Prana Thoracic Inc., a medical device company developing a tool for early interception of lung cancer, announced a $3 million grant from CPRIT. Photo via Getty Images

An oncology device company has secured a grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, the startup announced this week.

Houston-based Prana Thoracic Inc., a medical device company developing a tool for early interception of lung cancer, announced that Nucore Medical Inc., its wholly owned subsidiary, has been awarded a $3 million grant from CPRIT. The funding will support first-in-human studies and commercialization of Prana Thoracic’s technology.

“We’re excited to be recognized by CPRIT and believe this award speaks to the potential of Prana Thoracic’s surgical oncology devices,” says Joanna Nathan, CEO and founder of Prana Thoracic, in a news release. "This funding will accelerate our technology to the bedside, enabling us to provide Texans and patients all over the world with a definitive diagnosis of their pulmonary nodules earlier in their patient journey."

Prana Thoracic's technology is a minimally invasive, tissue-sparing nodulectomy tool that can evaluate suspicious pulmonary nodules early on in hopes of being able to catch and treat patients with lung cancer — the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, consisting of nearly 25 percent of all cancer deaths. The goal for Prana Thoracic is to equip physicians with the technology to more efficiently sample tissue from at-risk patients and dramatically improve outcomes.

“There has long been a gap between a simple needle biopsy of a nodule deep in the lung and opening the chest to remove a large segment of the lung to help diagnose early lung cancer, particularly when the nodules are very small,” says Dr. Edward Boyle, founder and one of the inventors of the technology, in the release. “As inventors, we partnered with the Johnson & Johnson MedTech Center for Device Innovation to help take this through design and early testing. At this point we are eager to advance the technology through first-in-human studies.”

Nathan, according to LinkedIn, left her role as manager of new ventures the Center for Device Innovation at the Texas Medical Center to pursue this new role at Prana Thoracic. She was at CDI for four years.

Joanna Nathan is back in the founder's seat. Photo via LinkedIn

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

money moves

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT).

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director.

Taylor, a pediatric neurosurgeon at the University of Toronto, is set to become the first-ever director of pediatric neuro-oncology research at Texas Children’s Hospital. The hospital is affiliated with the Baylor College of Medicine. Taylor is an expert in children’s brain tumors.

In all, 11 researchers recruited by three health care institutions in Houston recently received $34 million in CPRIT grants. The nine other grant recipients in Houston are:

  • Dr. Christine Lovly, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, $4 million. She is co-leader of the Translational Research and Interventional Oncology Research Program at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville.
  • Hans Renata, Rice University, $4 million. He is an associate professor at UF Scripps Biomedical Research in Jupiter, Florida.
  • Mingjie Dai, Rice University, $2 million. He is a technology development fellow at Harvard University’s Weiss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.
  • William Hudson, Baylor College of Medicine, $2 million. He is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University in Atlanta.
  • Deepshika Ramanan, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, $2 million. She is a research fellow in immunology at Harvard Medical School.
  • Jason Schenkel, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, $2 million. He is an instructor in pathology at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
  • Aria Vaishnavi, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, $2 million. She is a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute.
  • Samantha Yruegas, Rice University, $2 million. She is a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University in New Jersey.
  • Qian Zhu, Baylor College of Medicine, $2 million. He is a research fellow at Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

A CPRIT committee recently approved 17 recruitment grants totaling nearly $48 million for cancer research institutions in Texas.

“CPRIT’s mission is to invest in the research prowess of Texas institutions while expediting breakthroughs in cancer cures and prevention … . These 17 highly respected researchers will join an impressive roster of cancer-fighters who call the Lone Star State home,” says Wayne Roberts, CEO of CPRIT.

Since its creation, CPRIT has awarded $2.9 billion in grants to cancer research organizations around the state.

A UH researcher has fresh funding to support her life-saving, cancer-fighting drug. Photo via UH.edu

University of Houston researcher receives grant for first-of-its-kind breast cancer drug

funds granted

A University of Houston researcher was awarded a $2 million grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas to develop a new drug that will initially target breast cancer, the university announced this month.

