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Five research teams are studying space radiation's effect on human tissue. Photo via NASA/Josh Valcarcel

A Houston-based organization has named five research projects to advance the understanding of space radiation using human tissue. Two of the five projects are based in Houston.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, is based at Baylor College of Medicine and funds health research and tech for astronauts during space missions. The astronauts who are headed to the moon or further will be exposed to high Galactic Cosmic Radiation levels, and TRISH wants to learn more about the effects of GCR.

"With this solicitation, TRISH was looking for novel human-based approaches to understand better Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) hazards, in addition to safe and effective countermeasures," says Kristin Fabre, TRISH's chief scientist, in a news release. "More than that, we sought interdisciplinary teams of scientists to carry these ideas forward. These five projects embody TRISH's approach to cutting-edge science."

The five projects are:

  • Michael Weil, PhD, of Colorado State University, Colorado — Effects of chronic high LET radiation on the human heart
  • Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD of Columbia University, New York — Human multi-tissue platform to study effects of space radiation and countermeasures
  • Sharon Gerecht, PhD of Johns Hopkins University, Maryland — Using human stem-cell derived vascular, neural and cardiac 3D tissues to determine countermeasures for radiation
  • Sarah Blutt, PhD of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas — Use of Microbial Based Countermeasures to Mitigate Radiation Induced Intestinal Damage
  • Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, PhD of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas — Counteracting space radiation by targeting neurogenesis in a human brain organoid model

The researchers are tasked with simulating radiation exposure to human tissues in order to study new ways to protect astronauts from the radiation once in deep space. According to the release, the tissue and organ models will be derived from blood donated by the astronaut in order to provide him or her with customized protection that will reduce the risk to their health.

TRISH is funded by a partnership between NASA and Baylor College of Medicine, which also includes consortium partners Caltech and MIT. The organization is also a partner to NASA's Human Research Program.

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news. Image via Getty Images

These are the latest COVID-19-focused research projects happening at Houston institutions

Research roundup

As Houston heads toward the end of summer with no major vaccine or treatment confirmed for COVID-19, local research institutions are still hard at work on various coronavirus-focused innovations.

Free mental health care, local COVID-19 testing, and a new great to fund an ongoing study — here's your latest roundup of research news.

Baylor College of Medicine genomics team to partner for local COVID-19 testing

Houston millionaire to start biotech accelerator for companies focusing on regenerative medicine

Two departments at BCM are working with the county on COVID-19 testing. Getty Images

Two Baylor College of Medicine institutions have teamed up to aid in local COVID-19 testing. The Human Genome Sequencing Center and the Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome Research — under the leadership of BCM — are partnering with local public health departments to provide polymerase chain reaction testing of COVID-19 samples, according to a news release from BCM.

"We are pleased to work with the outstanding local government groups in this critical public health effort," says Dr. Richard Gibbs, director of the HGSC and Wofford Cain chair and professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor, in the release. "We are proud of the tireless determination and expertise of our centers and college staff that enabled the rapid development of this robust testing capacity to serve the greater Houston community."

Baylor is among the testing providers for Harris County Public Health, and people can receive testing following a pre-screening questionnaire online.

"We are fortunate to have Baylor College of Medicine as a close partner during the COVID-19 pandemic," says Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, in the release. "This is a challenging time for our community and as the need for increased testing capacity and getting results to residents faster has grown, Baylor has risen to the occasion. There are countless unsung heroes across Harris County who have stepped up to the plate during this pandemic and Baylor College of Medicine is one of them."

COVID-19 testing samples are collected from testing sites and delivered to the Alkek Center. After isolating the virus, genomic material is extracted and sent to the HGSC to quantitative reverse transcription PCR testing. Should the sample's RNA sequence match the virus, then it is positive for COVID-19. The sequencing must test positive three times to be considered overall positive.

Results are returned within 48 hours, and the lab has a capacity of more than 1,000 samples a day. Since May, the team has tested over 30,000 samples.

"We knew we had all the pieces to stand up a testing center fast – large scale clinical sequencing, experts in virology and molecular biology, and a secure way to return results to patients," says Ginger Metcalf, Human Genome Sequencing Center Director of Project Development, in the release. "We are also fortunate to have such great partners at Harris County Public Health, who have done an amazing job of gathering, tracking and delivering samples, especially for the most at-risk members of our community."

