Here's what Houston tech is making a difference locally amid the pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

The entire world came to a standstill when the COVID-19 pandemic came knocking at the door, and Houston was no different than the rest. Businesses got shut down, people were losing jobs left and right, the medical infrastructure was wheezing from the huge patient-influx, and whatnot.

However, the Space City managed to weather the storm thanks to its firm resolve and technological interventions from Houston-based businesses and several other players. But that doesn't mean we are out of the woods yet.

The silver lining, however, is that we now know the threat can be mitigated with the help of technologies at our disposal. In this article, we'll discuss how technology has facilitated the fight against the pandemic. Some of the local businesses from Houston also had a significant role to play in providing an arsenal for this war, and we'll be discussing their contribution as well. So let's get started:

Remote healthcare assistance with smart data collection and management

The biggest challenge at the beginning of the pandemic was to provide proper care to those exposed to the virus without putting the lives of frontline workers in danger. On top of that, hospitals also had to make sure that patients suffering from other illnesses do not come into contact with the virus.

With the number of patients rising exponentially, the medical infrastructure could've never been able to cope up if it were not for telemedicine. It's a combination of remote and data technologies that allow healthcare workers to assist and treat patients without going in their physical proximity.

Houston's Medical Informatics Corp. did some exceptional work in making remote healthcare a feasible option for medical institutions. Their solution aims at collecting accurate and comprehensive data that'll further allow physicians to provide better care to the patients. While the luxury of social distancing is among the most significant benefits of this solution, there are several other benefits in the long run.

Since MIC's solution focuses on collecting quality data from all the possible data points, the information can also help identify any significant trends in how the virus is affecting the patients. Artificial intelligence and machine learning seem like the perfect allies to bolster MIC's solution further.

The tech also allows for patients to get quality consultation from experts located in other geographical locations. Hospitals can also leverage such an infrastructure to scale up and down with ease by quickly bringing in more remote caregivers in case of a spike in patients' numbers.

Telemedicine has been brilliant in helping the world deal with the coronavirus pandemic and paved the way for a revamped healthcare infrastructure in the future. The one in which affordable healthcare is a norm and physical distances are not an issue anymore.

Drones and robots for sanitization and upkeep

Once the lockdown restrictions were slowly uplifted, businesses needed to be more cautious about sanitizing the facilities and ensure there was no reason forcing them to close the shop again. The challenge turned out to be bigger for larger facilities as they can't simply deploy a large workforce to take care of it. It would be impossible to follow social distancing norms under such circumstances.

Many stadiums in Houston concluded that employing drones for the job is the way to go, and they couldn't have been more correct. Texas Medical Technology used 'SaniDrones' to spray disinfectants over large facilities and equipment. These drones are pretty much like what is used for agricultural fields and carry large amounts of spraying material at a time to get the job done.

The company also has an army of various other robots that can help businesses abide by pandemic norms. They have one that automatically puts protective coverings on the visitor's shoes to help prevent outside elements from entering the facility. Then they also have a robot that can take orders from customers in restaurants. It can show them 3-D menus and expertly ask customers what they'd like to order. They also offer SaniGate, which disinfect visitors before entering the premises, thus curbing the spread of the virus.

Airobotics is another Houston-based company coming up with technologically advanced solutions for businesses to deal with the pandemic. They provide drones to industrial players, such as oil and gas companies, to monitor and inspect the facility. The drones collect information critical to such plants' smooth functioning and prevent the analysts from going around and touching surfaces on the plant.

The pandemic made us realize that we can't always rely on human workers to care for the fieldwork. Drones and robots provide a suitable alternative to such jobs, and as these solutions get more commonplace, we can also expect them to get more affordable.

Bringing the economy back to life by keeping the virus out of the ecosystem

The economic slowdown brought by the coronavirus is unlike what most of us could even comprehend. With small businesses taking the biggest hit and a good fraction of them shutting down forever, it's necessary for the remaining ones free from the clutches of the pandemic.

And one of the better ways to do that is by minimizing the virus's spread at places where people frequent the most. One of the primary reasons for the coronavirus to be so transmissible is because of how it can travel through seemingly healthy carriers. It might cause a mild fever in some, but that usually doesn't keep people from getting out.

DataVox, a Houston based tech company, provides thermal scanners to make sure possibly infected humans stay away from the virus. The thermal scanners provided by them only check for the temperature and don't affect the privacy of those being scanned. It's a seemingly simple but effective way to deal with such a dangerous element.

