According to Houston-based ENGlobal, the company "has more promising opportunities for significant new business than at any time in [the] company's history." Photo via Getty Images

For Houston-based ENGlobal Corp., a provider of engineering and automation services geared toward the energy industry, renewable fuel facilities are a business pipeline gushing with opportunity.

ENGlobal's potential contracts for renewable fuels projects currently exceed $320 million, says Bill Coskey, the company's founder, president, and CEO. That's about six times the amount of ENGlobal's revenue through the first nine months of this year — $52.9 million.

During the company's third-quarter earnings call November 5, Coskey said publicly traded ENGlobal "has more promising opportunities for significant new business than at any time in our company's history."

Many of those opportunities stem from ENGlobal's shift a couple of years ago to a sharp focus on the renewable energy sector. This includes building utility-scale systems to store wind and solar power, and supplying modular engineered process plants for forms of energy like hydrogen and renewable diesel. Modular process plants consist of separately engineered and automated modules that are made off-site and assembled on-site.

"Manufacturing plants based on modular equipment are emerging as a viable and beneficial alternative to conventional stick-built processing plants. Modular equipment offers several benefits, including flexibility in plant siting, fewer safety concerns during construction, and ease of equipment modification," according to the American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

ENGlobal is engineering and fabricating a modular hydrogen plant for a renewal diesel facility scheduled for completion in May. Incorporating proprietary technology from Denmark-based Haldor Topsoe (which has two offices and one plant in the Houston area), this hydrogen plant will consume about 20 percent less feed and fuel than conventional hydrogen plants, leading to lower operating costs and a smaller carbon footprint. It's the first facility of its kind in the U.S. This $25 million project falls into a bucket of modular process plants — valued at $10 million to $200 million each — that ENGlobal typically pursues.

ENGlobal's emphasis on renewable energy is paying off, especially now. That's because this sector is less susceptible to economic harm caused by the coronavirus pandemic and to the downturn in the oil and gas industry, according to Coskey.

"To the contrary, the green and renewable energy sector is driven by a different set of project economics — the majority of which play directly to our core strengths and capabilities," Coskey said during the November 5 earnings call.

ENGlobal comprises two business units that are capitalizing on those core strengths and capabilities:

  • Engineering, procurement, and construction management
  • Automation

Through September 26, the automation segment of the business accounted for 63 percent of the company's revenue this year, with engineering, procurement, and construction at 37 percent. In the third quarter, the balance was roughly 50-50.

For the nine-month period ended September 26, ENGlobal posted a 33 percent increase in revenue compared with the same period a year earlier. Revenue for the period rose 37 percent in the automation segment of the business and 27 percent in the engineering, procurement, and construction management segment.

Looking ahead, Coskey says plants like the one employing the Haldor Topsoe technology are "a big area of growth for us."

"We've built a business which is really vertically integrated. We can engineer and design, we can mechanically fabricate the processing modules, we can automate them, we can go onto the site and start them up. So we have full-service capabilities," Coskey says in an interview.

Those capabilities are helping ENGlobal, which Coskey started in 1985, capitalize on what he dubs the "energy revolution" in the U.S.

"Oil and gas has a long runway and is sometimes not given enough credit," he says. "But I can tell you that the capital spending for traditional oil and gas projects pretty much dried up during the course of this year. And we had to look for other sources of work for our people, so we were fortunate to have these renewable energy projects to work on."

Evercore ESI predicts capital spending on energy exploration and production in the U.S. will fall 43 percent this year compared with 2019. Meanwhile, S&P Global Market Intelligence forecasts $14.26 billion in capital spending this year on renewable energy by major U.S. utilities, up more than 20 percent from an earlier projection for 2020. The share of U.S. electricity generation from renewable energy is expected to increase from 18 percent in 2019 to 20 percent this year and 21 percent in 2021, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says.

"There's a lot of money that used to flow into oil and gas projects that now seems to be flowing into renewable energy projects," Coskey says. "We were lucky to identify that early and be positioned to capture some of that."

