Rice University identified 15 more pandemic-related research projects to receive support from a new research fund. Getty Images

Researchers at a Houston institution have been rewarded for their work that focuses on COVID-19 and how it's affected various aspects of life.

Rice University has named its two more rounds of recipients of its COVID-19 Research Fund — an initiative created to support projects that are innovating solutions and services amid the COVID-19 crisis. In April, the COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee — led by engineering professor and special adviser to the provost, Marcia O'Malley — selected four projects led by Rice faculty members across industries from biomedicine to humanities that will receive the first round of funds.

The committee named another round of recipients in May and the third and final round this month. Here are the projects from the last two rounds of grants:

  • Rapid point-of-care device to detect severe cases of COVID-19 by Kevin McHugh and Peter Lillehoj of Rice and Cassian Yee of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
  • A mobile phone-based blood serum test for COVID-19 antibodies by Lillehoj, Wen Hsiang Chen of Baylor College of Medicine and James Le Duc of Galveston National Laboratory. The mobile test would be faster and more precise.
  • A handbook addressing pandemic response initiatives for health officials by Kirsten Ostherr and Lan Li of Rice; Thomas Cole of the McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston; Robert Peckham of Hong Kong University; and Sanjoy Bhattacharya of York University.
  • A look at COVID-19's effect on vehicle travel and electric power generation and air quality by Daniel Cohan and Daniel Kowal of Rice. Using both on-the-ground and satellite data, the researchers will look at various air pollutants.
  • A study on Harris County residents' compliance to stay-at-home orders by Flavio Cunha, Patricia DeLucia, Fred Oswald, Ekim Cem Muyan and E. Susan Amirian of Rice. The researchers will survey residents — particularly low-socioeconomic populations.
  • A look at how pollution and economics affect each other turing a pandemic-caused crisis by Sylvia Dee, Ted Loch-Temzelides, Caroline Masiello and Mark Torres of Rice. Thanks to stay-at-home initiatives, the study can look at which economic sectors contribute the most to carbon emissions.
  • A study on long-term effects of COVID-19 on human development by Fred Oswald of Rice, Rodica Damian and Tingshu Liu of the University of Houston and Patrick Hill of Washington University. The project looks at the pandemic's affect on social contexts including occupational, educational, community, family, lifestyle, health and financial.
  • A predictive model of Houston's COVID-19 condition by Daniel Kowal, assistant professor of statistics, and Thomas Sun, a graduate student, at Rice. The project will compare Houston to locations that are similar and further along the disease incidence curve.
  • A survey of how stay-at-home orders affected low-income families by Amelyn Ng, Wortham Fellow at Rice Architecture, and Gabriel Vergara of One Architecture and Urbanism. he survey will focus on Houston's Greater Fifth Ward.
  • Research on antibodies for disease prevention by Laura Segatori, associate professor of bioengineering and of chemical and bimolecular engineering and biosciences, and Omid Veiseh, assistant professor of bioengineering, at Rice. The two scientists plan to engineer cell lines for the rapid development of clinically translatable neutralizing antibodies for infection control.
  • An analysis of working conditions amid the pandemic by Danielle King, assistant professor of psychological sciences at Rice. King will look into both employees who can no longer go to the workplace, like teachers, and those required to, like nurses, to see what resources are most effective.
  • An oxygen sensing device by Michael Wong, department chair and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Rafael Verduzco, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, of Rice and John Graf of NASA. The team will continue working on a NASA-designed prototype ventilator for rapid deployment based on an off-the-shelf automotive oxygen sensor.
  • A study on social distancing for musicians by Ashok Veeraraghavan, Robert Yekovich and Ashutosh Sabharwal of Rice and John Mangum of the Houston Symphony. The project will look into airflow of wind instruments using high-speed imaging.
  • Looking into public health initiatives and their use in COVID-19 by Hulya Eraslan, Rossella Calvi, Dibya Deepta Mishra and Ritika Sethi of Rice. The team will look at election data with a goal is to understand the impact of political alignment across levels of government on the effectiveness of its response.
  • Research on optimizing nursing staff schedules by Andrew Schaefer, Illya Hicks and Joseph Huchette of Rice and Nicole Fontenot of Houston Methodist Hospital. Researchers will employ data and technology to improve forecasting demand for nursing staff.
Four COVID-19-focused research projects have been selected by Rice University to receive funding. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Houston university announces first recipients of coronavirus research funding

covid heroes

Rice University has named several Houston researchers as recipients of funding as a part of a new initiative to support projects that are innovating solutions and services amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The university's COVID-19 Research Fund Oversight and Review Committee — led by engineering professor and special adviser to the provost, Marcia O'Malley — selected a few projects led by Rice faculty members across industries from biomedicine to humanities that will receive the first round of funds. However, the application window is ongoing, according to a press release, and additional awards are to be expected.

Here were the first projects and researchers to be selected by the committee.

