Roberta Schwartz is leading the innovation initiative at Houston Methodist. Courtesy of Houston Methodist

In an effort to be at the forefront of technology in the health care industry, Houston Methodist recently premiered its Center for Innovation, a group of leaders charged with finding new technologies for the hospital system for patients, physicians, and staff.

Roberta Schwartz — executive vice president, chief innovation officer, and chief executive officer of Houston Methodist Hospital — is at the helm of the initiative. After 17 years at Houston Methodist, Schwartz says she's seen the evolution of tech and is taking note of where the industry is going.

"I think we're an industry that is transforming itself. We're either going to be disrupted or we're going to do the disruption ourselves," Schwartz says. "There's nobody who knows health care better than we do, so if we're going to transform the industry, I want that transformation to come from the inside."

The hospital is instituting new pilot programs for tech advancements across the organization. Schwartz talks about the program and what she's excited about.

InnovationMap: Tell me about Houston Methodist's new Center for Innovation. How did it come about?

Roberta Schwartz: Methodist has always been an innovative institution. As we really saw the onset of a lot of disruption particularly in digital technology, we had already upgraded our electronic medical records. What we saw was with the onslaught of technology in other fields, they were figuring out how to layer pieces on top of our electronic medical record system to make that information usable — more patient friendly and smarter. As we watched these technologies come in, we found that there were a number of us within the organization that were just talking about it all the time and watching how we could really revolutionize the way we worked by embracing these new technologies. So, it probably started about 18 months ago where we found a group of us talking all the time, emailing articles, and figuring out how to hitch up our budgets for new technologies. Our CEO, Marc Boom was so supportive of us. We started meeting every other week for an hour. We called our group the DIOP — the digital innovation obsessed people. That's how it began.

IM: How did DIOP become the Center for Innovation?

RS: We spoke with our CFO and CEO. They said go ahead and provided us with some budget dollars for some pilots. We have now embraced a series of pilots in different areas of need. DIOP became formalized early this year and the Center for Innovation was born. We're now looking at a vision statement of how we can transform almost every aspect of our patient, physician, and administrative experience to make everyone's lives easier and better.

IM: What new innovative efforts are you most excited about introducing to the hospital?

RS: On the patient engagement front, we partner with a platform that breaks up bite-sized content that allows you in text form through — videos or two-way communication — so that we can engage with you before you even make a phone call to our office. For instance, after a visit we can ask you, "how bad is your pain on a scale of 1 to 10," and if you respond "10" we're going to call you before you call the office and have to press one, two, or three on our call board.

A second area we're excited about is a way to text back and forth with your doctor's office. We're changing to a much more modern communication style.

We're also changing how we recruit. We have a chatbot that's available 24/7. We find that we are communicating with night nurses at 1 am asking about benefits. A lot of the people we are trying to recruit are working at night when we don't have HR staff in the office all night long.

We are also looking robotic process automation and trying to take some of the menial work away from our staff so we can get them closer to the bedside or on more tasks.

Methodist went mobile. Our app is online — you can do virtual care, urgent care, or second opinion. Soon, we'll have virtual behavioral health and nutrition. You can also request an appointment.

IM: How is the technology changing the footprint of the hospital?

RS: We want to make Houston Methodist services available all over the country and the world, where it's appropriate. We're going to serve primarily Houston, but if we want to help those institutions in a more rural area, send them to us when appropriate, but for those who can stay at home and in bed, we want to keep them where they are and still provide them with the same level of care.

IM: With the 100-year anniversary of Houston Methodist, what do you hope to put in place for the next 100 years?

RS: We're an organization built on the pillars of success, and we constantly evolve. I can't even tell you where we'll be in a hundred years. I can tell you is that in a few years every type of ease of interaction that you have with Alexa and Amazon, that you have that type of interaction with your hospital.

I'm thrilled to be on this journey, and we're loving it.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

Houston-based iCRYO has a few Texas franchise locations expected to open in 2019,and more coming nationwide. Courtesy of iCRYO.