The 2020 election results will take the energy industry one of two paths — toward the energy transition or continuing the status quo. In this guest column, an energy investor assesses the situation ahead of election day. Photo via Getty Images

Energy and the election: What the 2020 outcome means for the future of oil and gas

guest column

The United States Presidential election is at our doorstep. The fossil fuel industry is under significant pressure and the outcome of the election could impact the speed at which exploration and production is impacted. This pressure is financial in nature, but also is operational, technological and all wrapped in physics. A mere 12 to 18 months ago, environmental, social and governance influences and overlays on E&P began and are only accelerating.

My company, Riverbend Oil and Gas, is beginning to see the industry rebound from a significant downturn in revenues, activity, and confidence in 2020 due to the impacts of COVID-19 and the OPEC price war earlier this year. The industry is battling with headwinds, including, lack of access to debt/equity capital, transaction valuations, commodity prices, shale well spacing, and other issues, all impairing market conditions.

At present, there is little to no lubrication in the system. With most talking about an oil and gas market cycle that is driven by supply and demand fundamentals over previous decades, now there is more discussion of a contrarian view of those confident of a demand recovery for oil and gas.

Since the start of energy private equity, funds were raised by general partners to support the small cap E&P space, in the late '80s, private equity became a significant participant in the oil and gas upstream space. Private equity firms became great in number as institutions desired exposure to a growing segment of the market outside of merely investing in the oil and gas public equities. This role, 30 to 35 years later, remains essential, but is currently stifled with thoughts of a declining fossil fuel world and with energy representing only about 2 percent of the S&P 500.

Hydrocarbon outlook

Looming headwinds in the fossil fuel industry include The Green New Deal, an accelerating consciousness of the carbon footprint, the Paris Climate Accord, ESG importance, and the growth of renewables. Additionally, the advent of electric vehicles presents a significant new entrant that is causing a substantial threat to oil's monopoly on the transportation sector. A collision of possible futures exists. Currently, around 1 billion vehicles today are using around 30 percent of the world's oil supply with an estimate of 4 million electric vehicles on the roads globally. Some forecasters predict around 400 million electric vehicles in 2040, decreasing oil supply demand by an estimated 6 percent.

These forecasts of human mobility are driven by the nature of human ambition and worldwide population growth. Africa, China, and India are expected to grow significantly through 2100. Moreover, all persons worldwide strive for a better life for themselves and their families — energy drives these ambitions.

Meanwhile, the capital markets for public fossil fuel companies has declined by over 90 percent from 2016 to 2019 with a continued dismal outcome year-to-date in 2020. The lack of cash flow and capital markets will likely drive less U.S. and non-nationalized produced oil and gas volumes and fewer sustainable companies. Many confident analysts predict a looming oil supply shortage in 2021 driven by these factors along with a federal lands development ban and the possible slowdown of fracking. However, others predict that peak oil demand is now and the need for fossil fuels has already reached a peak.

Assessing the candidates

The results of the election are anticipated to have significantly differing implications (should campaigning be a real signal) for the oil and gas industry. While a Donald Trump win would largely represent a status quo for the environment, a Joe Biden triumph could drive towards changes. Implications are wide ranging across the equity, credit and commodities market energy value chain.

It is important to evaluate who will have control of the House and Senate to pass said legislation. The House is expected to remain with the Democrats, comfortably winning at least 224 of the 435 seats. Recent polls have pointed toward a competitive Senate election cycle. The Republicans currently have a 53-47 Senate majority, but a Democrat favored majority of 51-49 is currently predicted.

The next question is whether the filibuster would be eliminated to push legislation through without a super majority needed; meaning Democrats could drive approvals with a 50-50 tie and Kamala Harris's vote. Although polls are pointing toward a "blue wave" for the Democrats, certain moderate democrats in oil and gas states such as Colorado, New Mexico and Pennsylvania may be swayed against major regulatory or legislative threats to oil and gas exploration and production. Additionally, elected authorities in anticipated Republican states such as Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Utah, and Ohio who are home to industry trade groups and fossil fuel companies will play a significant role.

The Biden Administration has discussed several energy-related policies. These include support for climate-friendly legislation, a ban on federal lands and water permits that represented 21 percent of U.S. oil output in 2019, and an increased investment of $2 trillion over four years in clean energy technologies. To put this investment into perspective, total global energy investment from 2017 to 2019 averaged $2 trillion, and Biden's plan would add $500 billion per year. Biden would target roughly two thirds of U.S. carbon emissions focusing on transportation (40 percent) and electricity production (31 percent).

