For over a year now, scientists have been testing wastewater for COVID-19. Now, the public can access that information. Photo via Getty Images

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

The new program will work with commercial spaceflight crews to bring back crucial research to one database. Photo via NASA/Unsplash

Houston organization launches the first commercial spaceflight medical research program

out of this world health care

With commercial space activity reaching cruising altitude, a Houston space health research organization has introduced a new program to create a centralized database.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine announced a unique program that will work with commercial spaceflight providers and their passengers. The EXPAND — Enhancing eXploration Platforms and Analog Definition — Program will collect information and data from multiple space flights and organize it in one place. TRISH selected TrialX to build the centralized database.

As a partner to the NASA Human Research Program, the Houston-based organization's mission is to reduce health risks for astronauts and uncover advances for terrestrial healthcare, according to a news release.

"The space environment causes rapid body changes. This can help us understand how we humans react to and overcome stress. Ensuring that space explorers remain healthy pushes us to invent new approaches for early detection and prevention of medical conditions," says Dorit Donoviel, executive director at TRISH, in the release. "Studying a broad range of people in space increases our knowledge of human biology. TRISH's EXPAND program will leverage opportunities with commercial spaceflight providers and their willing crew to open up new research horizons."

The new collaborative program is meant to address the challenges that humans face on space missions — early detection and treatment of medical conditions, protection from radiation, mental health, team dynamics, and more. TRISH has been working on these challenges since its inception.

"This ground-breaking research model is only possible because everyone — scientists, commercial spaceflight companies, and passengers - recognizes the importance of space health research, and what we can learn by working together," says Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta, TRISH's chief medical officer, in the release.

EXPAND's first collaboration is the Inspiration4 mission, which is launching on September 15. The all-civilian crew will perform a variety of TRISH-supported human health experiments during their time in orbit.

"Shorter commercial space flights like Inspiration4 have similarities to early NASA Artemis missions," says Jimmy Wu, TRISH's senior biomedical engineer. "This allows TRISH an opportunity to test new health and performance technologies for future NASA astronauts."

The potential impact of innovation with this new centralized database and biobank is profound, says James Hury, TRISH's deputy director and chief innovation officer.

"The EXPAND database has the flexibility to seamlessly take in multiple types of data from different flight providers in order to create a repository that can integrate information," says Hury in the release. "A centralized, standardized research database and biobank will increase access to knowledge about human health for the global research community."

The first crew of all civilians is headed into orbit this month — and they are going to bring back essential research. Photo via inspiration4.com

Houston-based research organization teams up with SpaceX for historic mission

space health

The world's first all-civilian human spaceflight mission to orbit will be participating in health-related research projects sponsored by a Houston organization.

The crew of Inspiration4 will contribute to research projects that the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine will sponsor. The project is a collaboration is between TRISH, SpaceX, and investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine.

"The crew of Inspiration4 is eager to use our mission to help make a better future for those who will launch in the years and decades to come," says Jared Isaacman, commander of the Inspiration4 mission, in a news release. "In all of human history, fewer than 600 humans have reached space. We are proud that our flight will help influence all those who will travel after us and look forward to seeing how this mission will help shape the beginning of a new era for space exploration."

According to the release, all biomedical data collected for the Inspiration4 mission will be accessible through an open data repository funded and overseen by TRISH. The mission will include the following TRISH-sponsored research:

  • Collect research-grade ECG activity, movement, sleep, heart rate and rhythm, blood oxygen saturation, cabin noise and light intensity.
  • Perform a series of tests in the Cognition app designed to assess changes in behavioral and cognitive performance. This is the same app that is currently used by astronauts in NASA-funded research studies.
  • Scan organ systems via a Butterfly IQ+ Ultrasound device, which is designed with artificial intelligence guidance for non-medical experts. Data collected will determine if non-medical experts can self-acquire clinical grade images without guidance from ground support and will provide a timeline of biological changes before and during spaceflight. This device is also currently being tested by astronauts on the International Space Station.
  • Collect and test drops of blood during spaceflight for markers of immune function and inflammation using a state-of-the-art miniaturized device called the Vertical Flow Immunoassay.
  • Use balance and perception tests pre-flight and immediately post-flight to measure sensorimotor adaptation during changes of gravity. These tests are currently performed by astronauts upon return from spaceflight.
  • Archive, fully analyze, and share resulting biomedical samples and data in collaboration with investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine and research data in an open format database to enable greater collaborative research.