Houston-based cryotherapy chain grows its national presence

Cold news

A Houston entrepreneur has taken his cryotherapy and wellness brand and franchised it from its origin in League City to upstate New York. But, that's only the beginning.

The brand, iCRYO, currently has four locations in the Houston area and one in New York, and has four more coming to the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Austin, and another upstate New York location. But that's only the start, says co-founder and COO, Kyle Jones.

Jones says he was among the first in the country to see the potential for cryotherapy as a retail business. He was managing a physical therapy clinic, and they added a cryotherapy machine as a treatment for patients. Jones says he was blown away by how fast the patients were recovering — some even accelerating their healing process by 50 percent.

"I told my boss that we needed to scale this thing. This is a real business, not just an add-on for a PT clinic," Jones says.

As patients overwhelmed the small operation and as retail cryotherapy centers began popping up, Jones decided to branch out on his own. He was 24 at the time.

In 2015, he opened his first location of iCRYO in League City. Jones says he used the location to work out the kinks of his business model, since he didn't really have much to model after. One thing that was most important to Jones, with his PT background, was safety of the patients. He cared about this more than making money, he says.

"I knew first and foremost the one thing that the cryotherapy space didn't have was a certification program, which is kind of terrifying to me," Jones says. "Any therapy has some type of schooling or certification — massage therapy and acupuncture both have it. Cryotherapy even to date does not a certification to it."

He teamed up with equipment manufactures and professionals at the gas companies that handle the liquid nitrogen cryotherapy uses and they created a cloud-based certification platform for cryotherapy. He still uses that program with all iCRYO employees — everyone from the owner to the technician has to pass with a 90 percent and above.

After two years of business and settling on the company's marketing, Jones started to franchise. He sold eight locations in Houston, three have opened already. The first Austin iCRYO location plans to open in May, and three Dallas-area locations are also expected to deliver in 2019.

Jones says he is still actively looking for new franchisees, and is in talks to sell franchise rights to the entire states of Florida and Georgia, more locations in New York, San Antonio, and other cities scattered around. It's an intriguing market to franchisees, Jones says, because there's just not that much competition yet and the technology has so much potential.

"The more that people find out about it and research it, the crazier it's going to get," Jones says. "There's just no peak of people wanting to feel better."

Saudi Arabian representatives met at Houston-based Celltex Therapeutics Corp.'s office earlier this month to finalize a memorandum of understanding. Courtesy of Celltex

Houston biotech company plans expansion into Saudi Arabian market

On the move

A Houston company that uses stem cell technology to treat patients suffering from degenerative diseases is taking its patented technology to another continent.

Celltex Therapeutics Corp. has entered a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia's Research Products Development Company. As a part of the partnership solidified by the MOU, Celltex will open an office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, later this year. The new office will aid the commercialization of Celltex's technology and expand the company's presence to Saudi Arabia.

"We are honored to forge a relationship with Saudi Arabia," says David G. Eller, CEO and chairman of Celltex, in a release. "Our collaboration with this first-rate global cohort furthers our commitment to initiating breakthroughs in regenerative medicine, and our presence in Riyadh will further expand our opportunities to improve the quality of life of those in need."

The MOU is a part of the country's effort to diversify the economy that's been dominated by oil and gas, the release says. As a part of Saudi Arabia's National Industrial Development and Logistic Program, Celltex and other United States companies were invited to Riyadh to sign MOUs in January, which resulted in billions of dollars in Saudi investment, per the release.

On February 4, the two parties reconvened at Celltex's office in Houston. The group included top Saudi dignitaries, Abdulmohsen Almajnouni, CEO of RPDC, as well as others.

"We are excited to explore business opportunities with Celltex, a biotechnology company with the innovative proprietary technology, patents and know-how for the cultivation and therapeutic application of stem cells," Almajnouni says in the release.

