This Houstonian is celebrating a major win for the prosthesis device he created while at the University of Houston. Photo via UH.edu

A recent University of Houston graduate is receiving international recognition for his 3D-printable finger prosthesis.

David Edquilang, the creator of a low-cost prosthesis known as Lunet, was awarded the 2023 Red Dot: Luminary award last month at the Red Dot Award: Design Concept ceremony in Singapore. The luminary award is the highest recognition given at the international event, according to a release from UH.

Edquilang, who graduated from UH in 2022, developed Lunet while he was a student at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design and under the mentorship of UH associate professor and co-director of the Industrial Design program Jeff Feng.

The prosthesis is made up of polylactic acid and thermoplastic polyurethane, two common types of 3D-printed plastics, and designed to be simple but essentially indestructible.

Lunet's "fingers" are made of four parts held together by plastic pins, compared to other prosthetics that feature many different parts and require metal fasteners, adhesives or tools.

“The problem with higher mechanical complexity is that these designs are less durable,” Edquilang says in the statement. “The more parts you have, the more points of failure. You need to make prosthetic fingers robust and as strong as possible, so it doesn’t break under normal use, yet you want the design to be simple. This was one of the greatest challenges in making Lunet.”

Lunet is also unique in that it includes a linkage mechanism that allows the fingers' distal knuckle (closest to the fingertip) to be more flexible, and even partially hyperextend backward to be more durable and realistic.

What's perhaps the rarest component of Lunet is that Edquilang has made it open access on the internet.

“Not every good idea needs to be turned into a business. Sometimes, the best ideas just need to be put out there,” Edquilang adds. “Medical insurance will often not cover the cost of a finger prosthesis, since it is not considered vital enough compared to an arm or leg. Making Lunet available online for free will allow it to help the greatest number of people."

The concept was born after Edquilang worked on an upper limb prosthesis with fellow UH student Niell Gorman. After that project wrapped, Edquilang, in partnership with Harris Health System, began designing a prosthetic hand for a woman who had lost three fingers due to frostbite. Edquilang and Feng continued to refine the product, and after conceptualizing the breakthrough idea for the flexible linkage for the distal knuckle, Lunet became what it is today.

The product has also won a 2023 Red Dot: Best of the Best award, two 2023 DNA Paris Design Awards, Gold for the 2023 Spark Design Award, and is currently a U.S. National Runner Up for the 2023 James Dyson Award.

“It feels great knowing you have the capability to positively impact people’s lives and give them help they otherwise wouldn’t be able to get,” Edquilang says.

This summer UH researchers also published their work on a wearable human-machine interface device that can track and record important health information but is less noticeable and lighter than a Band-Aid. The device could be attached to a robotic hand or prosthetic, as well as other robotic devices that can collect and report information to the wearer.

Also this summer, a team from Rice published their work on a new system of haptic accessories that rely heavily on fluidic control over electrical inputs to signal or simulate touch to a wearer. The technology, which was backed by the National Science Foundation, has uses for those with visual and auditory impairments and offers a slimmed-down design compared to other bulky complex haptic wearables.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.