From a new cancer-detecting device to a digital resource for childhood cancer survivors, here are some cancer-fighting innovations from Houston. Getty Images

Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear lab coats. Almost daily, it seems there's a new breakthrough or discovery for life-saving innovations.

These three cancer-related innovations are coming out of Houston, and they are ones to watch.

University of Houston's biosensor for prostate cancer reoccurrence

Dmitri Litvinov, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is on a mission to bring an effective, low-cost test for prostate cancer recurrence to doctor's offices everywhere. Photo via uh.edu

Researchers from the University of Houston have teamed up with their colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania to try to get a biosensor that can detect the recurrence of prostate cancer into the doctor's office.

The research is funded by a $399,988 grant from the National Science Foundation and led by Dmitri Litvinov, principal investigator and professor of electrical and computer engineering at UH.

"Such tests exist in clinical laboratories, but there remains a critical need for inexpensive, versatile and high-sensitivity diagnostic platforms which can bring the performance to the point of care or doctor's office," says Litvinov in a release.

The biosensor platform would be less than $3 per test — an alluring fact for patients and health care providers — and would function more or less like a pregnancy test, but without a simple positive or negative response. Rather, the test can assess how much prostate-specific antigen is in a patient's blood

"Our technology has potential to help improve survival rates with more accessible, affordable and easier testing," Litvinov says.

Rice University's study that points to new cancer-fighting drug

José Onuchic co-authored a study that's opening doors for a new approach in cancer drug development. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that a cancer-linked version of the protein mitoNEET can shut the gateways of mitochondria cells that supply chemical energy.

José Onuchic, a physicist and co-director of Rice University's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics, co-authored the paper and noted that the gateways, called voltage-dependent anion channels, or VDACs, typically open and shut to allow the passage of metabolites and other small molecules between mitochondria and the rest of the cell.

"The VDAC channel transports all types of metabolites between the cytosol and the mitochondria," says Onuchic in a release. "Dysfunction of this channel is involved in many diseases including cancer and fatty liver disease."

Co-author Patricia Jennings, a structural biologist at UCSD, explains in the news release.

"The discovery that mitoNEET directly gates VDAC, the major porin of mitochondria, as well as the accompanying structural analysis and predictions for this interaction, affords a new platform for investigations of methods to induce cancer cells to commit cell suicide, or apoptosis/ferroptosis, in a cancer-specific, regulated process," she writes.

The study opens doors for a new approach to cancer-treating drugs.

"Fine-tuning a drug that specifically alters the redox-state of interaction between VDAC and mitoNEET would allow the development of new weapons to battle multiple cancers," Onuchic says.

Baylor College of Medicine's digital tool for childhood cancer survivors

Baylor College of Medicine has created an online resource for childhood cancer survivors. Photo via bcm.edu

Childhood cancer survivors face a lifetime of obstacles to overcome, and Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Cancer Center have developed a resource to help these patients have the best quality of life in remission.

Passport for Care, a free online resource, features a "survivorship care plan" for the patient, his or her doctor, and family members. The program's new Screenings Recommendations Generator tool can provide a childhood cancer survivor with potential late effects and how to manage their care.

"This tool is especially helpful for patients who have moved on to other doctors who they did not see as a child and who might not be familiar with their particular treatment and the subsequent health risks," says Dr. David Poplack, founder of the Passport for Care and associate director of the Texas Children's Cancer and Hematology Centers, in a news release. "It helps physicians understand their patient's history and know how to address future health problems."

Over 37,000 cancer survivors are using Passport for Care at 138 clinics around the world. Additionally, patients can also register through the Screenings Recommendations Generator.

Passport for Care is funded by the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas, as well as through a grant from Hyundai Hope on Wheels.

"We created Passport for Care with the goal of empowering survivors in their healthcare decisions," Poplack says. "Their care doesn't end when cancer treatment is over. Survivorship care is a lifelong journey."

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

2 Houston universities top list for best graduate, undergraduate entrepreneurship programs

Best of the rest

In Houston, a little bit of friendly competition between two universities goes a long way, but each gets a win according to a recent ranking.

The University of Houston's Cyvia and Melvyn Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship within the C. T. Bauer College of Business claimed the top spot on the 2020 Princeton Review's top 15 programs for undergraduate entrepreneurship studies. Meanwhile, Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business claimed the top spot on the graduate schools list.

Both schools have appeared on the list before, but it's the first time either has topped their categories.

"Entrepreneurship and the creation of new businesses and industries are critical to Houston and Texas' future prosperity and quality of life," says Rice Business Dean Peter Rodriguez, in a news release. "Today's ranking and our decades-long leadership in entrepreneurship education and outreach is a testament to our visionary and world-class faculty, the enormous success of the Rice Business Plan Competition and of our commitment to our students and the community we serve."

The Rice program, which in 1978, has appeared on the top-10 list for 11 years in a row, and it's the fourth time for the program to make it into the top three. According to the Princeton Review release, Rice grads have started 537 companies that went on to raise over $7 billion in funding.

