Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."

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10 can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for February

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It's time to look at what's on the agenda for February for Houston innovators — from pitch competitions to networking events.

Here's a roundup of events not to miss this month. Mark your calendars and register accordingly.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

Feb. 8 — Digital Marketing Luncheon

Join Insperity, a partner of The Cannon, and digital marketing expert, Danny Gavin, at The Cannon Downtown for a lunch and learn.

The event is Wednesday, February 8, at noon, at The Cannon Downtown. Click here to register.

Feb. 9 — Innovation on Tap: Fred Higgs, Engineering at Rice University

Discuss research in the speaker’s engineering lab at Rice University on key Industry 4.0 technologies, namely additive manufacturing.

The event is Thursday, February 9, at 4 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

February 10 — Women in Leadership Conference 

The 23rd annual Women in Leadership Conference will be held in-person at Rice University. The conference has been a beacon of inspiration in the Houston community, empowering women to accomplish their career goals. In panel discussions and interactive workshops, attendees hear from leaders across different industries, explore various approaches to leadership, and discuss future opportunities for success.

The event is Friday, February 10, at 8 am, at McNair Hall at Rice University. Click here to register.

Feb. 15 — Real Talk from Real VCs

Join this event for a candid fireside chat on venture capital and its role in supporting and growing innovative startups.

The event is Wednesday, February 15, at 5:30 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Engage VC: Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau is an early-stage venture capital firm founded and operated in New York City. Since 2010, they have invested in entrepreneurs who embody audacity, endurance, and winning mindset – good people with great ideas who aren't afraid to do hard things. Join the HX Venture Fund to hear Caitlin Strandberg, Partner at Lerer Hippeau discuss her perspective on how to build and scale a great company, what early-stage investors are looking for, why Houston, and market trends among other topics.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 8:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Female Founders and Funders

Calling all rockstar female founders and investors in the Houston area. Mark your calendars for this month's Female Founders and Funders meetup. Coffee and breakfast is provided and the event is free to attend.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 9 am, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 21 — Web3 & HOU: Demystifying the Web3 Space Panel I

Join us to learn more about Web3 and its numerous applications.

The event is Tuesday, February 21, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — The Trailblazer’s Guide to Cultivating Authenticity

In this fun and interactive workshop presented by Erica D’Eramo of Two Peirs Consulting, we’ll look at how to foster a leadership style that works for you, even in the absence of role models.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 2 pm, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions. Founders will pitch at the Ion and compete for the grand prize package. Watch the startups pitch their company and see who the judges will name the champion of the Houston Startup Showcase 2023.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 23 — Navigating Innovation in the Corporate World

Join us for a fireside chat with leaders from Houston's largest employers, including Microsoft and Chevron to discuss how they have navigated successful careers in technology and innovation.

The event is Thursday, February 23, at 11:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 27-March 2 — Houston Tech Rodeo

The Houston Tech Rodeo is a conference showcasing the best and brightest of the Houston startup community in the region and beyond by putting investors, entrepreneurs, industry leaders, and creative minds in a room to talk about the biggest innovations and the future of tech sandwiched by some happy hours and friendly competition.

The events run Monday, February 27, through Thursday, March 2, at various locations in Houston. Click here to register.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


Houston innovator aims to connect the dots between data science and phenomena

eyes to the sky

As artificial intelligence continues to expand its sphere of influence, Spring-based expert Joe Schurman is looking to take this technology to an out-of-this-world space.

With his background includes working with advising defense and aerospace organizations like NASA, Schurman's latest venture PhenomAInon is perfectly aligned with what he’s been working towards since 2019. The company aims to be a multi-tiered subscription service and application that will be the world’s first cloud native data and AI platform for phenomenon-based data analysis that can analyze data from any source for space domain awareness and threat detection, according to Schurman.

The platform aims to provide end-to-end data and AI analysis, publish insights, build community, and provide cloud, data, and software consulting. PhenomAInon deploys data and AI services alongside modern data and AI engineering, per the website, to surface insights to explorers, researchers, organizations, publications, and communities through advanced data and AI analysis. Schurman has worked with the U.S. government's task force for unidentified anomalous phenomenon — any perceived aerial phenomenon that cannot be immediately identified or explained — known as UAPTF. The tool will run sensitive information and then get back custom video analysis. The public version of the tool will give the public the option to view videos and cases, and form their own analysis.

“We are working together with multiple teams both public and private to continue to curate the data sets, clear documents for public review, and provide advanced analytics and AI capabilities never seen before to the public,” Schurman tells InnovationMap. “From a data and analytics perspective, we are applying machine learning and advanced analytics to find correlations and anomalies in the incident reports across multiple data sets.