A low-cost diagnostic tool

Rice researchers Rebecca Richards-Kortum and Kathryn Kundrod of Rice University along with Kathleen Schmeler of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have identified a way to create a COVID-19 diagnostic device that costs less than $5,000 and less than $2 per test. It would also take fewer than 30 minutes to diagnose.

The researchers are also working with USAID and industry partners on a plan to scale the test to five countries in Africa. In the future, the device would enable broader SARS-CoV-2 testing locally and in low- and middle-income countries.

Richards-Kortum is a professor of bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering and director of Rice 360˚. Kundrod is a graduate student in bioengineering. Schmeler is a professor in the department of gynecologic oncology and reproductive medicine at MD Anderson.

A protective rubber harness to be worn over a face mask 

Jacob Robinson and Caleb Kemere, associate professors at Rice, along with Sahil Kuldip of MD Anderson, have discovered a low-cost, easy-to-manufacture rubber harness to be worn over surgical or cloth masks in order seal the masks. The seal would better prevent small airborne particles from getting around the masks.

Robinson is in Rice's electrical and computer engineering and bioengineering departments, while Kemere specializes in electrical and computer engineering. Kuldip is an assistant professor of plastic surgery at MD Anderson.

Wastewater monitoring for coronavirus contamination 

Rice researchers Lauren Stadler, Katherine Ensor and Loren Hopkins are working with the Houston Health Department and Houston Water on a plan to collect wastewater samples from local treatment plants to monitor for the presence of COVID-19.

With most people asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms of COVID-19, the researchers are looking into the virus's presence in wastewater in order to track community infection.

Stadler, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Ensor, the Noah G. Harding Professor of Statistics, are working with Hopkins, who is a professor in practice of statistics and chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department.

The identification of safe and healthy voting procedures 

Five Rice researchers — Robert Stein, Philip Kortum, Claudia Ziegler Acemyan, Daniel Wallach and Elizabeth Vann — are looking into steps Harris County can take to ensure that in-person voting is safe and keeps participants healthy. Through surveys with citizens, the team will help election officials survey both voters and poll workers on their voting preferences and concerns.

The research team spans campus departments: Stein is the Lena Gohlman Fox Professor of Political Science, Kortum is an associate professor of psychological sciences, Acemyan is an adjunct assistant professor of psychological sciences, Wallach is a professor of computer science and of electrical and computer engineering, and Vann is the director of programs and partnerships at the Center for Civic Leadership

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Houston investors back new platform for retail traders looking to follow financial influencers

making a splash

As anyone who witnessed the impact Gamestop's meme stock had on the country already realizes, influential investors can drive momentum within the financial sector. And one company with fresh funding from a Houston firm is betting on that exactly.

CashPool is a new mobile platform that gives everyday investors the opportunity to derive influence from the investment strategies and trades made by trusted and influential stock traders who have built substantial followings on social media platforms. By allowing retail traders the chance to join social media influencers’ various “pools” on its platform, CashPool is primed to change the way the masses acquire wealth.

This is the kind of algorithmic trading aimed at a new generation of investors that gets the attention of early-stage venture capital funds like Houston-based Ten X Labs, a pre-seed angel fund that recently invested in CashPool to help the trading platform continue its mission of transforming the investment landscape.

"We are thrilled to receive funding from Ten X Labs, as it validates our innovative approach to trading and investing," CashPool Founder and CEO Averett Barksdale says in a news release. "This investment will enable us to further enhance our platform, expand our user base and continue to revolutionize the industry. We believe that everyone should have transparent, governed access to profitable trading and investment opportunities, and through CashPool we are making that vision a reality."

Connecting the dots

CashPool is broker agnostic connector, allowing its users to keep their current brokers like Robinhood, Coinbase, Charles Schwab, Acorns, Fidelity, ETRADE, Stash, Sofi and Betterment and creates a seamless investment experience.

“We are that middle piece,” says Barksdale. “So your money stays on whatever brokerage you’ve connected to the platform, and we just execute the trades on your brokerage for you.”

Considering that users’ money remains with their original brokerage, how does CashPool monetize its platform?

“We don’t charge users to execute trades,” says Barksdale. “We charge per pool you join. So, on our platform, strategies are called pools and a user can join as many strategies as they want.”

Financial influencers set the strategies. These are profitable traders who have become influencers on various social media platforms and built-up followings comprised of people who are or are desiring to be retail traders themselves.

“There are a ton of people out there who actually are profitable traders,” says Barksdale. “Same as what we saw happen with GameStop and the whole Reddit situation. That was a financial influencer, right? It just so happens that he had a strategy that he thought would work and it turned out for a while it did work, right?

“We want to not only empower the retail trader, but empower these financial influencers who are profitable as well. Just because it's a whole marketplace out there for it. But a lot of times the retail trader doesn't quite understand who to go with. On our platform, you could see the results of these financial influencers right before your eyes on our platform. So you can see if they're profitable or not, or if someone's just on Instagram or whatever, social media platform posting screenshots but aren’t actually executing those trades.”

Increasing transparency

With trading, past success can be an arbiter for future performance, so with CashPool, users can choose to join the pools of influencers who have documented success as a trader on the platform.

