The Equitable Access Fund is designed to meet demand for business credit among small businesses, especially those run by women, military veterans, people with disabilities, and members of the BIPOC, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities. Photo via HelloAlice.com

Houston-based fintech startup Hello Alice and the nonprofit Global Entrepreneurship Network have teamed up to create a $70 million fund that’ll help enable access to credit for small businesses.

Initial funding for the Equitable Access Fund, which debuted today, comes from Wells Fargo. GEN, which helps people start and build businesses, will manage the fund. Hello Alice’s fintech platform offers credit, loans, and grants to U.S. small business owners.

The new fund will provide credit enhancements — such as loan guarantees, loan-loss reserves and cash-collateral deposits — to ease risks for financing partners and free up money for underserved small business owners who face credit challenges.

The fund’s financing partners include First National Bank of Omaha, which issues Hello Alice’s small business credit card, and certain participants in Hello Alice’s financing marketplace. Other partners include the Mastercard payment network and the Kauffman Foundation, a nonprofit that fosters entrepreneurship.

The fund is designed to meet demand for business credit among small businesses, especially those run by women, military veterans, people with disabilities, and members of the BIPOC, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities. Hello Alice data shows that only one-fourth of small business owners have applied for a business credit card, and 85 percent of those applications were rejected due to poor credit or lack of credit.

Through the Equitable Access Fund, small business owners will be able to obtain a business credit card, build their credit profile, and eventually qualify for traditional credit and lending products. The $70 million fund seeks to unlock as much as $1 billion in credit for thousands of small business owners.

“We’re looking forward to creating more partnerships and bringing more institutions on board to the fund to achieve the goal of equitable access to credit,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release.

Wells Fargo Foundation is backing the Equitable Access Fund.

“Small businesses are a critical contributor to the economy and to building generational wealth,” says Otis Rolley, president of the foundation. “We need to create more pathways for historically marginalized small businesses to grow and prosper.”

In conjunction with GEN and Hello Alice’s Equitable Access Program, small business owners will receive credit-building education and technical assistance through a tool called the Business Health Score. The tool, which Hello Alice launched in April 2023, supplies an overview of a business’ financial condition.

Hello Alice Co-Founders Carolyn Rodz and Elizabeth Gore announced their latest opportunity for founders from marginalized communities to access funding. Photos via helloalice.com

Attention small business owners: it's time for a financial wellness exam. And Hello Alice has just the tool for you to use. Photo by Hero Images

Houston fintech company launches new tool for startups and small businesses

wellness check

Much like the humans that run them, businesses need the occasional wellness exam. A fintech company founded in Houston has created a tool for conducting that health check.

Hello Alice announced that its new tool Business Health Score has launched today. The assessment tool can be used by startups and small businesses to navigate their financial and business health. The tool is the first product rolling out from the Equitable Access Program, a new initiative from Hello Alice and the Global Entrepreneurship Network with support from Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Mastercard, and the Kauffman Foundation.

Hello Alice was co-founded by Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz and has worked with over one million small businesses to help them access capital. The idea of the Score is to give business owners "a comprehensive overview of a business's financial health," according to the news release from Hello Alice. This information is critical for decision making and works hand-in-hand with all of Hello Alice's existing resources.

Operating as a self-assessment questionnaire, the Score will provide entrepreneurs with a composite number by evaluating three business aspects: financial and business management practices, financial performance and position, and credit history.

“Over the last two years, Americans have applied to start 10.5 million new businesses, leading to a surge in the small business economy and more entrepreneurs who need support to properly grow their businesses," say Gore and Rodz in the release. "We recognized data was missing from the market that would give enterprise partners and financial institutions a clearer picture of the potential that small business owners possess for massive growth and investment."

The Score will help Hello Alice and its partners, which includes financial institutions, navigate the business's unique needs and provide the appropriate financial services and resources.

“We are providing unparalleled visibility through the Business Health Score that will empower small business owners to make more strategic decisions and optimize their growth while giving partners and institutions the insight to best help them through personalized service and product recommendations," the co-founders continue. "The Score and the larger Equitable Access Program we have launched with GEN are a huge step forward in opening up more growth opportunities for small businesses and ecosystem partners.”

Hello Alice and GEN are on a mission of democratizing access to capital so that entrepreneurs from all communities have the ability to grow their businesses sustainably. Last year, Hello Alice launched an entrepreneur-focused credit card that helped businesses more easily set up a line of credit.

“Entrepreneurs are well-equipped to deal with disruption and changing dynamics, but while talent is plentiful, opportunity is not,” says Jonathan Ortmans, founder and president of the Global Entrepreneurship Network, in the release. “The Equitable Access Program and Business Health Score will open doors for small business owners to better manage and grow their businesses, which will lead to more strategic partnership and funding opportunities.”

The donation comes from Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund, a roughly $420 million initiative focusing on racially and ethnically diverse small business owners disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

Wells Fargo donates $20M to Houston small businesses in underserved communities

pay day

More than 500 businesses in the Houston area will benefit from a $20 million donation made by Wells Fargo to the Houston Fund for Social Justice and Economic Equity.

The equity fund will distribute the money in the form of grants for the purchase of property, equipment, and other assets to support economic development in underserved communities throughout the region.

“Small businesses play an important role in the Houston economy, and it is a benefit for our city to provide every tool needed to help them succeed,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a Wells Fargo news release. “This Wells Fargo grant program will allow small business owners to innovate, expand, and evolve in a way that improves their investments while also maintaining our reputation as a great place for economic development and company growth.”

For more information about the Houston Equity Fund grants, visit houstonequityfund.com.

The $20 million donation comes from Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund, a roughly $420 million initiative focusing on racially and ethnically diverse small business owners who’ve been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fostering an inclusive economic recovery and helping small businesses sustain themselves and grow in the wake of COVID-19 is a priority for us,” says Charlie Scharf, CEO of Wells Fargo. “As a company, we have a commitment to make the communities where we operate stronger, and to do it at a very local level.”

In the past, Wells Fargo’s Open for Business Fund has supported Houston small businesses through grants to LiftFund and the Houston Community College Foundation, and other local grants enabled nonprofits such as the University of Houston Foundation, Texas Black Expo, Impact Hub Houston, and the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans to serve entrepreneurs.

Money from the Open for Business Fund primarily benefits small businesses owned by Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Native American entrepreneurs.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.