Celltex currently extracts patients' stem cells at various partner facilities across the United States, but implementation happens at a hospital in Mexico, due to FDA regulations and red tap. However, Eller doesn't foresee this being the process forever.

"We have very good relations with the US FDA," he says in an InnovationMap article. "They are very interested in what we know. Our approach is really is very progressive and we've grown every year."

The company's treatment has been proved effective with its patients. Eighty-three percent of multiple sclerosis patients have reported improvement of symptoms specific to their disease, as have 73 percent of Parkinson's sufferers. But the staggering fact is that 100 percent of 58 respondents with rheumatoid arthritis say they have benefited.

From a locally sourced meal service company to stem cell research and a balance measuring device, this week's innovators are ones to know in the health industry. Courtesy photos

3 Houston health-focused innovators to know this week

Who's who

More and more Americans are focusing on their health, from eating right to experimenting with new treatments or devices. These three Houston innovators are riding the coattails of this health-focused movement with their startups. With advances in technology and the movement only growing faster and faster, you'd better keep your eye on these Houston innovators.

Marla Murphy, founder of The Blonde Pantry

Courtesy of The Blonde Pantry

Marla Murphy didn't feel like she was doing enough to promote health and wellness with her platform, The Blonde Pantry. So, she expanded it to incorporate locally sourced produce and easy-to-make recipes she gets ready every weekend to deliver to her members by Monday.

"It's not about selling meals and moving on, I want this to be a lifestyle company that is really founded and has deep roots in Houston," says Murphy in a InnovationMap story.

Murphy tells InnovationMap that in the next year she hopes to expand into the retail space and find a bigger commercial kitchen to function as their own. She also hopes to partner with companies outside of food and continue to nourish lives in someway.

David Eller, chairman, co-founder and CEO of Celltex

Courtesy of Celltex

Stem cell treatment is personal to David Eller, chairman, co-founder and CEO of Celltex. Eller had the treatment in hopes of resolving pain from a college football injury.

"I would go to work and put four to six Advil in my pocket," Eller says in an InnovationMap story about Celltex's technology. Within months, he stopped needing those pills.

Houston-based Celltex tracks its progress with its patients. Eighty-three percent of multiple sclerosis patients have reported improvement of symptoms specific to their disease, as have 73 percent of Parkinson's sufferers. But the staggering fact is that 100 percent of 58 respondents with rheumatoid arthritis say they have benefited.

Katharine Forth, founder and CEO of Zibrio

Courtesy of Zibrio

Katharine Forth has used a technology she developed with her colleague at NASA to measure balance in astronauts to create a device that any terrestrial human can now use from the comfort of their own homes.

"The machines typically used for balance measurement can be as large as a telephone booth, so we invented a new way to measure postural control using a much smaller mechanism that fit inside a moon boot," Forth says in an InnovationMap article about Zibrio, The Balance Company. Zibrio, The Balance Company.

Zibrio is now a finalist for the 2019 SXSW Pitch in the health and wearables category and will take its balance technology to the stage in March.

Brittany Barreto wants to expand her DNA dating technology to a B-to-B model and compatibility test — all under a new company called X&Y Technologies. Karla Martin/Pheramor

Houston DNA-based dating app expands brand and plans new ways to use its technology

Love as a science

For over two years, Brittany Barreto has been playing matchmaker with her DNA-based dating app, Pheramor, but now she's ready to take it to the next level.

Pheramor, which sequences users' DNA and datamines their social media activity to determine compatibility, is transforming into becoming a product of a newly formed company called X&Y Technologies. The company, Barreto says, will have multiple products, all relating to using that same DNA technology Pheramor has perfected.

Among the first three products X&Y is working to create is a B-to-B software-as-a-service company, where established dating companies can employ Pheramor's technology for its existing app and customers. Barreto says she has two letters of intent for the B-to-B model, one of which is a dating app with 160,000 users.

