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Did the pandemic slowdown innovation in Houston? Maybe not as much as you'd expect

Let's look at the pace of innovation in Houston over the past couple of years. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

When the world came to a halt in 2020 due to COVID-19, innovation moved forward as normal day to day operations went virtual. Small business incubators like the University of Houston Technology Bridge, The Cannon and The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, have found that, even during a lockdown, new innovations and leading-edge technologies have become easier to create.

“Hardship always leads to innovation. People have to get scrappy and creative. There’s always a lot of good that comes from the bad, ” founder and president of The Cannon, Lawson Gow, said.

Incubators coping with lockdown

Small business incubators provide a wide variety of crucial resources that startups, entrepreneurs, investors and corporate innovators need to succeed.

What did these incubators do to continue to help push their communities toward success when the lockdown went into effect?

The very first thing The Cannon did was set up a 24-hour hotline that businesses could call if they needed help with anything.

“The Cannon Emergency Response Team emerged from these efforts and was on the front lines of doing whatever we could to help people survive and get back on track,” Gow said.

He also said that it was hard to see hundreds of businesses struggling at the beginning of the pandemic. Kerri Smith, the associate managing director of The Rice Alliance said, as an organization built on forging connections that accelerate startup success, The Rice Alliance knew that staying afloat and continuing to offer their programs were crucial aspects of their important work.

“Within a matter of weeks, we organized and hosted our first virtual pitch event for startups innovating in the energy sector. Originally slated to be held at the Offshore Technology Conference but then cancelled, The Rice Alliance Energy Tech Venture Day portion of the OTC event provided a great platform for our startups to get exposure,” Smith said.

The University of Houston Technology Bridge began to connect businesses to the Small Business Development Center, where they could get help with all their preliminary operational tasks. Also, the SBDC helped businesses access the COVID-related funding that the government was offering.

“That seemed to help some of them get through some of the challenging times early on in the pandemic, ” said Chris Taylor, executive director of the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation.

Growing digitally

After the lockdown went into effect, just about everything went virtual. At this point social distancing wasn’t even an option unless you were going to the doctor’s office or the grocery store.

As organizations that were made to help and support small businesses, it was important that incubators remained connected to their communities and communicate with them even in a virtual world.

“We provided intentional and comprehensive updates on resources, events and community opportunities through email outreach and social media, and featured success stories of entrepreneurs who participated in our programs,” Smith said.

Through The Cannon’s CERT program, they stayed extremely connected to their community and even built an entire digital platform called Cannon Connect that served and continues to serve their virtual community.

“It’s our own internal LinkedIn for Cannon members inside and outside Cannon spaces. It has educational curriculum, a job board, an equity crowdfunding site, and much more,” Gow said.

Gow said Cannon Connect will be the “lasting legacy of the COVID era.”

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton, the author of this piece, is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Common Desk, which has locations across Houston, has been acquired — and other innovation news. Rendering courtesy of Common Desk

Houston is starting 2022 strong in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, the Bayou City is ranked based on its opportunities for STEM jobs, a Houston blockchain startup scores a major contract, Rice University opens applications for its veteran-owned busineess competition, and more.

Data Gumbo announces contract with Equinor

After a successful pilot, Equinor has signed off on a contract with Data Gumbo.. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that it has signed a contract with Equinor. The global energy company's venture arm, Equinor Ventures, supported the startup's $7.7 million series B round, which closed last year.

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

“Equinor is an industry trailblazer, demonstrating the true value of our international smart contract network to improve and automate manual processes, and bring trust to all parties,” says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. “Smart contracts are playing a critical role in driving the energy industry forward. Our work with Equinor clearly demonstrates the benefits that supermajors and their supply chain customers, partners and vendors experience by automating commercial transactions. We are proud to continue our work with Equinor to help them realize the savings, efficiencies and new levels of transparency available through our smart contract network.”

Equinor opted into a pilot with the company a few years ago.

“Since piloting Data Gumbo’s smart contracts for offshore drilling services in 2019, we have worked with the company to continually refine and improve use cases. We now have the potential to expand Data Gumbo’s smart contract network to enable transactional certainty across our portfolio from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to our Brazilian operated assets and beyond,” says Erik Kirkemo, senior vice president at Equinor. “GumboNet reduces inefficiencies and processing time around contract execution in complex supply chains, which is a problem in the broader industry, and we look forward to realizing the streamlined process and cost savings of its rapidly expanding smart contract network.”

WeWork acquires Dallas coworking brand with 6 Houston locations

Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston including in The Ion, has been acquired. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Dallas-based Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston, announced its acquisition by WeWork. The company's office spaces will be branded as “Common Desk, a WeWork Company,” according to a news release.

“Similar to WeWork, Common Desk is a company built on the concept of bringing people together to have their best day at work," says Nick Clark, CEO at Common Desk, in the release. "With the added support from WeWork, Common Desk will be able to not only leverage WeWork’s decade of experience in member services to improve the experience of our own members but also leverage WeWork’s impressive client roster to further build out our member base.”

Here are the six Common Desk spaces in Houston:

Here's how Houston ranks as a metro for STEM jobs

Source: WalletHub

When it comes to the best cities for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, Houston ranks in the middle of the pack. The greater Houston area ranked at No. 37 among the 100 largest metros across 19 key metrics on the list compiled by personal finance website, WalletHub. Here's how Houston fared on the report's metrics:

  • No. 36 – percent of Workforce in STEM
  • No. 74 – STEM Employment Growth
  • No. 43 – Math Performance
  • No. 16 – Quality of Engineering Universities
  • No. 2 – Annual Median Wage for STEM Workers (Adjusted for Cost of Living)
  • No. 90 – Median Wage Growth for STEM Workers
  • No. 75 – Job Openings for STEM Graduates per Capita
  • No. 88 – Unemployment Rate for Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranked at No. 2 overall, and Dallas just outranked Houston coming in at No. 34. San Antonio, El Paso, and McAllen ranked No. 51, No. 65, and No. 88, respectively.

Rice University calls for contestants for its 8th annual startup pitch competition for veterans

Calling all veteran and active duty startup founders and business owners. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is now accepting applications from Houston veterans for its annual business competition. To apply for the 2022 Veterans Business Battle, honorably discharged veterans or active duty founders can head online to learn more and submit their business plan by Feb. 15.

“We’re looking forward to giving veterans the opportunity not just to share their ideas and get financing, but learn from other past winners the lessons about entrepreneurship they’ve lived through while growing their businesses,” event co-chair Reid Schrodel says in a news release.

Over the past few years, finalists have received more than $4 million of investments through the program. This year's monetary prizes add up to $30,000 — $15,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place.

Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch April 22 and 23 at Rice University. Click here to register for the event.

City of Houston receives grant to stimulate STEM opportunities

Houston's youth population is getting a leg up on STEM opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National League of Cities, the city of Houston has been awarded a chance to provide quality education and career opportunities to at-risk young adults and students. The city is one of five cities also selected to receive specialized assistance from NLC’s staff and other national experts.

“This award is a big win for young people. They will benefit from significant career development opportunities made possible by this grant,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “These are children who would otherwise go without, now having experiences and connections they never thought possible. I commend the National League of Cities for their continued commitment to the future leaders of this country.”

According to the release, the grant money will support the Hire Houston Youth program by connecting diverse opportunity youth to the unique STEM and technology-focused workforce development.

"Our youth deserve educational opportunities that connect them to the local workforce and career exploration, so they can make informed choices about their future career path in Houston’s dynamic economy. Houston youth will only further the amazing things they will accomplish, thanks to this grant," says Olivera Jankovska, director of the Mayor's Office of Education.

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