Thursday AM January 24th, 2008

Rice Alliance Nanotechnology Venture Forum to feature 20 start-ups...Survey shows businesses gloomy about economy, but upbeat about their own firms...Texas Enterprise Fund awards $1.67 million to Rockwell Collins to expand Richardson operations...

The Rice Alliance Nanotechnology Venture Forum showcases 20 promising start-up companies today at Rice University's McNair Hall Jones Graduate School. Speakers include venture capitalists, investors and experts in nanotechnology research and commercialization. Since its inception in 1999, the Rice Alliance has assisted in the launch of over 210 new technology companies, which have raised more than $300 million in early stage funding. Some 20 of those companies have been launched based on technology developed by Rice faculty and researchers and licensed from the Rice Office of Technology Transfer.


In a National Association for Business Economics industry survey, respondents are gloomier about the economy, but remain upbeat about their own firm's pricing, capital spending and hiring plans, according to the Houston Business Journal. While nearly all panelists expect the housing slowdown to continue, only 42 percent believe a slowdown, mild or severe, will have an impact on their business. Two-thirds say tightening credit conditions have not affected their businesses.


A Rand Corporation study indicates that best practices alone do not always contribute to diversity, even if diversity programs help boost raw numbers. Programs may fall short of promoting personal development and higher levels of job satisfaction among both minority and non-minority personnel, according to the study. The study's lead author concludes that companies have to accept and integrate an inclusive diversity program into its social and business fabric. The Rand Corporation is a non-profit research group.


Top executives from the energy industry face more global challenges in exploration, employee recruitment, and retention and perception than ever before, according to Grant Thornton's 6th annual Survey of Upstream U.S. Energy Companies. Respondents say they want to see increased focus on accessing new acreage for exploration. Oil and gas executives surveyed say they would like to see more training and development of workers to replace the aging and shrinking workforce. Respondents also want to see the general public get more educated about the energy industry. Some 67 percent predict more mergers, acquisitions and restructuring efforts in 2008.


Construction activity continued to rise slightly in December, according to the Houston Business Journal, quoting a report by the American Institute of Architects. The AIA Billings Index rise shows an approximate nine- to 12-month lag between architecture billings and construction spending. Commercial and industrial buildings continue having the highest rating among the industry sectors.


The Georgetown City Council has approved a watered-down proposal for clamping down on city contractorsξhiring undocumented immigrants. The council voted unanimously to have a clause inserted in all future city contracts with businesses. The clause would simply require the business owner to "comply with all applicable federal and state laws and local ordinances.'' City staff members had offered the council alternatives that included requiring all contractors to sign an affidavit or a letter of certification declaring that they had no illegal immigrants on their payroll. The idea for that proposal first arose with a council member in December, when a landscaping service was given a contract to maintain city parks. Nearly a dozen people spoke Tuesday against the council involving itself in immigration affairs. They said any restrictive policy aimed at undocumented workers would be discriminatory and place too heavy a burden on employers.


The Texas Enterprise Fund is awarding $1.67 million to Rockwell Collins to expand their Texas operations in Richardson. The governor's office says the expansion will create 334 new high-paying jobs. Rockwell Collins supplies defense communication and electronic solutions for the U.S. Department of Defense, foreign militaries and manufacturers of military aircraft and helicopters. The Richardson operation will focus primarily on production of aviation electronics and communication systems for the military.


South Korea prosecutors said they've put off a decision on whether to indict the head of Dallas-based buyout group Lone Star Funds. A prosecution spokesman says Lone Star Chairman John Grayken will be questioned again. Grayken arrived in South Korea earlier this month to testify in the trial of the fund's South Korean head on charges of stock price manipulation. Prosecutors barred Grayken from leaving the country and have been questioning him, though haven't said why. South Korean media reports have said the questioning centered on Lone Star's acquisition of a troubled South Korean bank in 2003. Michael Breen, president of Insight Communications Consultants, which handles public relations for Lone Star, said the fund had no immediate comment.


Two auto giants may be wearing the crown. General Motors says it sold more than 9.3 million vehicles worldwide last year, falling into a virtual dead heat with fast-rising Toyota for the 2007 global sales crown. Earlier this month, Toyota reported a similar global sales number, but stopped short of releasing a number down to the last vehicle sold. Detroit-based GM has held the title of world's largest automaker for 76 years. However, Toyota's strong U.S. growth and GM's U.S. sales decline helped Toyota move closer to the top spot in recent years.


