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The winners of the hackathon included a contact tracing tool for schools, a soap dispenser to promote handwashing, a virus-killing filter, and more. Photo via Rice University Public Relations

As fall creeps closer, the need for a safe way to reopen schools becomes more and more dire. A team of Rice University students created a software that might help on that front.

SchoolTrace, a software that uses the schedules of students and faculty for COVID-19 contact tracing in schools, won top honors in the 2020 Rice Design-A-Thon, which took place July 17 to 19 online this year due to the pandemic. The hackathon was planned to be held in person during the fall semester, but organizers moved up the date to focus on coronavirus solutions. Twenty-three teams — comprised of 116 undergraduate competitors — participated.

"We wanted to provide students with a meaningful summer opportunity and the potential for a significant public health impact," says Carrigan Hudgins, a Sid Richardson College senior and co-coordinator, in a news release. "At one point, we considered cancelling, but hosting it virtually instead actually allowed us to reach a broader base of students across Texas and out of state."

SchoolTrace and its contact tracing tech that doesn't raise privacy concerns with tracking sensors or mobile phone apps took the $1,000 first price. Justin Cheung, Nick Glaze, Mit Mehta, Tyler Montague and Huzaifah Shamim — all juniors majoring in electrical and computer engineering — also received $500 for excelling in the digital age of health care track.

The teams that came in second and third place received $800 and $600, respectively, and the winners of each of the three design tracks also scored $500. The prizes were sponsored by Rice's George R. Brown School of Engineering, Rice's student chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society and the Southwest National Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium.

Aside from the cash prizes, the students also received valuable guidances and feedback from industry experts.

"Having the judges and our team vouch for the actual solution, when we can propose it to different competitions and incubators around Texas and the country, is more important than the cash prizes," says co-coordinator Franklin Briones, a Brown College senior who competed in previous design-a-thons at Rice. Briones and Hudgins co-coordinated this year's event with Wiess College senior Eric Torres.

Here were the other award-winning innovations to come out of the program:

  • Second place and pediatric track winner — "Team SARS Wars: A New Hope." The team created a soap dispenser attachment that plays music and rewards children with stickers if they wash their hands for 20 seconds. Team members included: Anyssa Castorina, Aman Eujayl, Diego Lopez-Bernal, Janet Lu, Rubén Sebastián Marroquín, and Belén Szentes, all sophomores from Rice.
  • Third place — "The (d^3x/dt^3)(s)." COV-COM is a wall-mounted filtration system that catches and kills COVID-19 created by a team of juniors and seniors from the University of Texas at San Antonio. Team members included: Olivia Garza, Juan Herrera, Frida Montoya, Aishwarya Sathish, Samantha Strahan, and Morgan Struthers.
  • Global health track winner — "The Duncaroo Designers." The team from Rice created affordable desk partitions that could be used in schools with limited funds. Team members included: senior Rachel Bui and sophomores Jacob Duplantis, Charlie Gorton, Andrei Mitrofan, Anh Nguyen, and Vivian Wong.

Each of the teams were tasked Friday (July 17) evening with the prompt to "design and present a solution (either a product or a method) to address the treatment, prevention or non-medical related needs of the COVID-19 pandemic." Final presentations took place final presentations Sunday afternoon.

"The needs-finding for those problems was the most cumbersome part," Briones says in the release. "Not because it's hard to find problems, but because COVID-19 is so continually changing. It was hard to find which problem was the most important one."

Denise Hamilton, founder and CEO of WatchHerWork, is publishing a book that helps guide Black Lives Matter allies to make changes that will help them change the world. Photo courtesy of WatchHerWork

Houston entrepreneur tackles diversity and inclusion challenges through new book

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 39

If you went to school in America, you might have been taught that George Washington's teeth were made out of wood. While this information might have been effective in promoting oral health as a kid, it's important for you to know that George Washington's dentures were not made of wood. They were made of ivory, metal alloys, and other human teeth — usually pulled from slaves.