Broadly, the goal is a nationwide carbon reduction to achieve net-zero emission no later than 2050 and transition to a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035. In order to achieve the 2050 net zero emissions goal, the world requires 2020 COVID-19 sized reductions (8 percent) every other year for the next 25 years. Throughout this energy transition, energy prices are likely to increase, and as a result, the pace of the energy transition will likely reflect the balance of societal demand to reduce fossil fuel usage and the costs (economic, convenience, speed, satisfaction) of doing so.

Renewables and hydrocarbons

In 2019, the U.S. accounted for 15 percent of global CO2 emissions (5,130 MM metric tons of CO2), down 873 MM metric tons since the U.S. peaked in 2007. The large decrease can be attributed to coal-to-gas switching, while wind generation and solar power installations also aided the decline. From 2018 to 2019 alone, coal-to-gas switching decreased U.S. emissions by 140 MM metric tons, driving the largest decrease for the year. While shifting from one end of the carbon-emitting energy spectrum to another, it is imperative to balance costs, plausibility and expectations.

Hydrocarbons can be stored for less than $1 per barrel of oil equivalent, or BOE, while renewables cost $200 per BOE. Total U.S. renewable storage capabilities can provide two hours of national electricity demand which is stored in the utility-scale batteries on the grid and in the about 1 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads. Storage, physics and costs are major drivers for a hydrocarbon partnership as the U.S. transitions to a less carbon-heavy source of fuel. While costs of wind and solar have been driven down by around 70 percent and 89 percent, respectively since 2009, the Betz Limit and Shockley-Queisser Limit do have a governor on further improvements of the current technology and materials. Similarly, subsurface oil and gas reservoirs have similar boundary conditions of physics involving ultimate recovery of resources through natural production, fracking and/or enhanced recovery techniques.

The goal of providing low cost, reliable energy to consumers, enhancing lives and providing better futures can be reached through utilizing hydrocarbon technologies in tandem with renewable sources. A vast amount of investment, research and development is still required in the renewable world, including battery storage, solar/wind efficiency, electric grid expansion and electric vehicle technology/charging stations.

According to the 2020 IEA Energy Outlook, oil and gas represented 55 percent of global energy demand in 2019 and the agency predicts that oil and gas will comprise 46 percent to 54 percent of the energy stack in 2040. This is a relatively flat market share. Coal, on the other hand, cedes market share to renewables and nuclear power, decreasing from 30 percent to 10 percent. While renewables are vital to reaching the U.S. goals of net-zero emissions, hydrocarbons are essential in backstopping U.S. energy needs and ambitions throughout this energy transition. Additionally, on a global scale, cheaply sourced and stored hydrocarbons are essential for emerging economies to advance through existing carbon-emitting infrastructure, eventually leading to renewable alternatives and global carbon reduction.

We remain encouraged for the next decade of growth and performance as we look to identify unique opportunities in the space. In a dynamic oil and gas market, Riverbend has a high degree of confidence to sustain and thrive due to our culture, performance-based team and systems. Riverbend is anchored by vigorous technical subsurface reserve assessments as well as land, accounting and commercial diligence. Additionally, Riverbend, as an energy company, is investing in the alternatives segment, concentrating on materials and services in the wind, solar and battery portions of the value chain. In a world full of human ambition, we see a need for all energy to support undeveloped nations and economies to access the opportunity of the American Dream, pursuing elimination of a "have" and "have not" world.

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Randy Newcomer is president and CEO of Houston-based Riverbend Oil and Gas, a private equity investment group specializing in the energy industry.

"Superteams," or workforces optimized by artificial intelligence, may shape the energy sector. Getty Images

AI-optimized teams are a game changer for energy companies, this Houston expert says

guest column

The speed and scale of change in the business world had been on a fast track, with technology enabling bigger and bolder advances within shorter time frames.

Enter 2020: a global pandemic struck, and here in the Gulf Coast region, we were also hit by an energy industry downturn. The effects of both these crises have touched nearly every sector and revealed the factors that are essential to effectively managing through economic recovery. In a time of extreme challenges, two areas — human talent and technology — are now more important and intertwined than ever.

Earlier this year, Deloitte released its 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report, "The social enterprise at work: Paradox as a path forward," which addresses the intricacies of this issue. The survey was conducted before the pandemic took hold only to see its findings on the future of work play out in real time as companies respond to COVID-19 and the economic toll it's taking.

