Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago.

The 2021 winners, according to Rice's news release, were:

  • Kevin McHugh, an assistant professor of bioengineering, is working on a method to automate an encapsulation process that uses biodegradable microparticles in the timed release of drugs to treat cancer and prevent infectious disease. He suggested the process could help ramp up the manufacture of accessible multidose vaccines.
  • Daniel Preston, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is developing a novel filtration system that will recover water typically released by cooling towers at natural gas power plants. The inexpensive filters will result in a significant savings in water costs during power generation.
  • Geoff Wehmeyer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Matteo Pasquali, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a professor of chemistry and materials science and nanoengineering; Junichiro Kono, the Karl F. Hasselmann Chair in Engineering, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, physics and astronomy and materials science and nanoengineering and chair of the applied physics program, and Glen Irvin Jr., a research professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, are creating a solid-state, active heat-switching device to enable the rapid charging of batteries for electric vehicles. The lightweight device will use carbon nanotube fibers to optimize battery thermal management systems not only for cars but also, eventually, for electronic devices like laptops.
  • Xia Ben Hu, an associate professor of computer science, is developing his open-source machine learning system to democratize and accelerate small businesses’ digital transformation in e-commerce.
  • Bruce Weisman, a professor of chemistry and of materials science and nanoengineering, and Satish Nagarajaiah, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering, are working to advance their strain measurement system based on the spectral properties of carbon nanotubes. The system will allow for quick measurement of strain to prevent catastrophic failures and ensure the safety of aircraft, bridges, buildings, pipelines, ships, chemical storage vessels and other infrastructure.
  • Aditya Mohite, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and associate professor of materials science and nanoengineering, and Michael Wong, the Tina and Sunit Patel Professor in Molecular Nanotechnology, a professor and chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering and a professor of chemistry, materials science and nanoengineering and of civil and environmental engineering, are scaling up novel photoreactors for the environmentally friendly generation of hydrogen. Their process combines of perovskite-based solar cells and state-of-the-art catalysts.
  • Rebekah Drezek, a professor of bioengineering, and Richard Baraniuk, the C. Sidney Burrus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of statistics and computer science, are developing a system to rapidly diagnose sepsis using microfluidics and compressed sensing to speed the capture and analysis of microbial biomarkers.
  • Fathi Ghorbel, a professor of mechanical engineering and of bioengineering, is working on robotic localization technology in GPS-denied environments such as aboveground storage tanks, pressure vessels and floating production storage and offloading tanks. The system would enable robots to precisely associate inspection data to specific locations leading to efficiency and high quality of inspection and maintenance operations where regular inspections are required. This will dramatically improve the environmental impact and safety of these assets.
  • Kai Fu, a research scientist, and Yuji Zhao, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are working to commercialize novel power diodes and transistors for electric vehicles. They expect their devices to reduce the volume of power systems while improving integration, power density, heat dissipation, storage, and energy efficiency.
Since 2009, institutions in Houston have employed CPRIT grants totaling more than $390 million to successfully recruit over 125 cancer researchers. Photo via Getty Images

With millions in grant funds, this nonprofit is making Houston an irresistible market for cancer researchers

attracting talent

In their bid to attract top-notch cancer researchers, institutions in Houston compete against the likes of Harvard and Stanford universities, and the Cleveland and Mayo clinics. Super-talented cancer researchers typically can choose from among dozens of institutions vying for them.

Yet cancer research centers in Houston and elsewhere in Texas wield a powerful advantage in this contest for talent — money.

As of early November, four cancer research centers in Houston — the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Methodist Hospital Research Institute, and Baylor College of Medicine — had dangled grants totaling nearly $22 million to successfully lure nine high-profile cancer researchers this year to the Bayou City. The nonprofit Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), based in Austin, supplied the grants.

