Historic Texas Southern University will host the September 12 Democratic debate, and Houston is expected to be the real economic winner. Courtesy photo

If past presidential debates are an accurate barometer, Houston stands to reap millions of dollars worth of benefits from what's been called the "Super Bowl of politics." However, one economist isn't casting his vote for any sizeable economic surge from the upcoming presidential debate in Houston.

On September 12, Houston's Texas Southern University, one of the largest historically black universities in the country, will host the third debate of the Democratic presidential primary season. The Democratic National Committee and ABC picked the 150-acre TSU campus for this showdown, where 10 Democratic candidates are set to take the stage at the 8,100-seat H&PE Arena.

While the Greater Houston Partnership isn't able to provide an estimated economic impact of the Houston debate, it still sees the value of Houston basking in the national spotlight.

"Texas Southern University hosting the third Democratic presidential primary debate here in Houston will focus national attention on the city for several days in much the same way the Republican presidential debate did back in 2016," Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, tells InnovationMap. "These events put Houston top of mind among people across the country — including the companies and talented individuals we're working to recruit to Houston."

The debate will help showcase Houston as a diverse city that's tackling presidential-level issues like education, infrastructure, and climate change, Harvey says. Climate change, in particular, hits close to home in Houston, as the city is "redefining its role" as the Energy Capital of the World through local initiatives taking on renewables, carbon emissions, and sustainability, according to Harvey.

Three years ago, the University of Houston hosted a Republican presidential debate featuring five candidates. For historical context, Houston hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1928 and the Republican National Convention in 1992.

Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at UH who's an expert on the presidency, says nationally televised debates serve as a "massive platform" for host colleges and universities to recruit faculty and students beyond their normal regional or local confines. Furthermore, he says, presidential debates can elevate the status of these schools in the realm of "public discourse."

"These debates are also a way to connect to alumni networks flung far across the nation," Rottinghaus tells InnovationMap, "and give them some something to brag about that isn't sports-related."

No estimates were provided of the economic impact for the University of Houston debate, but other spots in the U.S. — communities and college campuses — that have hosted presidential debates tout millions of dollars in value from debate-related spending and free publicity.

In October 2012, the Boca Raton, Florida, area realized an immediate economic impact of $13.1 million from hosting the final debate ahead of that year's presidential election, as well as $63.7 million in free publicity from news coverage of the nationally televised event. Those figures come from a study commissioned by Lynn University, which hosted the debate. An accompanying survey found that after watching the debate, 4.7 million American adults definitely wanted to visit the Boca Raton area over the next five years.

Also in October 2012, the University of Denver hosted a general-election debate that generated an estimated $56 million in free publicity.

Victor Matheson, an economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, dismisses those figures as inflated and irrelevant. And he says Houston shouldn't expect the city or TSU to receive any direct economic benefits from the September 12 debate.

For one thing, Matheson downplays the value assigned to free publicity surrounding a presidential debate. He complains that the methodology applied to tallying the benefits of so-called "earned media" coverage is flawed.

For another thing, Matheson notes that few people from outside the Houston area will be attending the debate at TSU, meaning little in the way of revenue from hotel stays, meals, and other visitor expenditures. "This isn't a Super Bowl," he says.

As a matter of fact, Houston hosted the 50th Super Bowl in February 2017 and fielded an economic impact of $347 million thanks to spending by 150,000 visitors, according to a study commissioned by the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee.

While not on the scale of a Super Bowl, the upcoming debate will attract positive attention for TSU, Matheson points out.

"This sort of debate can really put a college on the map, especially one like Texas Southern, a fairly obscure university from a national standpoint," he tells InnovationMap.

Matheson cites Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, as an example. Few people outside New England would have heard of Saint Anselm without its frequent hosting of presidential debates since the 1980s, he says.

The college has been dubbed the "academic epicenter" of the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary. During the 2015-16 political season alone, Saint Anselm hosted one Republican and one Democratic presidential debate, leading to more than 8,100 mentions in the news media of the college or its New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

"So, the effect for colleges is real, but there is still a question about how big it is," Matheson says. "And let's not pretend that the debate is somehow going to put Houston on the map. If Houston isn't already on your map, you really need to get yourself a new map."

Texas doctors and researchers received millions for their transformational work in cancer prevention and treatment. Getty Images

A Texas organization has doled out millions to Houston cancer-fighting professionals

granted

Researchers at medical institutions across the state have something to celebrate. The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has made 71 grants this week to cancer-fighting organizations that total a near $136 million.