Chrysler says it's starting a new product development team devoted to global midsize cars and will set up regional product development centers as part of its effort to expand overseas sales. The moves come as part of a realignment of Chrysler's product development department. Chrysler will now have five teams of designers, engineers and marketers devoted to Jeep products, Dodge trucks, Chrysler cars and minivans, street racing, and global midsize cars. The company used to have only three teams: one for all vehicles on truck frames, one for rear-wheel-drive vehicles, and one for minivans and midsize and small cars. Chrysler Chairman and Chief Executive Bob Nardelli says the company will move aggressively to establish overseas product planning centers that will bring together design, engineering and parts sourcing and could eventually include manufacturing. He says likely locations for the first of those centers would be Toluca, Mexico, where Chrysler already has an assembly plant, plus Beijing and Shanghai. Nardelli says it's critical for the company to understand the emerging markets in which it must compete.


Houston-based Christian Brothers Automotive Corporation now has 50 franchises in eight states. The newest one is in Tomball, making a total of 13 Houston-area outlets. The first store opened in Houston in 1982.


AT&T's chief executive says the San Antonio-based telecom is still evaluating whether to examine traffic on its Internet lines. The purpose of the examinations would be to stop illegal sharing of copyright material. CEO Randall Stephenson told a conference at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland that AT&T's looking at monitoring peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. That's one of the largest drivers of online traffic but also a common way to illegally exchange copyright files. Stephenson compared it to "being in a store and watching someone steal a DVD. Do you act?'' AT&T has talked about such plans since last summer. They represent a break with the current practice of U.S. Internet service providers, who are shielded by law from liability if their subscribers trade copyright files like movies.

AT&T will make its 10,000 wi-fi hotspots free to nearly all broadband Internet customers starting next week. San Antonio-based AT&T previously opened hotspot access to subscribers of its premium broadband services--but left out most high-speed users who have the 1.5-mbps service. Now, more than ten million broadband customers, most of AT&T's high-speed internet subscribers, will be able to use the hotspots for free. Most wi-fi hotspots--set up in restaurants, airports and other public places--charge daily or monthly fees for wireless Internet access. AT&T wireless customers who use apple's iPhone currently must get a wi-fi package to use their iPhone at AT&T hotspots. But the announcement will allow AT&T broadband Internet subscribers to use their iPhones at hotspots--for free. AT&T also announced it will introduce a faster broadband service that can send data at up to 10 mbps. The service, at $55 per month, will only be available customers of the company's Internet protocol-based television service, U-verse.


It is HBO to go. The premium cable channel unit has rolled out a new service to allow some subscribers to watch HBO programs, movies and sports shows on their computers. The service will be offered first in Milwaukee and Green Bay, Wisconsin, through HBO's sister company Time Warner Cable, which is also part of the Time Warner media conglomerate. HBO is in talks to expand the service to other areas and also to other cable providers. Only available to HBO subscribers who also use Time Warner cable for high-speed Internet access, the new service will allow viewers to watch HBO programming on their computers using a special video player program. Viewers can either download shows to their computers or begin watching them almost immediately online, similar to a video-on-demand program on cable TV.


Southwest Airlines reported a larger fourth-quarter profit than the previous year's final quarter. But the Dallas-based airline says fuel costs in the current quarter will rise substantially. Southwest said net income rose to $111 million. Revenue rose nine percent to $2.49 billion. For the current quarter Southwest estimates fuel costs of about $2 a gallon. That's up from $1.72 per gallon in the fourth quarter. Fuel costs are among airlines' largest expenses. Chief Executive Gary Kelly said the quarter and full-year profit "fell short of our earnings goals'' due to high costs and operational challenges regarding bad weather, traffic and security.

Southwest says it will begin installing equipment to test on-board Internet service. It's a service that could generate extra fees from passengers on the Dallas-based low fare carrier. Southwest also has begun a multimillion dollar initiative to renovate its gate areas and marketing. The airline has been gradually changing its boarding method from its long-time "cattle call'' to assigned spots in line at the gate. Southwest earlier launched a special business flyer program with higher ticket prices for in-flight extras.

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