History seems to have been rewritten in this case, and it's not the first — nor the last — time that's happened. Denise Hamilton wants individuals to recognize moments, acknowledge them, and move forward toward the truth. That's why she's publishing a thoughtful journal entitled "Do Something: An Ally's Guide to Changing Yourself So You Can Change Your World."

"I feel really strongly that we all have these challenging stories in our minds that we have to identify and release," Hamilton shares on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "I give that example so that we all are clear that we don't have the full story for a lot of these topics. To me, if you allow yourself to be humble and be open to the fact that you really cannot believe everything you think, we can make so much progress in this space."

Hamilton founded her company, WatchHerWork, five years ago to act as a platform for women seeking career advice and mentorship.

"I had been an executive for many years — around 25 years at this point — and I had been the only woman or the only African American in so many situations that people wanted to pick my brain or take me to lunch," she says. "Frankly, there weren't enough hours in the day."

The company evolved to more, and now she's focused on diversity and inclusion consulting and leadership.

In the months following the death of George Floyd, Hamilton has seen companies react in various ways to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement with marketing campaigns and initiatives for improving workplace conditions.

"The biggest challenge is the same thing that's the biggest opportunity," she says. "Every company has the opportunity to reinvent their approach to how they handle systemic racism in their organizations, and they are terrified by it."

As Hamilton has seen first hand, companies are navigating a minefield of how to react. In her consulting with companies, Hamilton has advised business leaders to be transparent and recognize if they haven't been an ally in this space — and to not act like it. Disclose the things that are being improved and amplify the work that's already been done — don't reinvent the wheel, she says.

"And if you turn this moment into a marketing event instead of a true seed change, we can spot that a mile away. Lead with authenticity, be sincere, and be honest," she says.

The other ongoing challenge Hamilton is navigating with her work is the effect COVID-19 has had on women in the workplace. The pandemic has amplified existing gender issues in the workplace and created new challenges as well. In the past, female executives have been able to climb the corporate ladder while hiring services to help on the home front, but COVID-19 pulled the rug out from under these women's feet.

"Women are starting to opt out because they are overwhelmed," Hamilton says, adding that this thought terrifies her. "We shouldn't live in a society that penalizes you for having children — that's just the bottom line."

What employers have to realize — and this is a cornerstone of Hamilton's work — is that inclusion in the workplace isn't treating everyone the same. It's factoring everyone's differences.

"I don't want you to treat me the same. I want you to look at my situation and treat me the way I need to be treated based on my situation," she says. "And that can be difficult to navigate, but that's what we help our clients do."

As challenging both the social unrest and pandemic has been, it's an opportunity to move forward and make a difference.

"It's a bittersweet experience when there's lots of change — there's always a lot of opportunity as well," Hamilton says. "Never waste a good crisis."

On the episode, Hamilton shares more details about her forthcoming book, advice for female founders, and more. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Houston researchers find new eco-friendly way to preserve produce

preventing waste

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

Celltex is looking into using stem cells to treat COVID-19, and the Houston biotech company just got the green light to go to trials. Photo courtesy of Celltex

Houston biotech company gets FDA greenlight to move forward with COVID-19 stem cell treatment

coronavirus cure?

A Houston-based biotech company announced last week that it has gotten the approval it was seeking from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to continue testing its COVID-19 treatment that uses stem cells.

Celltex has received approval from its Investigational New Drug application, or IND, to look into stem cells — specifically Autologous Adipose Tissue-Derived Mesenchymal Stem Cells, or AdMSCs — and their effect on COVID-19 patients.

"The FDA's approval of our IND is not only a critical milestone for Celltex, but also for everyone who has been affected by COVID-19," says David G. Eller, Celltex chairman and CEO. "I am optimistic that our findings will result in favorable outcomes that will improve lives today and for generations to come."