A UH news release also calls out the fact that UH has seen more than 1,200 alumni-founded businesses, which have amassed over $268 million in funding over the past decade. UH's program, which began in 1991, has appeared in the top 10 list since 2007, and rose from the No. 2 position last year.

"The Wolff Center is the catalyst, but entrepreneurship goes beyond that to the entire Bauer College, including RED Labs, social entrepreneurship, energy, health care, arts and sports entrepreneurship, among many other programs," says Bauer Dean Paul Pavlou. "We're an entrepreneurial university, and innovation and the startup ecosystem we want to promote for the city of Houston starts with the Wolff Center and Bauer."

The ranking considered more than 300 schools with entrepreneurship studies programs and factored in over 40 data points. Some of the factors considered include: the percentage of students enrolled in entrepreneurship courses, mentorship programs, the number of startups founded and investments received by alumni, and the cash prizes at university-backed business plan competitions. The rankings will be published in the December issue of Entrepreneur magazine.

Sustaining a culture of innovation is key to driving the energy industry, says this Houston expert

Guest column

The prevailing economic environment has made innovation essential to gaining a competitive edge in the oil and gas industry.

Global economic shifts and the unstable oil market have been considerable factors inhibiting the advancement of innovation in the oil and gas sector. Oil prices have not significantly increased in the past four to five years, while investors and Wall Street hold corporate executives accountable for capital discipline.

In light of these trends, corporate culture and innovation are key factors that hold the potential to drive novelty in the next upcycle. To bring value to shareholders, the oil and gas industry needs to nurture an environment that fosters a radically innovative culture to create new product lines and markets, unique ecosystems, product content, and processes.

Culture from the top down

Organizational culture is one of the essential dynamics that drive innovation. Employee behavior helps influence and promote the acceptance of innovation as a fundamental corporate value. Organizations are therefore admonished to concentrate on fostering an innovative culture that allows the growth of new ideas.

This culture needs to be created by deliberate action on the part of leaders of industry or by indirect measures such as composition and institutional policy directions. A model of innovative culture which translates into cultural transformation emerges as a result of this deliberate action and institutional policy directions.

Various studies over the years have examined innovative culture models focused on cultural characteristics or factors. A comprehensive, innovative culture model that incorporates cultural traits and their determinants is reviewed in this contemplative piece.

Execution  culture vs. innovative culture

In her book, "The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business," Erin Meyer explains that "ambidextrous culture" is the concurrent search of flexibility and alignment at a business unit/sector which is linked to several organizational outcomes including improved performance and innovation.

This ambidextrous culture can be divided into two broad categories: Execution culture and innovative culture. Execution culture is a working environment that is more process- and task-driven to get things done. The oil and gas industry has typically favored the execution culture, where there is a central decision-maker at the head of the table. Research and recommendations on pertinent matters are typically presented to decision-makers who sit through a PowerPoint presentation. Subsequently, a decision is made based on the facts presented via PowerPoint presentation.

One critical demerit of this setup is that it usually leans towards low-risk conservative judgment. The executive lifestyle has worked in the past in the oil and gas industry due to the high fixed cost, and the "failure is unacceptable" approach in the industry.

With new technologies such as 3D printing, predictive analytics, machine learning, and deep learning, one can test some ideas or thoughts through rapid prototyping in a lab setting to test their hypothesis. Therefore, this type of culture as a sole approach to decision-making in the industry may need to be reconsidered.

Meanwhile, innovative culture is a work environment where leaders encourage and nurture unorthodox thinking in approaching problem solutions and applications. If the energy industry leaned more toward this style of culture, it would help foster innovation and accelerate the innovation landscape in the industry.

Innovative culture is a more design-oriented approach that generates a large pool of options and also incorporates a visual thinking framework. It enhances a creative mode for the audience, and everybody in the company ends up being a decision-maker. This type of culture fosters open innovation, eliminates the fear of expression, and pushes for more collaboration and creativity in the ecosystem.

According to a recent survey done by Accenture Strategy, 76 percent of leaders say they regularly empower employees to be innovative, while only 42 percent of employees agree. This shows an apparent disparity in more than the perceptions of employers versus employees and the belief that innovative culture is not promoted by middle management. This barrier can be broken down by instituting and enforcing an innovative culture.

Staying agile in a transforming world

The world has changed, and it will continue to transform. Various factors are disrupting traditional methods of business management across the globe, and organizational behavior is being impacted significantly. For an organization to be competitive globally, it requires innovation and creativity.

The rate at which businesses are facing competition requires agility. Employees are pressured to give their best and to come up with new ideas at a level even beyond some of history's greatest minds. For many, uncertainty and insecurity abounds. The fear of being made redundant and a resulting lack of trust prevents creativity among employees.

Trust, productive gameplay, and fun — critical components of an innovative culture — can spark creativity and increase global competitiveness. Due to the recent downturn, most teams are burdened with the same amount of work, which was meant for double or tripled their workforce and are still expected to perform at their peak capability. They need the right conducive environment to function.

Implementing action

While the energy industry should avoid trying to copy innovative practices from technology companies, oil and gas companies should review possible case studies that can be incorporated in fostering an acceptable culture for millennials to be attracted to the industry.