The drug is intended to impact a type of traditionally "undraggable" target of cancer, known as intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs), which researchers have yet to gain fundamental understanding of. According to the release, approximately 70 percent of proteins impacted by cancer are considered IDPs.

Gül Zerze, an assistant professor in the William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the UH Cullen College of Engineering, has specialized in research on the computational modeling and simulations of these IDPs, and is one of the 12 cancer researchers awarded such a grant by the CPRIT.

Candidates for Zerze's drug will be rapidly tested through collaborations within UH and MD Anderson, according to the statement.

Gül Zerze is an assistant professor in the William A. Brookshire Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Photo via UH.edu

"One out of nearly six Texas women diagnosed with breast cancer will die of the disease. Importantly, Texan women of color are disproportionately impacted by the high mortality rate compared to white Texan women (41 percent higher mortality rate reported for Black Texan women in 2016)," Zerze said in a statement. "This high mortality rate, despite the substantial efforts made for early diagnosis, calls for better therapeutics urgently.”

Zerze was recruited by the CPRIT to come to UH from Princeton last November. She was part of the latest class of recruitment grants from the organization, totaling $38 million to “form a critical ecosystem of distinguished cancer-fighting talent” in Texas.

According to the CPRIT website, the organization has recruited 263 cancer researchers and their labs to Texas over the years. First launched in 2007, the CPRIT is now a $6 billion, 20-year initiative that's allowing institutions in Houston compete against the likes of Harvard and Stanford universities, and the Cleveland and Mayo clinics.

“The ideas proposed here will save lives," Zerze said in the statement. "And the products that will come out of this project have a great potential for commercialization and founding companies to contribute to the Texas economy.”

Since 2009, institutions in Houston have employed CPRIT grants totaling more than $390 million to successfully recruit over 125 cancer researchers. Photo via Getty Images

With millions in grant funds, this nonprofit is making Houston an irresistible market for cancer researchers

attracting talent

In their bid to attract top-notch cancer researchers, institutions in Houston compete against the likes of Harvard and Stanford universities, and the Cleveland and Mayo clinics. Super-talented cancer researchers typically can choose from among dozens of institutions vying for them.

Yet cancer research centers in Houston and elsewhere in Texas wield a powerful advantage in this contest for talent — money.

As of early November, four cancer research centers in Houston — the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Methodist Hospital Research Institute, and Baylor College of Medicine — had dangled grants totaling nearly $22 million to successfully lure nine high-profile cancer researchers this year to the Bayou City. The nonprofit Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), based in Austin, supplied the grants.

Since 2009, institutions in Houston have employed CPRIT grants totaling more than $390 million to successfully recruit over 125 cancer researchers, according to CPRIT data provided to InnovationMap. Houston has been the beneficiary of about half of all grants awarded to CPRIT scholars in Texas.

This year alone, four CPRIT scholars have landed at the UT Southwestern Medical Center as of early November, three at the Baylor College of Medicine, and one each at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute and MD Anderson Cancer Center. Each of the grants they received is around $2 million or $4 million.

According to CPRIT, Texas boasts a state-funded recruitment program for cancer researchers unmatched by another other state. Wayne Roberts, CEO of CPRIT, says the more than 250 CPRIT scholars recruited in the past 12 years throughout the state "are advancing research efforts, positioning Texas as a leader in the fight against cancer, and promoting economic development throughout the state."

Roberts is former associate vice president for public policy at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

Texans voted in 2007 to create CPRIT and invest $3 billion in the state's fight against cancer. Two years ago, Texans voted to pump another $3 billion into what now is a 20-year initiative. The institute bills itself as the largest state-based investment in cancer research in U.S. history and the world's second largest cancer research and prevention program.

Dr. Helen Heslop, interim director of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, says the CPRIT grants give the cancer center an edge in wooing "highly sought after" cancer researchers, both senior and up-and-coming professionals. But the benefit goes well beyond that, according to Heslop.

"Having a new person who brings new skills and expertise is obviously great for the people who are working very closely with them at, say, our cancer center," she says. "But a lot of these people will also collaborate with other local institutions. … It just enriches the overall social environment between all the institutions."

On top of that, successfully recruiting high-caliber cancer researchers to Houston helps attract even more high-caliber cancer researchers, Heslop says.