National Science Foundation renews Rice University funding amid pandemic

José Onuchic (left) and Peter Wolynes are co-directors of the Center for Theoretical Biological Physics at Rice University. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics has been granted a five-year extension from the National Science Foundation. The grant for $12.9 million will aid in continuing the CTBP's work at the intersection of biology and physics.

The center — which was founded in 2001 at the University of California, San Diego, before moving to Rice in 2011 — is led by Peter Wolynes and José Onuchic.

"We have four major areas at the center," Onuchic says in a news release. "The first is in chromatin theory and modeling, developing the underlying mathematical theory to explain the nucleus of the cell — what Peter calls the 'new nuclear physics.' The second is to test ideas based on the data being created by experimentalists. The third is to understand information processing by gene networks in general, with some applications related to metabolism in cancer. The fourth is to study the cytoskeleton and molecular motors. And the synergy between all of these areas is very important."

Onuchic adds that an upcoming donation of a supercomputer by AMD will help the center's ongoing research into COVID-19 and four institutions — Rice, Northeastern, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston — are working collaboratively on the study,

"We're all set to move on doing major COVID-related molecular simulations on day one," he says in the release. "The full functioning of a center requires a synergy of participation. Rice is the main player with people from multiple departments, but Baylor, Northeastern and Houston play critical roles."

University of Houston offers free mental health therapy for restaurant workers

Texas restaurant workers can get free mental health care from a UH initiative. Photo via Elle Hughes/Pexels

Through a collaboration with Southern Smoke and Mental Health America of Greater Houston, the University of Houston Clinical Psychology program launched a a free mental health care program for Texas-based food and beverage employees and their children.

"During normal times this is a high stress industry where people work very hard in environments where they are just blowing and going all the time," says John P. Vincent, professor of psychology and director of the UH Center for Forensic Psychology, in a news release.

The program has 14 graduate students who converse with a total of 30 patients and meet weekly with supervisors at UH.

"This opportunity allows our clinical program to reach people in the community who usually don't have access to mental health services," says Carla Sharp, professor of psychology and director of clinical training, in the release.

For restaurant industry workers looking for help and care, they can visit the Mental Health Services page on Southern Smoke's website.

According to Vincent, this is just the beginning.

"We're discussing it," says Vincent in the release. "But as far as I'm concerned it can just keep going and going."

CHI St. Luke's Health has invested in around 40 of the Butterfly iQ devices that can be used to provide accurate and portable ultrasonography on COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy of CHI St. Luke's

Houston hospital taps new tech to provide more accurate COVID-19 diagnostics and treatment

hand held

With such a dynamic virus like COVID-19 that affects patients with different levels of severity, the first challenge doctors face when treating infected patients is assessing the situation. CHI St. Luke's Health has been implementing a new technology that allows its physicians better access to that initial diagnosis.

Dr. Jose Diaz-Gomez, an anesthesiologist at CHI St. Luke's Health and ultrasonography expert, says the Butterfly iQ's portable ultrasonography technology has been a key tool in his team's point of care for COVID-19 patients. Over the past few years, ultrasonography equipment has been evolving to be more portable and more accurate. That's what the Butterfly iQ technology provides, and Diaz-Gomez says his team was quick to realize how the technology can help in diagnostics and treatment of coronavirus patients.

A traditional approach to examining a patient's lungs would mean radiography, but Diaz-Gomez says his team saw the opportunity ultrasonography and these new, portable devices had on providing more accurate and timely diagnostics.

"In conditions that are dynamic, you want to have a diagnostic tool that, over time as you're treating a patient, you can see meaningful changes — good or bad," Diaz-Gomez says. "The pandemic has enabled us to use — from the initial care to when they are on the ventilator — ultrasonography to see the changes in the patient's' lungs."

Jose Diaz-Gomez is an anesthesiologist at CHI St. Luke's. Photo courtesy of CHI St. Luke's

The Butterfly iQ device is different from its ultrasound predecessors in that it's built to be more accurate, portable, easy to use, and low cost (even being made available for commercial purchase). According to Diaz-Gomez, he could train someone on the device in just a few hours.

Ahead of the pandemic, CHI St. Luke's had 20 of these devices and now has doubled that initial fleet. Along with the other non-Butterfly iQ ultrasonography devices, Diaz-Gomez's team has access to 70 ultrasonography devices — 80 percent of which are dedicated to COVID-19 patients.

