Rice has developed a COVID diagnostic test that uses a cell phone. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is once again spearheading research and solutions in the ongoing battle with COVID-19. The university announced two developing innovations: a "real-time sensor" to detect the virus and a cellphone tool that can detect the disease in less than an hour.

Sensing COVID
Researchers at Rice received funding for up to $1 million to develop the real-time sensor that promises to detect minute amounts of the airborne virus.

Teams at Rice and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) at Galveston are working to develop a thin film electronic device that senses as few as eight SARS-CoV-2 viruses in 10 minutes of sampling air flowing at 8 liters per minute, per a press release.

Dubbed the Real-Time Amperometric Platform Using Molecular Imprinting for Selective Detection of SARS-CoV-2 (or, RAPID), the project has been funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Rice notes. Further funding will be contingent upon a successful demonstration of the technology.

Attacking with an app
Meanwhile, the university announced that its engineers have developed a plug-in tool that can diagnose COVID-19 in around 55 minutes. The tool utilizes programmed magnetic nanobeads and a tool that plugs into a basic cellphone.

First, a stamp-sized microfluidic chip measures the concentration of SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein in blood serum from a standard finger prick.

Then, nanobeads bind to SARS-CoV-2 N protein, a biomarker for COVID-19, in the chip and transport it to an electrochemical sensor that detects minute amounts of the biomarker. Paired with a Google Pixel 2 phone and a plug-in tool, researchers quickly secured a positive diagnosis.

This, researchers argue, simplifies sample handling compared to swab-based PCR tests that must be analyzed in a laboratory.

"What's great about this device is that it doesn't require a laboratory," said Rice engineer Peter Lillehoj in a statement. "You can perform the entire test and generate the results at the collection site, health clinic or even a pharmacy. The entire system is easily transportable and easy to use."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Fort Bend is now a COVID-19 vaccine hub. Photo by Matthew T. Carroll/Getty Images

This Houston suburb is the newest COVID-19 vaccine hub in the region

Help in Fort Bend

A major Houston suburb is the newest major COVID-19 vaccine hub in the region. Fort Bend County has received an additional 8,000 vaccines, county judge KP George announced on February 9 at a press conference.

That means the county is officially an vaccine hub and will receive regular doses of inoculations, George added. Registration is available at the Fort Bend County website.

During the news conference, George said Fort Bend County had been officially designated as a vaccine hub, meaning the county will now be receiving regular doses of the vaccine.

In keeping with statewide mandates, vaccinations are open to those who are in phases 1A or 1B, although those in the next phases will be eligible at a later date, according to the press conference.

This news comes as the Greater Houston area has seen the emergence of the South African COVID-19 variant, as well as two mutations of the UK strain, as CultureMap previously reported.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has also ordered a mega vaccine site in the Houston area that promises to deliver some 5,000 to 6,000 inoculations per day. Houston has also received thousands of new vaccines this week.

Meanwhile, for now, COVID hospitalizations are seeing a downturn, according to reports.

For more information on Fort Bend County vaccinations, visit www.fbchealth.org or call 832-471-1373.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Image via luminaremed.com

Houston health tech startup launches COVID-19 vaccine management tool

inoculation innovation

Houston-based health care software startup Luminare Inc. is arming soldiers in the coronavirus vaccination campaign with technology to help smooth the inoculation process.

Luminare, which launched with the mission of combating sepsis, switched gears after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic to help combat the virus' spread. One of the ways it's doing that is with Innoculate (a mash-up of "innovate" and "inoculate"). The new platform enables organizations like public health departments, fire departments, school systems, and businesses to manage high-volume vaccination initiatives.

Among other benefits, Innoculate automates vaccination sign-ups and scheduling, tracks the number of vaccine batches available, flags previous allergic reactions among vaccine recipients, and helps achieve compliance with federal, state and local health care requirements.

"Usually when you hear news of a new batch of vaccines headed your way, there is dread at the management and distribution overhead. Not anymore," Dr. Sarma Velamuri, CEO of Luminare, says in a release. "Innoculate will help streamline the vaccination process in the fight against COVID-19 and allow for hundreds of thousands of people to get vaccines easily."

One of the first customers of Innoculate is the Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District. Innoculate helped the district vaccinate 9,000 people during the first week of its vaccination effort. Peter Collins, chief information officer of the City of Corpus Christi, says Innoculate allows more vaccinations to be done without adding administrative burdens.

Corpus Christi-Nueces County Public Health District was the first government outfit to use Innoculate. The district also uses Luminare's Quickscreen COVID-19 screening and testing tool.

Dallas County Health and Human Services also is adopting Innoculate. On January 27, Dallas County approved a 12-month contract with Luminare worth up to $601,500.