Without the CPRIT grants, Houston would be less competitive in the hunt for first-rate cancer researchers, she says.

One factor that makes the CPRIT grants stand out is that they typically last five years, while other types of research grants frequently last only three years, Heslop says. This longer time span enables cancer researchers to undertake creative high-risk projects, offering them "a much longer runway to get themselves established" and then secure their own funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health, she says. As a result, many cancer researchers who earn CPRIT grants wind up staying in Houston rather than being poached by research centers in other cities.

Dr. Qing Yi, director of the Center for Translational Research at Houston Methodist, received a $6 million CPRIT grant in 2018 that brought him back to Houston from the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute. He specializes in research about multiple myeloma, the second most common blood cancer after non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Gen. Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state, was battling multiple myeloma when he died in mid-October due to complications from COVID-19.

Yi says cancer research centers in Texas couple CPRIT grants with their own funding to up the ante in the competition for cancer researchers. This one-two financial punch is "way more generous" than funding offers from cancer research institutions in other states, according to Yi.

For example, the Methodist Hospital Research Institute successfully recruited researcher Yong Lu this year with the aid of a nearly $4 million CPRIT grant, paired with a 50 percent match of the institute's own money. Lu most recently ran a research lab at Wake Forest University's medical school that focuses on a type of cancer treatment known as adoptive cell immunotherapy.

Yi says his own CPRIT grant of $6 million was matched with $4 million from Houston Methodist, giving him a total funding pool of $10 million. Before heading to Cleveland, Yi was a tenured professor of medicine at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, meaning the CPRIT grant paved the way for his return to Houston. The $10 million pot of money "made it very attractive" to accept the Houston Methodist offer, he says.

"CPRIT funding is really crucial for Texas to recruit top-notch cancer investigators into our state. It's one of the best things that Texas has done for cancer research," Yi says.

Three health and tech research projects coming out of the Houston area have received grants to continue their work. Getty Images

These 3 Houston-area researchers receive millions in grants for ongoing innovation projects

Research roundup

Money makes the world go 'round, and that's certainly the case with research projects. Grants are what drives research at academic institutions across the country and fuel the next great innovations.

These three projects coming out of Houston-area universities were all granted multimillion-dollar sums in order to continue their health tech, cancer-prevention, and even electric vehicle battery research projects,

University of Houston's $3.2 million grant for its next-generation micro CT scan

Associate professor of physics Mini Das developed a better way to approach CT scans. Photo via uh.edu

In an effort to improve imaging and lower radiation, Mini Das, associate professor of physics at the University of Houston, is moving the needle on introducing the next generation of micro computed tomography (CT) imaging. Das recently received a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to help move along her work in this field.

"This has the potential to transform the landscape of micro-CT imaging," says Das in a news release.

Das is responsible for developing the theory, instrumentation and algorithms for spectral phase-contrast imaging (PCI) that allows for lower radiation with higher image details, according to the release.

"Current X-ray and CT systems have inherent contrast limitations and dense tissue and cancer can often look similar. Even if you increase the radiation dose, there is a limit to what you can see. In addition, image noise becomes significant when increasing resolution to see fine details, often desirable when scanning small objects," says Das.

Rice University researcher's $2.4 million grant to advance on car batteries

This company’s machine learning programs are making driving in Houston safer — and cheaper

A Rice University scientist is looking to optimize car batteries. Pexels

A Rice University scientist is working toward improving batteries for electric vehicles. Materials scientist Ming Tang and his colleagues — backed by a $2.4 million grant from the United States Advanced Battery Consortium — are working on a project led by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts, which will run for 36 months and will focus on low-cost and fast-charging batteries.

"Traditional battery electrodes are prepared by the slurry casting method and usually have uniform porosity throughout the electrode thickness," says Tang, an assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering, in a news release. "However, our earlier modeling study shows that an electrode could have better rate performance by having two or more layers with different porosities.

"Now with the Missouri University of Science and Technology and WPI developing a new dry printing method for battery electrode fabrication, such layered electrodes can be manufactured relatively easily," he said. Tang's group will use modeling to optimize the structural parameters of multilayer electrodes to guide their fabrication.

