Companies with resources to spare should step up to help support small and minority-owned businesses. Photo via Getty Images

It's clear that the pandemic continues to negatively impact many businesses, and chief among them small, minority-owned businesses. In fact, a study from late last year revealed that minority-owned organizations have been hit disproportionately hard – Black business owners experienced a 41 percent drop in business activity, while Latinx business activity dropped by 35 percent and Asian business activity dropped 26 percent.

Of course, COVID-19 is not the only obstacle that small and minority-owned businesses face. They are also contending with systemic social and economic injustices, civil and social unrest, as well as environmental events. In fact, the pandemic has further spotlighted these ongoing inequities in our communities.

In Houston, nearly 30 percent of startup companies are minority-owned, and studies indicate that Black neighborhoods have driven the majority of start-up growth during the pandemic. These small businesses and their owners have been in survival mode, using their skills, creativity, resources and capacities to keep their doors open and their businesses profitable — but this heavy burden should not fall on them alone.

After all, small businesses are the backbone of our economy. When they don't make it, our nation as a whole suffers: skyrocketing unemployment rates, reduced consumer spending and less optimistic long-term forecasts for all businesses, among other effects. But when they succeed, we all succeed.

Companies with resources to spare should step up to help support small and minority-owned businesses — and that's why last year Comcast created its initiative, Comcast RISE, to help these businesses resolve their challenges and find long-term success.

As part of the first wave of RISE — which stands for "Representation, Investment, Strength and Empowerment" — we gave eligible minority-owned small businesses located in Houston (and in four other U.S. cities severely impacted by COVID-19) the chance to apply for direct grants of $10,000. More than 700 small businesses received these grants, including more than 200 businesses based in the Houston area. Now, the second round of applications for RISE grants is open, and 100 lucky applicants will be chosen to each receive $10,000.

Two local businesses have already experienced the positive impact that these grants can provide. Ashley Gomez, 132 Design partner – a brand and web design company for small businesses – used their business' RISE grant to invest in technology and professional development for the staff. Since then, 132 Design has seen a 30 percent increase in revenue. Meanwhile, Cori Xiong, owner of the Houston-area staple Mala Sichuan Bistro, was able to pay off her extra business expenses associated with the pandemic, as well as invest in publicity and marketing efforts for her storefronts.

Here's what you need to know if you're a small business owner interested in applying for a grant. If your minority-owned business is eligible — that is, at least 51 percent minority-owned, independently owned and operated, registered as a business in the U.S., in operation for more than a year, and located in Harris or Fort Bend county— simply fill out the form on the Comcast RISE website between October 1 and 14, 2021.

We, at Comcast, are deeply committed to helping drive change and bolster the process of correcting social and economic injustices. The Comcast RISE program helps meaningfully impact and support the small businesses that are shaping our communities. At the end of the day, our economy's success is just part of the equation. It's on all of us to ensure equity, diversity, and inclusion for our communities.

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Vince Margiotta is the vice president at Comcast Business.

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.