New kids on the block

Houston entrepreneur creates a network to link up with other blockchain professionals

The Houston Blockchain Alliance aims to connect and educate tech professionals in town. Getty Images

Houstonians traveling around the country might covet other cities for their mountain scapes, beaches, or more mild summers, but Mahesh Sashital envied the fact that other major cities had developed networks and organizations focused on connecting and educating tech professionals. Houston, it seems, was late to the party.

So, he decided to make his own blockchain-focused organization, and a few months ago, he launched the Houston Blockchain Alliance.

Sashital, who is the co-founder of Smarterum, a blockchain news site, works from home and says — every once and a while — he needs some "adult talk time" with his fellow tech professionals.

"I thought that I'd start the Houston Blockchain Alliance so that someone like me, who's already in the industry, can find other people working in the industry," he says. "And for other people interested in blockchain can learn more and get up to speed with the technology."

The Houston Blockchain Alliance's goals are two part: to connect and to educate. The group plans to have an event in February, Sashital says, as well as a citywide blockchain conference in the third or fourth quarters of 2019. Sashital also wants to inform those interested on blockchain news and development by providing educational resources and opportunities.

"We plan on having workshops where people can talk about all sorts of aspects of blockchain — there's so much to talk about," he says. "We can have workshops on legal, accounting, technical, business strategy, and more."

Sashital, who's been a developer for the better part of his life, has a bigger, personal goal for the alliance too. He's worked and lived in Houston for 12 years and he says he's noticed that Houston hasn't yet claimed a reputation for being a tech city. It gets beaten out by cities like Austin, which just was announced to be the home of the new Apple campus. But a decade or so ago, Austin didn't have a tech reputation either. The city positioned itself to be that, and now it's Houston's turn, he says.

"We have a whole bunch of tech workers in Houston — but they are all fragmented across the city. We want to change that perception that Houston's not the place to go if you want to do tech work," Sashital says.

"Hopefully the Houston Blockchain Alliance is a small step in that direction."

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Building Houston

 
 

This UH engineer is hoping to make his mark on cancer detection. Photo via UH.edu

Early stage cancer is hard to detect, mostly because traditional diagnostic imaging cannot detect tumors smaller than a certain size. One Houston innovator is looking to change that.

Wei-Chuan Shih, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, recently published his findings in IEEE Sensors journal. According to a news release from UH, the cells around cancer tumors are small — ~30-150nm in diameter — and complex, and the precise detection of these exosome-carried biomarkers with molecular specificity has been elusive, until now.

"This work demonstrates, for the first time, that the strong synergy of arrayed radiative coupling and substrate undercut can enable high-performance biosensing in the visible light spectrum where high-quality, low-cost silicon detectors are readily available for point-of-care application," says Shih in the release. "The result is a remarkable sensitivity improvement, with a refractive index sensitivity increase from 207 nm/RIU to 578 nm/RIU."

Wei-Chuan Shih is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

What Shih has done is essentially restored the electric field around nanodisks, providing accessibility to an otherwise buried enhanced electric field. Nanodisks are antibody-functionalized artificial nanostructures which help capture exosomes with molecular specificity.

"We report radiatively coupled arrayed gold nanodisks on invisible substrate (AGNIS) as a label-free (no need for fluorescent labels), cost-effective, and high-performance platform for molecularly specific exosome biosensing. The AGNIS substrate has been fabricated by wafer-scale nanosphere lithography without the need for costly lithography," says Shih in the release.

This process speeds up screening of the surface proteins of exosomes for diagnostics and biomarker discovery. Current exosome profiling — which relies primarily on DNA sequencing technology, fluorescent techniques such as flow cytometry, or enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) — is labor-intensive and costly. Shih's goal is to amplify the signal by developing the label-free technique, lowering the cost and making diagnosis easier and equitable.

"By decorating the gold nanodisks surface with different antibodies (e.g., CD9, CD63, and CD81), label-free exosome profiling has shown increased expression of all three surface proteins in cancer-derived exosomes," said Shih. "The sensitivity for detecting exosomes is within 112-600 (exosomes/μL), which would be sufficient in many clinical applications."

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