The academics will also work with a manufacturer, Microvast, that will assemble large-format pouch cells using layered electrodes and evaluate the electrochemical performance against the program goals, according to the release.

"The public/private partnership is critical to steer the research performed at universities," Tang says. "It helps us understand what matters most to commercial applications and what gaps remain between what we have and what is needed by the market. It also provides valuable feedback and gives the project access to the state-of-the-art commercial battery fabrication and testing capabilities."


Texas A&M faculty member's $5 million grant for cancer research

Tanmay Lele of Texas A&M University is looking at how cells react to mechanical forces in cancer. Photo via tamu.edu

Tanmay Lele, a new faculty member in Texas A&M University's Department of Biomedical Engineering, received a $5 million Recruitment of Established Investigators grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) in May to research how cancer progresses.

More specifically, Lele's research focuses on mechanobiology and how cells sense external mechanical forces as well as how they generate mechanical forces, and how these mechanical forces impact cell function, according to a news release from A&M.

"The nuclei in normal tissue have smooth surfaces, but over time the surfaces of cancer nuclei become irregular in shape," Lele says in the release. "Now, why? Nobody really knows. We're still at the tip of the iceberg at trying to figure this problem out. But nuclear abnormalities are ubiquitous and occur in all kinds of cancers — breast, prostate and lung cancers."

Lele will work from two laboratories — one in College Station and one in the Texas A&M Health Science Center's Institute of Biosciences & Technology in Houston. THe will collaborate with Dr. Michael Mancini and Dr. Fabio Stossi from Baylor College of Medicine.

"Like any other basic field, we are trying to make discoveries with the hope that they will have long-term impacts on human health," Lele says.

Five Houston research centers have received funds from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas in its most recent round of grants. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston cancer-fighting researchers granted over $30 million from statewide organization

just granted

The Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas has again granted millions to Texas institutions. Across the state, cancer-fighting scientists have received 55 new grants totaling over $78 million.

Five Houston-area institutions — Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Houston, The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, and the The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center — have received around $30 million of that grand total.

"These awards reflect CPRIT's established priorities to invest in childhood cancer research, address population and geographic disparities, and recruit top cancer research talent to our academic institutions," says Wayne Roberts, CPRIT CEO, in a news release. "I'm excited about all the awardees, particularly those in San Antonio, a region that continues expand their cancer research and prevention prowess. San Antonio is poised to have an even greater impact across the Texas cancer-fighting ecosystem."

Four grants went to new companies that are bringing new technologies to the market. Two companies with a presence in Houston — Asylia Therapeutics and Barricade Therapeutics Corp. — received grants in this category.

Last fall, CPRIT gave out nearly $136 million to Texas researchers, and, to date, the organization has granted $2.49 billion to Texas research institutions and organizations.

Here's what recent grants were made to Houston institutions.

Baylor College of Medicine

  • $900,000 granted for Feng Yang's research in targeting AKT signaling in MAPK4-high Triple Negative Breast Cancer (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $897,527 Hyun-Sung Lee's research for Spatial Profiling of Tumor-Immune Microenvironment by Multiplexed Single Cell Imaging Mass Cytometry (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $899,847 for Joshua Wythe's research in targeting Endothelial Transcriptional Networks in GBM (Individual Investigator Award)

University of Houston

  • $890,502 for Matthew Gallagher's research in Transdiagnostic Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Smokers With Anxiety and Depression (Individual Investigator Research Award for Prevention and Early Detection)
  • $299,953 for Lorraine Reitzel's research in Taking Texas Tobacco Free Through a Sustainable Education/Training Program Designed for Personnel Addressing Tobacco Control in Behavioral Health Settings (Dissemination of CPRIT-Funded Cancer Control Interventions Award)

The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston

  • $1,993,096 for Abbey Berenson's research in maximizing opportunities for HPV vaccination in medically underserved counties of Southeast Texas (Expansion of Cancer Prevention Services to Rural and Medically Underserved Populations)

