Houston City Hall's basement got a major upgrade. Photo via HoustonTX.gov

Where some might see just a basement, Mayor Sylvester Turner sees an opportunity to tell a story of Houston's resiliency and dedication to sustainability.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, it left 18 to 20 inches of floodwaters in the basement of Houston City Hall. The city received funding from FEMA to support the $4.4 million renovation project that commenced in 2020. After facing challenges — including a defaulted contractor — the city revealed the new space this week, which was completed by contractor Dunhill Construction.

"The City Hall Basement renovation is a testament to the resilient spirit of Houston," says Turner in the news release. "We encountered some challenges, but we've revitalized this space while preserving our history and embracing innovation. This space truly embodies our commitment to a sustainable future."

The new basement holds conference rooms, training facilities, and a wellness center that was donated by Cigna. The project was focused on implementing sustainability and efficiency and included replacing aging air handling units with more efficient technology, LED lighting equipped with sensors to avoid energy waste, and a sliding floodgate to prevent history from repeating itself should another storm hit Houston.

The project also incorporated 18 pieces of Houston-focused art by artists including Mark Chen, Syd Moen, Nancy Newberry, and David Reinfeld. The 49 Houston mayor portraits, which were rescued by a staffer during the storm, were conserved, reframed, and rehung.

The space will also be the home to Houston's first walk-in 311 center, per the release, and the 311’s Continuity of Operations Plan, or COOP, and will be a secondary location in case the main call center fails.

With the completion of the project, the city has a few more upgrades — including additional training facilities, the mayor's dining room, and kitchen — coming soon and set to be completed in November.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner celebrated the opening of the renovated City Hall basement that was damaged in Hurricane Harvey. 

Photo via houstontx.gov

UH's business school has a new program focused on artificial intelligence thanks to a partnership with Intel. Photo via uh.edu

University of Houston, Intel team up to prepare workforce for AI revolution

back to school

The University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business has teamed up with semiconductor chip manufacturer Intel Corp. to provide training in artificial intelligence.

The new artificial intelligence program features a standalone business certificate with two specialized courses; the first course launched in January. Bauer also plans to offer non-degree certificate programs in AI, such as the AI Certificate for Entrepreneurship and AI Certificate for Executive Education.

In a news release, Elizabeth McGee, chief strategy and innovation adviser at Santa Clara, California-based Intel, says the UH initiative will help bridge the AI knowledge gap. An online search indicates hundreds of AI-related jobs are open in the Houston area.

“Digital upskilling, or digital readiness, needs to be a catapult for economic prosperity for everyone and not a dividing point,” McGee says. “I commend the University of Houston for being the first higher education institution to take our award-winning curriculum and lend your expertise in entrepreneurship, your access to the broader Houston community, and supporting this digital upskilling for everyone.”

AI education has taken on a greater sense of urgency as the healthcare and energy sectors, among others, incorporate AI into their operations.

Paul Pavlou, dean of the Bauer College and Cullen Distinguished Chair Professor, says the collaboration between UH and Intel will help propel growth and innovation in Houston’s tech sector. Intel, whose only Texas location is in Austin, is a key player in the expanding AI market.

“Intel has been very generous with their resources, and with our expertise in analytics and faculty research and students’ initiative in bringing new products to life, the opportunities for this collaboration to be transformative are endless,” Pavlou says.

AI is growing at an incredibly rapid pace. According to Precedence Research, the size of the global AI market was estimated at $119.78 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach nearly $1.6 trillion by 2030.

“While some markets, sectors and individual businesses are more advanced than others, AI is still at a very early stage of development overall,” says professional services firm PwC. “From a macroeconomic point of view, there are … opportunities for emerging markets to leapfrog more developed counterparts.”

AI is viewed as both positive and negative in terms of today’s workforce.

“AI is a fast-evolving technology with great potential to make workers more productive, to make firms more efficient, and to spur innovations in new products and services. At the same time, AI can also be used to automate existing jobs and exacerbate inequality, and it can lead to discrimination against workers,” says a report published by the White House in 2022.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston City Council celebrated “AI Innovation and Entrepreneurship Day” at City Hall on Feb. 7. Photo via Facebook

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.