The rise of the superteam

Despite some dramatic predictions about machines replacing humans, many organizations, including oil and gas companies, are looking to integrate artificial intelligence into teams of people. These "superteams" of human talent and AI may enable organizations to reinvent themselves to create new value and meaning. For organizations that still view AI mainly as an automation tool to reduce costs, connecting AI initiatives with efforts to craft more effective teams is a first step toward enabling humans and machines to work together in new, more productive ways.

In the report, 60 percent of respondents said their organizations are currently using AI to assist, rather than to replace, workers. An additional 58 percent explained that they are using it to improve consistency and quality because superteams can allow organizations to both transform the nature of their output and create worker capacity. Furthermore, 66 percent of respondents believed that the number of jobs would either stay the same or increase as a result of AI's use in the next three years.

Drilling down on the energy sector

As the oil and gas industry reels from the dual effects of a global health crisis and oil price shocks, most organizations are focused on recovery, but forward-looking companies are devising strategies for better integrating technology into their operations.

The value of superteams is clear: they offer the promise of enabling organizations to reinvent themselves while giving employees the potential to further their careers by learning sought-after skills. It's no surprise, then, that many oil and gas companies are rethinking how the future of work may play out within their operations. For example, as outlined in Deloitte's Tech Trends 2020 report, a growing cohort of AI-powered solutions is increasing the need for technology that understands and responds to humans. This might take shape via a field worker being equipped with digital tools to provide real-time support for maintenance and upgrades. Augmented reality applications could offer the employee context-based instructions and the ability to connect with remote workers for live support.

This is just one example of how superteams can transform the sector; there are many other ways that humans and technology can work together to drive organizational value.

Working together to shape the new normal

As the future of work rapidly evolves amidst the world's "new normal," business leaders are wrestling with an increasing range of challenges. These challenges are especially pronounced at the intersection between humans and technology, where new questions have risen about the impact of emerging technologies on workers and society. Organizations that tackle these issues head-on – changing their perspectives to consider not only "could we" but also "how should we" – will be well-positioned to make the bold choices that drive organizational value.


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Amy Chronis is the Houston managing partner at Deloitte.

Travis Parigi, founder and CEO of LiquidFrameworks, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how he's navigating both a global pandemic and an oil downturn. Photo courtesy of LiquidFrameworks

Houston entrepreneur is helping his oil and gas clients get 'out of the paper world'

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 36

Travis Parigi isn't afraid of an oil downturn. His company, LiquidFrameworks, provides cloud-based, mobile field operations management solutions to oil and gas, environmental, and industrial service companies, and he usually expects drilling numbers to slow every five to seven years or so. In fact, he plans on it and prepares accordingly.

"We've seen these types of challenges in the past within the oil and gas space — it is cyclical based on commodities," Parigi explains on thi week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're well positioned to weather these storms."

But Parigi couldn't have foreseen the effect on demand a global pandemic could cause the oil and gas industry, and while he says he's keeping a close eye on the market, he also is trying to communicate with customers and potential customers how his software is even more important in times like these.

"What we're really focused on doing is making sure that our customers charge for everything that they have contracted with their customer and make sure there are no mistakes or errors in the billings and invoices that they send out," Parigi says. "Ultimately it increases their cash flow and makes them more efficient — it gets them out of the paper world."

Parigi shares his biggest concerns about the oil and gas market and how he's looking into partnering with another Houston energy tech startup, Data Gumbo, on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The energy industry needs to re-evaluate its priorities for the workplace. Photo courtesy of Thomas Miller/Breitling Energy

Why Houston’s oil and gas leaders need to prioritize becoming a modern energy workplace

Guest column

The oil and gas industry today is being shaped by truly unprecedented conditions. In the face of a global economic crisis, players in this space are grappling with how best to spend and save resources in a way that's smart, deliberate and centered on expanding a company's value.

But even when the price of oil was four times what it is today, only 13 percent of the oil and gas industry's leaders said they were moving fast enough from a tech investment perspective, according to data my company, Quorum Software, pulled back in October. This was the writing on the wall that the industry was unprepared for a crisis of this magnitude, let alone two.

