Tech company launches COVID-19 vaccine finder in Houston

there's an app for that

ClassPass, which recently opened a Houston location, has launched a new tool for users to find their closest vaccine location. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

A global tech company that recently opened a local office in Houston has announced a major upgrade to its app — and it's now available in Houston.

ClassPass, a network of fitness and wellness partners, now has Houston vaccine centers searchable within the app and website. Members can find their closest vaccine center and get important information — like hours and address — as well as how to contact the locations; however, users aren't able to book directly through ClassPass.

"We are in a global health crisis and every company should be helping to support relief and vaccination efforts however they can. Using the ClassPass platform to connect members with vaccine centers is a natural extension of our technology and a way that we can contribute to curbing the spread of COVID-19," says Jeff Bladt, vice president of pricing and inventory, in a news release.

"We have deep knowledge of how to help people find accurate and up-to-date information on local businesses after routing millions of users to fitness and wellness locations across 30 countries," he adds.

Users can search for COVID vaccine locations online or through the app. Photo courtesy of ClassPass

The new search option has been rolled out already in in Austin and Dallas, as well as Boston, Chicago, Denver, Miami, New York City and Washington, D.C.

"The process of finding a vaccination appointment can be challenging and many people don't know where to start," says Dr. Vin Gupta, a critical care pulmonologist, health policy expert, and NBC News Medical Analyst, in the release.

"I was thrilled to hear that ClassPass, a high touch app that has already trained people how to search for vital health information, is leveraging their platform to make it easier to identify vaccine sites and secure appointments," he continues. "Anything that can address this information gap is critical in getting more people vaccinated."

ClassPass quickly pivoted when the pandemic hit last year, and now all 41,500 fitness, wellness, and beauty partners on the app have been asked to provide updated details on their COVID policies. ClassPass also worked with 5,000 top studios around the world to add digital classes as an option.

In March, Houston-based ClassPass exec, Rachel Moctron, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss this pivot and the new Houston office. Listen to it below.


The new variant is dubbed BV-1 for the Brazos Valley. valentinrussanov/Getty Images

New COVID-19 variant potentially resistant to antibodies discovered at Texas A&M

Covid Research

Scientists at the Texas A&M University Global Health Complex identified a new variant of the COVID-19 virus that could present a new challenge to public health, according to a statement.

So far, the new variant, "BV-1," was found in just one case: an individual who had mild symptoms, according to the Texas A&M scientists.

"We do not at present know the full significance of this variant, but it has a combination of mutations similar to other internationally notifiable variants of concern," said GHRC chief virologist Ben Neuman. "This variant combines genetic markers separately associated with rapid spread, severe disease, and high resistance to neutralizing antibodies."

The scientists said they felt the need to share with the public because other labs have shown neutralizing antibodies are ineffective in controlling other variants with the same genetic markers as BV-1.

"We have not detected any more instances of this variant," Neuman said. "We have not grown or tested this virus in any way. This announcement is based purely on the genetic sequence analysis done in the lab."

BV-1 is related to the United Kingdom variant of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The "BV" stands for Brazos Valley, where Texas A&M and GHRC are located.

According to a release, GHRC first detected BV-1 in a saliva sample taken from a Texas A&M student as part of the university's ongoing COVID-19 testing program. The sample tested positive on March 5. It was re-tested and confirmed at a federally regulated lab at CHI St. Joseph Regional Hospital. The student lives off-campus, but is active in on-campus organizations.

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Continue reading this story on our news partner ABC13.

A Houston entrepreneur created a free smartphone app to easily track and share COVID-19 testing results. Photo courtesy of SafeFun

Houston tech-turned-hospitality entrepreneur launches global health passport

there's an app for that

The pandemic brought Houston hospitality entrepreneur Carson Hager — a self-described "recovering programmer" — back to his roots in an attempt to help people gather together once more.

After 20 years in the tech world — he sold his consumer-grade commercial software company Cynergy Systems to KPMG in 2014 —Hager founded the Hospitable Viking, known for popular local bars like Rosemont in Montrose and Cherry downtown.

