MD Anderson’s goal with the new Institute for Data Science in Oncology is to advance collaborative projects that will bring the power of data science to every decision made at the hospital. Photo via mdanderson.org

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is one step closer to ending cancer thanks to its new institute that's focused on data science.

MD Anderson’s goal with the new Institute for Data Science in Oncology (IDSO) is to advance collaborative projects that will bring the power of data science to every decision made at the hospital. And now, the IDSO has announced its inaugural cohort of 33 scientists, clinicians, and staff that will bring it to life, joining the already appointed leadership and focus area co-leads.

“By engaging diverse expertise across all of our mission areas, we will enhance the rich and productive data science ecosystem at MD Anderson to deliver transformational impact for patients,” David Jaffray, Ph.D., director of IDSO and chief technology and digital officer at MD Anderson, says in a press release.

The focus areas for the IDSO are quantitative pathology and medical imaging; single-cell analytics; computational modeling for precision medicine; decision analytics for health; and safety, quality, and access.

The IDSO Affiliates, as they are known, are a mix of existing contributors to the IDSO and team members who were recruited specifically for their expertise in data science. The affiliates were chosen to fulfill a two-year term, during which they will focus on IDSO projects related to the focus areas above. The diverse roster of professionals includes:

“Our affiliates bring expertise, perspectives and commitment from across the institution to foster impactful data science in order to tackle the most urgent needs of our patients and their families,” said Caroline Chung, M.D., director of Data Science Development and Implementation for IDSO and chief data officer at MD Anderson. “People and community are at the heart of our efforts, and establishing the IDSO Affiliates is an exciting step in growing the most impactful ecosystem for data science in the world.”

Six Houston inventors have been recognized with the highest professional distinction for inventors within academia. Photo via Pexels

6 Houston-area inventors named fellows in prestigious program

best in class

The National Academy of Inventors has announced its annual set of NAI Fellows — and six Houstonians make the list of the 164 honorees from 116 research institutions worldwide.

The NAI Fellows Program honors academic inventors "who have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development, and the welfare of society," according to a news release. The appointment is the highest professional distinction for inventors within academia.

The six Houstonians on the list join a group that hold more than 48,000 U.S. patents, which have generated over 13,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than one million jobs, per the release. Additionally, $3 trillion in revenue has been generated based on NAI Fellow discoveries.

These are the scientists from Houston organizations:

    • Zhiqiang An, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston: An is the director of the Texas Therapeutics Institute, a drug discovery program operated by the John P. and Kathrine G. McGovern Medical School at Houston. He's also a professor of molecular medicine and holder of the Robert A. Welch Distinguished University Chair in Chemistry at UTHealth.
    • Alex Ignatiev, University of Houston: Ignatiev served as director of two NASA-supported research and technology development centers at the University of Houston and as Lillie Cranz and Hugh Roy Cullen Professor of Physics, Chemistry, and Electrical and Computer Engineering.
    • David Jaffray, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center: Jaffray was appointed MD Anderson's first-ever chief technology and digital officer in 2019. He oversees MD Anderson’s Information Services division and Information Security department and is a professor of Radiation Physics with a joint appointment in Imaging Physics.
    • Pei-Yong Shi,The University of Texas Medical Branch: Pei-Yong Shi is a professor and John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Innovations in Molecular Biology Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology;. He's also the Vice Chair for Innovation and Commercialization.
    • Ganesh Thakur, University of Houston: Thakur is a pioneer in carbon capture, utilization and storage and has a patent on forecasting performance of water injection and enhanced oil recovery. His team is continuing to push the research envelope for CCUS employing world-class lab research, simulation, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
    • Darren Woodside, Texas Heart Institute: Woodside is the Vice President for Research and Director of the Flow Cytometry and Imaging Core at the Texas Heart Institute. His research centers around the role that cell adhesion plays in cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases, and the development of novel means to identify and treat these diseases.
    Ten other Texas-based innovators made the list, including:
    • Sanjay Banerjee, The University of Texas at Austin
    • Thomas Boland, The University of Texas at El Paso
    • Joan Brennecke, The University of Texas at Austin
    • Gerard Cote, Texas A&M University
    • Ananth Dodabalapur, The University of Texas at Austin
    • Holloway (Holly) H. Frost Jr., The University of Texas at Arlington
    • James E. Hubbard, Texas A&M University
    • Yi Lu, University of Texas at Austin
    • Samuel Prien, Texas Tech University
    • Earl E. Swartzlander Jr., The University of Texas at Austin
    This year's class will be inducted at the Fellows Induction Ceremony at the 11th Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Inventors in June in Phoenix, Arizona.

    "The caliber of this year's class of NAI Fellows is outstanding. Each of these individuals are highly-regarded in their respective fields," says Paul R. Sanberg, president of NAI's board of directors, in the release. "The breadth and scope of their discovery is truly staggering. I'm excited not only see their work continue, but also to see their knowledge influence a new era of science, technology, and innovation worldwide."

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    CultureMap Emails are Awesome

    How this Houston clean energy entrepreneur is navigating geothermal's hype to 100x business growth

    houston innovators podcast Episode 237

    Geothermal energy has been growing in recognition as a major player in the clean energy mix, and while many might think of it as a new climatetech solution, Tim Latimer, co-founder and CEO of Fervo Energy, knows better.

    "Every overnight success is a decade in the making, and I think Fervo, fortunately — and geothermal as a whole — has become much more high profile recently as people realize that it can be a tremendous solution to the challenges that our energy sector and climate are facing," he says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

    In fact, Latimer has been bullish on geothermal as a clean energy source since he quit his job as a drilling engineer in oil and gas to pursue a dual degree program — MBA and master's in earth sciences — at Stanford University. He had decided that, with the reluctance of incumbent energy companies to try new technologies, he was going to figure out how to start his own company. Through the Stanford program and Activate, a nonprofit hardtech program that funded two years of Fervo's research and development, Latimer did just that.

    And the bet has more than paid off. Since officially launching in 2017, Fervo Energy has raised over $430 million — most recently collecting a $244 million series D round. Even more impressive to Latimer — his idea for drilling horizontal wells works. The company celebrated a successful pilot program last summer by achieving continuous carbon-free geothermal energy production with Project Red, a northern Nevada site made possible through a 2021 partnership with Google.

    Next up for Fervo is growing and scaling at around a 100x pace. While Project Red included three wells, Project Cape, a Southwest Utah site, will include around 100 wells with significantly reduced drilling cost and an estimated 2026 delivery. Latimer says there are a dozen other projects like Project Cape that are in the works.

    "It's a huge ramp up in our drilling, construction, and powerplant programs from our pilot project, but we've already had tremendous success there," Latimer says of Project Cape. "We think our technology has a really bright future."

    While Latimer looks ahead to the rapid growth of Fervo Energy, he says it's all due to the foundation he put in place for the company, which has a culture built on the motto, "Build things that last."

    “You’re not going to get somewhere that really changes the world by cutting corners and taking short steps. And, if you want to move the needle on something as complicated as the global energy system that has been built up over hundreds of years with trillions of dollars of capital invested in it – you’re not going to do it overnight," he says on the show. "We’re all in this for the long haul together."

    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.”