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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Mayor greenlights major solar farm project in south Houston

shine on

Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city council have given the green light on a project that will convert a 240-acre former landfill in Sunnyside into a brownfield solar installation.

The public-private partnership with Sunnyside Energy LLC. received unanimous approval on a lease agreement that will move the project — which is a part of the City's Climate Action Plan and Complete Communities Initiative — forward.

"The Sunnyside landfill has been one of Houston's biggest community challenges for decades, and I am proud we are one step closer to its transformation," says Mayor Turner in a news release. "I thank the Sunnyside community because this project would not have come together without its support. This project is an example of how cities can work with the community to address long-standing environmental justice concerns holistically, create green jobs and generate renewable energy in the process."

The solar field, which is anticipated to be installed and working by the end of next year, will be able to power 5,000 homes and offset 120 million pounds of CO2 each year, according to the release.

"We applaud the actions of Mayor Turner and the City Council in taking this significant step," says Dori Wolfe, managing director of Sunnyside Energy LLC, in the release. "It is a strong vote of confidence for this impactful project. All members of the project team realize that this Sunnyside Solar facility will be an iconic statement in the rejuvenation of the community. We are grateful that Mayor Turner has given us his support."

The city's involvement with the company began in 2017 when Houston joined the C40 Reinventing Cities Competition – a global competition to promote sustainable energy projects. As a part of the competition and through the city's efforts on the initiative, powers at be selected the winning proposal from Wolfe Energy LLC, which formed Sunnyside Energy LLC to execute the urban solar farm project.

Per the lease agreement, the city of Houston owns the land and Sunnyside Energy will be the tenant responsible for permitting, construction, operation, and more.

Houston health company acquired by Seattle tech biz

M&A Moves

A West Coast health tech company has announced the acquisition of Houston-based 2nd.MD.

Accolade Inc., which uses technology solutions to help users better understand their benefits and the health care system, announced last week that it has signed a definitive agreement to acquire Houston-based expert medical opinion company 2nd.MD.

The goal of the acquisition is to further simplify the healthcare experience for employees and increase return on investment for employers, according to a press release from Accolade, and the company will continue to offer 2nd.MD's service on a stand-alone basis as well.

"We share a common vision to help every person live their healthiest life by dramatically improving quality and accessibility of care through a people-focused, clinically-driven support model," says Rajeev Singh, CEO of Accolade, in the release. "Bringing 2nd.MD's world-class Care Team and digital approach with expert medical consultation into Accolade, and continuing to offer it on a stand-alone basis, will have an immediate and measurable impact for our customers, their employees, and the health plans we work with."

"Both companies have built deep relationships with employers and health plans by helping employees navigate the increasingly complex and inconsistent healthcare system," Singh continues. "With the addition of 2nd.MD, we'll nearly double our total addressable market while providing the most comprehensive, integrated healthcare navigation experience available."

2nd.MD supports over 300 employers — connecting more than 7 million people to over 900 nationally recognized, board-certified medical specialists. According to the release, the company reported unaudited revenues of approximately $35 million.

"When it is you or a loved one facing a serious health decision, waiting for weeks to receive a second opinion from an expert isn't acceptable. We've built a scalable Expert Medical Opinion offering that treats every member like family," says Jason Melton, CEO of 2nd.MD. "Combining our Care Teams and technology with Accolade will enhance the reach and quality of support to members from the moment of crisis to the other side of treatment on the path to wellness. We share a common business vision, our cultures are highly aligned around employee purpose and we share a common mission to change healthcare for the benefit of all consumers."

5 PR and marketing tips for Houston startups and small businesses in 2021

guest column

The past year has been a rollercoaster for small businesses. When the pandemic hit, every single person was affected. We've all had to pivot in some way either personally, professionally, or both.

As public relations and marketing professionals who specialize in working with small businesses, we've spent the last 10 months in the trenches with our clients, advising and helping business owners and entrepreneurs navigate these uncertain times. While small business revenue is down since January 2020, it's not all doom and gloom out there – we've seen many other businesses experience unexpected success and growth, and according to economists, we are entering the greatest entrepreneurial economy of our time.

And as we start this new year, there is no better time to invest in business growth and planning. Below are five tips to help you get started.

