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5 Houston inventors named fellows of a prestigious international program

The five scientists represent five different academic institutions in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The National Academy of Inventors has recognized 175 scientists from across the world as NAI Fellows — and five of those inventors are based at Houston institutions.

The program honors academic inventors who, according to NAI, "have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society."

The five Houston inventors join the ranks of a group of individuals who have generated over 13,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than 19 million jobs, according to the announcement.

These are the scientists from Houston organizations:

  • Ananth Annapragada of Baylor College of Medicineis professor of radiology and obstetrics and gynecology, vice chief of research and director of basic research at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital as well as a member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center.
  • Ronald Biediger of the Texas Heart Instituteis associate director of chemistry, Wafic Said Molecular Cardiology Research Laboratories and leading a group of chemists developing small molecule integrin antagonists and agonists for use as therapies, or as adjuncts to cell based therapies, for heart, lung and vascular disease
  • Mark Clarke of the University of Houstonis associate provost for faculty development and faculty affairs at the University of Houston.
  • Ashutosh Sabharwal of Rice University is professor and Ph.D of electrical engineering and was named Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 2014 for contributions to the theory and experimentation of wireless systems and networks.
  • Jia Zhou of The University of Texas Medical Branch is professor in the Department Pharmacology and Toxicology focusing on drug discovery of bioactive molecules to probe biological systems or act as potential therapeutic agents in neuroscience, cancer/inflammation, infectious diseases, and other human conditions.

The new class of inventors will be inducted on June 8 at the 10th Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Inventors in Tampa, Florida.

These scientists have already established dozens of patents between the five of them across fields and industries. Clarke specifically holds 13 U.S. patents, seven NASA technology innovation awards, and has founded two life science startup companies to commercialize his technologies, according to a news release from UH.

"Most faculty inventors, including myself, do not begin their research careers focused on creating or commercializing new technologies, nor do they usually know where to start when presented with such an opportunity," Clarke says in the release. "Helping faculty members and students transition fundamental discoveries into commercially valuable technologies and products is not only a key part of our mission as a Tier One research university, it is critical to our region's economic prosperity and ensuring that the U.S. remains competitive in an innovation-driven global economy."

From BCM, Annapragada holds 15 patents in the United States and close to 100 worldwide. The majority of his patents are in next generation imaging technologies, CT vascular imaging, and MR molecular imaging, according to a BCM release, and Annapragada is the founder of two active startup companies — Alzeca Inc. and Sensulin LLC.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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