Celltex has been in the stem cell business for nearly a decade and has treated patients with debilitating diseases like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, rheumatoid arthritis, and more. Eller says he's been considering how Mesenchymal Stem Cells, or MSCs, could be used amid the pandemic.

"Throughout the entire pandemic, MSCs have shown promise for combatting symptoms and complications associated with COVID-19, and as the nation's leading commercial MSC banking and technology company, Celltex has the unique ability to transition these initial findings into a clinical trial," Eller says.

The FDA clearance will allow for a phase two trial "that will evaluate the safety and prophylactic efficacy of AdMSCs against COVID-19," according to the release. There will be 200 patients across multiple centers that will be involved in the placebo-controlled study.

Celltex offices out of the Galleria area and has laboratory operations of its wholly-owned Mexican subsidiary are located in Hospital Galenia in Cancún, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Last year, Celltex planned an expansion into Saudi Arabia and also has a presence in Europe.

According to a survey from Houston Exponential, the Bayou City's startup founders see the light at the end of the pandemic's dark tunnel. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

Houston founders optimistic about COVID-19 recovery, survey finds

thinking positive

Given the current economic environment, you might think founders of Houston startups would view the future with a healthy dose of pessimism. But you'd be wrong.

A survey conducted between April 23 and May 7 by Houston Exponential, a nonprofit that promotes the local innovation ecosystem, revealed that Houston startup founders largely see the future through a lens of optimism. For example:

  • More than half of the startups that said they were harmed by the coronavirus pandemic believe they'll begin bouncing back before the end of this year.
  • 70 percent of the startups that said they were hurt by the pandemic believe they'll begin recovering before they run out of cash. "They're saying, 'We're making it through this to the other side, and we're going to be better on the other side," says Bryant Chan, director of product at HX.
  • 80 percent of startups said they planned to add employees within the following 12 months.
  • Two-thirds of startups said they had a funding runway of at least six months.

"Houston is a resilient city, and its agile founders are the most adept at making the best of any situation," HX states in a summary of the survey results.

HX sent the survey to more than 1,000 startup founders in Houston. The survey results include responses from founders of companies with 30 or fewer employees.

Harvin Moore, president of HX, says he wasn't surprised by the generally optimistic outlook of Houston startup founders. In part, that's because local startups as a whole aren't swimming in deep pools of venture capital, according to Moore. Lower valuations lead to lower overhead and shorter cash runways, translating into abundant resilience, he says.

Moore suspects that if a startup founders survey were to be conducted in a VC hotbed like Silicon Valley, "we would probably find less resilience just because there were higher burn rates and, therefore, more dependence on runway."

Chan says startups in Houston hold an advantage over startups in hotspots like Silicon Valley because they're used to practicing "capital efficiency."

"Hopefully, we will maintain that as an advantage," Moore says.

Despite the optimistic elements of the survey results, Houston startups are encountering obstacles. Those include:

  • One-third of startups with at least six employees said they carried out layoffs or furloughs as a result of the pandemic-scarred economy.
  • Thirty percent of startups said they saw contracts fade and revenue shrink because of the pandemic.
  • Nearly one-fifth of startups that said they were raising capital before and during the pandemic saw their valuations decline by 10 percent to 20 percent.

One of the most noteworthy findings in the negative column was that the No. 1 hiring challenge for startups (cited by 21 percent of them) was offering competitive pay.

"Founders are finding talented candidates in Houston, but are unable to meet their salary demands," HX states. "It's common for startups to compensate early employees through company equity in lieu of salary, but with such economic uncertainty, employees may prefer that guaranteed cash and liquidity."

Before the pandemic, the top hiring challenge for Houston startups likely would have been finding the right talent, Chan says.

Despite such challenges, the path ahead for Houston's startup community seems to be pretty smooth, particularly as organizations like HX keep pursuing more access to angel, early stage, and seed funding.

