Rachel Moncton joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to share why ClassPass chose Houston for its fourth domestic hub and what the consumer tech company has on its horizon for 2021. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

When Rachel Moncton decided she wanted to move back to the United States after years of growing consumer tech company ClassPass internationally, she had no clue where she was going to end up.

The current vice president of marketing had served in various leadership roles for the company, and the powers at be at ClassPass, a consumer-facing tech company that brings together fitness classes and wellness experiences onto one app, decided that Moncton's move would be to spearhead the company's fourth office in Houston.

ClassPass, which was founded in New York City in 2011 before quickly opening its second office in San Francisco. Moncton says a few years ago the company conducted a search for a city that would make for a great expansion and, while Houston was definitely a contender, Missoula, Montana, became the next hub for ClassPass, which has raised over $500 million in venture capital. But, Houston was top of mind for the next expansion.

"When we were thinking about our fourth U.S. office, we wanted something bigger — we're growing quickly and knew we would have to tap into a large talent pool," Moncton says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, noting other elements like Houston's parks, sports teams, culture, universities, and more.

"I get a lot of people saying, 'Houston? That's an interesting choice and not what we'd expect,'" Moncton says. "But that's one of the things we like about it. There's a good startup scene here but not a million different consumer tech companies, so it's nice that we are able to make a bit of a splash."

Last fall, Moncton made her move to Houston to stand up the office virtually, at first, and now the local team is 10 people strong. Currently, ClassPass is looking for its physical space somewhere inside the loop and is hoping to have it open by this summer. Likely, Moncton says, the office will start in a coworking or flexible space that will be able to grow alongside the team.

And speaking of growth, Moncton says ClassPass is still hiring in Houston for roles from sales and finance to customer service and more.

"We are hiring across the board. It's fun for the teams to get to meet people you might not be working with day to day, and it fosters a better sense of empathy and understanding of how the company works," Moncton says. "Even though I lead marketing, it's by no means a marketing hub."

As ClassPass expands its presence, Moncton says she's focused on expanding the company's partners on the app. ClassPass has historically connected users to fitness studios but now is featuring more and more health, wellness, and beauty experiences.

"The technology we've built is to help people find things to book in their city," Moncton says. "There's a lot of (fitness studios) and it can be hard to find what you're looking for. Beauty and wellness are no different."

Moncton shares more about what she's excited about for the future of ClassPass, and how she's experienced Houston so far on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


ClassPass is expanding into Houston with over 20 new jobs and a local office. Image courtesy of ClassPass

Fitness tech platform expands to Houston and plans to hire

new to hou

When a global technology company focused on fitness and wellness was looking for a city to open their fourth office in the United States, the team wanted a community that was active and full of young professionals. They landed on Houston.

Membership-based fitness and wellness company ClassPass is opening a local office in Houston and is planning on hiring over 20 professionals across departments — from analytics, customer experience, design, and engineering, to marketing, partnerships and product.

Rachel Moncton, vice president of global marketing for ClassPass, has already relocated to Houston to lead the new office.

"Houston is a friendly, community-focused city with a rich talent pool. We are thrilled to contribute to the Houston economy by creating new opportunities for professionals with varying skill sets, and hope to build a local team with a broad range of experiences and backgrounds," says Moncton says in a news release.

Headquartered in New York City, ClassPass's membership and mobile application connects members to fitness and wellness appointments at over 30,000 studios and 11,500 wellness venues. In Houston, ClassPass has over 900 partners.

Currently, the company has 400 employees worldwide with offices in Missoula, Montana, and San Francisco. ClassPass's new hires will work remotely at first, and the organization is hoping to open a physical office later this year.

"It's great to see another Bay Area company expanding to Houston like Nuro, Bill.com, and Homebase," says Harvin Moore, president of Houston Exponential. "ClassPass is already using the HTX Talent jobs board to build its Houston team and we hope to work more with them as they build their presence here."