Other new customers that are lined up for Innoculate include the Abilene-Taylor County Public Health District, Wichita Falls-Wichita County Public Health District, and Brenham-based Blinn College District. Innoculate deals are being finalized with 13 other city and county governments.

Luminare says it wants to "help as many cities and counties in the U.S. that we can." The company asks organizations seeking help with coronavirus vaccination campaigns to email mike.gilbert@luminaremed.com or info@luminaremed.com.

Luminare was founded in 2014 with the goal of preventing sepsis, a life-threatening reaction to a host of infections that triggers about one-third of U.S. hospital deaths. Its sepsis-targeted software is called Sagitta.

After the coronavirus began spreading, Luminare tweaked its sepsis-detection platform, called Quickscreen, to produce a free online self-assessment for people who suspect they've been infected with the virus. The startup was honored for this work as COVID Phoenix in Houston Exponential's inaugural awards program, The Listies. Now, it has added Innoculate to its pandemic-fighting arsenal.

Luminare, based at Texas Medical Center's innovation campus, is a 2018 graduate of the TMCx accelerator. According to Crunchbase, the company has collected more than $1.6 million in funding.

Houston-based Pulmotect announced a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense that will fund two COVID-19 drug trials. Photo via Getty Images

Houston biotech receives up to $6M federal grant for COVID-19 treatment

DOD delivered

The Pentagon is putting its financial power behind two COVID-19 clinical trials led by Houston-based biotech company Pulmotect Inc.

The U.S. Department of Defense is pumping as much as $6 million into the pair of Phase 2 trials, which involve a total of 300 U.S. participants, according to a January 27 news release from Pulmotect. When it's inhaled, Pulmotect's drug, PUL-042, stimulates the lungs' immune system to fight bacteria, viruses, or fungi that cause respiratory illnesses.

Pulmotect joins a number of Houston organizations that have tapped into Department of Defense funding for research into COVID-19 therapies.

In January, for instance, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) collected $5.1 million from the department to evaluate whether an investigational oral drug, vadadustat, can help prevent acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) in COVID-19 patients.

"It's wonderful that we have COVID-19 vaccinations available now, but they won't directly help patients who are already sick in the hospital or who will become sick in the future," Dr. Holger Eltzschig, chairman of Department of Anesthesiology at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School, says in a news release.

Also in January, Houston-based clinical research organization Pharm-Olam LLC sealed a $36.3 million deal with the Department of Defense to conduct a clinical trial of an antibody treatment for inflammatory problems associated with COVID-19.

So far, Pulmotect's PUL-042 has shown promise in battling the coronaviruses that trigger MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). The current trials related to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 are evaluating PUL-042's effect on prevention of infections and reducing the severity of the disease.

Pulmotect initially designed PUL-042 to treat and prevent respiratory complications in cancer patients. But once the coronavirus pandemic set in, the company pivoted to testing the effectiveness of its drug in combatting the virus that causes COVID-19. Last May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Pulmotect's COVID-19 trials.

Pulmotect says PUL-042 someday could be a therapy that's deployed during pandemics, epidemics, and bioterrorism attacks.

Invented at Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center and at Texas A&M University, PUL-042 has earned patents in 10 countries. The National Institutes of Health, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, and other organizations have supported R&D for PUL-042.

Founded in 2007, Pulmotect emerged from Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, which nurtures early stage companies in the life sciences sector. In September 2019, the company brought aboard Dr. Colin Broom as CEO. He previously was CEO of an Irish biopharmaceutical company.

Thus far, Pulmotect has garnered about $18 million in equity and about $20 million in other funding.

Before the pandemic, Pulmotect was evaluating the effectiveness of PUL-042 in treating patients with mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who've been exposed to a respiratory virus.

COPD, which affects 30 million Americans, is the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S., according to the COPD Foundation. Pulmotect says 40 percent of COPD-related costs could be avoided by heading off complications and hospitalizations, which usually result from COPD problems caused by a bacterial or viral infection. In this context, the drug is meant to treat cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy whose weakened immune systems make them susceptible to pneumonia.

The waitlist will still put those at high risk in priority. WPA Pool / Getty Images

Harris County rolls out new COVID-19 vaccination waitlist

WORTH THE SHOT

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a new COVID-19 vaccine waitlist on January 25, in an effort to ensure those who are high priority don't get overlooked and make for a smoother process.

Hidalgo explained the basics of how the waitlist will work. She was joined by Dr. Sherri Onyiego, the interim local health authority for Harris County Public Health.