Barreto unveiled the new company at The Cannon's female entrepreneur pitch night on January 24, but expanding her technology's reach has been on her mind for a while. She cited major dating companies that have their eyes on DNA dating, but haven't yet figured out the infrastructure. That, she says, is where X&Y's SaaS model comes in.

"Our traction with the dating app was a fantastic way to prove that we are the thought leaders, we have the infrastructure, and we have the algorithm and we've proven that the market is ready to buy a DNA kit to find love," she says in her pitch.

In addition, X&Y will have a compatibility test for couples wishing to learn of their own DNA-based compatibility. The tool, called We Have Chemistry, is getting ready to launch and already has preorders coming in.

"Pheramor's test is really the gold standard and industry leader in this test," she says, explaining how Pheramor's technology can be used by these existing dating apps.

She talked about how this is the time for DNA tests — from 23andme to Pheramor — and how it's not weird to send your spit in the mail. As Barreto says in her pitch, there's so much more potential for uses of the technology in what's called contextualized genetics.

"I know that my technology is way bigger than just this one market," Barreto says. "I believe the future of product is about combining the big data of genomics and DNA with the big data of your digital footprint. Nobody has ever combined your Facebook data with your DNA to figure out what's the best diet, exercise or work environment for you."

Efficient referrals from doctor to doctor could save a life, so this Houston company is setting out to create a network of medical professionals all accessible in an app. Getty Images

Houston-based company is connecting the dots on patient referrals

Diagnosing doctors

When your doctor recommends that you visit another practitioner, it's only natural that you trust the suggestion. But it's one case in which your physician isn't always an expert. Married doctors Justin Bird, an orthopedic surgeon, and Terri-Ann Samuels, a specialist in female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgery, have long noted that patients are often referred incorrectly.

No big deal, right? Just go to another doctor. But not everyone has that luxury. Bird and Samuels never intended to start their own company. But when Bird lost a patient due to faulty referrals, they knew something had to be done.

"He believes that if she hadn't been bounced around from doctor to doctor, they could have saved her life," says Chris E. Staffel, chief operating officer of Patients We Share, the app that the couple created to fix the broken aspect of the health care system.

In 2015, Bird and Samuels began their company when they were shocked to realize that such an app didn't already exist.

"They started working with physicians around the country who said, 'We really, really need this,' and they also invested in it," recounts Staffel. From those friends, they built a physician advisory board of 15 investors.

Prescribing growth
The project was accepted into Johnson & Johnson's incubator, JLABS in 2016, then TMCx's digital startup program in the spring of 2018.

"They started realizing it was gaining momentum and realized they needed to have business people on board," says Staffel.

They hired Michael Antonoff, a Rice University M.B.A., as CEO. He invited former classmate Staffel to join as COO. Having come from a background in oil and gas, Staffel jumped at the chance to try her hand in a different industry.

With new business clout behind PWS, the company is growing quickly. Currently, PWS is entering its next seed round of $2.5 million that will allow the company to pay salaries of new team members and bring some tech development in-house. Until now, the making of the app itself has been outsourced to Mobisoft Infotech, a company based in Houston and India, which has worked on many projects at the Texas Medical Center. Local Black + Grey Studio is responsible for the design.

PWS has been working with both those teams in recent months to get a prototype app ready for launch. Currently, 100 physicians around the country are part of an invite-only pilot program. Soon, Staffel hopes to allow early adopter doctors who haven't been invited to enroll in the program for free. It will likely be in 2020 that patients will start joining the community, too.

How it works
An index of all the providers on the app allows doctors to easily find practitioners in a particular specialty. But there's more to it. Detailed profiles contribute to machine learning that assures the optimal match every time. Patient reviews will also play a role.

Though referrals were the impetus for the creation of PWS, it may be even more important as a communication tool between doctors, fellow clinicians (anyone from nurse practitioners to physical therapists may be invited to join), and patients. Staffel says participants in the pilot program are already using the messaging system to compare notes on cases, even sending photos from surgery to consult on patient issues.