"Our institution was very supportive of bringing a very robust roll-out program for point-of-care ultrasonography during the pandemic," Diaz-Gomez says. "We were able to incorporate 40 ultrasound devices — the Butterfly system. Not only that, we actually implemented a very rigorous infection control process to make sure we do it in a safe manner. You don't want to bring tools that will be another source of transmission from patient to patient."

While this new technology is continuing to make a difference in St. Luke's COVID units, Diaz-Gomez is already looking forward to the difference the devices will make post pandemic.

"Whatever we will face after the pandemic, many physicians will be able to predict more objectively when a patient is deteriorating from acute respiratory failure," he says. "Without this innovation, we wouldn't have been able to be at higher standards with ultrasonography."

The device, with its portability, low cost, and ease of use, also has an application for telemedicine and at-home health, and that's something that's exciting for Diaz-Gomez. However, both in his COVID units or in the home setting, the device is only as good as the clinician who's interpreting the images paired with the other diagnostics.

"The integration of ultrasonography with the clinical practice itself — it has to go hand in hand," Diaz-Gomez says. "The clinical decision will depend on that integration."

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MassChallenge Texas announces winners for its Houston cohort and doles out $200,000 in prizes

Startup champs

MassChallenge named its winners of its 2020 accelerator at a virtual event on October 22. The program awarded a total of $200,000 in equity-free prizes across seven startups from its second Houston cohort.

This year's program took place completely virtually due to the pandemic. Already, the 56 startups involved in the cohort have raised $44.4 million funding, generated $24 million in revenue, and created 297 jobs, says Jon Nordby, managing director of MassChallenge Texas in Houston, in a news release.

"This has been a year full of change, to say the least," he says. "But startups thrive in uncertain times — because they can move fast and remain agile, they are able quickly meet each new need that arises. I'm extremely proud of the startups in our 2020 cohort — during the course of the program, they've pivoted, adjusted, and evolved in order to grow their businesses."

The startups that won across the Houston cohort included Houston-based PATH EX Inc., which won the $100,000 Diamond Award, is focused on the rapid diagnosis and treatment of sepsis through an unique pathogen extraction platform.

Four companies won $25,000 Gold Awards:

  • Healium, based in Columbia, Missouri, is an extended reality device created for self-management of anxiety.
  • Ozark Integrated Circuits Inc., based in Fayetteville, Arkansas, specializes in problem solving using technology and software in the harshest environments – from jet engines to earth orbit.
  • PREEMIEr Diagnostics, based in Southfield, Michigan, created a way to identify which premature infants need an adjustment to their glucose levels to prevent them from losing vision.
  • Scout Inc., based in Alexandria, Virginia, is developing the first commercial in-space satellite inspection service.

Two companies won the Sidecar Awards, securing each a $25,000 Innospark Artificial Intelligence Prize.

  • Articulate Labs, based in Dallas, makes mobile, adaptive devices to help knee osteoarthritis and knee replacement patients rehabilitate on the go during everyday activity.
  • Houston-based Starling Medical has tapped into tech to optimize urinary catheter for patients with neurogenic bladder dysfunction.
The Houston Angel Network awarded Ozark Integrated Circuits their prize of $50,000.
"The progress these entrepreneurs made in just a few months has all of the hope, drama, anticipation, and optimism of seeing dawn break after a particularly difficult night," says Wogbe Ofori, Principal at 360Approach and a MassChallenge mentor, in the release. "It's fulfilling, actually, and makes me proud to be a MassChallenge mentor."
The seven startups were awarded alongside 27 other startups from this year's Austin, Boston, and Rhode Island accelerators at the virtual event. The event was hosted by Chris Denson of Innovation Crush, and featured a fireside chat between Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, and Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director at the Boston Globe.
Earlier this fall, MassChallenge named its 10 startup finalists, whittled down from 56 from 13 countries and 13 states to its first-ever virtual accelerator, which began in June.

"In the face of great uncertainty, MassChallenge Texas in Houston charged forward and did exactly what they ask their startups to do: love the problem," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "The successful pivot to virtual is a testament to the strength of their global community and the motivation of the Houston ecosystem to get behind new ideas and create businesses that will set roots and grow here.