Since 2009, institutions in Houston have employed CPRIT grants totaling more than $390 million to successfully recruit over 125 cancer researchers, according to CPRIT data provided to InnovationMap. Houston has been the beneficiary of about half of all grants awarded to CPRIT scholars in Texas.

This year alone, four CPRIT scholars have landed at the UT Southwestern Medical Center as of early November, three at the Baylor College of Medicine, and one each at the Methodist Hospital Research Institute and MD Anderson Cancer Center. Each of the grants they received is around $2 million or $4 million.

According to CPRIT, Texas boasts a state-funded recruitment program for cancer researchers unmatched by another other state. Wayne Roberts, CEO of CPRIT, says the more than 250 CPRIT scholars recruited in the past 12 years throughout the state "are advancing research efforts, positioning Texas as a leader in the fight against cancer, and promoting economic development throughout the state."

Roberts is former associate vice president for public policy at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

Texans voted in 2007 to create CPRIT and invest $3 billion in the state's fight against cancer. Two years ago, Texans voted to pump another $3 billion into what now is a 20-year initiative. The institute bills itself as the largest state-based investment in cancer research in U.S. history and the world's second largest cancer research and prevention program.

Dr. Helen Heslop, interim director of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Baylor College of Medicine, says the CPRIT grants give the cancer center an edge in wooing "highly sought after" cancer researchers, both senior and up-and-coming professionals. But the benefit goes well beyond that, according to Heslop.

"Having a new person who brings new skills and expertise is obviously great for the people who are working very closely with them at, say, our cancer center," she says. "But a lot of these people will also collaborate with other local institutions. … It just enriches the overall social environment between all the institutions."

On top of that, successfully recruiting high-caliber cancer researchers to Houston helps attract even more high-caliber cancer researchers, Heslop says.

Without the CPRIT grants, Houston would be less competitive in the hunt for first-rate cancer researchers, she says.

One factor that makes the CPRIT grants stand out is that they typically last five years, while other types of research grants frequently last only three years, Heslop says. This longer time span enables cancer researchers to undertake creative high-risk projects, offering them "a much longer runway to get themselves established" and then secure their own funding from organizations like the National Institutes of Health, she says. As a result, many cancer researchers who earn CPRIT grants wind up staying in Houston rather than being poached by research centers in other cities.

Dr. Qing Yi, director of the Center for Translational Research at Houston Methodist, received a $6 million CPRIT grant in 2018 that brought him back to Houston from the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute. He specializes in research about multiple myeloma, the second most common blood cancer after non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Gen. Colin Powell, former U.S. secretary of state, was battling multiple myeloma when he died in mid-October due to complications from COVID-19.

Yi says cancer research centers in Texas couple CPRIT grants with their own funding to up the ante in the competition for cancer researchers. This one-two financial punch is "way more generous" than funding offers from cancer research institutions in other states, according to Yi.

For example, the Methodist Hospital Research Institute successfully recruited researcher Yong Lu this year with the aid of a nearly $4 million CPRIT grant, paired with a 50 percent match of the institute's own money. Lu most recently ran a research lab at Wake Forest University's medical school that focuses on a type of cancer treatment known as adoptive cell immunotherapy.

Yi says his own CPRIT grant of $6 million was matched with $4 million from Houston Methodist, giving him a total funding pool of $10 million. Before heading to Cleveland, Yi was a tenured professor of medicine at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, meaning the CPRIT grant paved the way for his return to Houston. The $10 million pot of money "made it very attractive" to accept the Houston Methodist offer, he says.

"CPRIT funding is really crucial for Texas to recruit top-notch cancer investigators into our state. It's one of the best things that Texas has done for cancer research," Yi says.

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Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.

Report: Federal funding, increased life science space drive industry growth in Houston

by the numbers

Federal funding, not venture capital, continues to be the main driver of growth in Houston’s life sciences sector, a new report suggests.