The app's encryption means that it's HIPAA-compliant. Patients provide permission to discuss their cases via the app. And they can be confident of the quality of care they'll receive. Likely, the app will remain largely invite-only, and everyone who joins will share their National Provider Identifier licenses to be vetted against the federal database.

Doctors will communicate directly with patients through the app, but will also share resources digitally. Instead of making copy after copy of information about post-surgical care, for instance, the physician need only press a button to share a link.

Eventually, the goal is for PWS to be used not just nationally, but internationally, not just by individuals, but by whole hospital systems. A world in which doctors can compare notes around globe could be a little safer for us all.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Q&A: Houston entrepreneur discusses big exits, startup advice, and his new book

Featured Innovator

Jay Steinfeld is a household name — at least within Houston's growing innovation ecosystem. Steinfeld founded Blinds.com and, along with his team, grew it to a $100 million company before exiting to Home Depot in 2014. Over the past few years, Steinfeld has had time to reflect on that empire he created and recount his lessons learned in a new book.

Lead From The Core published this week, and Steinfeld took some time to answer some questions about the new book for InnovationMap. He also shares some insight into the acquisition process and advice for fellow entrepreneurs.

InnovationMap: You founded Blinds.com and exited the company to Home Depot — this is lauded as one of Houston’s big exits. What did this acquisition mean to you as a Houstonian?

Jay Steinfeld: Blinds.com ended up being far greater than what I ever believed was possible. I had no vision as to what it could become. I had no vision as to even what the internet was at the time I started. I knew nothing when I started — I didn't even know you could sell things online. So it's kind of a shock in one way, because we just started as an experiment and not to get rich or to build something massive. It was a marketing experiment and that was all, it was, we had no business plan. We didn't know what the total addressable market was. I didn't even know what a TAM was at the time. It was just an incremental step to improve my drapery shop. So now that we have developed that into by far the number one online retailer of blinds in the world and acquired by Home Depot, it's just so satisfying and so gratifying to know that all the little things that we did with all the people who were so, so much a part of it — like Daniel Cotlar, Tom Cabanski, Larry Hack, Steve Riddell, Marilyn Franks, all these people who, I mean, no one knew who we were. We were nobodies, but we were able to do something and become better than what even we believed was possible.

And that's actually the greatest thing for me — that so many people elevated themselves and either were a part of the success and felt like they were consequential in developing something that was consequential. They were a significant part of that, but they evolved along with it. And are either now still with the company prospering flourishing or they're now with other companies doing the same thing. Omair with Cart.com — starting as an accounts payable cost accountant and working his way up. And now, you know, the story there. It's amazing. So I think the fact that we were able to build these teams and do something of consequence and have people feel really good. It's not about how much money we made, but how much we really impacted ourselves and how we helped each other. And that was the key. We, we brought humanity into the workforce and show that having a culture of people first really does work. And it's not just a bunch of talk.

IM: I think when you look at some kind of growing and successful innovation ecosystems, they start with a couple companies that made it big, created a legacy and a group of successful entrepreneurs that then inspire others. Do you see Blinds.com kind of within the Houston innovation ecosystem?

JS: But I never, at the time, believed that was the case because we were within ourselves and didn't really see a responsibility or anything other than to what our own mission was. Looking back now and seeing how many people have succeeded and how other companies have used our success and even been able to get funded and to bring attention to Houston as a place where big exits can happen. That's a good feeling, but at the time I didn't really reflect on that.

IM: Your book came out this week — what did you want to accomplish with Lead From The Core?