“On our platform you can't hide,” says Barksdale. “We're connected to their brokerage account, so we see what trades they're making in real time. We also see their performance in real time, and we display that on the platform. That's something that you really can't get around. So if someone on Instagram says they traded this stock, then I made X amount of dollars and had this percentage of return, then you go to the platform and look at your pool and see they didn't do that and were lying the whole time, it’s literally just putting everything out there in the open. We have the kind of transparency that doesn't exist currently right now in the space.”

Broadcasting one’s successes is easy, but what about the losses?

“I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult just thinking, do people really want to show what they're doing?” says Barksdale. “But the thing that I've seen is a lot of these traders are a whole lot more competitive. And the traders who are doing it, they're constantly talking out against people who aren't actually doing it in real life.

“A lot of the traders who are actually profitable, they do live trades every day. But how do users if they should pay to get into a specific trader’s live trading session? Like, how do they know they're profitable already?

“On CashPool, users can see an actual influencer's win rate and say, 'Okay, 86 percent of the time they are profitable, and I could see how many trades they've made in total.' From that standpoint, users can make an educated decision on what pools to join and pay for.”

CashPool users can join as many pools as they see fit, but the cost of each pool’s membership may vary due to the popularity or success percentage rate of the financial influencer.

“You can join as many pools as you want, but what we suggest is you start by joining the pools of influencers that you already follow and trust, that you're already following like on Twitter or YouTube or Instagram or whatever it may be,” says Barksdale. “We are suggesting that you follow them first and you join their pools first. What we do is on the monetization side is we allow the creators on our platform who are the influencers to set their own price for their pool.”

Building a secure network

Outside of who or what to follow, information security is likely a concern for potential users. Financial influencers’ trade information is readily available (win percentages and number of trades, not dollar amounts), but users’ won’t be able to see other users’ information on the platform.

“Currently, we have a list of 10 brokerages who are on board, and then we're working to onboard more as we keep going on,” says Barksdale. “So, we have like your Interactive brokerages, and we also have a few other ones that are UK specific and Canada specific. We would love to have every single brokerage on the platform, but unfortunately, there are a couple that are still kind of playing hard to get, so to speak.”

The first rollout of CashPool is set, but version two will likely include content creation from the financial influencers.

Barksdale, who has a background in product development and experience working at companies like Charles Schwab and Fidelity, is mostly excited about the prospect of CashPool unlocking expert financial strategies for everyone, not just the financial advisors behind the closed doors of Wall Street.

“Yes, my philosophy is that financial health and financial growth should be accessible for all,” says Barksdale. “The thing that gets me is it needs to be responsible. So, for example, RobinHood is a platform that doesn't necessarily care if you are making responsible decisions, they just care that you're trading on that platform.

“Our platform is strictly focused on actually being the place where these retail traders can make responsible decisions centered around investing and trading.”

Tech companies contribute to recovery fund for those affected by Houston storm

helping hands

The past month in Houston has been marked by severe flooding and a sudden storm that left nearly a million residents without power. The Houston Disaster Alliance has established the Severe Weather and Derecho Recovery Fund to help those impacted by the weather.

“The Greater Houston Disaster Alliance was formed so that in times of crisis, there is a swift and efficient response to help those severely impacted begin the process of recovery,” said Stephen Maislin, president and CEO, Greater Houston Community Foundation. “When disaster strikes, it requires a collaborative and coordinated response from the nonprofit, for-profit, public sector, and philanthropic community to ensure the most vulnerable in our region get the help they need to start the recovery and rebuilding process.”

At least a million dollars has been donated to the fund, courtesy of $500,000 from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation and another $500,000 from Comcast. With Houston now a federally declared disaster area by President Joe Biden, impacted residents are able to apply for various grants and aid.

Those still struggling from the weather events should call the 211 Texas/United Way HELPLINE. Assistance is available for housing, utilities, food, elder assistance, and other areas. Crisis counseling is also available.

“Outside of times of disaster, we know that 14 percent of households in our region are struggling on income below the federal poverty line and 31 percent of households in our region are working hard but struggling to make ends meet. It’s these neighbors who are disproportionately impacted when disaster strikes,” said Amanda McMillian, president and CEO, United Way of Greater Houston. “This fund allows us to lift up the most vulnerable who have been impacted by recent weather events to ensure they can not only recover from the immediate crisis, but also prepare themselves for future disasters.”

The derecho storm that hit Houston on Thursday, May 16 had wind gusts up to 100mph. Nearly a million people in the Houston area were left without power, and as of Wednesday CenterPoint was still working to restore electricity to more than 60,000 people. Photos showed that the storm toppled massive power pylons, took down trees, and even ripped the sides off buildings. Miniature tornadoes touched down in parts of the city, adding to the devastation.

The Houston Disaster Alliance was launched in 2023 as a joint effort between the Greater Houston Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Houston to help mitigate the damage of weather crises year-round. This has become increasingly necessary as Houston's weather has become more unpredictable than ever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.