez began developing ChipMonk's recipes to satisfy his taste for cookies after being diagnosed with type-2 diabetes.

"We've refined these recipes and now offer numerous different cookies, dry mixes, and brownie bites which all taste delicious and won't spike your blood sugar," Hernandez says in a statement. "While they're great for people with diabetes, Celiac disease, or those who follow a keto diet, anyone who tries them will enjoy the taste and texture."

Jose Hernandez and David Downing founded ChipMonk Bakery. Photo courtesy of ChipMonk Baking

ChipMonk offers all the usual flavors — white chocolate-macadamia, chocolate chip, lemon, snickerdoodle, etc. — as well as dry mixes for those who want to bake at home. Recently, the company introduced red velvet brownie bites that use gluten-free sunflower seed flower. All of these products, as well as sample boxes, are available via ChipMonk's website; the company does not have a brick-and-mortar storefront.

Based on samples sent to CultureMap, the cookies have a chewy, slightly under-baked texture and a mild sweetness that's similar in flavor and appearance to cookies without their low-carb credentials.

Business has grown steadily over the its first year, according to the company, which has it looking to move from a shared commercial kitchen into its own space. Slated to open this summer, the dedicated bakery would allow Downing and Hernandez to expand both their offerings and the number of people they employ.

"We've received extremely positive feedback from our customers who appreciate having delicious, low-carb treats to enjoy while at home during this difficult time," Downing says. "We're seeing more and more people order for themselves as well as sending our products to friends, relatives, and co-workers."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston experts give advice for startups seeking financial aid from the CARES Act

from the profesisonals

The United States Congress recently passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, and it includes several initiatives that provide financial relief for startups and small businesses — but there are a few things these companies should know about the programs.

Houston Exponential hosted a virtual panel with Carolyn Rodz, CEO of Alice, and Aziz Gilani, managing director of Mercury Fund. They broke down some of the concerns with some of the most popular programs.

The Payroll Tax Deferral stipulation allows you to push back paying your payroll tax, which is 6.2 percent of payroll, Gilani says in the livestream. Companies will be required to pay back half that tax in a year's time and the other half in two year's time.

Small businesses can also apply for emergency Economic Injury Disaster Loans, or EIDL loans, that won't require the first payment for a full year. The interest rate is 3.75 percent for for-profit businesses and 2.75 percent for nonprofits with up to a 30-year term. Businesses could even submit to receive a $10,000 grant on their application.

Then, there's the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP.

"The PPP program is probably the most lucrative of the three programs for startups," says Gilani, "It's the one that has the largest financial impact."

To submit for PPP, business owners look at their last year's worth of payroll and utility expenses, then average out their monthly expenses, and multiply that by 2.5. Small businesses can submit for that amount or up to $10 million. If the loan is spent on their employees and utilities, it's turned into a grant and not required to be paid back. Gilani recommends checking with the SBA for the specific details, but notes that contract workers can't benefit from PPP and must submit individually for aid.

Regarding these programs, Rodz and Gilani shared some other advice as it pertains to Houston's small businesses and tech startups.

Apply ASAP

Banks are already overwhelmed with applications, and some have paused accepting new applications from some entities. Plus, you have no excuse, Rodz says, since the application is simple and can be completed in one sitting.

"Compared to what a normal government loan application looks like, it is light years better in terms of simplicity," says Rodz.

Go to your own bank

Banks are giving priority to existing customers, Rodz explains.

"Go talk to your banker, and really take the time," Rodz says. "They are prioritizing the clients they have relationships with."

There's a technical reason too, Gilani adds. It's easier for banks to submit for a pre-existing customer, and new customers require more paperwork.

Document everything

Currently, Gilani says, the way the program is working right now is it relies on good-faith self-certification of the business owner. The banks, based on approval, will just put the federal money into your bank account. However, there are people put in roles for this act that will come back to verify that everything was honest.

"Lying to the federal government about money they grant you is a felony that comes with jail time," Gilani says. "It's very important that — after all this craziness passes by and the government comes back to audit what happened — you have a lot of documentation in place in order to show that you were fulfilling your good-faith requirement of answering these questions honestly."

Gilani recommends keeping track of how you calculated your payroll, as well as being able to show the effect of the crisis is key. Then, after you receive the funds, you need to be able to show that you used the funds on your employees.

Consult a lawyer if you have questions on eligibility

There's been a lot of discussion on whether or not venture-backed startups qualify for PPP.

"One of the challenges of the program is that it is being administered by the Small Business Administration, which traditionally hasn't worked with venture-backed and angel-backed companies," Gilani says.

Usually, the SBA requires startups to indicate their employee count, which is not to exceed 500. However, if the company is venture-backed, the SBA requires the inclusion of all the employees of all the portfolio companies. Certain legislators have expressed that this wasn't the intention of the program and are working to provide solutions, Gilani explains, and he and Mercury Fund have been working with a legal team to find immediate work arounds.

There have been lots of lawyers who have been working really hard on trying to solve this problem," Aziz "If anything, we've now created the lawyer stimulus act in the amount of billable hours we've had trying to figure out this problem."

Gilani also recommends getting your lawyer to sign a document confirming that, especially if you are a venture-backed company, that you intended to adhere to the rules of the program.

Houston-founded startup launches new COVID-19-focused sanitizing services

keeping clean

A startup that provides concierge services — like cleaning and dog walking — to apartment renters has expanded its services to outside the apartment units to help multifamily properties with sanitization and disinfection services to protect their communities from COVID-19.

Austin-based Spruce, which was founded in Houston in 2016 and still has an office locally, has a new suite of services for disinfecting common areas — like leasing offices, hallways, mail rooms, etc. — using EPA-compliant chemicals.

"Now, more than ever, it is critical for apartment communities to make sure their common areas are regularly decontaminated and disinfected to help slow the spread of the coronavirus and to prevent as many infections as possible," says Ben Johnson, founder and CEO of Spruce, in a statement.

The services include a weekly disinfectant of high-touch spots — like door handles and elevator buttons — as well as a weekly comprehensive cleaning that involves mopping, surface cleaning, and vacuuming. The startup also offers a bimonthly fogging service that can completely cover both indoor and outdoor areas with disinfectant. This solution can protect surfaces for months, according to the news release.

"This is an unprecedented public health crisis, and we worked closely with our clients to determine the biggest need and hope these services will give apartment communities one more weapon to use in the fight against COVID-19 and will help give both operators and their residents peace of mind," Johnson continues in the release.

Spruce still offers its usual suite of services for individual apartment units such as daily chores and housekeeping and pet care, but extra precautions have been added since the coronavirus outbreak. The service providers are required to go through temperature checks before entering the properties. They also wear gloves, changing them out between units, and are incorporating paper products when able.

Since its founding, Spruce, which used to be called Apartment Butler, has expanded throughout the state and into South Florida, Denver, and Salt Lake City. Spruce has raised over $6 million in venture capital, per Crunchbase data, and that includes funds from Houston institutions like Mercury Fund, the Houston Angel Network, and Fitz Gate Ventures, as well as Austin-based Capital Factory.