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine will be collecting the environmental and biomedical data and biological samples from Inspiration4's four crew members before, during, and after the mission. These samples and data will be added to a planned Biobank that will hold cryogenically-frozen samples and data from the Inspiration4 mission. The sample collection will enable long-term research and health monitoring for astronauts. WorldQuant is providing funding support for the work at Weill Cornell Medicine.

The mission, which will be aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9, is slated for September 15 from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The three-day mission will target approximately a 575 km orbit, flying farther from Earth than any human spaceflight since the Hubble Space Telescope repair missions. Inspiration4's goal is to inspire humanity and raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The space mission will be riding aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9. Photo via inspiration4.com

The new tower will be home of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Photo courtesy of Baylor College of Medicine

Pivotal new cancer research tower tops off in the Texas Medical Center

coming soon

Anew structure aimed at greatly expanding medical services and outpatient care to residents of Greater Houston recently topped off.

At an official ceremony attended by VIPs and industry names, Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center toasted the completion of the concrete structure pivotal in the construction of the O'Quinn Medical Tower at the McNair Campus.

This new 12-story O'Quinn Medical Tower at Baylor St. Luke's - McNair Campus will be the new clinical home for the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center, per a release. The center is nationally ranked for cancer care by U.S. News & World Report and is one of only three National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers in Texas. It earned that designation through Baylor College of Medicine.

Additionally, the O'Quinn Medical Tower is part of the expanding McNair Campus. This campus promises more than 400,000 square feet of space to support and provide personalized care to patients and families, including another hospital bed tower and ambulatory care center, press materials describe.

Those familiar with the area will recognize that the campus sits directly adjacent to the planned site of TMC3, a new 37-acre campus that will be located between Old Spanish Trail and Brays Bayou.

"The new O'Quinn Tower and its designation as the clinical home of Baylor's Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center will be an important milestones in Baylor's mission," said Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine, in a release. "The McNair Campus is the hub of our clinical activity, and we look forward to the continued expansion."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The Welch Foundation has announced millions in Texas research funding. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based research grant program doles out $23M to Texas scientists

funds for the future

One of the nation's largest private funders for health care research has announced $23 million in fresh funds — and about a third of that is going into the hands of Houstonians.

The Welch Foundation, based in Houston, announced its 2021 research grant funding last week. Over the next three years, the funds will be be distributed in $7,520,000 payouts annually across the state of Texas. Since its founding in 1954, the foundation has doled out almost $1.1 billion to the advancement of chemistry.

"Ongoing basic chemical research is critical and provides the building blocks to help solve current and future problems," says Adam Kuspa, president of The Welch Foundation, in a news release. "Funding from The Welch Foundation is a valuable resource to Texas institutions. It helps set our state's researchers apart from others and we look forward to seeing what invaluable scientific contributions come from this year's grant recipients."

The universities in the Houston area that received a cut of this chunk of funding include Rice University, Texas A&M University, University of Houston, and Baylor College of Medicine for a total of $8,400,000 across 35 grants.

One of the Houston-area researchers who received funding is Leila Romero, assistant professor and CPRIT Scholar in Cancer Research at Baylor University's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry. Romero and her team is exploring modes of asymmetric catalysis and to study how these new processes work. According to the release, the funding will also support the training of young graduate students at the institution who are on track to become future innovators in chemical synthesis.

Other Texas institutions in other major cities also received funding:

  • The Dallas/Fort Worth area received funding for 42 grants, totaling $10,080,000. The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, The University of Texas at Dallas, University of North Texas, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, and Texas Christian University were the recipient institutions.
  • In Austin, the University of Texas Received funding for 11 grants, totaling $2,640,000.
  • The University of Texas at San Antonio and Trinity University received the three grants — totaling $720,000 — that went to the San Antonio area.
  • In West Texas, The University of Texas at El Paso received funding for 1 grant, totaling $240,000.
  • Texas Tech University received funding for two grants, totaling $480,000

Last year, the Welch Foundation announced a $100 million gift to Rice University to establish The Welch Institute. The institute will foster the study of matter, the design and discovery of new materials, and nanotechnology, and it will be led by an independent board of directors and scientific advisory board.

