HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 60

With fresh funds, Houston startup plans to represent the future of fireproofing

Mike Francis, co-founder of NanoTech, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his plans to fireproof California. Photo courtesy of NanoTech

A few years ago, Mike Francis caught a video of a man's hand coated in some sort of material and placed over a fire. Nothing was happening to the man's hand — the coating completely protected it — but something was happening in Francis's brain, and a year ago he founded Nanotech Inc.

Based in Houston, NanoTech' is focused on reducing energy waste by proper insulation within the construction industry — a half inch of NanoTech's material is the equivalent of 30 inches of fiberglass. However, perhaps more important to Francis is the life-saving capability the product provides in terms of fireproofing.

"We're working with all of the major players in the state of California to not only fireproof the utility infrastructure, but eventually homes and businesses," Francis says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Our goal, if we're looking into the future, is to fireproof that state — and we're working with the right people and companies to make it happen."

To the best of his knowledge, Francis says NanoTech is the only company this far along working on this goal. Millions of utility poles go up in flames as the forest fires sweep through the state, and coating them with NanoTech could help prevent this damage.

Of course, as the company grows, Francis is lucky to have the support and the funds behind him and his team. Earlier this year, Halliburton selected NanoTech as the inaugural member of Halliburton Labs. For the past few months, NanoTech has been based in the labs, receiving hands-on support, and NanoTech will join the year-long inaugural cohort of 15 or so companies in 2021.

NanoTech also has a new member to its support system — and $5 million — following the close of its seed round led by Austin-based Ecliptic Capital. Francis says he was looking for an investor to bring new expertise the company doesn't have yet, and Ecliptic will be crucial to growing globally.

"Those first investors, especially in your seed round, are critical to your growth," says Francis. "We're so excited to be partnering with Ecliptic — we just trusted them."

Francis shares more about fundraising during a pandemic and what being based at Halliburton has meant for his company's growth. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


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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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