"As one of the most innovative cities, Houston is a place where startups can thrive – even in the midst of a pandemic. Programs like MassChallenge provide the best practices and networks to ensure startups get the access they need to create sustainable businesses and lasting change."

5 reasons to get connected with Chile via this virtual event

Listen to the List

It's almost time for the tech and innovation portion of Chile Connected, a nearly month-long virtual event designed to serve as a "matchmaker" for technology firms as well as creative industries, healthy food providers, and women-led businesses.

Sponsored by ProChile, the online convention is an easy — and free — way to meet your next possible collaborator, all from the comfort of home.

To make sure you don't miss your shot at building the next big partnership, here's everything you need to know.

1. The when and where
Chile Connected runs online October 19-November 20, with the tech and innovation panels taking place October 27-29. It's free to attend and you can register here.

2. What to expect
In addition to B2B matchmaking sessions, you can hear Chilean entrepreneurs about about their global innovations in the areas of HealthTech, FinTech, EdTech, and RetailTech. Experts will explore the future of e-commerce, how to empower women in tech, and how healthcare technology is changing in the face of COVID-19.

3. Who'll be there

  • HealthTech: Alberto Rodriguez, president of Levita Magnetic, a company that develops technology through magnets to reduce the need for incisions, invasive surgeries, and scars.
  • RetailTech: Ariel Schilkrut, cofounder of Zippedi Inc. Zippedi is a robot that uses AI to provide services to the retail industry. It includes image recognition and deep learning to create inventories, which improves the efficiency of replenishment processes and the level of service that these companies provide to their customers.
  • EdTech: Komal Dadlani, CEO and cofounder of Lab4U, a company that transforms mobile devices into scientific instruments to democratize access to science, giving the possibility of having a laboratory in your pockets.
  • EdTech: Marisol Alarcón from social de Laboratoria, a company that trains women without higher education as web developers. This undertaking was highlighted by Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama for its contribution to gender equality.
  • Fintech: Cristóbal Forno, founding partner of Global 66, a platform for international money transfers.

But that's just the start — besides the big names from even bigger companies, there will be dozens of people from all over the world looking to network and form partnerships.

4. Why you should consider Chile
Chile is recognized as the most advanced IT market in Latin America, with the IT sector there representing 3.4 percent of its national GDP. Chile is also the 29th largest trading partner of the United States, while America is the No. 1 destination for non-copper goods and service exports from Chile.

5. How Chile benefits you
Most Chilean companies — 53 percent, in fact — are looking for a joint venture or capital to grow into other markets. Chile has been regularly investing not only money but also resources and programs to support new startups and companies. Start-up Chile is one such accelerator; it has vowed to invest $80,000 in an American start-up that will create and develop its idea in Chile.

Reserve your free spot for Chile Connected now.

Equipped with online and in-app ordering, Texas grocer named No. 1 for delivery

DOING MORE

Widely praised for its response to the ongoing pandemic, Texas-based grocery chain H-E-B's cart has once again been filled with kudos.

In a study by market research and mystery shopping firm Ipsos, H-E-B ranked first for grocery delivery among U.S. retailers, with a 99 percent accuracy rate. At No. 2 in the grocery delivery category was Austin-based Whole Foods Market, which achieved a 95 percent accuracy rate.

For the study, mystery shoppers across the country rated various retailers on the quality of their buy-online-pickup-in-store (BOPIS), curbside, and delivery services. Ipsos conducted 150 mystery shops per retailer across these three categories.

"Use of BOPIS and curbside pickup has increased for 78 percent of shoppers since COVID-19 began, and 69 percent expect to continue using it at the same or higher levels after the pandemic subsides," Carlos Aragon, vice president of U.S. channel performance at Ipsos, says in an October 9 release. "As we continue to see the adoption and usage of these new digital offers rise and continue to stick, it is important that brands have the mechanism to ensure they deliver a seamless and safe customer experience for these new users."

To promote social distancing, H-E-B rolled out two-hour delivery in April, eliminating the need for customers to interact.

"With Texans relying on delivery now more than ever, it is our duty to support more of our communities across the state, as quickly as possible," Jag Bath, Favor's CEO and H-E-B's chief digital officer, said in an April release.

To accommodate two-hour delivery for H-E-B customers, Favor undertook a statewide expansion. The grocery chain rolled out its home delivery option in 2018, the same year that H-E-B bought Favor.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.