Houston researchers are commercializing their organ 3D printing technology. Jordan Miller/Rice University

There may come a time when you or someone you love is in need of a new pair of lungs. Or perhaps it's a liver. It's not a scenario anyone dreams of, but thanks to Houston company Volumetric, you may never end up on a waiting list. Instead, that organ is made to order and 3D printed using a mix of medical plastics and human cells.

And this possibility isn't necessarily in the distant future. On the cover of the May 3 issue of the journal Science, is a contraption that looks a bit like a futuristic beehive. It's a working air sac complete with blood vessels, the beginnings of a technology that is perhaps only a decade from being implanted in humans. And it was crafted on a 3D printer in Jordan Miller's lab at Rice University.

Yes, there are shades of another Houston story — Denton Cooley's implantation of the first artificial heart — but Cooley only inserted the organ. Miller and his bioengineering graduate student Bagrat Grigoryan are primed to profit from their inventions.

In 2018, they started Volumetric Inc., a company that sells both the hydrogel solutions used for printing organs like theirs and the printers themselves. Touring Miller's lab in the Houston Medical Center is a visual timeline of his team's progress designing printers. The version being manufactured is a slick little number, small enough to fit under chemical exhaust hoods, but fitted with everything necessary to print living tissues. It's made and sold in cooperation with CellInk, a larger bioprinting company.

"Our technology is based on projection," Miller explains. Specifically, it's stereolithography, a type of 3D printing that produces the finished product layer-by-layer. Shining colored light of the right intensity turns the polymers into a solid gel.

But why start a company when Miller and Grigoryan are already busy with research?

"If we want to do translational research, commercialization is important," reasons Miller. "We need to build the market to get that technology into the world."

Miller explains that usually the inventor of a technology is the best one to bring it to market.

"When we were building this technology in the lab we saw the potential for commercialization," he recalls. "We do see that this technology is highly scalable. We do think it can have a positive impact on tissue models in a lab."

Those tissue models could one day make not just scientists, but also animal rights activists, very happy. With the technology that Volumetric is developing, scientists could eventually print human cells so well that animal models would be far less accurate in predicting the success that the product being tested would have on humans.

As academics, though, Miller and Grigoryan weren't sure how to start a company. Fortunately, there is the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its I-Corps program. The pair spent a couple of weeks doing a regional program that taught scientists how to commercialize their technology.

"They want to see funded research get out of the lab," Miller says, explaining that they moved on to the national I-Corps program while Miller was on sabbatical from teaching at Rice, allowing them to interview potential customers.

This gave them the confidence to launch last year. Grigoryan now works full-time at the Med Center incubator and accelerator, Johnson & Johnson's JLabs. He has a team of two other scientists on staff.

"It would have been a lot harder to get started if we didn't have a space like JLabs available," Miller says. It also helps, he adds, that JLabs takes no equity, only helping the fledgling brand to finalize its market and get hooked in with potential investors.

Volumetric has its demo units ready to go and expects to start shipping printers in late June, pending final certifications.

"We believe we have technology to make organ replacements for people," Miller says.

And someday soon, long waits for a new set of lungs and a life of antirejection drugs could be a thing of the past.


Rice University bioengineers (from left) Bagrat Grigoryan, Jordan Miller and Daniel Sazer and collaborators created a breakthrough bioprinting technique that could speed development of technology for 3D printing replacement organs and tissues. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

The movers and shakers of the Houston innovation world did a lot of extra moving and shaking last week. This week's Houston innovators to know include two new hires within the ecosystem.

Thomas Rubenak, senior principal at Accenture Ventures

Thomas Rubenak is senior principal of Accenture Ventures. Courtesy of Accenture

Thomas Rubenak has watched Houston's startup scene blossom over his career. Now, as senior principal at Accenture Ventures, he gets to help startups connect with Accenture and its clients.

"It's a win-win-win," Rubenak tells InnovationMap. "The client gets the benefit of having the best of the best and the startups get amazing exposure to companies they might not have been able to get in front of. And, Accenture is happy because it gets to serve the client." Read more about Rubenak and his new gig at Accenture.

Payal Patel, director of corporate relations at Plug and Play

Payal Patel, former director of business development at Station Houston, has joined Plug and Play as director of corporate partnerships. Courtesy of Payal Patel

Plug and Play Tech Center has made its first Houston hire. Payal Patel, who was preciously the director of business development at Station Houston, is now the director of corporate partnerships at Plug and Play.

"As I've gotten to know Plug and Play, what I've been most impressed with is the resources and capabilities they have," Patel says. "They've got great Fortune 500 corporate partners, they work and know the best tech startups all over the world, and they have a strong investment capability. I'm excited that those resources and capabilities are coming to Houston." Read more about the new hire and Plug and Play's plans for Houston.

Ed Wooten, director of ITAD at Smith

Wooten oversees IT asset disposition for Smith. Courtesy of Smith

Ed Wooten is in the business of safe, efficient, and responsible electronics disposal. In a world with cybersecurity threats around every corner, making sure your devices are responsibly disposed of is so important. Wooten wrote a guest article for InnovationMap about some of the lesser-known aspects regarding IT asset disposition.