Kuspa, who's led the foundation since September 2019, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last December to discuss the new institute and the importance of supporting researchers in Texas.


Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine are working on a new COVID-19 vaccine candidate. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston health care organizations team up for the 'people's vaccine'

COVID Collaboration

Two major health care institutions in Houston — Texas Children's Hospital and the Baylor College of Medicine — are a step closer to rolling out what they dub the "people's vaccine" for COVID-19.

The two institutions, along with India-based vaccine and pharmaceutical company Biological E Ltd., have gained approval to move ahead this month with Phase III clinicals trials in India of a COVID-19 vaccine candidate called Corbevax. The Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development developed the vaccine's protein antigen, which was licensed from the Baylor College of Medicine's BCM Ventures commercialization arm.

Unlike COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S., Corbevax contains the so-called "spike protein" from the surface of the novel coronavirus. Once that protein is injected via a vaccine, the body is supposed to begin building immunity against the protein and thereby prevent serious illness.

Experts envision Corbevax being a readily available weapon in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the simple vaccine platform (like the one used to prevent Hepatitis B) and the ability to store the vaccine in normal refrigerated settings. The targets of this vaccine are children and mothers.

"In the midst of India's public health crisis, it is our hope that our Texas Children's and Baylor COVID-19 vaccine can be released for emergency authorization in India and in all countries in need of essential COVID-19 vaccinations," Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, says in a June 9 news release.

India has reported more than 29 million cases of COVID-19, causing 354,000 deaths. The country's COVID-19 surge reached its peak in May.

"The vaccines currently available cannot be manufactured quick enough to meet supply shortages in low-income countries," Hotez says. "Our vaccine is truly 'the people's vaccine,' created to serve the most marginalized and underserved populations that are hardest hit by this pandemic. This is the vaccine that could be used to vaccinate the world."

In the Phase III trial, the two-dose Corbevax vaccine will be administered to about 1,200 people age 18 to 80 at 15 sites in India. A larger global study of Corbevax is in the works.

According to India.com, Corbevax could be the most affordable COVID-19 vaccine available in the nation of nearly 1.37 billion people, costing close to $7 for a two-dose regimen. The Indian government already has preordered 300 million doses of Corbevax, which has shown promise in Phase I and Phase II trials. The Phase II trial ended in April.

If the Phase III trial goes as planned, doses could be widely administered as soon as August. Biological E initially plans to produce 75 million to 80 million doses per month, according to media reports. The Indian company foresees manufacturing at least 1 billion doses by the end of 2022.

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Houston health tech startup using AI in palliative care scores $256,000 grant to test its product

Med tech moves

A new Houston-based digital advanced care planning company is streamlining some of the most difficult conversations in the health care industry around palliative care.

Founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry, Koda Health uses AI to help patients create advance medical care directives and documents—such as a living will—through an easy to use web-based interface.

Koda Health uses a conversational platform where users can enter information about their values, living situations, quality of life wishes, and more while learning about different care options at their own speed. It also uses a proprietary machine learning approach that personalizes audio-video guided dialogue based on the patient's individual and cultural preferences.

The app then autogenerates legal and medical documents, which patients can notarize or electronically witness the forms through the app or on their own.

According to Fafanova, who earned her PhD in in Molecular Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and now acts as the company's CEO, what historically has been a time consuming and expensive process, through Koda Health, takes an average of 17 minutes and is completely free of charge to the end user.

"We hope to reduce any outstanding barriers to access that might exist," Fafanova says. "It is very frequently the oldest and the poorest that are the highest utilizers of health care that don't have access to these solutions."

The app is also projected to save health care systems roughly $9,500 per patient per year, as it allows for hospitals and organizations to better plan for what their patient population is seeking in end-of-life-care.