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

  • $900,000 for Melissa Aldrich's research on "Can Microsurgeries Cure Lymphedema? An Objective Assessment" (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $900,000 for John Hancock's research in KRAS Spatiotemporal Dynamics: Novel Therapeutic Targets (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $900,000 for Nami McCarty's research in targeting Multiple Myeloma Stem Cell Niche (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $1.96 million for Paula Cuccaro's research in Expanding "All for Them": A comprehensive school-based approach to increase HPV vaccination through public schools (Expansion of Cancer Prevention Services to Rural and Medically Underserved Populations)

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

  • $900,000 for Laurence Court's research in Artificial Intelligence for the Peer Review of Radiation Therapy Treatments
  • $900,000 for John deGroot's research in targeting MEK in EGFR-Amplified Glioblastoma (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $900,000 for Don Gibbons's research in Investigating the Role ofCD38 as a Mechanism of Acquired Resistance to Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors in Lung Cancer (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $900,000 for John Heymach's research in Molecular Features Impacting Drug Resistance in Atypical EGFR Exon 18 and Exon 20 Mutant NSCLC and the Development of Novel Mutant- Selective Inhibitors (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $900,000 for Zhen Fan's research in Development of a Novel Strategy for Tumor Delivery of MHC-I-Compatible Peptides for Cancer Immunotherapy (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $900,000 for Jin Seon Im's research in off the shelf, Cord-Derived iNK T cells Engineered to Prevent GVHD and Relapse After Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplantation (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $900,000 for Jae-il Park's research in CRAD Tumor Suppressor and Mucinous Adenocarcinoma (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $900,000 for Helen Piwnica-Worms's research in Single-Cell Evaluation to Identify Tumor-stroma Niches Driving the Transition from In Situ to Invasive Breast Cancer (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $898,872 for Kunal Rai's research in Heterogeneity of Enhancer Patterns in Colorectal Cancers- Mechanisms and Therapy (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $900,000 for Ferdinandos Skoulidis's research in Elucidating Aberrant Splicing-Induced Immune Pathway Activation in RBMl0-Deficient KRAS-Mutant NSCLC and Harnessing Its Potential for Precision Immunotherapy (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $887,713 for Konstantin Sokolov's research in High-Sensitivity 19F MRI for Clinically Translatable Imaging of Adoptive NK Cell Brain Tumor Therapy (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $900,000 for Liuqing Yang's research in Adipocyte-Producing Noncoding RNA Promotes Liver Cancer Immunoresistance (Individual Investigator Award)
  • $1.44 million for Eugenie Kleinerman's research in Doxorubicin-Induced Cardiotoxicity: Defining Blood and Echocardiogram Biomarkers in a Mouse Model and AYA Sarcoma Patients for Evaluating Exercise Interventions (Individual Investigator Award for Cancer in Children and Adolescents)
  • $2.4 million for Arvind Dasari's research in Circulating Tumor DNA- Defined Minimal Residual Disease in Colorectal Cancer (Individual Investigator Research Award for Clinical Translation)
  • Targeting Alterations of the NOTCH! Pathway in Head and Neck Squamous Cell Carcinoma (HNSCC)(Faye Johnson) - $1.2 million (Individual Investigator Research Award for Clinical Translation)
  • $2.07 million for Florencia McAllister's research in Modulating the Gut- Tumor Microbial Axis to Reverse Pancreatic Cancer Immunosuooression (Individual Investigator Research Award for Clinical Translation)
  • $2 million to recruit Eric Smith, MD, PhD, to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (Recruitment of First-Time, Tenure-Track Faculty Members Award)
  • $2 million for Karen Basen-Engquist's research in Active Living After Cancer: Combining a Physical Activity Program with Survivor Navigation (Expansion of Cancer Prevention Services to Rural and Medically Underserved Populations)


Seed Awards for Product Development Research

  • Houston and Boston-based Asylia Therapeutics's Jeno Gyuris was granted $3 million for its development of a Novel Approach to Cancer Immunotherapy by Targeting Extracellular Tumor- derived HSP70 to Dendritic Cells
  • Houston-based Barricade Therapeutics Corp.'s Neil Thapar was granted $3 million for its development of a First-In-Class Small Molecule, TASIN, for Targeting Truncated APC Mutations for the Treatment of Colorectal Cancer (CRC)
Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston company premieres new platform for gig economy workforce

tech support

As the independent workforce continues to grow, a Houston-based company is aiming to connect these workers with companies that match their specific needs with a new digital platform.