The new Houston Life Science Insight report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows Houston accounted for more than half (52.7 percent) of total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across major Texas markets through the third quarter of this year. NIH funding in the Houston area totaled $769.6 million for the first nine months of 2022, exceeding the five-year average by 19.3 percent.

VC funding for Houston’s life sciences sector pales in comparison.

For the first nine months of this year, companies in life sciences raised $147.3 million in VC, according to the report. Based on that figure, Houston is on pace in 2022 to meet or surpass recent life sciences VC totals for most other years except 2021. JLL describes 2021 as an “outlier” when it comes to annual VC hauls for the region’s life sciences companies.

JLL notes that “limited venture capital interest in private industry has remained a challenge for the city’s life sciences sector. Furthermore, it may persist as venture capital strategies are reevaluated and investment strategies shift toward near-term profits.”

While life sciences VC funding has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with NIH funding, there are other bright spots for the sector.

One of those bright spots is the region’s rising amount of life sciences space.

The Houston area boasts more than 2.4 million square feet of space for life sciences operations, with another 1.1 million under construction and an additional 1.5 million square feet on the drawing board, the report says. This includes a soon-to-open lab spanning 25,000 square feet in the first phase of Levit Green.

A second bright spot is the migration of life sciences companies to the region. Two Southern California-based life sciences companies, Cellipoint Bioservices and Obagi Cosmeceuticals, plan to move their headquarters and relocate more than half of their employees to The Woodlands by the first half of 2023, according to the report.

“Houston’s low tax rate and cost of living were primary drivers for the decisions, supported by a strong labor pool that creates advantages for companies’ expansion and relocation considerations,” JLL says.

Here's what Houston startups need to know about internal communications

guest column

Startup founders often focus on outward victories. However, if they look inward and get internal communications right, this can prioritize, inspire, and retain talent, which is the heart of the company.

Consistent internal communication helps employees to understand the company's core values and mission and the evolving internal policies and procedures — health care benefits, reorganizations, remote work — that accompany a young business. Investing in internal communications also supports external public relations efforts because the best company storytellers are well-informed employees.

Consider these tactics for effective internal communications.

Prioritize messaging

In any startup, internal procedures evolve as the company grows. Take control of the narrative while easing employees' minds by prioritizing internal messaging.

Whether transitioning to a more flexible work schedule, updating healthcare benefits, or rolling out a performance review process, planning messages in advance can help team members understand the change, the impact, and how they can contribute positively to the development.

Well-informed employees help mitigate uneasiness and tend to achieve business goals more quickly. Make sure to allow the employees time to reflect and react.

Support managers

Leaders and mid-level managers play an integral role in internal communications by cascading information throughout the organization. They regularly engage with their employees, so it is important that managers feel confident and supported in their communication skills.

Managers can benefit from a common company language, talking points, or communications training for more effective and productive conversations. By identifying, clarifying, and reinforcing common goals and key objectives for managers, companies can strengthen productivity and eliminate confusion, especially if the company changes teams' roles and responsibilities.

Be consistent

Make sure that the drumbeat remains steady, whether this includes a monthly town hall meeting or weekly CEO emails. Since communication is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, use a communication approach tailored to the workforce.

For example, there might be more effective communication methods than email for employees not behind a desk. As a smaller company, take that time to connect with the team directly because as the company swells, that one-on-one experience will become increasingly difficult to manage.

Listen to employees

Delivering top-down messaging that resonates with the workforce remains critical. However, internal communication is a two-way street.

Allow team members to give valuable feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about the company, concerns, and how to improve communications. Issue internal surveys or hold face-to-face meetings to gain useful insight.

Understanding these critical proof points will enable more effective communication and quick action on any issues.

Be a human

Keep humanity at the heart of internal communications. Amid the company's transition, maintain transparency and recognize the emotional toll some changes can have on teammates. The best talent will remain when they feel connected, informed and listened to.

Greater employee engagement can help build a strong company culture of accountability, authenticity and communication, setting up the business for bigger success.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.