Another positive news in this context is that researchers at the University of Houston have designed an air filter capable of filtering out the coronavirus to a great deal of effectiveness. Once commercially available, this can be installed in closed facilities and ensure the virus doesn't enter even through the vents.

There is no doubt that leveraging technology is the way to go forward despite how the situation unfolds. Houston is now implementing smart city solutions with the same thing in mind, and we should also be following their lead.

With a workforce of skilled software developers in Houston, and the city's rich background in technology, the adoption of tech measures should not turn out to be a tough deal. And Houston-based firms coming up with advanced solutions is only a good sign for the city.

Let's hope we'll be seeing more of these in the future, and more Houston businesses will help the city and the world fight this pandemic.

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Colin Simpson is project manager at BlueKite Apps, which recently started its software development services in Houston.

In a post-COVID-19 world, it's time for drones and automation to shine. Photo courtesy of Airobotics

Houston drone company sees rising need for automation within the energy industry and beyond

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For years, Ran Krauss has watched the drone and automation industry be overhyped and misunderstood. But due to a myriad of causes — a global pandemic that's forced workers to stay home, a oil glut that's caused energy company layoffs, and years of work pushing through new regulation — it's finally time, Kauss believes, for drone technology to take-off.

Krauss has worked in the drone industry for years and, in 2014, co-founded Airobotics, a full-service drone company, with Meir Kliner. Between COVID-19 and an oversupply of oil, energy companies, which make up most of Airobotics clients, are seeing how important automation and drone technology is.

"Everyone watched Netflix before, but the pandemic increased demand," Krauss tells InnovationMap. "For us, our ability to provide remote monitoring applications was always something of value, but obviously in times like this when staff can't get into a site, there's more significance."

The COVID-19 crisis, Krauss explains, has perhaps sped up energy companies' plans to integrate this type of technology.

"One of the effects of the pandemic is reconsidering the timeline and deployment of robotics as a whole to deal with future threats like this," he says. "The world is going to think differently about automation, robotics, and drones."

Krauss saw an opportunity for drone technology within industrial business, but wanted to take it a step further with automation. That's how he came up with the idea for a drone in a box — an idea that became Airobotics. The company's technology operates as a one-stop shop for companies looking for drone and automation technology.

Airobotics's technology includes a docking station that even has a robotic arm to replace batteries in the drone. Photo courtesy of Airobotics

The Airobotics device comes complete with a docking station that even has an automated arm to replace batteries, for instance, so limited human interaction is needed. Airobotics works with its clients to customize data collection needs, and then manages the operations as a service provider.

"As an operator, we figured out that we needed to create an automated system — similar to an autonomous car — for safety, productivity, and cost effectiveness. That's why we started a robotics company," he says.

While Airobotics — which has clients worldwide — has offices in the United States, Israel, and Singapore, Texas is a focus for the company, Krauss says.

The company's technology has seen historic approval from regulators in each of the countries it operates in. Specifically, Krauss praises what the Federal Aviation Administration is doing to advance drone technology regulation, and the department recognizes Airobotics as subject matter experts.

"We're working very closely with the FAA, which has identified us as a partner to help them create the right environment for drones to be integrated into the airspace," Krauss says. "You can't ignore new technologies but just saying, 'OK, this thing [isn't allowed to] fly.' There has to be the right balance of public safety and encouraging new technologies to take place."

It's not only industry and regulatory support Airobotic has seen. The company has gone through quite a few funding rounds and raised over $110 million.

"Our investors have identified the situation and the market potential our company has over anybody else," Krauss says. "We're the trailblazers, which comes at a cost — it's much easier to follow than to lead. But, we're happy to do so."

Perhaps, one of the biggest challenges for the company and the industry is educating potential clients. The word "drone" is used to describe everything from a remote-controlled device with a camera on it that's just a few hundred dollars online to Airobotics's Optimus device, which is made up of thousands of parts.

"There is definitely a constant need for market education in this sector — always has been the case," Krauss says.

For Krauss, he's seen drone technology go through this "hype phase," and he sees a bright future for what drone and automation capabilities are coming.

"I think we're going to see a resurgence in this industry in the coming years — with applications in the real world with real value generation, not just hype and science fiction," he says.

One industry that's ripe for drone technology disruption — smart cities innovation. Krauss says he hopes Houston is a city that looks to utilize the tech.

"I think the digitization of the urban environment is going to be the next sector where we're going see drones create a lot of value," he says.

Airobotics has clients within the industrial sector. Photo courtesy of Airobotics

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

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Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.