Presentation is important

Take a look at your marketing materials, for instance. Skip the stereotypical image of the macho oil guy on a rig operating the brake handle and showcase how the industry is adapting open innovation across sectors such as using predictive analytics and rapid prototyping to help design a safe working environment. Showcasing the conducive culture we experience in oil and gas, which challenges us to think outside the box and solve the world's energy problems will be an excellent way to create opportunities internally in companies and also attract and retain talent from different backgrounds and industries to help solve the world's energy problems.

Consider flexible work initiatives

To help establish and foster an innovative culture in oil and gas, the industry needs to embrace virtual and remote working environments, retraining and refresher courses to keep employees' skills relevant to solving problems, leaders setting a positive example on work-life balance and cutting down or avoiding long-distance travel via virtual meetings. Others essential pointers to consider are, giving employees the freedom to be themselves at work, leadership or management having a positive attitude towards failure, allowing remote work on days on which employees have personal commitments, networking events with company leaders scheduled during office hours, having an open channel for the report of sexual discrimination/harassment incident(s) to the company, among others.


I'd like to close with a quote from another influential book, "The Innovator's Dilemma," by Harvard Professor Clay Christensen. He writes, "When an organization's capabilities reside primarily in its people, changing to address new problems is relatively simple. However, when the capabilities have come to live in processes and values and especially when they have become embedded in culture, change has become extraordinarily complicated."

Establishing a uniquely innovative culture within the energy industry will be a great foundation going forward, for spurring progress in the oil and gas sector.

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Nii A. Nunoo is senior associate and management consultant within Strategy and Energy Core Operations at KPMG.

This Houston virtual health care platform makes it easier to get answers

digital check up

As hard as he tried, Brigham Buhler couldn't achieve the weight-loss and fitness goals he'd set in his mid-20s. Plus, he constantly felt tired and stressed out. On top of that, Brigham's entire immediate family has diabetes, and he was exhibiting the warning signs.

Buhler's nutritionist recommended he get his hormones checked. It wound up taking three months to get an initial appointment with a urologist, who then recommended a comprehensive blood test.

The blood work revealed that he did, indeed, have a hormone deficiency. Subsequent hormone treatment, in addition to taking vitamins and supplements to combat various risk factors, got Buhler's endocrine system back on track.

Born out of that frustrating situation and spurred by his more than 15 years in the medical-device industry, Buhler launched Houston-based Ways2Well in 2018. Propelled by a virtual health care platform, the company envisions a better way to treat patients by challenging the traditional health care model.

"While most virtual health care providers focus on sick care — treating patients experiencing symptoms that indicate sickness — Ways2Well is focused on preventative health care," says Buhler, a graduate of the University of Houston.

Through his own patient journey, Brigham Buhler saw a need for Ways2Well to exist. Photo via ways2well.com

Here's how Ways2Well works.

A patient visits the company's website to schedule a blood analysis at a Houston-area location of Quest Diagnostics. (Each year, Quest Diagnostics serves one-third of American adults and half of U.S. physicians and hospitals.)

Before the lab work, the patient discusses health concerns and wellness goals through a virtual appointment with a Ways2Well nurse practitioner.

Once the blood analysis is done, the nurse practitioner reviews the test results during a virtual appointment. The practitioner pinpoints underlying causes of chronic symptoms and potential risks for major conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Those three ailments are the main drivers of the $3.5 trillion in annual health care costs racked up in the U.S. Ways2Well strives to reverse the symptoms of these and other chronic illnesses.

Finally, the nurse practitioner shares lifestyle or dietary changes that can reduce the likelihood of developing chronic diseases.

"Our online platform allows you to manage your health care journey from the convenience of your home or office, as long as you have access to a computer or phone and internet," Ways2Well says on its website.

Ways2Well charges nothing for a patient's initial 15-minute consultation. The blood analysis costs $299; Buhler says it goes well beyond what primary care doctors normally offer. The review of the blood analysis costs $120. Follow-up appointments cost $60 each. Neither Ways2Well nor ReviveRx accepts health insurance. However, an insurer might reimburse some out-of-pocket expenses.

The Ways2Well clinical team can prescribe medication, hormone therapy, prescription-grade vitamins and supplements, and other remedies through Ways2Well's partner pharmacy, ReviveRX. Ways2Well and ReviveRx occupy offices in the same building.

Typically, health care providers and pharmacies don't collaborate that closely on patient care. "Ways2Well is bridging that gap to offer better treatment to our patients," Buhler says.

Although ReviveRx is a full-service pharmacy, it doesn't operate like retail pharmacies such as Walgreens and CVS. Rather, patients are referred directly to ReviveRx by Ways2Well or Houston health care providers.

Today, Ways2Well focuses on the Houston market. But Buhler says the 12-employee, self-funded startup aims to expand to other Texas markets, such as Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Antonio.

"Because Ways2Well is a virtual health care provider that offers appointments via video conferences and leverages the Quest Diagnostics network for blood analysis, Ways2Well can treat patients from anywhere in Texas," he says. "Ultimately, the goal is to make Ways2Well available nationwide, with a team of clinical experts across the U.S."