At the same time, there are a number of critical labor challenges that could curb Houston's oil and gas sector's ability to rebound. In order to future proof the energy industry and attract and retain young and innovative talent, Houston's oil and gas leaders need to prioritize investments in technology and start creating specific business advantages through tech.

Create a place young talent will want to land

In the Houston area, millennials age 25 to 34 make up the largest percentage of the adult population, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Despite this, oil and gas has historically suffered a gap in talent for this employee subset.

As the Houston energy economy seeks to attract talent from Gen Z and millennial pools, they must invest in transformative technology and become a modern energy workplace.

In our recently released industry report, oil and gas decision makers made it clear that they understand having better technology generates more efficient workplaces. What's more, four out of five of these industry leaders think employees will leave without access to sound technology.

Technology will play as an essential part of crisis recovery, and Houston's business leaders in this sector must align their tech investments over the next two quarters in order to both drive business success and also retain and attract a rich talent pool.

Prepare for the long road ahead

Oil and gas leaders in this region are familiar with managing volatility. Prices rise and fall much more quickly than in other industries, with fluctuating regulations, border skirmishes, trade deals, weather and local and global politics all impacting an ever-changing market. We have entered a period when short-term stability and long-term success are both in jeopardy unless you innovate now – especially as the prognosis for long-term structural change in the industry indicates that things might get a lot tougher before they turn around.

In my 30-plus years in the software industry, I've heard thoughtful people talk a lot about disruption. The idea that companies use software and/or technology to disrupt both their internal operations or disrupt markets to make sure that markets don't disrupt them. In just a few months, the commodity pricing shifts have disrupted economic forces on our businesses. As much as we've talked about technology for transformation and modernization, we need to adopt strategies that allows for more agility and sustainability during big market swings.

Judging by the responses in our recent report, oil and gas decision-makers are realistic about the business challenges ahead of them and their inability to solve the problems using the technologies they have in place. Like their IT decision-maker counterparts, 95 percent of oil and gas industry leaders agree that in today's marketplace, a company that doesn't embrace technological advances will not succeed in terms of streamlining operations (land management, accounting, etc.). In fact, in oil and gas, 97 percent of respondents believe the industry will decline if it doesn't adapt to the changes around it.

The takeaway? To survive today — and thrive tomorrow — you don't need to disrupt your business, but you do need to modernize it to be agile and sustain revenue production. You need to bring new technologies into the fold to improve your efficiencies. You need to challenge the status quo, not only to help you endure today's conditions, but also get where you want to go.

This point is only unscored by recent reports that highlight how the Texas Workforce Commission is relying on tech from the 1980s as unemployment claims overwhelm the system. Across industries, and especially those experiencing the volatility that the oil and gas industry is, technology holds the key to attracting and retaining talent, streamlining operations, and staying afloat in these uncharted waters.

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Gene Austin is the CEO of Houston-based Quorum Software.

The oil and gas industry has been hit by a trifecta of challenges. This local expert has some of his observations. Getty Images

Houston oil and gas companies have been hit by more than just COVID-19 — here's what this expert has observed on the industry

Guest column

In the matter of a few weeks, COVID-19 disrupted life across the globe, but the oil and gas industry was hit especially hard with the triple impact.

First, there was the direct impact of COVID-19 on the workforce. Next, there was a dramatic drop in global demand as countries and cities around the world issues travel restrictions. Finally, there was a global increase in oil supply as OPEC cooperation disintegrated.

As energy companies raced to set up response teams to address all three concurrent issues, something that no one was quite prepared for was the speed at which all direct lines of communication for the industry were shutoff. Seemingly overnight, industry conferences and events ground to a halt, corporate offices were reduced to ghost towns, and handshakes were replaced with virtual high fives.

To fill this inability to interact, connect, and collaborate as we used to, my company, Darcy Partners, stood up a series of executive roundtables for the exploration and production community to come together and share ideas on how to approach this unprecedented series of events.

Each week, over 25 executives from various oil and gas operators (and growing) gather virtually to share best practices around COVID-19 response plans, discuss the broader impacts of the turmoil on the industry and learn about innovative technology and process solutions others are implementing to help mitigate the impact of the virus and associated commodity price volatility.