The app has 900 fitness and wellness partners in Houston already. Image courtesy of ClassPass

The Postage is a new company that uses technology to help ease the experience of afterlife responsibilities for family members. Photo courtesy of The Postage

New Houston tech startup launches to streamline afterlife planning

smooth transitions

Three years ago, Emily Cisek was struck with immense grief when she lost three family members back to back. She says she learned first-hand how arduous the process of wrapping up someone's life is and how it can take away from the grieving process.

"I saw the frustrations in my family," she explains, as she grappled with the passing of both her grandmothers and her cousin's young child.

Cisek says in that moment she thought, "Wow, there's got to be a better way so that people have a resource to get a plan and walk through the process so that when you do lose someone, there is a really easy way to manage that."

Cisek's realization planted a seed and she has the idea for The Postage, a digital platform that helps collect information and digital assets in one place to ease with affair planning.

She sought out to build an online platform that provides an easy path for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones, making affairs management after death easier and less time-consuming. The features include document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create after-life messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

Up until now, death care has been a predominantly business-to-business model. Prior to becoming the co-founder and CEO of The Postage, Emily was the Director of Sales at Integrate Agency, a full-service digital and traditional marketing agency in Texas. Her years of launching robust marketing initiatives and developing communications programs, made bringing The Postage to consumers that much easier.

She partnered with her former boss and serial entrepreneur, Robbie Wright, to build The Postage and make her vision a reality to help loved ones deal with loss.

The Postage completed funding in April of 2020, surpassing its initial fundraising goal. In total, Cisek raised $925,000 in a three month span. The platform officially launched in September, bringing a new, accessible contender to the estate planning industry.

Making death a conversation point

Everything you need on one digital platform. Photo courtesy of The Postage

According to The Institute for Healthcare Improvement, 92 percent of Americans say it's important to discuss their wishes for end-of-life care, but only 32 percent have actually had the conversation. Talking about your death plans is never an easy conversation, Cisek remarks. Her goal is to provide a methodical process that "makes it simpler."

"Until the last 100 years, death was just a part of life. Right now with technology and healthcare, it almost is seen as a weakness versus as you know, something we all experienced together," says Cisek.

Knowing how arduous these conversations are, she feels The Postage is like a "guidebook" that provides "clear-eyed compassion" to start the conversation. The site's planning options, password and document storage, and ability to share final wishes aims to make the process less emotional and difficult for users.

Accessibility for all ages

The Postage is something anyone can use. Photo courtesy of The Postage

While creating a death plan may feel like something reserved for later in life, Vox reports that millennials are becoming a "death positive" generation. More people in their 20s and 30s are planning their own funerals, donating their body to science, and contemplating how they want to pass peacefully.

From YouTube channels like "Ask a Mortician" to apps that remind you that — sorry to break it to you — you will eventually die, young creators are coping with death online. Despite the online vote of confidence in passing to the other side, dying is, well, expensive.

According to data from The Postage, estate planning and legal services can cost an average of $6,500. Cisek's company allows a monthly subscription with prices ranging from $5.99 to $9.99 a month, depending on storage space and features.

"I think the way The Postage has [made planning more available] it's provided a price point, an understanding and steps involved that are more easily accessible; no matter what age group, what race, what your background is, your religion, anything like that, you're able to sign up," says Cisek.

Digital options like password management and storage also make the site a more cost effective, approachable option for young people born into the digital era.

Saving time

Founder Emily Cisek prioritized convenience in her design. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Death puts into perspective just how valuable time can be. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance. If every moment matters, 500 hours can sound like an exorbitant amount of time spent on paperwork.

From knowing who your loved one's electricity provider is to ensuring you have the key to their safety deposit box, the process can be a nightmare, says Cisek. She believes that should be spent "celebrating [their life] and processing the loss versus getting frustrated and trying to dig through things that you don't understand, and frankly, don't know what the wishes were of that person you lost."

The Postage's features allow you to drop in documents and passwords at your own pace to provide your loved ones with a smooth transition and instructions. To Cisek, she minds the site to be a guidebook that says, "This is what we need to do, and here is how I'm leaving the best gift I can for my loved ones."