"It gives me some chaos," he says of his new industry. "It's something to do that's a very different challenge."

But the pandemic added a new challenge and even more chaos in his industry. As restrictions were put in place in the spring of 2020 and many (including Hager himself) didn't feel comfortable dining and drinking in public, he watched as many in his industry lost their jobs, businesses, and sense of community.

"I live in restaurants and bars and I wouldn't have gone anywhere at that point," Hager says. "I was thinking, what's it going to take for people to be able to feel comfortable to go back out again and go out to bars and restaurants, gyms, salons, club, etcetera."

In April 2020, he decided to act. And with the help of a few programmer friends pulling long hours for about 100 days straight, Hager created SafeFun, a Houston-based digital health passport that allows users to voluntarily and easily share COVID-19 test results and information.

The free app extracts and analyzes PDF test results from a variety of COVID-19 tests including molecular/diagnostic, antigen and antibody tests. SafeFun then validates the test against records from 100 partnering testing centers, including the likes of Walgreens, CVS, and Walmart, to ensure that the results are credible and summarizes the information for users to easily share through the app or in person.

After completing the build out in September 2020, Hager and his small team of four approached various city governments with the hopes of having them come on board as partners and support using the app for business purposes. However, what they found was that users were more interested in using SafeFun for personal reasons.

After a few more weeks of programming, Hager and team released the consumer-facing version in late 2020. Currently SafeFun has about 12,000 users around the world, according to Hager. Today it's mainly used ahead of a small gathering with friends, when visiting family, or to date.

SafeFun also has the capability to process and analyze proof of vaccine and other tests for infectious diseases. However, the current road block in the COVID realm is that in the U.S. most vaccine providers do not provide digital for PDF documentation.

Still, Hager envisions various potential uses for SafeFun in the future: for cruises, air travel, and even STD testing. Or, as Hager says, "God forbid, future pandemics."

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the trial. Photo via uth.edu

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco
As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. Photo via Getty Images

How the pandemic advanced tech in government and education, according to this Houston expert

Guest column

If you've logged onto a government website recently, you know that dealing with creaking, outdated government technology is about as much fun as a trip to the DMV. Held back by byzantine procurement rules, management-by-committee, and an aggressive commitment to decades-old UX principles, government websites and other tech tools are routinely confusing, horrible to use, and deeply inefficient.

Now, though, that could finally be changing. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to rethink our relationships with the technologies we use, from Zoom calls to e-commerce services. Increasingly, government bodies are finding themselves forced to move faster, adopt more up-to-date technologies, and work with private-sector partners to meet new challenges and quickly bring their services into the 21st century.

Getting an education

One of the most dramatic examples comes in the realm of education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 93 percent of school-age children have engaged in distance learning since the pandemic began, and four fifths of them relied on digital tech to take the place of classroom resources. But with access to digital tech at home strongly correlated to household income, governments and education departments have had to move quickly to ensure every child has access to laptops and web connections.

Not everyone is a fan of remote learning, and as a parent myself, I know how hard it can be to have kids at home. But one thing we should all be able to agree on is that if we're going to rely on digital learning, then we need to make sure it's available to everyone, including those families that don't have access to reliable computers and WiFi connections at home.

Achieving that rapidly and at scale has required remarkable flexibility and creativity from policymakers at all levels. Those that have succeeded have done so by brushing aside the red tape that has ensnared previous government tech initiatives, and instead working with private-sector partners to rapidly implement the solutions that are needed.

Lessons from Texas

Here in Texas, for instance, one in six public school students lacked access to high-speed internet connections at the start of the pandemic, and 30% lacked access to laptops or other learning devices. To speed the transition to remote learning, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency (TEA) launched Operation Connectivity — a $400 million campaign to connect 5.5 million Texas public school students with a computer device and reliable internet connection. To date 4 million devices have been purchased and are being distributed to kids, opening doors to greater educational and economic opportunities. Further work is in progress to remove other connectivity barriers like slow connection speeds in rural areas to help students and all Texans.