"Some of these are public, some are private, and some we are clearing for public review," he continues. "The analytics will go far beyond incident reporting and showcase heat maps, correlative incident maps to key private and public sector facilities, and trends analysis never reported — e.g. incident reporting correlated with time, weather, FAA, and drone flight data, etc. We also have a new content analysis platform where users will be able to eventually run their own AI and ML analysis on their own videos.”

Schurman was first able to show this to the world in 2019, when as an adviser for To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, or TTSA. He also appeared on History Channel’s “Unidentified: Inside America's UFO Investigation” to show the Pentagon’s former Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program head and TTSA Director of Special Programs Luis Elizondo how the AI platform could be helpful in tracking data related to Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

Now, PhenomAInon's app is a work-in-progress. While it soft launched in May of 2022, Schurman says they have several data sets that are awaiting clearing from the U.S. government, as well as the content analysis tool in development to launch possibly by the summer. Schurman also hopes they will curate the largest library of incident videos, images, and audio recordings.

The subject of UAP continues to attract new discussions from government officials and industry professions across aerospace, academia, and more. In Houston, Rice University's Woodson Research Center and its humanities department host one of the largest archives of UAP and paranormal data, notes, and research that include documents from CIA programs on remote viewing.

Schurman says he's looking to provide even more data and information in this space.

“This phenomenon, it’s implications to multiple aspects of our lives and possible security threats, all come down to a data problem and the organizations that have been in place to-date just have not had the level of cloud, data and AI engineering capabilities we take for granted and have access to in the private sector,” says Schurman. “My goal is to bring this all together, starting with PhenomAInon.”

Houston expert: Build workforce resiliency by investing in a long-term, low-cost internship strategy

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Short-term talent shortages can feel overwhelming, especially if your company is navigating staff shortages, while also planning for future growth.

While internship programs can get a bad rap, there are many benefits to providing opportunities for early career professionals in any organization. By building a pipeline of eager, talented employees, and embedding institutional knowledge in your organization, you can reduce the burden of extra work on remaining employees and reinvigorate your business.

Get more engagement and develop champions at your company by incorporating three vital ingredients into your internship program strategy:

  1. Hire based on core values & interns’ ability to thrive at your company
  2. Invest in training
  3. Provide meaningful work

Build a strong team: hire based on ability to thrive 

To ensure your organization’s growth is coming from a diverse talent pool, build a hiring process around employees' future ability and core values, instead of what they have done in the past. Oftentimes, you’ll find that an intern’s coachability, willingness to learn and growth mindset are better determining factors towards future success than past experience.

During the recruitment and hiring process, ask your interns questions to probe values, interests, and passions. To determine if they have a growth mindset, you can ask, “What do you read in your time off to stay up to date with the latest trends in the industry? What did you learn yesterday?” or “Tell me about a time you received feedback. What did you do with this?”

Make sure that each intern that comes on board feels like a part of the team. Let them immerse themselves into your company’s culture, work environment, and industry by inviting them to your employee team-building activities, monthly company-wide conference calls, and other events that provide them with more context about your culture. Schedule weekly touchpoints with each intern to regularly check in on goals, their progress on tasks, and overall concerns. Not only will these meetings strengthen trust, but they will also position interns to succeed at your company.

Build resilience: invest in training

When you invest in a thoughtful, effective training experience, your interns will be more committed to the role because they’ll see the added effort you’re making towards their career.

Consider how your current training is structured and implemented so that your internship training experience is up to speed with the expectations of Gen-Z. Explore out-of-the-box training options, including coaching, virtual learning, and assessments that they will actually use.

In addition to the hard skills that are essential to supporting any company, ensure that you are training interns on core competencies. The National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies eight core competencies that are vital to career readiness: career & self-development, communication, critical thinking, equity & inclusion, leadership, professionalism, teamwork, and technology. When you teach interns these core competencies as soon as they join your organization, you will see an immediate boost in productivity, and you can objectively assess for future full-time employment.

Build momentum: provide meaningful work

After you’ve clearly mapped out your internship training experience, clearly outline projects from each of your company’s departments before you onboard interns. By planning ahead, and having a running list of projects that don’t require much explanation, you can give your interns a sense of purpose as soon as they join, which in turn will prevent bored interns from disengaging.

Ask interns what their goals are for their internship so you can not only help them make those goals a reality, but also tie their goals back to your company’s overall goals. As you offer meaningful enrichment opportunities, you will land top talent through your internship programs, and word will spread to bring in better talent for future internships.

Come out on top with a strong team

Businesses that take advantage of bringing on interns during a talent shortage can come out of hard times better prepared for the future. Once you have a strong and sustainable internship program, it will only grow and gain momentum.

Weather any storm that’s ahead by continuing to attract the best talent. Your company deserves it.

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Allie Danziger is the co-founder of Ampersand, an online training platform for businesses and professionals looking to level up their talent.