This is the second consecutive year the airport has won the award. Photo courtesy of Houston Airport System

While this has been a harrowing and surreal year for the airline industry due to the global pandemic, one local mainstay has soared. Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport has been named 2020 Airport of the Year by the Transportation Security Administration.

This is the second consecutive year that IAH has won the TSA's Airport of the Year title. The award recognizes the best of TSA with outstanding team achievements in key operations and mission support functions, according to a press release.

To be selected as top in the U.S., the airport must show measurable improvements, superior performance, notable innovation, and significant operational improvements in support of TSA's mission, per the TSA. Awardees, per the TSA, demonstrate "a clear commitment to improving workforce engagement and morale." (Something we all look for during airport screenings.)

"The TSA team in Houston consists of more than 1100 employees from frontline TSA officers to inspectors, canine handlers, explosives experts, managers, program analysts and a host of others who work together every single day of the year to ensure that we protect the traveling public to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce," said Juan Sanchez, TSA's Federal Security Director for IAH, in a statement.

"Our team comprised of TSA officers and others demonstrate their commitment daily through their hard work, professionalism and commitment."

IAH boasts some 20,000 employees and more than 800 federal, state, and local stakeholder groups that work in conjunction with the airport and the Houston Police Department. The airport was also lauded for maintaining its "operational tempo" during COVID.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

This new service helps customers get simple, fast answers for travel questions at the airport. Photo courtesy of United Airlines

United Airlines launches new service to help travelers skip the lines at Bush Intercontinental

simpler skies

Houston travelers on United Airlines now have access to a new, virtual, on-demand customer service aimed at simple, contact-free, real-time information and support. The new feature is available at George Bush International Airport, as well as Chicago O'Hare, and will roll out to other hubs by the end of the year, according to a press release.

Dubbed Agent on Demand, the new United service is available on any mobile device to call, text, or video chat live with an agent. Customers can scan a QR code displayed on signage throughout United's hub airports, or access the platform through self-service kiosks. From there, customers will be connected to an agent by phone, chat or video, based on their preference, according to the airline.

Travelers can get answers on seat assignments, boarding times, upgrades, standby list, flight status, rebooking, and more. Agent on Demand is aimed at convenience; customers cab go virtual as opposed to standing in line for answers.

For international travelers, more than 100 languages will be available via chat. (Customers type in their preferred language and the messages will be automatically transcribed in English for the agents — and in the selected language for the customer.)

United is the first airline to debut this technology, which is aimed at safety during the pandemic and convenience, United notes in a press release.

"We know how important it is for our customers to have more options for a contactless travel experience and this tool makes it easy to quickly receive personalized support directly from a live agent at the airport while maintaining social distancing," said Linda Jojo, United's executive vice president for technology and chief digital officer, in a statement. "Agent on Demand allows customers to bypass waiting in line at the gate and seamlessly connect with customer service agents from their mobile device, ensuring they continue to receive the highest levels of service while also prioritizing their health and safety."

In late November, United announced the expansion of its customer COVID-19 testing efforts to include flights departing Houston to select destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Bush Intercontinental has seen a massive drop in travelers since the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Houston Airport System

Major Houston airport lands on list of hardest hit during the pandemic

IAH'S BiG DROP

Since the World Health Organization announced the COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 11, few industries have slowed as dramatically as air travel. Airlines made massive cuts in services and jockeyed for government assistance. Some, such as United, announced furloughs of up to 45 percent of its U.S. based workers, some 36,000 employees.

Local airports such as George Bush Intercontinental witnessed a staggering drop in travelers.

Just how bad is the hit? Finance website FinanceBuzz crunched the numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation to determine the pandemic's effect on the 30 busiest airports in the nation. The site examined the number of departing passengers on domestic flights from June 2019 and compared them to June of this year.

Houston's Bush Intercontinental (IAH) saw a dramatic decrease in traffic of 82.83 percent, according to FinanceBuzz. June 2019 saw 1,473,575 departing passengers, compared to just 253,036 in June of this year. That drop puts IAH at No. 13 in the top 15 airports with the biggest traffic drops in the U.S.

For some perspective, the airport with the biggest plunge is New York City's LaGuardia, which saw 1,281,848 travelers depart in June 2019, while a paltry 133,272 departed this June, for a 89.60 percent drop.

But it's not all gloom and doom for Texas airports. FinanceBuzz also looked at airports making the best recovery from April to June of this year. Overall, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport saw the biggest increase in departing passengers, with 190,038 flying out in April 2020 and a whopping 998,875 flying out in June, for a jump of 425.62 percent.

The airport with the fastest recovery? That title goes to Chicago Midway International Airport, which saw 30,693 departures in April and 338,884 in June, for a leap of 1004.11 percent.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.