Guest column

Houston can stay the Space City within medical and health innovation

If Houston wants to maintain its title as Space City, it needs to channel the innovation of its history as space exploration moves forward. Pexels

Space has captured the imagination of mankind since we first looked up at the night sky. We've reached out to touch the stars, and now endeavor to inhabit them.

Earlier this month, a prominent collection of experts on space health attended the first Space Health Innovation Conference co-hosted by the University of California, San Francisco, and Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health.

As NASA eyes a return to the moon with the Artemis Program, attendees of the Space Health Innovation Conference advanced a national discussion of human space exploration by seeking to manage the many health risks associated with humans during space flight. The event included NASA leadership, innovative companies, commercial space vendors, as well as leaders from the space health and life sciences communities.

The conference's goal is to inform, inspire and invite participation in the exciting challenge of optimizing health and medical management in space environments.

With its headquarters in Houston, TRISH partnered with the Human Research Program at Johnson Space Center to source and seed the best emerging health technologies to support NASA's space exploration. TRISH is based out of the Center for Space Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and is a consortium that includes the rich space pedigree of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology. The Space Health Innovation Conference is the result of a grant by TRISH to UCSF. TRISH has also hosted Space Health focused events at the MIT Media lab and at Caltech.

TRISH's main charge is finding disruptive health technologies and new scientists to fuel the US Space Program. TRISH explores emerging areas of science that support health and human performance in the harsh environment of microgravity and high radiation. TRISH funds novel research in artificial intelligence, omics, human computer interfaces, behavioral health and beyond. Projects all share one goal: predicting and protecting future Mars explorers. And NASA leadership encourages TRISH to take the risks that could mean huge leaps forward.

Innovation and risk tolerance are hallmarks of Houston and its rich history. From the city's humble origins, to Jesse Jones's national financial leadership, to the building of the Houston Ship Channel, and to the explosion of the energy industry, Houston has always dared to leap forward. President John F. Kennedy's iconic speech entitled "Address at Rice University on the Nation's Space Effort" declared the US ambition to embrace the new frontier of space and conquer the moon. Humble Oil donated the 1,620 acres for JSC to Rice University, who then sold the land to NASA for $20. (Humble Oil would later become Exxon Mobil.)

JSC housed flight control, space flight training, and the NASA Astronaut Corps. JSC gave Houston the nickname "Space City", which led to the naming of the local NBA team to be the Rockets and the local MLB team to be the Astros. JSC's support for the astronaut corps began with the Lunar Receiving Laboratory, which evaluated the Apollo astronauts upon return to Earth. And the Christopher C Kraft Mission Control facility has directed all crewed space flights since the early Gemini program. An American flag flies atop Mission Control at JSC every day that an American is in space. That flag has flown continuously since November 2, 2000.

Nearly two decades since Bill Shepherd first boarded the International Space Station, the conversation around supporting human health and performance in space continues. And Houston will continue to lead the way for all our sakes, in space and on terra firma.

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James Hury is the deputy director and chief innovation officer at Houston-based Translational Research Institute for Space Health.

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Building Houston

 
 

Panelists from the University of Houston and Houston Methodist discussed tech transfer challenges and opportunities for academic innovators. Photo courtesy

Groundbreaking and disruptive innovations across industries are coming out of research institutions, and their commercialization process is very different from other startups.

An expert panel within Technology transfer discussed some of the unique obstacles innovators face as they go from academia into the market — like patenting, funding, the valley of death, and more.

Missed the conversation? Here are eight key moments from the panel that took place at the University of Houston's Technology Bridge on Wednesday, May 19.

This event was hosted by InnovationMap and University of Houston.

“If your technology can immediately impact some industry, I think you should license out your technology. But if you think that the reward is much higher and does not yet match something in the industry, you should go the high risk, high reward path of doing it yourself. That’s a much more challenging. It takes years of work.”

— Hadi Ghasemi, co-founder of Elemental Coatings and Cullen associate professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, says on how tech transfer usually happens via those two pathways. Ghasemi explains that it also depends on the academic's passion for the product and interest in becoming an entrepreneur.

“There’s a mismatch in that you can have a really clinically impactful technology but still not have money to develop it into a product.” 

— Rashim Singh, co-founder of Sanarentero and a research assistant professor of pharmaceutics at the University of Houston College of Pharmacy, says on the different priorities from within academia and within the market.

“What I’ve seen is if you know you want to patent something, tell the right people early. Make sure you have the right players involved. Our tech office already has venture, Pharma, etc. partners that can help with the patent process.”

— Ginny Torno, administrative director of innovation and IT clinical systems at Houston Methodist

“You don’t need to be fully transparent about your technology. As a company, you need to have some secret sauce."

— Ghasemi says on the patent and paper publishing process. Academics are used to publishing their research, but when it comes to business, you need to hold some things close to the chest.

“One of the most important piece the UH Tech Bridge has provided is the wet lab space to develop these technologies a little further toward commercialization. … Wet lab is very precious space in Houston specifically because there isn’t much here.”

— Singh says on how important access to lab space is to the entrepreneur.

"“You’re starting to see more and more organizations that have innovation arms. ... There are a lot of focus on trying to make Houston another innovation hub, and I think there is more support now than even a few years ago.”

— Torno says on what's changed over the past few years, mentioning TMC3 and the Ion.

“Try to serve private capital as soon as possible. The grant money comes, and those are good and will help you prove out your technology. But once you have private money, it shows people care about your product.”

— Ghasemi says as a piece of advice for potential tech transfer entrepreneurs.

“The biggest gap is to arrange for funding — federal, private, etc. — to support during the valley of death.”

— Singh says on the struggle research-based startups, especially in drug discovery, faces as they fight to prove out their product and try to stay afloat financially.

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