Rolling out such an ambitious project to our state's 1,200 or so school districts could have been a disaster. After all, many government IT projects grind along for months or years without delivering the desired results — often at huge cost to taxpayers. But Operation Connectivity has been different because it's grounded in a true partnership between the government and private-sector players.

Facing urgent deadlines, government leaders turned to Gaby Rowe, former CEO of the Ion tech hub, to spearhead the project. As a tech innovator, Rowe brought entrepreneurial energy and a real understanding of the power of public-private partnerships, and drove Operation Connectivity from the blueprint to execution in a matter of weeks. Tech giants including Microsoft, SAP, and Hubspot also quickly joined the effort, helping to deliver cost-effective connectivity and hardware solutions to ensure that every kid in our state could get the education they deserve. Since then, Operation Connectivity has distributed over a million devices, including laptops and wireless hotspots, to families in need, with costs split between the state and individual districts.

Private sector edge

To get a sense of how private-sector knowhow can spur government tech transformation, consider my own company, Digital Glyde. As part of the Operation Connectivity effort, we were asked to help design and build the back-end software and planning infrastructure needed to coordinate effectively with hundreds of school district officials scattered all across our state.

Ordinarily, that kind of effort would require a drawn-out process of consultation, committee-work, and red tape. But facing an urgent need to help our state's children, we were given the freedom to move quickly, and were able to implement a viable system within just a few days.

By leveraging cutting-edge data-extraction and image-processing tools, we helped Operation Connectivity to automatically process invoices and match tech costs to available COVID relief funding in record time. We achieved 95% accuracy within three weeks of deployment to ensure school districts quickly received reimbursements for the hardware they were purchasing on behalf of their schoolchildren.

Building on success

Operation Connectivity is just one example of the ways in which government actors have embraced tech and leveraged private-sector assistance to chart their way through the COVID crisis. From contact-tracing programs to vaccine distribution programs, we're seeing governments taking a far more pragmatic and partnership-driven approach to technology.

Of course, not every experiment goes to plan. In Florida, government agencies decided to use web tools to manage vaccination appointments — but implemented that idea using a commercial website built to handle birthday party e-vites. Unsurprisingly, the results were chaotic, with users having to scramble to grab appointments as they were posted to the site, and seniors struggling to wrap their head around a website designed for young parents.

Such stories are a reminder that governments can't solve big problems simply by grabbing at whatever tech tools are nearest to hand. It's vital to find the right solutions, and to work with partners who understand the complexity and constraints that come with delivering public-sector services at scale.

As we overcome the COVID crisis, and look to rebuild our economy and overcome future challenges, we need to learn from this experience and refuse to go back to the bad old days of red tape and stale technology. In recent months, we've shown what can be done when we pull together, and combine real governmental leadership with private-sector innovation and efficiency. We'll need much more of this kind of teamwork and tech-enabled creativity in the months and years to come.

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Varun Garg is the founder and CEO of Houston-based Digital Glyde

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Photo via Getty Images

Houston expert: Hospitals are at the forefront of innovation due to pandemic

guest column

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a drastic effect on every industry throughout the world. Additionally, we have all experienced multiple changes to our daily routine such as schools implementing virtual and hybrid learning while reconfiguring classrooms to promote social distancing and fitness studios closing off every other cardio machine and bench.

But no industry has had to pivot and innovate more than health care, which has been ground zero for the pandemic.

The pace of innovation for hospitals has been at breakneck speed — from the evolution of new treatment protocols to the need to reconfigure physical spaces to support an influx of patients while also promoting a healing environment during this unprecedented time.

Hospitals look and feel a lot different today because of significant modifications that have been made to care for patients and limit exposure to the virus. While a number of these modifications occurred under temporary state waivers, some of these changes may be here to stay.

Adding windows and alternative communication options to every room

Hospitals found that every room is valuable during a pandemic. Identifying and converting any available space, including private rooms like offices, break rooms, and conference rooms, was essential to accommodate an influx of patients during a surge. And when dealing with a highly infectious area, it is imperative to maximize staff and physician efforts while also safely minimizing the amount of time that staff members enter and exit rooms.