The waitlist, which can be found at ReadyHarris, is said to be weighted and randomized, meaning the website won't necessarily favor whoever has the quickest internet connection. Once the portal opens Tuesday, January 26, everyone will be able to register.

If you fall under the 1A, 1B or seniors groups, then your registration will be weighted for priority, and it will then be randomized within the priority list.

The launch of this new portal and waitlist expands the previous process by allowing eligible residents to sign up for vaccines on their own directly, according to a press release from the county.

Eligible residents without internet access can also call 832 927-8787 once the portal is live to be placed on the waitlist.

If you do not fall under those three groups, you will still be able to register, but it means you'll be on a waitlist for when the vaccine opens to the general public.

In addition to the new portal, the public health department will also be launching a COVID-19 vaccine data hub. The hub will show vaccine availability, distribution, and other demographic data.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap. For more on this story, including updates, visit our news partner ABC13.

Houston families received massive aid thanks to Catholic Charities. Family Houston/Facebook

More than 51,000 Harris County families receive crucial COVID aid thanks to local charity

what a relief

The global pandemic has wreaked havoc on families in need. But in a much-needed bright spot, a local organization has initiated help to those hardest hit by the COVID downturn.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston announced that more than 51,000 families have received aid from the $61.4 million from the Harris County COVID-19 Emergency Direct Assistance Program.

Need-based funds came courtesy of the county's CARES funding and provided a one-time, $1,200 payment to 51,167 eligible applicants, per a press release.
Money was distributed nearly equally across Harris County's four precincts (except for the Precinct 2 surplus), including Houston residents inside Harris County.

To ensure fairness, families were selected from the application pool using a random statistical model that ensured no discrimination, according to Catholic Charities. Funds could be used for any type of emergency expense (housing, food, utilities, healthcare, childcare, transportation, etc.), and families could apply without cooperation from a landlord.

Breaking down the numbers provided in a press release, Harris County initially designated $40 million for the fund; another $20 million was allocated in November. An additional $1.4 million was allocated to the Direct Assistance fund and was earmarked directly for Precinct 2 recipients due to a shortfall of participants in the County's Small Business Grant Program, bringing the program's total to $61.4 million.

Even non-citizen residents who were unable to obtain CARES money due to federal grant requirements will be helped thanks to private funds; those monies are currently being distributed, according to the charity.

Meanwhile, the program provided jobs to nearly 250 laid-off residents, injecting $2.2. million into the local economy.

"Catholic Charities is honored and grateful that Harris County selected our team to serve the community in this way," said Catholic Charities' president and CEO Cynthia N. Colbert, in a statement. "This task was in line with our faith-based mission, which compels us to ensure that every client is treated with respect and dignity."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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5 can't-miss innovation events at CERAWeek featuring Houston speakers

where to be online

While usually hundreds of energy experts, C-level executives, diplomats, members of royal families, and more descend upon Houston for the the annual CERAWeek by IHS Markit conference, this year will be a little different. Canceled last year due to COVID-19, CERAWeek is returning — completely virtually.

The Agora track is back and focused on innovation within the energy sector. The Agora track's events — thought-provoking panels, intimate pods, and corporate-hosted "houses" — can be accessed through a virtual atrium.

Undoubtedly, many of the panels will have Houston representatives considering Houston's dominance in the industry, but here are five innovation-focused events you can't miss during CERAWeek that feature Houstonians.

Monday — New Horizons for Energy & Climate Research

The COVID-19 pandemic has made vivid and real the risks of an uncontrolled virus. Risks posed by climate change are also becoming more palpable every day. At the forefront of understanding these risks, universities are developing solutions by connecting science, engineering, business, and public policy disciplines. Along with industry and governments, universities are critical to developing affordable and sustainable solutions to meet the world's energy needs and achieve net-zero emission goals. Can the dual challenge of more energy and lower emissions be met? What is some of the most promising energy and climate research at universities? Beyond research, what are the roles and responsibilities of universities in the energy transition?

Featuring: Kenneth B. Medlock, III, James A. Baker, III, and Susan G. Baker Fellow In Energy And Resource Economics, Baker Institute and Senior Director, Center For Energy Studies at Rice University

Catch the panel at 1 pm on Monday, March 1. Learn more.

Tuesday — Conversations in Cleantech: Powering the energy transition

With renewables investment outperforming oil and gas investment for the first time ever in the middle of a pandemic, 2020 was a tipping point in the Energy Transition. Low oil prices intensified energy majors' attention on diversification and expansion into mature and emerging clean technologies such as battery storage, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon removal technologies. Yet, the magnitude of the Energy Transition challenge requires an acceleration of strategic decisions on the technologies needed to make it happen, policy frameworks to promote public-private partnerships, and innovative investment schemes.