We've seen the priorities of these executives shift and evolve with each phase of COVID-19 and the market impact. In early discussions, the main focus was on taking care of their workforce and what plans were being instituted to help minimize the disruption to operations while also ensuring that no one was exposed to any unnecessary risks. Participants shared best practices and policies they had in place for communication both internally and externally as well as their transition to work-from-home.

At later roundtables, the discussion turned to commodity prices and market response. Although this industry is quite accustomed to the inevitable ups and downs, this time is notably different. The market dynamics during this cycle are far more pronounced than in past downturns – largely due to the concurrent supply and demand imbalances coupled with the broader economic uncertainty. Most operators are taking action by making cuts, and some have already decided to shut-in production. Additionally, the importance of technology and innovation came to the forefront, whether discussing tools to facilitate working from home or remote operations to ensure the continued safe operations in the field.

The future is largely unknown; all of the information and analytics and millions of outcomes being modeled do not create the full picture needed for leaders to make the difficult decisions that are necessary. But there are a few things we know for sure. First, there will be an oil and gas industry on the other side of the current turmoil. Secondly, technology will play an increasingly important role going forward. And, finally, the complex issues the industry is dealing with today can be more effectively understood and managed by coming together to share ideas and best practices.

Nearly 5 years ago, Darcy Partners was founded on the premise that there was a missing link in the oil and gas Industry for the adoption of new technologies. Today, there is a missing link for an entirely different reason. Darcy Partners has rapidly mobilized our vast network of operators, technology innovators, investors, and thought leaders to come together and create a shared level of certainty, in an entirely uncertain world. To help leaders make the decisions that must be made and prepare for a new future, one that might not have been expected, but one that the industry will evolve to succeed in.

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David Wishnow is the head of energy technology identification and relationship management at Houston-based Darcy Partners.

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Here are 3 breakthrough innovations coming out of research at Houston institutions

Research Roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research projects, we look into studies on robotics advancing stroke patient rehabilitation, the future of opioid-free surgery, and a breakthrough in recycling plastics.

The University of Houston's research on enhancing stroke rehabilitation

A clinical trial from a team at UH found that stroke survivors gained clinically significant arm movement and control by using an external robotic device powered by the patients' own brains. Image via UH.edu

A researcher at the University of Houston has seen positive results on using his robotics on stroke survivors for rehabilitation. Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, director of UH's Non-Invasive Brain Machine Interface Systems Laboratory, recently published the results of the clinical trial in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical.

The testing proved that most patients retained the benefits for at least two months after the therapy sessions ended, according to a press release from UH, and suggested even more potential in the long term. The study equipped stroke survivors who have limited movement in one arm with a computer program that captures brain activity to determine the subject's intentions and then works with a robotic device affixed to the affected arm, to move in response to those intentions.

"This is a novel way to measure what is going on in the brain in response to therapeutic intervention," says Dr. Gerard Francisco, professor and chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and co-principal investigator, in the release.

"This study suggested that certain types of intervention, in this case using the upper robot, can trigger certain parts of brain to develop the intention to move," he continues. "In the future, this means we can augment existing therapy programs by paying more attention to the importance of engaging certain parts of the brain that can magnify the response to therapy."

The trial was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and Mission Connect, part of the TIRR Foundation. Contreras-Vidal is working on a longer term project with a National Science Foundation grant in order to design a low-cost system that would allow people to continue the treatments at home.

"If we are able to send them home with a device, they can use it for life," he says in the release.

Baylor College of Medicine's work toward opioid-free surgery

A local doctor is focused on opioid-free options. Photo via Getty Images

In light of a national opioid crisis and more and more data demonstrating the negative effects of the drugs, a Baylor College of Medicine orthopedic surgeon has been working to offer opioid-free surgery recovery to his patients.

"Thanks to a number of refinements, we are now able to perform hip and knee replacements, ranging from straightforward to very complex cases, without patients requiring a single opioid pill," says Dr. Mohamad Halawi, associate professor and chief quality officer in the Joseph Barnhart Department of Orthopedic Surgery, in a press release.

"Pain is one of patients' greatest fears when undergoing surgery, understandably so," Halawi continues. "Today, most patients wake up from surgery very comfortable. Gone are the days of trying to catch up with severe pain. It was a vicious cycle with patients paying the price in terms of longer hospitalization, slower recovery and myriad adverse events."