One way to do this is by adding windows in doors to promote patient visibility. This increased visibility can improve patient safety while conserving critical personal protective equipment. However, a down side to limiting the amount of times staff members enter and exit rooms is reduced valuable communication opportunities, which is why alternative mechanisms to communicate with patients must be in place in addition to increased visibility.

Implementing additional negative pressure capabilities

Like adding windows to every patient door, negative pressure rooms exist to keep non-contaminated areas free of airborne pathogens. In a negative pressure room, the air in the room is pulled into a room instead of being pushed out of a room, which is very effective in preventing airborne contaminants from escaping the room and infecting other people. But hospitals are not traditionally built with significant numbers of negative pressure rooms as demand for these types of rooms has historically been low.

In addition, the traditional way to design a facility is to spread negative pressure rooms throughout the hospital instead of consolidating them onto specific units. Although not required for COVID-19 patients, negative pressure rooms are helpful in ensuring maximum capabilities within different zones. In instances where negative pressure rooms could not be created, HEPA filters can still be used to "scrub" the air.

Converting anesthesia machines to ventilators

Anesthesia machines are capable of providing life-sustaining mechanical ventilation to patients with respiratory failure from diseases like COVID-19. They are used for this purpose every day in the operating room. Although they are not recommended for long-term ventilator needs, anesthesia ventilators can be modified to provide ventilatory support and are an obvious first-line backup when there are not sufficient ICU ventilators to meet patient care needs.

Building barriers to increase the safety of care

Plexiglass barriers have become a common sight in daily life including the front desks at hospitals. However, hospitals have taken it a step further and have either built or sourced equipment such as intubation boxes, which can be used during the intubation process, which consists of placing a breathing tube into a patient's airway and then connecting it to a ventilator or anesthesia machine if the patient is having surgery. Intubations are often done by an anesthesiologist, intensive care or emergency room provider; however, traditionally we had not often dealt with highly-contagious patients, so providing a higher level of protection is an important step in the containment of this type of virus.

The way healthcare providers enter and exit a COVID patient's room is as important as the proper use of PPE. In a pre-pandemic world, hospitals didn't specifically create spaces or areas within patient floors for staff to remove and discard their PPE and there wasn't any visible signage warning them that they were about to enter or leave a high-risk area. Many hospitals across the country have implemented color-coded zones within their COVID floors to caution staff of the type of precautions they should be taking at any given time. The creation of zones helps to protect staff and reduce contamination opportunities within the unit itself. Red, yellow and green zones using visual markers can be created to help provide staff designated areas that certain processes must be followed such as where PPE must be worn, where it can be donned and doffed and where PPE should not be worn.

Managing complex logistical challenges

Hospitals have been challenged with having to continue to provide uninterrupted care for COVID and non-COVID patients during the pandemic, while also handling, storing and administering vaccines. Hospitals have been at the forefront of the vaccine distribution system, working closely with state and federal officials to distribute vaccines on a large scale and reach the underserved populations that were hit hardest by COVID-19. For example, Baylor St. Luke's chose Texas Southern University, located within the Third Ward of Houston, as a vaccine site to reach communities of color and leverage its accessible location and the school's pharmacy students and faculty. And more recently, the hospital worked with Rice University to administer vaccines at its football stadium, a large venue that can be accessed easily through public transportation. Having these offsite venues with ample space has helped alleviate the space burden on hospitals during the vaccination efforts. Non-traditional healthcare delivery locations like these allow health care providers to administer more doses, closer to targeted communities than would be possible at a single hospital.

As we enter year two of the pandemic, the way hospitals function now and in the future is forever changed. Hospitals continue to learn and adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in case of another pandemic, hospitals are better equipped to quickly pivot to provide care for a surge of patients and to assist in the recovery efforts.

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Liz Youngblood is president of Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and senior vice president and COO of St. Luke's Health.

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.