Three Cleantech leaders share their challenges, successes, and lessons learned at the forefront of the Energy Transition. What is their vision and strategy to accelerate lowering emissions and confronting climate change? Can companies develop clear strategies for cleantech investments that balance sustainability goals and corporate returns? What is the value of increasing leadership diversity for energy corporations? Can the Energy Transition be truly transformational without an inclusive workforce and a diverse leadership?

Featuring: Emily Reichert, CEO of Greentown Labs, which is opening a location in Houston this year.

The event takes place at 11:30 am on Tuesday, March 2. Learn more.

Wednesday — Rice Alliance Venture Day at CERAWeek

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship pitch event will showcase 20 technology companies with new solutions for the energy industry. Each presentation will be followed by questions from a panel of industry experts.

Presenting Companies: Acoustic Wells, ALLY ENERGY, Bluefield Technologies, Cemvita Factory, Connectus Global, Damorphe, Ovopod Ltd., DrillDocs, GreenFire Energy, inerG, Locus Bio-Energy Solutions, Nesh, Pythias Analytics, REVOLUTION Turbine Technologies, Revterra, ROCSOLE, Senslytics, Subsea Micropiles, Syzygy Plasmonics, Transitional Energy, and Universal Subsea.

The event takes place at 9 am on Wednesday, March 3. Learn more.

Thursday — How Will the Energy Innovation Ecosystem Evolve?

Although the cleantech innovation ecosystem—research institutions, entrepreneurs, financiers, and support institutions—is diverse and productive, converting cleantech discoveries and research breakthroughs into commercially viable, transformative energy systems has proven difficult. With incumbent energy systems economically efficient and deeply entrenched, cleantech innovation faces a fundamental dilemma—the scale economies necessary to compete require a large customer base that does not yet exist. How is our clean energy innovation ecosystem equipped to be transformative? What needs to be strengthened? Is it profitable to focus on individual elements, or should we consider the system holistically, and reframe our expectations?

Featuring: Barbara Burger, vice president of innovation at Chevron and president at Chevron Technology Ventures

The event takes place at 7:30 am on Thursday, March 4. Learn more.

Friday — Cities: Managing crises & the future of energy

Houston is the capital of global energy and for the past four decades the home of CERAWeek. Mayor Sylvester Turner will share lessons from the city's experience with the pandemic, discuss leadership strategies during times of crisis, and explore Houston's evolving role in the new map of energy.

The event takes place at 8 am on Friday, March 5. Learn more.

Chevron's Houston-based venture arm launches $300M fund focusing on low-carbon tech

show me the money

Chevron Corp.'s investment arm has launched a $300 million fund that will focus on low-carbon technology.

Chevron Technology Ventures LLC's Future Energy Fund II builds on the success of the first Future Energy Fund, which kicked off in 2018 and invested in more than 10 companies specializing in niches like carbon capture, emerging mobility, and energy storage. The initial fund contained $100 million.

"The new fund will focus on innovation likely to play a critical role in the future energy system in industrial decarbonization, emerging mobility, energy decentralization, and the growing circular carbon economy," Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures says in a February 25 release.

Future Energy Fund II is the eighth venture fund created by Chevron Technology Ventures since its establishment in 1999. In 2019, the investment arm started a $90 million fund to invest in startups that can help accelerate the oil and gas business of San Ramon, California-based Chevron.

Chevron Technology Ventures' portfolio for low-carbon technology comprises a dozen companies: Blue Planet, Carbon Clean, Carbon Engineering, ChargePoint, Eavor, Infinitum Electric, Natron Energy, Spear Power Systems, Svante, Voyage, Vutility, and Zap Energy.

Only one of the companies in the low-carbon portfolio is based in Texas — Infinitum Electric, located in Round Rock. However, Chevron Technology Ventures is active in the Houston entrepreneurial ecosystem as a participant in the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, Greentown Labs, The Cannon, and The Ion. Chevron's investment arm was the first tenant at The Ion.

In an August 2020 interview with InnovationMap, Barbara Burger, president of Chevron Technology Ventures, said the investment arm places a priority on helping advance entrepreneurship in Houston. "It is our home court," she said.

Burger said that for Houston to succeed in energy innovation, companies, government agencies, investment firms, and universities must rally around the city.

"We're doing a lot of things right — almost in spite of the world being crazy. … I think constancy of purpose is important," she said. "Despite the headwinds from COVID and despite the headwinds that industries are facing, we need to stay committed to that."

Burger noted that innovation "is not a straight path."

"We've got to plant a bunch of these seeds and see how they grow — we need to water them every day, and then I think we'll have a beautiful garden," she said.