Halawi explains that his work focuses on preventative measures ahead of pain occurring as well as cutting out opioids before surgery.

"Opioid-free surgery is the way of the future, and it has become a standard of care in my practice," he says. "The ability to provide safer and faster recovery to all patients regardless of their surgical complexity is gratifying. I want to make sure that pain is one less thing for patients to worry about during their recovery."

Rice University's breakthrough on recycling plastics

A team of scientists have found a use for a material that comes out of plastics recycling.

Houston scientists has found a new use for an otherwise useless byproduct that comes from recycling plastics. Rice University chemist James Tour has discovered that turbostratic graphene flakes can be produced from pyrolyzed plastic ash, and those flakes can then be added to other substances like films of polyvinyl alcohol that better resist water in packaging and cement paste and concrete, as well as strengthen the material.

"This work enhances the circular economy for plastics," Tour says in a press release. "So much plastic waste is subject to pyrolysis in an effort to convert it back to monomers and oils. The monomers are used in repolymerization to make new plastics, and the oils are used in a variety of other applications. But there is always a remaining 10% to 20% ash that's valueless and is generally sent to landfills.

Tour's research has appeared in the journal Carbon. The co-authors of the study include Rice graduate students Jacob Beckham, Weiyin Chen and Prabhas Hundi and postdoctoral researcher Duy Xuan Luong, and Shivaranjan Raghuraman and Rouzbeh Shahsavari of C-Crete Technologies. The National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Department of Energy supported the research.

"Recyclers do not turn large profits due to cheap oil prices, so only about 15% of all plastic gets recycled," said Rice graduate student Kevin Wyss, lead author of the study. "I wanted to combat both of these problems."

Houston biotech startup raises millions to battle pediatric cancer

fresh funds

Allterum Therapeutics Inc. has built a healthy launchpad for clinical trials of an immunotherapy being developed to fight a rare form of pediatric cancer.

The Houston startup recently collected $1.8 million in seed funding through an investor group associated with Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which focuses on commercializing biotech and medtech discoveries. Allterum has also brought aboard pediatric oncologist Dr. Philip Breitfeld as its chief medical officer. And the startup, a Fannin spinout, has received a $2.9 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

The funding and Breitfeld's expertise will help Allterum prepare for clinical trials of 4A10, a monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of cancers that "express" the interleukin-7 receptor (IL7R) gene. These cancers include pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and some solid-tumor diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted "orphan drug" and "rare pediatric disease" designations to Allterum's monoclonal antibody therapy.

If the phrase "monoclonal antibody therapy" sounds familiar, that's because the FDA has authorized emergency use of this therapy for treatment of COVID-19. In early January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced the start of a large-scale clinical trial to evaluate monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of mild and moderate cases of COVID-19.

Fannin Innovation Studio holds exclusive licensing for Allterum's antibody therapy, developed at the National Cancer Institute. Aside from the cancer institute, Allterum's partners in advancing this technology include the Therapeutic Alliance for Children's Leukemia, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Children's Oncology Group, and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Although many pediatric patients with ALL respond well to standard chemotherapy, some patients continue to grapple with the disease. In particular, patients whose T-cell ALL has returned don't have effective standard therapies available to them. Similarly, patients with one type of B-cell ALL may not benefit from current therapies. Allterum's antibody therapy is designed to effectively treat those patients.

Later this year, Allterum plans to seek FDA approval to proceed with concurrent first- and second-phase clinical trials for its immunotherapy, says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, and president and CEO of Allterum. The cash Allterum has on hand now will go toward pretrial work. That will include the manufacturing of the antibody therapy by Japan's Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which operates a facility in College Station.

"The process of making a monoclonal antibody ready to give to patients is actually quite expensive," says Varadhachary, adding that Allterum will need to raise more money to carry out the clinical trials.

The global market for monoclonal antibody therapies is projected to exceed $350 billion by 2027, Fortune Business Insight says. The continued growth of these products "is expected to be a major driver of overall biopharmaceutical product sales," according to a review published last year in the Journal of Biomedical Science.

One benefit of these antibody therapies, delivered through IV-delivered infusions, is that they tend to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs, the American Cancer Society says.

"Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cancer cells. They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells," the Mayo Clinic says.

