A Houston entrepreneur is creating a fun and educational platform for children that helps to preserve their heritage. Photo by Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

Theoharis Dimarhos grew up in a family determined to follow tradition. As a child, his mother serenaded him with old Greek folk songs he still remembers, and his parents made speaking Greek a rule of the house. Dimarhos lived the immigrant family experience, and now he's developed a modern way to preserve pass down culture to the masses.

"My parents came from Greece in 1981, and in typical fashion, they didn't have much and didn't speak the language at all," says Dimarhos, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Living the first-generation American experience, he watched his parents work tirelessly to provide for the family and maintain their Greek culture in America.

Dimarhos did get his own immigrant story when his parents decided to move back to Greece when he was 7. After assimilating to Greece, he traveled back to the United States for college, where he learned to readjust once more.

"I kind of got that immigrant experience a couple of times," he says.

While Dimarhos grew up surrounded by his own heritage, he began to realize that "our native cultures were destined to fade if there wasn't a more modern way for children and our little siblings to learn more about their roots."

When talking with his friends from other countries outside of Greece, a general consensus grew: without modern learning, family heritage would slip away.

Enter: Ellis, an app that helps children connect to their culture. The app includes Greek songs, fables, mythology, history, and language.

Named after Ellis Island, a gateway into the United States for so many immigrants in history, Ellis nurtures Greek tradition in a way that caters to children through technology.

"I've always seen [Ellis Island] as a monument of courage to chase your dreams. . .people came and built this country, but also never forgot where they came from."

Interactive technology is becoming a large part of early childhood education, especially during COVID-19, as more families are at-home with children learning virtually. Children are the targets of over 80 percent of the top-selling paid apps in the education category of the iTunes store, according to a published analysis by Carly Shuler in 2012.

Dimarhos and his wife are deeply tied to their Greek heritage, and hope to pass that history and appreciation to their own children once they start a family.

"We wanted to make sure that there was a 21st century way for us and for our children to learn that goes beyond books," he says. "Something that's a little more immersive and fun — fun is very important — and educational."

Ellis is currently being beta tested with a group of 200 active users within the Greek community. The app, which targets ages 0-8, rolls out weekly content to parents.

"I'm receiving texts from friends who are parents begging me to put more content out because they need something to keep their children occupied," says Dimarhos. "Not only are regular schools closed, but cultural schools that are offered by the community are also closed and struggling to open back up."

Time spent on the app can be as short as five minutes and stretch into hours of learning time.

"The goal is always for children to pick up little phrases and words each time they listen," explains Dimarhos.

The stories and songs are all audio-based, tying into activities like waking up, eating breakfast, and bathtime.

"There's something magical about tying in an audio story or song with everyday tasks for kids," says Dimarhos.

Dimarhos parents see the app as "the next step of passing down the torch of our culture," he says.

"They tried to do it with the tools that they had for myself and my sister. . .We're trying to do the exact same thing that they did and their parents did, just with the tools that technology offers us," he says.

Dimarhos, who previously worked in economic development in Austin, had his first experience with startups when his former boss gave him a chance to work with his international accelerator for startups.

"I got my opening into the tech world through the international accelerator and seeing amazing immigrant founders create jobs and strive to do great things in America," he shares.

"Quite honestly, a startup that celebrates different cultures couldn't have a better home than in Houston," he says, noting the massive immigrant population and variety of cultures in the city.

In Dimarhos' own life, he's come across immigrants as well as first and second generation Americans who wish to preserve their own cultures.

"They've wished there was a more modern way to have access to those resources," he explains.

In the future, Dimarhos intends to quickly broaden the app to "launch in every immigrant community in the United States and around the world."

Connecting to cultural roots is something Dimarhos feels is "sacred" to immigrant families.

"It's something that you have the obligation from your parents as they give you everything for you to succeed in life. You kind of carry that obligation to carry that torch and pass it on to your children and their children," he explains.

"We grow up with that and the vision and the mission is just to create something that makes that a little bit easier to keep our cultures alive. I honestly think it's part of what makes this country great," he says.

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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.