FlexTek, a 14-year old recruiting and staffing company, launched a first gig site tailored to the needs of the individual worker. The platform, Workz360, is built to be able to manage projects, maintain quality control, and manage billing and year-end financial reporting.The company is also working to expanding the platform to provide infrastructure to assist independent workers with education, access to savings programs, tax compliance through vetted third-party CPA firms, and hopes in the future to assist with access to liability and medical insurance.

With a younger workforce and a shifting economy, the “gig economy,” which is another way to describe how people can earn a living as a 1099 worker, offers an alternative option to the corporate grind in a post-pandemic workscape. Chief Marketing Officer Bill Penczak of Workz360 calls this era “Gig 2.0,” and attributes the success of this type of workforce to how during the COVID-19 pandemic people learned how to work, and thrive in non-traditional work environments. The site also boasts the fact it won’t take a bite out of the worker’s pay, which could be an attractive sell for many since other sites can take up to 65 percent of profit.

“In the past few years, with the advent of gig job platforms, the Independent workers have been squeezed by gig work platforms taking a disproportionate amount of the workers’ income,” said FlexTek CEO and founder Stephen Morel in a news release. “As a result, there has been what we refer to as ‘pay padding,’ a phenomenon in which workers are raising their hourly or project rates to compensate for the bite taken by other platforms.

"Workz360 is designed to promote greater transparency, and we believe the net result will be for workers to thrive and companies to save money by using the platform,” he continues.

As the workforce has continued to change over the years, a third of the current U.S. workforce are independent workers according to FlexTek, workers have gained the ability to have more freedom where and how they work. Workz360 aims to cater to this workforce by believing in a simple mantra of treating your workers well.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this, but we like the Southwest Airlines model,” Penczak tells InnovationMap. “Southwest Airlines treats their people very well, and as a result those employees treat the passengers really well. We believe the same thing holds true. If we can provide resources, and transparency, and not take a bite out of what the gig worker is charging, then we will get the best and the brightest people since they feel like they won’t be taken advantage of. We think there is an opportunity to be a little different and put the people first.”

NASA launches new research projects toward astronauts on ISS

ready to research

For the 26th time, SpaceX has sent up supplies to the International Space Station, facilitating several new research projects that will bring valuable information to the future of space.

On Saturday at 1:20 pm, the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft launched on the Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida — bringing with it more than 7,700 pounds of science experiments, crew supplies, and other cargo. The anticipated docking time is Sunday morning, and the cargo spacecraft will remain aboard the ISS for 45 days, according to a news release from NASA.

Among the supplies delivered to the seven international astronauts residing on the ISS are six research experiments — from health tech to vegetation. Here's a glimpse of the new projects sent up to the scientists in orbit:

Moon Microscope

Image via NASA.gov

Seeing as astronauts are 254 miles away from a hospital on Earth — and astronauts on the moon would be almost 1,000 times further — the need for health technology in space is top of mind for researchers. One new device, the Moon Microscope, has just been sent up to provide in-flight medical diagnosis. The device includes a portable hand-held microscope and a small self-contained blood sample staining tool, which can communicate information to Earth for diagnosis.

"The kit could provide diagnostic capabilities for crew members in space or on the surface of the Moon or Mars," reads a news release. "The hardware also may provide a variety of other capabilities, such as testing water, food, and surfaces for contamination and imaging lunar surface samples."

Fresh produce production

Salads simply aren't on the ISS menu, but fresh technology might be changing that. Researchers have been testing a plant growth unit on station known as Veggie, which has successfully grown a variety of leafy greens, and the latest addition is Veg-05 — focused on growing dwarf tomatoes.

Expanded solar panels

Thanks to SpaceX's 22nd commercial resupply mission in 2021, the ISS installed Roll-Out Solar Arrays. Headed to the ISS is the second of three packages to complete the panels that will increase power for the station by 20 to 30 percent. This technology was first tested in space in 2017 and is a key ingredient in future ISS and lunar development.