"CPRIT's priorities of pediatric cancer research and cancers of significance to Texans highlight this large slate of awards," says Wayne Roberts, CPRIT CEO, in a release. "Investments are made across the cancer research and prevention continuum in Texas unlike any other state in the country."

New to the awards this time around is the Collaborative Action Program for Liver Cancer, which has been claimed by Baylor College of Medicine's Hashem B. El-Serag.

"Texas has the highest incidence rates of hepatocellular cancer in the nation," El-Serag says in a release from BCM. "Our CPRIT funded Center will house infrastructure to support and enhance research collaborations among liver cancer researchers; to educate providers, researchers and the general public on best practices and opportunities to reduce the burden of liver cancer; and to engage private and public entities in policy initiatives."

Houston organizations also received recruitment awards, which reward Texas organizations for bringing in great minds from across the world. According to the release, CPRIT has brought in a total of 181 scholars and 13 companies to the Lone Star State.

Of the 71 grants, 58 represent academic research, 10 prevention, and three product development research. Here are the ones awarded to Houston organizations.

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

  • $900,000 granted for Shao-Cung Sun's research in regulation of CD8 T cell responses in antitumor immunity (Individual Investigator Research Award)
  • $897,483 granted for Alemayehu A. Gorfe's research in characterization and optimization of novel allosteric KRAS inhibitors (Individual Investigator Research Award)
  • $3 million granted for Hashem B. El-Serag's research at The Texas Collaborative Center for Hepatocellular Cancer (Collaborative Action Program to Reduce Liver Cancer Mortality in Texas: Collaborative Action Center Award)
  • $2.46 million to Jessica Hwang for patient-centered liver cancer prevention in the Houston community (Collaborative Action Program to Reduce Liver Cancer Mortality in Texas: Investigator-Initiated Research Awards)
  • $3.51 million for Kevin McBride's Recombinant Antibody Production Core at Science Park
  • $199,804 granted for Andrea Viale's epithelial memory of resolved inflammation as a driver of pancreatic cancer progression (High Impact High Risk Award)
  • $6 million for the recruitment of Christopher Flowers, M.D. (Recruitment of Established Investigator Awards)
  • $2 million for the recruitment of Kevin Nead, MD, MPhil (Recruitment of First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Awards)
  • $2 million for the recruitment of Alison Taylor, PhD (Recruitment of First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Awards)
  • $2 million for the recruitment of Mackenzie Wehner, MD, MPhil (Recruitment of First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Awards)

Baylor College of Medicine

  • $5.38 million granted for Steven J. Ludtke's new capabilities for cancer research in the TMC CryoEM Cores (Core Facility Support Awards)
  • $1.35 million granted for Bryan M. Burt's novel endoscope-cleaning port for minimally invasive cancer surgery (Early Translational Research Awards)
  • $199,500 granted for Yohannes T. Ghebre's Topical Esomeprazole for Radiation-induced Dermatitis (High Impact High Risk Award)
  • $199,920 granted for Robin Parihar's targeting of cancer associated fibroblasts with anti-IL-11-secreting CAR T cells (High Impact High Risk Award)
  • $2 million for the recruitment of Umesh Jadhav, PhD (Recruitment of First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Awards)
  • $2 million for the recruitment of Stanley Lee, PhD (Recruitment of First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Awards)
  • $2 million for the recruitment of Ang Li, MD (Recruitment of First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Awards)
  • $1.29 million for Jane R. Montealegre's expansion of "a Community Network for Cancer Prevention to Increase HPV Vaccine Uptake and Tobacco Prevention in a Medically Underserved Pediatric Population"

Texas Medical Center

  • $5.44 million granted for William McKeon's Business-Driven Accelerator for Cancer Therapeutics (Core Facility Support Awards)

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

  • $5.95 million granted for Zhiqiang An's Advanced Cancer Antibody Drug Modalities Core Facility (Core Facility Support Awards)
  • $2 million granted for Qingyun Liu's discovery and development of novel peptibody-drug conjugate for treating cancers of the digestive system (Early Translational Research Awards)
  • $199,998 granted for Leng Han's expression landscape and biomedical significance of transfer RNAs in cancer (High Impact High Risk Award)
  • $2 million for Lara S. Savas' Salud en Mis Manos that delivers "Evidence-Based Breast & Cervical Cancer Prevention Services to Latinas in Underserved Texas South and Gulf Coast Communities"