The B2B platform was born out of the TMC's Biodesign Fellowship, which tasked Koda's founding members with finding solutions to issues surrounding geriatric care in the medical center. In March 2020, Koda incorporated. Not long after ICU beds began to fill with COVID-19 patients, "galvanizing" the team's mission, Fafanova says.

"It was no longer this conceptual thing that we needed to address and write a report on. Now it was that people were winding up in the hospital at alarming rates and none of those individuals had advanced care planning in place," she says.

After accelerating the development of the product, Koda Health is now being used by health care systems in Houston, Texas, and Virginia.

The company recently received a Phase I grant of $256,000 from the National Science Foundation, which will allow Koda to deploy the platform at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and test it against phone conversations with 900 patients. Fafanova says the company will also use the funds to continue to develop personalization algorithms to improve Kona's interface for users.

"We want to make this a platform that mimics a high quality conversation," she says.

After Koda completes the Phase I pilot program it will then be eligible to apply for a Phase II award of up to $1 million in about a year.

Koda Health was founded by Tatiana Fafanova, Dr. Desh Mohan, and Katelin Cherry. Photos via kodahealthcare.com

Research: 5 mistakes Houston entrepreneurs should be making

houston voices

We all have heard "you learn from your mistakes," so, why do a lot of startup blogs warn entrepreneurs of the mistakes they shouldn't make when starting a business, but not very many tell them what mistakes they should be making? Some mistakes teach us more than our successes and some of those mistakes are bound to happen anyway, so why not embrace them?

Ben Wiener, a startup founder and managing partner of a Jerusalem-based micro-fund that invests in early-stage startups, provides a list of five mistakes startup founders should be making as early as possible during their entrepreneurial journey in an OnStartups blog post.

Ben Wiener’s Top  Mistakes When Starting a Business 

1. Get Screwed

"It's inevitable. Anyone – your partner, co-founder, employee, investor, or any other character in your unfolding plot – will mess you over. Someone will break your trust, violate a verbal or even written agreement, cut your compensation, or try to steal your equity or destroy your whole company (or all of the above, if you're me). Someone will do something stupid to scuttle your grand plan."

Wiener said to accept the inevitable. Power struggles are real, and the vision you have, someone else on your team may not see it the same way, causing friction. Prepare yourself for this problem and hope it doesn't cause too much damage.

"Upon reflection, you'll likely find that what enabled your misfortune was something you did or didn't do. The screwer-screwee relationship requires at least two people, and there are two sides to every story. Even if you clearly weren't "at fault" – you encountered a terrible, crooked person who did you in – you still need to ask yourself how you allowed yourself to do business with that person," Wiener said.

2. Seek Revenge

"This is an adjunct to the above mistake. Once bitten, your natural impulse may be to bite back. You've lost something – tangible, emotional, some future upside or all of the above – and you want to deny the perpetrator those same things or at least the satisfaction of having caused you that loss."

Wiener recommends trying this at least once. "I predict that not only won't you be successful, but most likely nothing will happen at all, or worse, it will bounce back at you. You'll just feel immature, cheap and dirty and the lingering recollection of that bad feeling probably will be enough to prevent you from playing the revenge card again," he said.

Beyonce said it best, "always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper." Translation: remain cordial, your success will be the best revenge.

3. Tell People Your Venture is in "Stealth Mode"

"It's natural to want to keep your cards close to your vest. Perhaps you're afraid someone will steal your idea, or you lack confidence that you've developed it well enough to convincingly describe it to others. The tech industry has even provided you the gift of a cool-sounding cover: "Stealth Mode," which makes you sound more like a covert spy shrouded in secrecy than an unsure rookie plagued by insecurity. Saying you're in "Stealth Mode" is almost certainly a mistake, for many reasons. First of all, it can easily be interpreted as either pompousness or insecurity, which is bad for your credibility. You're also signaling that you don't trust that person, creating a negative feeling that will likely persist even after you're able to elaborate later on."

You never know who a potential investor or costumer could be, so don't keep everything a secret. Pique people's curiosity. You may even know a potential investor or costumer personally, so "switch to 'Get Out There' mode" as Wiener recommends.