1. Get smart on your PR

Whether you know a little or a lot about public relations, marketing, and social media, take some time to get caught up on the current landscape. It is constantly changing, and having a better understanding of how traditional media, social media, paid marketing, owned content and all other components can benefit your business will inform decisions about where to allocate your time and resources.

First, assess what stage of business you are in as well as your business goals to determine what PR and marketing tools could be most beneficial to your growth at this time. Not all small businesses are prepared, financially or otherwise, to invest in PR, and there are fundamental steps you can do on your own to get your business positioned to succeed.

With online education booming, there are many free resources and tools at your disposal. We created All You Need Method to simplify PR and marketing for small business owners. You can download our Free PR Roadmap on our website to assess what level of PR support is right for your business. We also created The PR Starter Kit online course to give small business owners the fundamental tools they need to use PR, marketing, and social media to support business growth and build a lasting brand – and it only takes a few hours to complete.

2. Revisit your target audience

The world has changed significantly over the past year and so have the wants, needs, habits, and interests of consumers. As a small business, it's imperative to understand your target audience's current problems in order to relate to them, build trust, and deliver a product or service that is meeting their needs.

Before investing time and financial resources creating and executing a 2021 business plan, take a step back and consider your ideal customer. Outline how the past year has created opportunities or challenges in their life, problems they are facing, new shopping habits, lifestyle shifts, communication preferences, concerns, etc. If you have more than one ideal customer, work through this exercise for each.

With this new perspective, you will be equipped to make business decisions through the lens of how you can better serve your customers, rather than how to increase revenue.

3. Stand for something

Brands that are succeeding today are the brands that are authentic, vulnerable, and that stand for something. According to a global study by Zeno Group in July 2020, consumers are 4 to 6 times more likely to purchase and champion purpose-driven companies.

Having a purpose doesn't require a brand to have a philanthropy component or an outspoken political stance – it's about identifying your specific values and making them apparent through your messaging and leadership within your industry. Values could include committing to sustainable production methods, outstanding customer service, commitment to diversity, or supporting a specific cause. What is most important is that your values are authentic and that you can stand behind them long-term.

As the founder/owner of a small business, you have an opportunity to put a face and values behind the brand so that your company is about more than selling something.

4. Clarify your message

After revisiting your target audience and carefully considering your brand values, incorporate those findings into your messaging. Conduct an audit of your website, social media channels, and all external facing materials, and update your messaging to ensure that if your ideal customer had a 30 second encounter with your brand, they would walk away with your most important messaging points. Important points to consider as you craft new messaging include:

  • How your product or service solves a problem for or benefits your target audience
  • Brand values
  • Points of differentiation

5. Be authentic and communicative

Before the days of social media, a brand had to rely on third parties, including editorials and ads in magazines and newspapers, to spread the word about their brand. Social media and all "owned channels," including a brand's website, blog, and newsletter, have leveled the playing field and allow small business owners to have control over their communication with customers. Through your owned channels, a brand can decide what to post and when, which is incredibly valuable.

While securing press and advertising opportunities is valuable to growth and brand awareness, it's largely outside of one's control. Focus your time and financial resources on communicating with your audience by creating content for your owned channels. Creating content and posting consistently can seem overwhelming to a solopreneur or small team, but there are ways to make it manageable:

  • Pick only a few owned channels to focus on, prioritizing platforms you are most familiar with using and where your audience is most active
  • Quality and consistency are more important than quantity. If you're only posting once a week due to bandwidth, commit to that frequency and increase frequency as you are able
  • To inspire and inform content creation, think about how you can serve your customers through your areas of expertise and what is relevant to both your brand and audience (events, holidays, partnerships, new product launches, etc.)
  • Create a content calendar so that you can plan out posts a month in advance to avoid last minute scrambling to decide what to post

Once you've worked through these five tips, make a plan to support your business goals - and start thinking in two phases.

  • Phase 1: Pandemic Home Stretch - Although there is hope with a COVID-19 vaccine, we know we will likely be dealing with the effects indefinitely. Use this time of uncertainty to get your business in the best shape possible.
  • Phase 2: Post Pandemic - How do you want your business or brand to show up when the world opens back up? It feels far off, but it is closer than you think and there is a huge opportunity for those who are willing to put in the work now.

Remember, these challenging times will pass. There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future.

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Kathryn Worsham Humphries and Carla M. Nikitaidis are the co-creators of Houston-based All You Need Method, a PR and marketing resource for small business owners and entrepreneurs.