National growth

The Postage went live nationally. Photo courtesy of The Postage

The Postage is a Houston-based company, but Cisek and her team want it to reach Americans everywhere.

"When we went live nationally, we actually launched over 100 new enhancements — even small, little things in the customer experience that would make it better and easier," she explains.

During its summer launch the website received 60 percent engagement and over 43 percent in new referrals. The Postage plans to continue enhancing the user experience and expanding the app with new technologies.

Cisek, bright-eyed with entrepreneurial spirit, has big hopes for the future as she imagines the opportunities. She hopes to change the way her generation plans for the future, contributing to a shift in sharing your legacy and wishes with loved ones.

"I think that technology, in recent times, has really focused on the consumer being the product versus the technology being the product," remarks Cisek. "If we're able to take that back and provide a product that truly makes our users' lives easier, the sky's the limit on what that could look like," she continues.

A Houston entrepreneur is creating a fun and educational platform for children that helps to preserve their heritage. Photo by Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Houston Greek-American develops app to preserve culture

heritage tech

Theoharis Dimarhos grew up in a family determined to follow tradition. As a child, his mother serenaded him with old Greek folk songs he still remembers, and his parents made speaking Greek a rule of the house. Dimarhos lived the immigrant family experience, and now he's developed a modern way to preserve pass down culture to the masses.

"My parents came from Greece in 1981, and in typical fashion, they didn't have much and didn't speak the language at all," says Dimarhos, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Living the first-generation American experience, he watched his parents work tirelessly to provide for the family and maintain their Greek culture in America.

Dimarhos did get his own immigrant story when his parents decided to move back to Greece when he was 7. After assimilating to Greece, he traveled back to the United States for college, where he learned to readjust once more.

"I kind of got that immigrant experience a couple of times," he says.

While Dimarhos grew up surrounded by his own heritage, he began to realize that "our native cultures were destined to fade if there wasn't a more modern way for children and our little siblings to learn more about their roots."

When talking with his friends from other countries outside of Greece, a general consensus grew: without modern learning, family heritage would slip away.

Enter: Ellis, an app that helps children connect to their culture. The app includes Greek songs, fables, mythology, history, and language.

Named after Ellis Island, a gateway into the United States for so many immigrants in history, Ellis nurtures Greek tradition in a way that caters to children through technology.

"I've always seen [Ellis Island] as a monument of courage to chase your dreams. . .people came and built this country, but also never forgot where they came from."

Interactive technology is becoming a large part of early childhood education, especially during COVID-19, as more families are at-home with children learning virtually. Children are the targets of over 80 percent of the top-selling paid apps in the education category of the iTunes store, according to a published analysis by Carly Shuler in 2012.

Dimarhos and his wife are deeply tied to their Greek heritage, and hope to pass that history and appreciation to their own children once they start a family.

"We wanted to make sure that there was a 21st century way for us and for our children to learn that goes beyond books," he says. "Something that's a little more immersive and fun — fun is very important — and educational."

Ellis is currently being beta tested with a group of 200 active users within the Greek community. The app, which targets ages 0-8, rolls out weekly content to parents.

"I'm receiving texts from friends who are parents begging me to put more content out because they need something to keep their children occupied," says Dimarhos. "Not only are regular schools closed, but cultural schools that are offered by the community are also closed and struggling to open back up."

Time spent on the app can be as short as five minutes and stretch into hours of learning time.

"The goal is always for children to pick up little phrases and words each time they listen," explains Dimarhos.

The stories and songs are all audio-based, tying into activities like waking up, eating breakfast, and bathtime.

"There's something magical about tying in an audio story or song with everyday tasks for kids," says Dimarhos.

Dimarhos parents see the app as "the next step of passing down the torch of our culture," he says.

"They tried to do it with the tools that they had for myself and my sister. . .We're trying to do the exact same thing that they did and their parents did, just with the tools that technology offers us," he says.