"I've worked in the technology industry for over 20 years, helping customers across all industries ensure the proper and secure disposal of their equipment," writes Wooten. "I specifically want Houston businesses to be aware of some of the less-obvious facts when it comes to electronics recycling and disposal — and for them to know that trusted, locally based IT asset disposition (ITAD) services are available." Read more of Wooten's piece here.

The high-speed train planning a Houston-Dallas route now has a builder on board the project

Right on track

The Texas high-speed train that plans to zip between Houston and Dallas still has some obstacles to plow through, but the project now has a builder at least.

Texas Central, the developer of the Texas Bullet Train, has signed a contract with Salini Impregilo, an Italian construction company and one of the largest civil engineering contractors in the world, and its American subsidiary, Lane Construction.

"This agreement brings us one step closer to beginning construction of the civil infrastructure segments of the project," said Texas Central CEO Carlos F. Aguilar, in a release.

The train still can't move forward because it doesn't own all of the land necessary for the route.

But if/when it does get the land, Salini Impregilo will do the following:

  • supply the civil and infrastructure scope, including the design and construction of the viaduct and embankment sections along the entire route
  • install the track system
  • oversee alignment and construction of all buildings and services that will house maintenance and other rail system equipment

Salini-Lane had previously provided front-end engineering and design for the train's civil infrastructure, as well as an analysis of construction costs and schedule estimates.

"Salini-Lane's unmatched track record with rail infrastructure and, very specifically, its world-class high-speed rail expertise across the globe will be central to the completion of America's first end-to-end high-speed rail system," Aguilar says.

Salini's CEO Pietro Salini says in a statement that the company is both thrilled and honored to bring its large-scale railway expertise to the project.

Salini Impregilo is active in more than 50 countries on five continents, with experience building more than 4,000 miles of railway infrastructure around the world. It has built high-speed train projects in Europe and some iconic projects in the world, including the expansion of the Panama Canal.

Although the company has worked in the U.S. since the 1980s, it expanded its presence in 2016 when it merged with The Lane Construction Corporation, a U.S.-based company with almost 130 years of experience in infrastructure work.

The Texas train will be based on Central Japan Railway's Tokaido Shinkansen train system, which is considered the safest mass transportation system in the world.

The system has transported more than 10 billion passengers in 54-plus years, with no fatalities or injuries from operations, and has an impeccable on-time performance record.

It will debut a new train, the Shinkansen N700S, the sixth generation of this train, before the 2020 Olympics.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston nonprofit optimizes technology for special needs treatment and diagnoses

Using tech for good

When the first iPad was released in April of 2010, tech accessibility changed in more ways than mobile checkouts or on-the-go streaming.

The interface of the device is built around the multi-touch screen, which became a game changing component in special needs therapy and sparked the founding of BridgingApps, a program part of Easter Seals Greater Houston.

The program provides access to educational and therapeutic tools to parents, teachers, and therapists to use these mobile devices and apps to target and improve cognitive and physical development in children and adults with disabilities.

"I am the parent of a child with multiple disabilities; my son was born with Down syndrome," says Cristen Reat, co-founder and program director at BridgingApps.

Reat tells InnovationMap that she helped start a support group in a therapy clinic where many parents were interested about why mobile devices and apps were so engaging to their children.

"We were just amazed about how our children with different types of disabilities were engaged with the devices, were able to communicate with the devices, and were making big strides in their therapy," says Reat.

BridgingApps was founded by Reat and Sami Rahman in 2010, both seeking to help their children grow. The program became a part of Easter Seals of Greater Houston in 2011. The website currently boasts over 3,000 apps which users can sort through by category, age, price, skill, grade level, mobile device, and more. The apps are also able to benefit and treat veterans and their families.

"I was amazed at how quickly my son was able to do things independently with these touch screens that he was not able to do with traditional computers," Reat tells InnovationMap.

The Easter Seals Greater Houston organization was recently awarded a $15,000 grant from the Comcast Foundation as part of the Comcast NBCUniversal Assistive Technology Grant Fund, expand the available equipment used in the community technology labs with new equipment such as the TobiiDynavox EyeMobile Mini Classic Eye Gaze system that includes new software called Look To Learn and SnapCore First, and the AbleNet Latitude Mounting Arm that holds an iPad, Kindle, or other tablet and mounts to beds, wheelchairs, and tabletops.

The nonprofit offers three assistive technology services labs across the Houston area, in Bellaire, the Woodlands, and Stafford. According to the website, each lab has open lab days that the public can access without an appointment to explore a variety of assistive technology, including adapted toys and switches, specialized software and computer equipment, communication devices, and mobile devices and apps. Workshops and trainings are also available.

"The whole idea of BridgingApps is a shortcut, so that you don't have to Google search every day," says Reat. "It's basically the Yelp of special needs apps where you can type in a diagnosis, a skill, something you're looking for, and you'll come up with a video, instructions, and summary that helps people figure out what can help them today."

The organization was also awarded a $75,000 grant by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, which, according to a news release, will help the nonprofit serve 50 individuals that are veterans and or current military as well as their family members through services such as digital trainings through app reviews and videos, face-to-face counseling and counseling via tele-health, especially for those without transportation or living in rural areas.

BridgingApps currently has a team of two full-time and seven part-time employees. The nonprofit hosts an annual fundraiser each Spring called Walk With Me. The next walk is scheduled for April 25 at the Houston Zoo.