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston

  • $3.55 million granted for William K. Russell's A Targeted Proteomics and Metabolomics Mass Spectrometry Core Facility at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (Core Facility Support Awards)
  • $199,996 granted for Brendan Prideaux's novel cellular-level imaging approach to assess payload drug distribution in tumors following administration of targeted drug delivery systems (High Impact High Risk Award)
  • $200,000 granted for Casey W. Wright's targeting ARNT and RBFOX2 alternative splicing as a novel treatment modality in lymphoid malignancies (High Impact High Risk Award)

The Methodist Hospital Research Institute

  • $200,000 granted for Robert Rostomily's development of a mini-pig glioma model and validation of human clinical relevance (High Impact High Risk Award)

Texas Southern University

  • $200,000 for Song Gao's alleviating SN-38-induced late-onset diarrhea by preserving local UGTs in the colon (High Impact High Risk Award)

University of Houston

  • $200,000 granted for Sergey S. Shevkoplyas' Novel High-Throughput Microfluidic Device for Isolating T-cells Directly from Whole Blood to Simplify Manufacturing of Cellular Therapies (High Impact High Risk Award)

Rice University

  • $2 million for the recruitment of Jiaozhi (George) Lu, PhD (Recruitment of First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Awards)
  • $1.67 million for the recruitment of Vicky Yao, PhD (Recruitment of First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Awards)

The Rose

  • $2 million for Bernice Joseph's Empower Her To Care Expansion

Legacy Community Health Services

  • $999,276 for Charlene Flash's "Increasing Breast and Colorectal Cancer Screening Rates for the Medically Underserved using Population Health Strategies at a Multi-County FQHC"
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Houston energy tech investment group rebrands to address sustainability

Seeing green

As the pandemic took its hold on the economy and the energy industry's commodity crisis did its damage, Patrick Lewis understandably assumed that maybe sustainability initiatives might be on the back burner for his network of energy companies.

"We thought we would hear that sustainability in this environment may have slipped down the priority list, but it was the exact opposite," Lewis says. "Pretty consistently across all the operators, sustainability, reducing emissions, and greenhouse gases — those are all even more important today."

This confirmation that the energy industry is committed to innovative sustainability projects led Lewis to rebrand his energy tech investment group from BBL Ventures to Sustainability Ventures Group, or SVG. The investment team focuses on reverse engineering the startup innovation process by sourcing the concerns and goals of the energy companies, then finding solutions from the startup world through reverse pitch competitions and challenges.

"We're not fundamentally changing our business model or investment strategy, but we just wanted to make sure our messaging was crystal clear," Lewis tells InnovationMap.

Lewis says he and his team really thought through the definition of sustainability, and he specifies that, "we're not doing this to go chase solar or wind power — those are on the table — but we think there are two primary opportunities: Digital transformation and emerging technologies in the existing fossil fuel industry," Lewis says.

He adds that oil and gas is going to be around for a long time still, and he cites that by 2040, it's predicted that 40 percent of energy will still come from fossil fuels. It's the big energy companies and providers — which he's working with — that have the power to move the needle on these changes.

"We think there's a real opportunity to pursue efficiencies and reduce emissions and footprint in that existing traditional oil and gas sector," he says.

Earlier this year, Lewis was addressing these concerns by working on standing up a group of industry experts for regular meetings to discuss innovation needs. What started as a call with a handful of people, now hosts 40 people across 14 energy operator and major tech platforms.

"The whole purpose of this group is to share best practices, collaborate on common pain points, risk manage pilots," Lewis says. "We continue to build that group — it's going to be a nonprofit governed by a steering committee."

While SVG has held off on its reverse pitch events, the organization along with the University of Houston Center for Carbon Management submitted a proposal to host the National Science Foundation's Convergence Acceleratoronvergence Accelerator virtual conference at the end of September.

"The goal is to bring together multidisciplinary stakeholders — industry, nonprofit, academics, NGOs, public policy experts — to solve big problems," Lewis says. "Sustainability is a problem they really want to address."

Rice University's data-focused lab presents unique opportunity for startups and small businesses

data to knowlege

A data-focused lab a Rice University is training the next generation of data scientists. However, the students at the Rice D2K Lab are doing more than just learning about the significance of data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence — they're working as data scientists now.

Businesses — large and small — can come into the lab and have Rice students and staff work on data projects in both short-term and long-term capacity. One semester, a group of students worked with 311 call data for the city of Houston so that officials can figure out what parts of town were in the most need of support, says Jennifer Sanders, program administrator at the Rice D2K lab.