Dimarhos, who previously worked in economic development in Austin, had his first experience with startups when his former boss gave him a chance to work with his international accelerator for startups.

"I got my opening into the tech world through the international accelerator and seeing amazing immigrant founders create jobs and strive to do great things in America," he shares.

"Quite honestly, a startup that celebrates different cultures couldn't have a better home than in Houston," he says, noting the massive immigrant population and variety of cultures in the city.

In Dimarhos' own life, he's come across immigrants as well as first and second generation Americans who wish to preserve their own cultures.

"They've wished there was a more modern way to have access to those resources," he explains.

In the future, Dimarhos intends to quickly broaden the app to "launch in every immigrant community in the United States and around the world."

Connecting to cultural roots is something Dimarhos feels is "sacred" to immigrant families.

"It's something that you have the obligation from your parents as they give you everything for you to succeed in life. You kind of carry that obligation to carry that torch and pass it on to your children and their children," he explains.

"We grow up with that and the vision and the mission is just to create something that makes that a little bit easier to keep our cultures alive. I honestly think it's part of what makes this country great," he says.

The new tool can be used to coordinate responsible rides for passengers infected with COVID-19. Photo via Getty Images

Houston software company creates COVID-19 transportation app

safe rides

A Houston software company has pivoted its technology to create an app that can safely transport COVID-19 patients to their quarantine location.

Mobisoft announced the launch of NEMT Pulse, a non-emergency medical transportation app to be used by schools, community health centers, hospitals, and more to easily facilitate isolated rides.

"We pivoted our NEMT software that could be implemented to safely meet the needs of those affected by COVID-19," says Shail Sinhasane, CEO of Mobisoft, in a news release. "This app provides a solution to ensure individuals who have tested positive can get to their quarantine location with one less thing to worry about."

The company has already entered into a partnership with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to implement the NEMT Pulse program so that the administration can schedule transportation for students moving to and from isolation and quarantine spaces in residence halls. The process includes regular tests for drivers, specifically designed vehicles, and HIPAA compliance.

The app provides an interface for the infected student, the driver, and the admin. According to the release, the software also has the ability to use a contactless, face detection feature and also includes SOS button and more. The process includes regular tests for drivers, specifically designed vehicles, and HIPAA compliance. In addition to the Illinois college, a community health center in California is also using the NEMT Pulse platform.

The platform has interfaces for the riders, the drivers, and the admin. Image courtesy of Mobisoft

A Houston restaurateur and tech founder is giving the food and restaurant business a new marketing opportunity with VIPinsiders. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Houston entrepreneur's mobile platform brings gains to small restaurant chains

tapping into tech

Food is the way to a Houstonian's heart. With critically-acclaimed cuisine and an abundance of diversity, Houston is the South's culinary pride. COVID-19 has now stirred uncertainty in a once definitive piece of the city's culture, and restaurateurs are looking for solutions. For Philipp Sitter, CEO of VIPinsiders, artificial intelligence is a step in the right direction.

Sitter holds many titles: CEO of KB Restaurant Group, President of EggHaus and King's Bierhaus — and now, tech founder. In 2019 he launched VIPinsiders, "a rewards program that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to understand the customer on an individual journey," he explains.

"I was born into the restaurant industry," says Sitter, as he remarks on immigrating from Vienna as a child and opening the first King's Biergarten in Pearland in 2011. As a fifth-generation restaurateur, he is familiar with "the love and pain of the industry." When he took on the challenge of marketing his family's "obscure German restaurant behind a car wash in Pearland," he became "obsessed" with the trade.

Philipp Sitter launched VIPinsiders last year. Photo courtesy of VIPinsiders

After building excitement around EggHaus, the Instagrammable haven that's attracted both breakfast lovers and influencers, Sitter wanted to find a way to build the same buzz at his other restaurants using technology.

Going mobile

From Starbucks Rewards' gold stars to Chick-Fil-A One, reward programs have been tested and utilized by the Goliaths of the restaurant industry for years.