Construction innovation

Image via NASA.gov

Due to the difference of gravity — and lack thereof — astronauts have had to rethink constructing structures in space. Through a process called extrusion, liquid resin is used to create shapes and forms that cannot be created on Earth. Photocurable resin, which uses light to harden the material into its final form, is injected into pre-made flexible forms and a camera captures footage of the process, per the news release.

"The capability for using these forms could enable in-space construction of structures such as space stations, solar arrays, and equipment," reads the release. "The experiment is packed inside a Nanoracks Black Box with several other experiments from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and is sponsored by the ISS National Lab."

Transition goggles

It's a bizarre transition to go from one gravity field to another — and one that can affect spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, and locomotion, and cause some crew members to experience space motion sickness, according to the release.

"The Falcon Goggles hardware captures high-speed video of a subject’s eyes, providing precise data on ocular alignment and balance," reads the release.

On-demand nutrients

Image via NASA.gov

NASA is already thinking about long-term space missions, and vitamins, nutrients, and pharmaceuticals have limited shelf-life. The latest installment in the five-year BioNutrients program is BioNutrients-2 , which tests a system for producing key nutrients from yogurt, a fermented milk product known as kefir, and a yeast-based beverage, per the release.

"The researchers also are working to find efficient ways to use local resources to make bulk products such as plastics, construction binders, and feedstock chemicals. Such technologies are designed to reduce launch costs and increase self-sufficiency, extending the horizons of human exploration," reads the release.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — from esports to biomaterials — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Zimri Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO

Zimri T. Hinshaw, CEO of BUCHA BIO, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's planning to scale his biomaterials startup to reduce plastic waste. Photo courtesy of BUCHA BIO

After raising a seed round of funding, BUCHA BIO is gearing up to move into its new facility. The biomaterials company was founded in New York City in 2020, but CEO Zimri T. Hinshaw shares how he started looking for a new headquarters for the company — one that was more affordable, had a solid talent pool, and offered a better quality of life for employees. He narrowed it down from over 20 cities to two — San Diego and Houston — before ultimately deciding on the Bayou City.

Since officially relocating, Hinshaw says he's fully committed to the city's innovation ecosystem. BUCHA BIO has a presence at the University of Houston, Greentown Labs, and the East End Maker Hub — where the startup is building out a new space to fit the growing team.

"By the end of this month, our laboratories will be up and running, we'll have office space adjacent, as well as chemical storage," Hinshaw says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. Listen to the episode and read more.

Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston

A nonprofit organization has rolled out an esports platform and event to raise awareness and funding for those with disabilities. Photo via Easter Seals

For many video games is getaway from reality, but for those with disabilities — thanks to a nonprofit organization —gaming can mean a lot more. On Saturday Dec. 3 — International Day of Persons with Disabilities — from 1 to 9 pm, Easter Seals Greater Houston will be joining forces with ES Gaming for the inaugural Game4Access Streamathon.

Gaming helps enhance cognitive skills, motor skills, improve mental well-being, and can help reduce feelings of social isolation due to the interactive nature of playing with others.

“This is really a unique way for (people) to form a community without having to leave their house, and being part of an inclusive environment,” says Kelly Klein, development director of Easter Seals Greater Houston. ”The adaptive equipment and specialized technology just does so many miraculous things for people with disabilities on so many levels — not just gaming. With gaming, it is an entrance into a whole new world.” Read more.

John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines

Levit Green has announced its latest to-be tenant. Photo courtesy

Levit Green, a 53-acre mixed-use life science district next to the Texas Medical Center and expected to deliver this year, has leased approximately 10,000 square feet of commercial lab and office space to Sino Biological Inc. The Bejing-based company is an international reagent supplier and service provider. Houston-based real estate investor, development, and property manager Hines announced the new lease in partnership with 2ML Real Estate Interests and Harrison Street.

“Levit Green was meticulously designed to provide best-in-class life science space that can accommodate a multitude of uses. Welcoming Sino Biological is a testament to the market need for sophisticated, flexible space that allows diversified firms to perform a variety of research,” says John Mooz, senior managing director at Hines, in a press release. “Sino is an excellent addition to the district’s growing life science ecosystem, and we look forward to supporting their continued growth and success.” Read more.Read more.