Aaron McEuen of the University of Houston's Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design answered the call for creating medical face shields for Harris Health System. Photo via uh.edu

A Houston health system was in need of protective personal equipment, or PPE, when they reached out to a local academic institution for support.

Harris Health System tapped the University of Houston to make medical face shields for doctors and nurses at the system's two hospitals — Ben Taub and Lyndon B. Johnson.

"Face shields are one of our most challenging pieces of protective equipment to get during these times of need," says Chris Okezie, vice president of system operations at Harris Health System, in a news release. "They're also the most effective equipment to protect our front-line staff."

One college on campus is particularly equipped to build things, and that's the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design — specifically the college's Burdette Keeland Jr. Design Exploration Center. It took only a day for the center to build a prototype. Harris Health then made an initial order of 500 masks.

The lab uses universal laser cutters to create the semi-circle of plastic for the shield — the machines can cut 10 pieces in less than 3 minutes. Then, it can be assembled manually. Aaron McEuen, instructional lab manager at the center, is leading the efforts.

"Honestly, it's nice to be productive. I know a lot of people are cooped up in their houses," he says. "We're lucky to have the opportunity to contribute."

One challenge McEuen is facing is procuring the raw materials for the shields. as shipping and delivery times are slower during the pandemic. Despite the obstacles, Harris Health System's president and CEO, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, is grateful for the support and effort.

"This is a great example of how people of this great city and county come together to address a common and dire need," says Porsa in the release. "I want to personally thank the staff and leadership of University of Houston for stepping up and leading the way to help Harris Health care for our communities in the safest possible way."

Through a $4 million grant, the city of Houston will be able to provide mental health treatment to at-risk students. Educational First Steps/Facebook

City of Houston and local health care organizations receive $4M to treat mental health in students

Help granted

The city of Houston just received a major opportunity to help grow access to mental health treatment in children.

Thanks to a four-year $4 million grant from the United States Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the city and its partner, Baylor College of Medicine, are launching the Be-Well Be-Connected program that provides at-risk students age six to 17 years old with mental health treatment.

The program will be led by Dr. Laurel Williams, associate professor of psychiatry at Baylor, division head for child and adolescent psychiatry and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital. The treatment will include cognitive behavioral intervention for students with bipolar disorder and first episode psychosis, according to the release. The services will be provided in the child's home, which will ensure compliance.

"We do not have many places in Houston that have this capability to provide this level of intensity of services," Williams says in the release. "Having in-home therapy can allow the young person to stay engaged in their community and in their schools, which can promote wellness and reduction in symptoms burden more quickly."

Other Houston health centers, including Texas Children's Hospital, Harris Health System, Menninger Clinic, Harris Center, Veteran's Mental Health Care Line, Legacy Community Health Services, and DePelchin's Children's Center, will be involved with the program and the Mayor's Office of Education is the program manager of the grant.

"I created the Office of Education to support school districts in Houston because they are doing the essential work of guaranteeing that our next generation of adults is educated and ready for the future," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "The grant validates our efforts and more importantly will provide care on the frontlines of a key health issue involving young people."

Five independent school districts will also receive first level screening services and telemedical care. Families of the students receiving care will also receive support from the newly developed Texas State Child Mental Health Consortium.

"Houston and our surrounding area is primed to really take children's mental health care to the next needed level," says Williams in the release. "This SAMHSA grant opportunity coupled with the State Consortium will allow better coordination amongst services and an overall increase in available services — services that are desperately needed."

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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.