When looking at the cost of building a mobile app like Starbucks, he determined it to be impossible.

"We're talking about millions that go into developing technology. What restaurant is going to be able to afford something like that?" he asked.

The plan soon crystallized: Sitter decided to create a mobile platform that uses AI to personalize unique offers and experiences for customers while taking the responsibility from the shoulders of restaurant owners with smaller, multi-unit concepts. By developing and scaling the mobile platform by providing its services to other businesses, "then it would all of the sudden become affordable for everybody," he realized.

Deciding to create a mobile platform was the easy part.

"I wasn't born with the emotion of fear in business," shares Sitter, who has dabbled in obscure endeavors from washing cars to flipping classic cars on eBay.

After formulating the VIPinsiders concept, he hired a team of developers to "use the psychology of everything I've learned in marketing and put it into a technology platform," he explains.

The user experience

Each client gets a tailor-made approach, ensuring the rewards and loyalty features are made to fit the restaurant. The VIPinsiders staff builds custom mobile platforms for its small and medium-sized restaurant chain clients that utilize the restaurant's branding, menus and events for $299 per month.

"We got through a discovery call in which our team will actually build the rewards journey for them and show it to the business owner for approval," explains Sitter, "We don't want to give the owners and managers a homework assignment."

Once the platform is approved, Sitter's team trains restaurant owners. In-house copywriters and designers then develop print material for the restaurant to cross-promote the rewards program.

According to VIPinsiders' internal data, 95 percent of users find the app "easy to use." Using QR technology, customers can sign up by scanning a QR code rather than downloading an app.

"The restaurant gets to know me [the customer], it understands how often I visit, it also gets to reward my visitation," explains Sitter. Rather than a one-size-fits-all reward program, the platform is meant to showcase different menu items and offerings.

"Most importantly, it reminds me to come back when I haven't visited in a while."

Data recorded by VIPinsiders shows that 48 percent of users visit restaurants with the platform "more often" in the first 90 days.

Text message marketing 

When stay-at-home orders first took effect in Harris County, many business owners could not update their business hours or post new content on the Google My Business platform due to the site's halted review process during COVID-19.

The issue left business owners with one less form of contact, creating a vulnerability in customer communication. Social media marketing doesn't quite come to the rescue either, with Facebook's algorithm showing an average of 5.5 percent of a brand's following will see its post.

To Sitter, text messaging is "the next frontier."

Due to COVID-19, VIPinsiders recently ran a promotion to provide free platform use and unlimited text capabilities for a limited time to restaurants. "We've gotten a lot of incredible emails and feedback saying thank you for letting us use this and helping us [get] back our business," says Sitter.

"It's time for all of us to take our power back, to own our customer [data] and be able to talk with them directly and not have to pay the middleman [like social media companies] and really have the relationship that customer opted in for," says Sitter.

As one of the first mobile platforms approved by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, restaurant clients can extend happy hour offerings and provide customers with free alcoholic beverages.

At King's Bierhaus, Sitter was able to deploy an alcohol-to-go offer via text message that resulted in $40,000 of bottled King's Whiskey sold.

"I was able to sell that because I was able to text my customers directly," Sitter says.

Clients outside of Sitter's own properties also see growth. Ninety-three percent of restaurants using the VIPinsiders platform reported an increase in sales.

"I would absolutely recommend other operators to sign up for VIPinsiders because it has increased our sales, our guests love it, and the support we get from them makes it effortless," explains Usman Dhanani, President of Operations for Cyclone Anaya's Tex-Mex Kitchen, in a VIPinsiders testimonial video.

El Toro, a Mexican restaurant chain with six Texas locations, generated an estimated additional $735,000 in sales with a total of more than 35,000 additional customer visits, according to VIPinsiders data.

"The biggest brands in the world and celebrities lead a charge into marketing initiatives," says Sitter, "A company like ours will bring that to small businesses and make it affordable for them so they can compete at the highest level."

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Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco