This week's roundup of Houston innovators includes Abbas Rana of BCM, Rebecca C. Vaught of Van Heron Labs, and Patrick Scateni of Hypertec. Photos courtesy

Editor's note: Welcome to another Monday edition of Innovators to Know. Today I'm introducing you to three Houstonians to read up about — three individuals behind recent innovation and startup news stories in Houston as reported by InnovationMap. Learn more about them and their recent news below by clicking on each article.

Abbas Rana, associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine

The NIH grant goes toward TransplantAI's work developing more precise models for heart and lung transplantation. Photo via BCM

The National Institute of Health has bestowed a Houston medtech company with a $2.2 million Fast-Track to Phase 2 award. InformAI will use the money for the product development and commercialization of its AI-enabled organ transplant informatics platform.

TransplantAI solves that problem, as well as organ scarcity and inefficiency in allocation of the precious resource.

The NIH grant goes toward developing more precise models for heart and lung transplantation (kidney and liver algorithms are further along in development thanks to a previous award from the National Science Foundation), as well as Phase 2 efforts to fully commercialize TransplantAI.

"There is an urgent need for improved and integrated predictive clinical insights in solid organ transplantation, such as for real-time assessment of waitlist mortality and the likelihood of successful post-transplantation outcomes," according to the grant’s lead clinical investigator, Abbas Rana, associate professor of surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. Read more.

Rebecca C. Vaught, founder and CEO of Van Heron Labs

Van Heron Labs, founded at TMC, raised a $1.1 million seed round led by FoodLabs. Photo via LinkedIn

A biotech company that was founded at the Texas Medical Center in Houston has raised fresh funding to support its goal of innovating new technologies for a healthier humanity.

Van Heron Labs, based in Huntsville, Alabama, raised a $1.1 million seed round led by FoodLabs, a European investor and venture studio for food, health, and climate. The startup taps into genomics, bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology to improve how cells are cultured and harnessed with the mission to address critical industrial and global challenges with biotechnology.

“Van Heron Labs looks forward to using the generous support and funding from FoodLabs to advance our goal of making biological innovation better, faster, and cheaper," Rebecca C. Vaught, founder and CEO of Van Heron Labs, says in a news release. "By fueling the new bio-economy, we feel that our customers can optimize their systems and bring technologies to overcome critical global challenges to market." Read more.

Patrick Scateni, vice president of global sales of Hypertec

The hardware upgrades more than “double the effective horsepower of DUG’s Houston data center.” Photo via LinkedIn

An Australia-based company has launched a major upgrade of its Houston data center with sustainability in mind.

DUG Technology announced it's increased the company’s high performance computing (HPC) capabilities and also reinforced its commitment to sustainable innovative technology. The company announced its latest investment in 1500 new AMD EPYCTM Genoa servers, which has 192 cores and 1.5 terabytes of DDR5 memory each. Quebec-based IT solution company Hypertec provided the immersion-born hardware.

“DUG’s decision highlights the unmatched technological advancements and superior performance of Hypertec immersion-born products, which are setting a new benchmark in the industry,” Hypertec’s Patrick Scateni, vice president of global sales says in a news release. Read more.

TRISH’s Diversity Partnership Solicitation Program selected two research teams to receive funding and support. Photo via BCM.edu

Houston space health organization announces new diversity-focused grant recipients

diversifying space

A local organization announced two newly funded partnerships to advance research and innovation within space health.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine has announced — along with partner organizations Caltech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — $300,000 in funding for teams at Texas State University and the University of Florida.

The two schools have been named awardees of TRISH’s Diversity Partnership Solicitation Program that was founded to support TRISH’s ongoing commitment to increasing engagement from underrepresented groups in the field of space health research.

“We go to space to improve life everywhere, and we must do so representing everyone,” says Dr. Asha S. Collins, chair of TRISH’s Diversity Advisory Board, in a news release. “The members of TRISH’s Diversity Advisory Board helped select two strong partners through our Diversity Partnership Program, and their work will move us closer to achieving that reality for the future of space exploration for all.”

The two projects that were selected for the program include:

  • B-SURE: Boosting Spaceflight Underrepresented Researcher Equity:
    • Principal Investigator: Dr. Rachael Seidler, University of Florida
    • Co-Investigators: Drs. Josephine Allen and Christine Wegner, University of Florida; Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles, Texas A&M University.
    • Dr. Rachael Seidler and her University of Florida team is partnered with Texas A&M University to survey the field and build a database of underrepresented researchers interested in pursuing space health research and a second database of leaders in this field open to new collaborators and mentorship.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson Institute for STEM Education and Research Space Health Inclusion Partnership
    • Principal Investigator: Dr. Kristina Collins, Texas State University
    • Co-Investigators and Collaborators: Drs. Leslie Huling, Barbie Buckner and Sara Torres, Deepika Sangam, Texas State University.
    • Dr. Collins and her team will use Texas State's existing virtual education tools to launch a set of novel space health content with digital badges and certifications.

Each of the projects were selected for "their innovative means of facilitating underrepresented researcher engagement," per the news release. Both teams will establish a cohort of underrepresented researchers dedicated to innovating future applications for space health research funding.

TRISH is funded by NASA’s Human Research Program and seeks both early stage and translation-ready research and technology to protect and improve the health and performance of space explorers. Last month, TRISH released a free-to-watch documentary on space health.

Baylor College of Medicine hosted U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia (TX-29) for a check presentation. Photo courtesy of BCM

Houston institution receives $1.1M for long-COVID clinic

research funding

A new funding project that's a part of the Bipartisan Omnibus Appropriations Bill doled out over $10 million to health care institutions — and a Houston initiative is cashing in on a chunk of that funding.

Baylor College of Medicine and Harris Health’s long-COVID care clinics received $1.1 million from the the Congressional Community Project Funding program. U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia (TX-29) attended the check presentation of the funding, as did Harris Health CEO Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, BCM President, CEO, and Executive Dean Dr. Paul Klotman, and Regional Director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Sima Ladjevardian.

Long-COVID symptoms, which are categorized by any level of severity of the disease, can affect organ systems such as the heart, lungs, or brain, and include persistent shortness of breath, brain fog or anxiety. BCM started post-COVID treatment initiatives in 2021.

The organization's long-COVID care facilities will be expanding to Harris Health’s Strawberry Clinic located in East Harris County in the 29th Congressional District. Baylor's Institute for Clinical and Translational Research experts will also work to develop, maintain, and analyze a COVID-19 database.

“Rep Garcia was instrumental in guiding this project through to its approval,” says Klotman in a news release. “She understands the health disparities of her district and the greater Houston community and spearheaded efforts for the BCM program’s inclusion in the Appropriations Bill.”

Garcia, according to the release, is responsible for spearheading the effort for nine Houston area community projects that are currently being funding.

"In my district we know we have a high rate of COVID and we know we will have a high long-COVID impact," says Rep. Garcia. "It is important to support care and research because it is impacting their quality of life and it is impacting their ability to work. The long-COVID treatment and research projects going on here at Baylor are some of the best. We are doing the work, we are doing the research, and we will continue to do it together."

NASA has renewed its support for Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health. Photo courtesy of NASA

Houston research organization receives renewal from NASA and millions in funding for space health projects

new funding

Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, was granted renewal from NASA this week, which will allow the organization to continue to conduct biomedical research geared at protecting astronauts in deep space through 2028.

According to a statement, NASA reviewed TRISH in December 2020 ahead of the five year mark of its cooperative agreement with BCM's Center for Space Medicine. NASA opted to continue the partnership and now TRISH will receive additional funding of up to $134.6 million from 2022 to 2028.

"NASA has received outstanding value from our bold approach to sourcing and advancing space health research and technologies," institute director Dorit Donoviel, said in a statement. "We are proud to be NASA's partner in its human space exploration mission and to be supporting the research necessary to create new frontiers in healthcare that will benefit all humans."

The institute will focus its efforts on Mars exploration missions in the next six years and has been given three main objectives, according to the release:

  • To build strategic partnerships that will increase the volume of available biometric data on the impact of space travel on health and astronaut performance
  • To build a digital platform that simulates the spaceflight environment and will allow researchers to model and test new health technologies on Earth
  • To develop tissue chip technology that will allow astronauts to place a variety of human cells in lunar orbit during the NASA Artemis research missions to track the effects of space radiation and microgravity on humans

Since TRISH was founded in 2016 it has led the charge in space health research and has partnered with and provided grants to an array of innovative startups to do so.

In 2020 is granted Houston-based Z3VR $50,000 to explore the ways virtual reality can boost physical and mental health among astronauts and it has funded several projects surrounding space radiation levels.

At the time of 2020 review, TRISH had developed and transitioned 34 completed astronaut health and protection projects to NASA and had connected 415 first-time NASA researchers with opportunities to develop space health solutions.

A new AI-optimized COVID screening device, a free response resource, and more — 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

Researchers across the Houston area are working on COVID-19 innovations every day, and scientists are constantly finding new ways this disease is affecting humankind.

From a COVID breathalyzer to a new collaboration in Houston — here's your latest roundup of local coronavirus research news.

A&M System to collaborate on a COVID-19 breathalyzer

A prototype of the device will be used on the Texas A&M campus. Photo via tamu.edu

Researchers at Texas A&M University System are collaborating on a new device that uses artificial intelligence in a breathalyzer situation to detect whether individuals should be tested for COVID-19. The technology is being developed through a collaboration with Dallas-based company, Worlds Inc., and the U.S. Air Force.

The device is called Worlds Protect and a patient can use a disposable straw to blow into a copper inlet. In less than a minute, test results can be sent to the person's smartphone. Worlds Inc. co-founders Dave Copps and Chris Rohde envision Worlds Protect kiosks outside of highly populated areas to act as a screening process, according to a news release.

"People can walk up and, literally, just breathe into the device," says Rohde, president of Worlds Inc., in the release. "It's completely noninvasive. There's no amount of touching. And you quickly get a result. You get a yay or nay."

The university system has contributed $1 million in the project's development and is assisting Worlds Inc. with engineering and design, prototype building and the mapping of a commercial manufacturing process. According to the release, the plan was to test the prototypes will be tried out this fall on the Texas A&M campus.

"Getting tech innovations to market is one of our sweet spots," says John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, in the release. "This breakthrough could have lasting impact on global public health."

Baylor College of Medicine researchers to determine cyclosporine’s role in treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients

BCM researchers are looking into the treatment effect of an existing drug on COVID-19 patients. Photo via BCM.edu

The Baylor College of Medicine has launched a randomized clinical trial to look into how the drug cyclosporine effects the prevention of disease progression in pre-ICU hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drug has been used for about 40 years to prevent rejection of organ transplants and to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

"The rationale is strong because the drug has a good safety profile, is expected to target the body's hyperimmune response to COVID and has been shown to directly inhibit human coronaviruses in the lab," says Dr. Bryan Burt, chief of thoracic surgery in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor, says in a press release.

Burt initiated this trial and BCM is the primary site for the study, with some collaboration with Brigham and Women's. The hypothesis is that the drug will help prevent the cytokine storm that patients with COVID-19 experience that causes their health to decline rapidly, according to the release.

The study, which is funded by Novartis, plans to enroll 75 hospitalized COVID-19 patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center who are not in the ICU. There will be an initial evaluation at six months but Burt expects to have the final study results in one year.

Rice launches expert group to help guide pandemic response

A new response team is emerging out of a collaboration led by Rice University. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University is collaborating with other Houston institutions to create the Biomedical Expert Panel, supported by Texas Policy Lab, to assist officials in long-term pandemic recovery.

"Not all agencies and decision-makers have an in-house epidemiologist or easy access to leaders in infectious disease, immunology and health communications," says Stephen Spann, chair of the panel and founding dean of the University of Houston College of Medicine, in a news release. "This panel is about equity. We must break out of our knowledge siloes and face this challenge together, with a commitment to inclusivity and openness."

The purpose of the panel is to be available as a free resource to health departments, social service agencies, school districts and other policymakers. The experts will help design efficient public health surveillance plans, advise on increasing testing capacity and access for underserved communities, and more.

"The precise trajectory of the local epidemic is difficult to predict, but we know that COVID-19 will continue to be a long-term challenge," says E. Susan Amirian, an epidemiologist who leads the TPL's health program, in the release. "Although CDC guidelines offer a good foundation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when managing a crisis of this magnitude across diverse communities with urgent needs."

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

2 Houston research teams to receive support from local space health organization

out of this world

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
  • SharonGerecht, PhD of Johns Hopkins University, Maryland — Using human stem-cell derived vascular, neural and cardiac 3D tissues to determine countermeasures for radiation
  • SarahBlutt, 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.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

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

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

coming to Hou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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