"They were able to show on a Houston map the areas where most of these 311 calls were coming from," Sanders tells InnovationMap. "That allowed the city to focus on those areas."

Lately, the lab has been focused on a several COVID-19 Houston Response Projects, which addressed issues ranging from homelessness in the time of a pandemic, ventilator distribution, and more. One team even made a recommendation to the city after a data project determined that adding five ambulances to southwest neighborhoods served by the Houston Fire Department Emergency Medical Services program would optimize response times.

The lab has two avenues to help businesses: a semester-long capstone course and a clinic for one-time sessions. This upcoming semester, the capstone course has 60 students signed up to work on 10 to 12 projects from corporate sponsors. These lab members — which support the program monetarily — are selected based on their fit within the program.

The D2K Consulting Clinic also offers free one-hour sessions on campus. At the clinic, students look at the data and assess the possibilities and advise on how to use that data for business gain or growth.

"The consulting clinic can be a starting point if a business is not sure what to do with their data," says Shanna Jin, communications and marketing specialist at the D2K Lab.

The clinic also presents a special opportunity for small businesses and startups, a niche Sanders says they haven't tapped into enough yet. She says most of the companies they've worked with are larger organizations, usually in the energy industry.

"We really want to broaden the scope to smaller startups, tech companies, and nonprofits," Sanders says. "We really don't have to limit ourselves. I would really love to expand our reach."

Membership dues for companies, which provides a more structured, long-term access to data consulting, range from $25,000 to $75,000 a year. However, Sanders says the lab is willing to work with startups on a cost that's more accessible.

Ultimately, the goal of the program is to connect the dots for businesses that have data and don't know how to use it.

"To realize the potential of big data, we need people — people who can transform data to knowledge," says the lab's founder, Genevera Allen, in a promotional video. "That's what we're doing with the Rice D2K Lab."

UH: How biotech companies are withstanding the pandemic

Houston voices

At a time when the business world is reeling, biotech companies are still hanging on. Many biotech startups have successfully pivoted their entire platforms to focus on coronavirus-related work.

Of course, these companies aren't without their struggles. Clinical trials have come to a pause, finding investors has become more difficult and financing rounds have been surceased.

Even then, there are many biotech startups that have managed to snag government loans via the Paycheck Protection Program among other financial assistance. According to Vivian Doelling, the vice president of emerging company development at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, COVID-19 has not impacted the bio science industry as much as it has others.

"Some of the smaller biotech companies have pivoted research to be more COVID-centric. This is also true particularly for companies with open platforms or who were developing products in the antiviral space," Doelling told BioSpace, an online biotech publication.

"To add to that, there are research organizations that are receiving more pandemic-centric business from biotech. And that includes clinical trial work," she continued.

Ongoing biotech challenges

It's no surprise that there have been some concerns regarding the delay of clinical trials for products that have nothing to do with coronavirus. It is feared that the delays might create product pipeline problems in the long run. See, companies usually file patent applications before trials even start. So, delays in clinical trials, according to Doelling, "could take up a big chunk of the time in which treatments can have patent exclusivity before generic competition intensifies."

Delays negatively impact smaller biotech startups. These startups' futures typically rely on the success rate of trial outcomes. Any delay in these trials subsequently hurts the small biotech startup. But, even then, the pandemic still doesn't seem to be affecting these startups.

Investment blues

"The expectation is investors are going to hold back more funds than they projected for their portfolio companies. There could be less funding available for new investments," expressed Doelling. However, it is her belief that biotech companies are hot investments right now, and sees new investments on the horizon.

"Investors are cautious at the moment," said Marty Rosendale, the CEO of the Maryland Tech Council, to BioSpace. "They're going to analyze their own portfolio to make sure those companies are solid."

Rosendale, echoing Doelling's investment concerns, says investors want to be more careful right now. They are making it a point to invest less money, which makes it difficult for startups seeking funding.

Keep on keeping on

Many startups are continuing to operate because they've found their rhythm in the virtual workplace. "I have not come across any biotech startup that has closed its doors during the pandemic," Rosendale said. "Sure, some have faced delays and temporarily stopped operations, but overall, haven't heard of any closing for good."

There are a few forces at play when it comes to helping biotech startups stay afloat during the pandemic storm. Landlords are forgiving rent and government loans are helping companies pay employees. "I know of companies that have been out there fundraising since the beginning of the COVID crisis. And they're still out there doing it," Rosendale said. "But I still haven't heard of one company that was forced to end or even delay a round of funding, not one."

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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.