"We have a strong economy, low cost of living — all these things that are solid about Houston and are not going away," Moore says. "We're confident that 2021 will be a great year. 2020 is probably going to be — for most people in Houston, just like around the rest of the country — the year of reimagining and repositioning and recovering. For some companies, it's going to be a huge inflection-point year."

A Houston real estate developer is making sure its common spaces are clean by using a new UV sanitation product from a Houston industrial services company. Photo via 255assay.com

Houston industrial tech company launches new products to sanitize shared spaces from COVID-19

UV rays to save the day

A new technology coming out of a Houston industrial services company is allowing shared spaces to reopen safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Apache Industrial Services has expanded its industrial services to include SafeSpace Solutions, a new line that includes UV-C products that minimize the risk of infection by detection and decontamination systems.

Houston-based real estate developer, McCord Development, has employed this new UV sanitation technology at its new apartment complex, 225 Assay, in Generation Park to sanitize high traffic areas such as elevators, amenities, retails spaces, and apartment units before move-ins.

"The new UV technology provides an extra level of comfort and peace of mind for employees and current residents," says Levi Hermes, director of development for McCord Development.McCord Development has two Tomahawk UV-C lamps that rely on ultralight technology to detect and destroy microorganisms in the air and on hard surfaces where the light touches. The light eradicates harmful pathogens and viruses in large open spaces with 99.9 percent effectiveness.

The Tomahawk lamp can be used in closed and open spaces, made out of lightweight carbon steel with a four-wheel stand, it is portable and easy to move. The light tower is remotely operated and leaves a burnt smell after the cleaning process is done.

"The ultimate goal of using the UV technology in our real estate is for our employees, customers, and our other partners that come into our different spaces," says Hermes. "We are doing everything the Center for Disease Control recommends including sanitizing high touch areas, but this adds an extra level of protection."

The lamp is easy to operate and can be moved to common areas and offices in commercial and apartment units quickly. McCord Development has used the UV lights in a variety of settings including industrial buildings, offices, and common areas in 255 Assay such as fitness centers, mailrooms, resident rooms, and a business center, which provide residents a place to socialize and work.

Apache Industrial Services, a McCord Development tenant, has already deployed other UV-related products including Airrow 2000 UV-C Air Treatment System, an air filtration and treatment system, Airrowswift 5000, placed in external A/C packages to filtrate air for small buildings.

Hermes and his team at McCord Development are looking forward to incorporating more gadgets as they become available, because of the heightened sanitation standards which they expect will continue even after society enters a new normal post-pandemic world.

"The long term impact will be monumental," says Hermes. "A lot of the current sanitation procedures will be here to stay. However, the pendulum will swing back to normal, but it will be a new normal. It will be important for owners of real estate to provide that extra level of comfort through sanitation."

Temperature checking

Photos via apacheip.com

Apache's Mass Temperature Screening System uses cameras to detect temperature and can scan 5,000 people in 30 minutes with great accuracy, according to the website.

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Houston female-focused health tech pitch competition names big winners

winner, winner

From the comfort of their own homes, several female entrepreneurs accepted investment and pitch prizes at the finals of an inaugural awards program created by a Houston-based, woman-focused health organization.

Ahead of the Ignite Madness finals on Thursday, October 29, Houston-based Ignite Healthcare Network named nine finalists that then pitched for three investment prizes. The finalists included:

  • Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Abilitech Medical — medical device company that creates assistive devices to aid those with upper-limb neuromuscular conditions or injuries.
  • New Orleans, Louisiana-based Chosen Diagnostics — a biotech company focusing on custom treatment. First, Chosen is focused on creating two novel biomarker diagnostic kits — one for gastrointestinal disease in premature infants.
  • San Francisco, California-based Ejenta — which uses NASA tech and artificial intelligence to enhance connected care.
  • Highland, Maryland-based Emergency Medical Innovation — a company focused on emergency medicine like Bleed Freeze, a novel device for more efficiently treating nosebleeds.
  • Columbia, Missouri-based Healium — an app to quickly reduce burnout, self-manage anxiety, and stress.
  • Farmington, Connecticut-based Nest Collaborative — digital lactation solutions and support.
  • Palo Alto, California-based Nyquist Data — a smart search engine to enable medical device companies to get FDA approvals faster.
  • New Orleans-Louisiana based Obatala Sciences — a biotech startup working with research institutions across the globe to advance tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
  • Perth, Australia-based OncoRes — a company that's developing a technology to provide surgeons with real-time assessment of tissue microstructure.
The inaugural event that mixed health care and basketball — two vastly different industries with strong connections to women — attracted support from partners and sponsors, such as Intel, Accenture, Morgan Lewis, Houston Methodist, Johnson & Johnson Innovation, and more, according to Ayse McCracken, founder and board chair of Ignite.

"Our partners and sponsors are an integral part of our organization" says McCracken. "Without each and every one of them, the networks, resources, and commitment to advancing women leaders, we would not have grown so rapidly in just four years and our IGNITE Madness event would not enjoy this vibrant ecosystem that now surrounds female entrepreneurs."

First up in selecting their winner for their investment was Texas Halo Fund. Chosen Diagnostics took home the $50,000 investment.

"While we were impressed by everyone who pitched tonight, one company stood out to us," says Kyra Doolan, managing partner. "[Chosen Diagnostics] exemplifies what we are looking for: an innovative solution, a strong CEO, and a real addressable market."

The second monetary award was presented by Tom Luby, director of TMC Innovation. The award was an $100,000 investment from the TMC Venture Fund, as well as admission to TMCx. The recipient of the investment was OncoRes.

"We are absolutely blown away," says Katharine Giles, founder of Onco. "We've already got a great link to Texas and looking forward to more."

The largest monetary award that was on the table was presented by Wavemaker Three-Sixty Health, a leading Southern-California based, early stage venture capital firm, for $150,000. However, at the time of the announcement, Managing Partner Jay Goss decided to award four startups an undisclosed amount of investment. Goss says he and his team will meet with each company to establish an investment.
The companies that were recognized by Wavemaker were: Healium, Ejenta, Emergency Medical Innovation, and Nest Collaborative.
Lastly, Ignite itself had $27,500 cash awards to give out to the pitch competition winners. The funds will be distributed between the winners. OncoRes took first place, Abilitech came in second place, and Obatala Sciences took third place.

Major Houston airport lands on list of hardest hit during the pandemic

IAH'S BiG DROP

Since the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 11, few industries have slowed as dramatically as air travel. Airlines made massive cuts in services and jockeyed for government assistance. Some, such as United, announced furloughs of up to 45 percent of its U.S. based workers, some 36,000 employees.

Local airports such as George Bush Intercontinental witnessed a staggering drop in travelers.

Just how bad is the hit? Finance website FinanceBuzz crunched the numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation to determine the pandemic's effect on the 30 busiest airports in the nation. The site examined the number of departing passengers on domestic flights from June 2019 and compared them to June of this year.

Houston's Bush Intercontinental (IAH) saw a dramatic decrease in traffic of 82.83 percent, according to FinanceBuzz. June 2019 saw 1,473,575 departing passengers, compared to just 253,036 in June of this year. That drop puts IAH at No. 13 in the top 15 airports with the biggest traffic drops in the U.S.

For some perspective, the airport with the biggest plunge is New York City's LaGuardia, which saw 1,281,848 travelers depart in June 2019, while a paltry 133,272 departed this June, for a 89.60 percent drop.

But it's not all gloom and doom for Texas airports. FinanceBuzz also looked at airports making the best recovery from April to June of this year. Overall, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport saw the biggest increase in departing passengers, with 190,038 flying out in April 2020 and a whopping 998,875 flying out in June, for a jump of 425.62 percent.

The airport with the fastest recovery? That title goes to Chicago Midway International Airport, which saw 30,693 departures in April and 338,884 in June, for a leap of 1004.11 percent.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.