Varadhachary says that unlike chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy takes aim at specific targets. Therefore, monoclonal antibody therapy typically doesn't broadly harm healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Allterum's clinical trials initially will involve children with ALL, he says, but eventually will pivot to children and adults with other kinds of cancer. Varadhachary believes the initial trials may be the first cancer therapy trials to ever start with children.

"Our collaborators are excited about that because, more often than not, the cancer drugs for children are ones that were first developed for adults and then you extend them to children," he says. "We're quite pleased to be able to do something that's going to be important to children."

Houston expert calls for more innovation within the construction industry

guest column

The construction industry has the opportunity to drive positive change through the development and deployment of technologies influencing the way we work and live, ultimately affecting our environment, communities, and personal well-being.

Carbon emissions come from a handful of broad categories, including transportation, electricity production, and industry. According to the International Energy Agency, more than a third of all global greenhouse gases come from the building and construction industry. Concrete production alone contributes an estimated 8 percent of global carbon emissions. As a result, in Houston, we are vulnerable to longer, hotter summers, stronger hurricanes and once-in-a-lifetime storms. But I'm optimistic that there is opportunity for our industry to come together and reverse the current trajectory.

We must continue developing and deploying new technologies and best practices to reduce emissions. By using data to understand the environmental implications of the materials we use, we can make adjustments that are beneficial to both our clients and the environment.

One such example is the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, known as "EC3." Skanska USA developed the open-source, freely available software in collaboration with Microsoft and C Change Labs. The tool democratizes important building data and allows the construction industry to calculate and evaluate carbon emissions associated with various building materials.

Now hosted and managed by Building Transparency, a new 501c3 organization, the EC3 tool was incubated at the Carbon Leadership Forum with input from nearly 50 industry partners. Like the tech industry, we should promote knowledge-sharing among general contractors to drive innovation and sustainability.

The demand for this tool is growing because it's not only the right thing to do, but it also benefits our communities and drives stakeholder value. Now more than ever, clients want to be responsible global citizens and they know that adopting green building practices is attractive to their prospective workforce and their clients and customers.

In Houston, the current population of 7.1 million will double to 14.2 million by 2050. With that population growth comes the need for more housing, more office space and more transportation options. Last April, Houston enacted a climate action plan that sets goals aligned with those from the Paris accord — carbon neutrality by 2050.

Similar local plans have been and are continually being developed all around the world, a necessary step to address a global issue that impacts all of us. Like others, the Houston plan contemplates how to reduce carbon emissions that are the result of energy consumption which accounts for about half of Houston's greenhouse-gas emissions.

Innovations in energy efficiency can help drive down energy consumption. As conscientious global and local citizens, we also have to consider the emissions that are created by the raw materials that are used in construction. That's become a much easier process with the EC3 tool. Now architects, engineers and others involved in the design process can make data-driven decisions that can have significant impact on the carbon footprint — as much as a 30 percent reduction in embodied carbon — of a structure that are mostly cost-neutral.

Embodied-carbon reductions can be made simply by smartly using data. The EC3 tool is one of many steps toward innovative building practices and complements the important ongoing work done by the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees LEED certification.

Opting for sustainable building practices is good for the environment, but it's also good for the people who will spend time in these spaces. Green building reduces the use of toxic materials, and studies have found that sustainable structures, such as schools, health care facilities and airports, have positive impacts on cognitive ability, seasonal affective disorder and overall happiness.

We are also seeing an influx of client requests for sustainable and healthy building upgrades, especially since the onset of COVID-19. These upgrades are changing the way we live and work while supporting infection control, from touchless elevators to advanced air filtration systems.

For example, innovation has been instrumental throughout the pandemic for the aviation industry's safe operation. Increased biometrics across airport touchpoints, flexible passenger gathering areas that include modifications to passenger hold rooms and departure lounges, and environmental monitoring and wayfinding technology to alert passengers of airport congestion points are a few new concepts airports are incorporating into builds to keep travelers healthy now and in a post-COVID world.

Overall, the construction sector will play an essential role in how we approach expanding the built environment over the next 30 years. Using data and striving for continual innovation, we have a great opportunity to come together as an industry and create real change that will benefit our collective lives and those of generations to come.

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Dennis Yung is executive vice president and general manager at
Skanska, one of the world's leading project development and construction groups, where he oversees building operations for Houston and North Texas.