4. Believe that "If You Build It, They Will Come"

"The popularity of the phrase leads some founders to believe, and predict to investors, that they, too, need only to build their amazing new thingy, and the users will come running until the rest looks like a hockey stick. I can assure you that if you just build "it", "they" will almost certainly not come. In startup theory the "coming" of "they" is called "Market Pull" which almost never happens by itself, even among early adopters. Market Pull needs to follow an intense and iterative period of product design, customer development, Product/Market Fit and hands-on "Technology Push" into the target market, which only if successful begets the glorious Market Pull. You'll have to work hard to make the market notice and care, and probably personally engage your early users individually, and that's fine."

5. "Wiener's Favorite Mistake"

"My favorite founder mistake is not appropriately balancing confidence and humility. There's a yin/yang relationship between the two and as you pilot your rocketship forward, you will occasionally find that you've leaned too hard to one side or the other. As a startup founder you need to have a healthy dose of self-confidence. Ok, maybe an unhealthy dose. An overdose. You need to passionately believe that your solution is The Next Big Thing. But overconfidence can be extremely dangerous, for many reasons. It can be misinterpreted by others as arrogance, which can cause damaging interpersonal consequences. If overconfidence morphs into false confidence, it can cloud your vision or your analysis. A great founder must have just as healthy a dose of humility, an understanding of his or her relatively small place in the world. But being too humble can hold you and your venture back."

Wiener said that balancing your self-confidence and humility is something you will have to do every day. You will need to choose which situations require which trait.

What’s The Big Idea? 

When starting your own company, do you want other entrepreneurs to only tell you about their successes? Or, do you want to know their failures as well and what they learned?

"A good entrepreneur wants to talk about their mistakes as well as their successes, and a good investor wants to hear about those mistake and lessons without penalizing the pitch, Wiener said."

If you had a young child or teen in the early 2000s, maybe you heard Hannah Montana sing "Nobody's Perfect." That mantra always has and will remain true. Wiener said to expect mistakes to happen. Embrace them, and then analyze them "as those lessons learned will become important, lasting building blocks in your personal development and the development of your company."

Don't be afraid to make mistakes when starting a business. It would be weird if you didn't, actually. Learn from them and go succeed.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton, the author of this piece, is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.

Real estate giant to open another downtown Houston coworking hub

going up

A new downtown Houston skyscraper that's on the rise and expected to be completed by the end of the year will offer flexible office space.

Texas Tower will feature The Square, Hines' flexible office product, the international real estate firm announced with Ivanhoé Cambridge. The 18,000-square-foot space will provide "elevated level of service and amenitization akin to a hospitality environment," according to a news release from Hines.

"We recognize the way our tenants conduct business is rapidly changing. The Square at Texas Tower will provide the highest quality flexible work experience in the market supported by an unparalleled dedication to service and integrity. Its offerings accommodate tenants' temporary teams, task forces, and expansions, and welcomes collaboration and variability," says Hines Senior Managing Director John Mooz in the release.

The Square is scheduled to open in early 2022 in the LEED Platinum office building that's being designed by Pelli Clarke Pelli. The flexible space is a result of a collaboration between Hines and Montreal-based firm, Ivanhoé Cambridge.

"We are thrilled to offer this signature workplace service in Texas Tower," says Jonathan Pearce, executive vice president of leasing and development, office and industrial at Ivanhoé Cambridge. "We have listened to our tenants and understand their need for flexibility of service, duration and built environment. As owner of Texas Tower and long-standing partners with Hines, we thrive to put forward innovative solutions such as The Square, to elevate and support the user experience of our customers and their employees' engagement, attraction, retention, and development."

Hines introduced its coworking concept — Hines² — a few years ago. Hines² already is up and running at two locations: 717 Texas, a 33-story Class A office tower in Houston, and The Kearns Building, a 10-story office building in Salt Lake City. As Hines looks to continued expansion, future cities may include Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and London, per the release.

The Square's first Houston location opened in 2020 at 717 Texas Ave. Image courtesy of Hines