JS: The book was originally written so that the people at Blinds.com would know what got us to where we were and would use it as the foundation for continuing what that success was all about. As I began teaching and expanding my influence throughout the community nationally, I realized that there were many entrepreneurs who could learn from the same success, the techniques, the strategies, "The Four Es" that were really the, the secret sauce of the company, the reason we were able to beat Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowe's, and why we got so much money as a result of it. I then expanded even more because people were saying, you know, I don't necessarily want to start a business, but I want, I've got an entrepreneurial bug and I want it to apply to my career. And for those people who feel stagnant and wanting to grow, these principles apply not just to a business, but to life into career trajectories. And that's been particularly satisfying because it was always about helping people become better than what they believed possible, not about the mission of Blinds.com itself. That was the mission, helping people. And now that people are re it's resonating outside the business world to any type of career, that's pretty cool. And now I realize that the audience is much broader than what my original intention was.

IM: What’s the biggest thing you want readers to take away from the book?

JS: I think if he can do it, I can do it. I think that's really it. It's not as hard as people think. I mean, it is tedious and you have to stay immensely focused, but it's a simple process. If you don't get so static in your thinking, and you're more expansive and open to possibilities — possibilities of you changing of you improving, and you're improving everybody around you — and that if you have the time and a little bit of money, then you can incrementally improve enough and fast enough that you can build something of significance too.

IM: What did you wish you had known before starting the process? 

JS: I actually wish I hadn't known any of this beforehand, or I might not have started. It's it is intensely grueling. It's not just the writing process, which in itself is hard — and the editing process, the rewrites, and the different types of editors that we've been involved with publisher — it's just the business of a book. It's it's everything. It's getting a publisher, getting editors, determining artwork for the cover and for the interior artwork, the publicity for the book who narrates it the whole process of audiobooks and rights. It's like starting a company. If you knew how hard it was going to be, you've might not have started it from the first place. So, but that's one of the things that was great about and be starting a business. I had no idea what I was doing, and I knew as much about writing a book, as I knew about starting a business. And that gave me an advantage because I didn't have bad habits. I didn't have a predetermined understanding as to what had to be in order for this to work. I would just meander through experimenting, being curious, asking for a lot of help, helping having people express themselves so I could get diverse opinions — like I did making business decisions. And that's what I want people to get from the book — that they can make these little decisions. And if it doesn't work, you stop. If it does work, you do a lot more of it. And that's what I did with the book. It's been fun. It's exactly what my "Four Es" are — experimenting, evolving, expressing, and enjoying myself.

IM: That's so meta that working on the book was like the process of what you're writing about in the book. Could you see yourself doing it again?

JS: Yeah, I've got two other book ideas — one will be a lot easier because it's not about me. It's harder to write about yourself, but writing about something else will be a lot easier. And now that I know the process, it will be so much easier. The first time is always harder. Going back to what you said about "it's kind of meta," if your core values are something, then that means that's what you do. So it shouldn't be surprising to anybody that I am experimenting and evolving and expressing and enjoying, because those are absolutely true, authentic core values for me. And therefore that means that's how I behave all the time. That's what I do every day. Not as a goal or an aspirational idea — if people can understand what is absolutely true to them and not just who they want to be, I think they'll be able to do almost anything they want.

IM: You’re involved with several companies and even have taught at Rice University. What drove you to get involved in this endeavors?

JS: Well, I'm either on board or advisory board members of five different companies, and it's a diversified group because some are in the pre-A stage and one's a public board. When I was about to step away from blinds.com, the idea was how do I keep having an active role in helping companies, but not be so active that I'm up to my eyeballs every day with the primary responsibility. I've got two in Austin, one in Chicago, one here, and then the other one's in Tampa.

The first thing I wanted to do knowing that I was going to be leaving Blinds.com was to start teaching in Houston, and this was while I was writing the book. So, it gave me an opportunity to bounce off ideas in the classes while writing and seeing what would be good to put into the book. It was like comedians going to small markets first and testing their material. That was fun, and I found that the things that I was teaching them was outside the normal courses that they were taking. I was providing that more personal introspective view while they were learning all the true skills, like evaluating markets, discounted cash flow and things like that. And that was very exciting for me to be involved there, especially with such a prestigious school like Rice. Al Donto was the one who I teach with, and he's been a great mentor and a great facilitator of that process.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Exclusive: Houston Exponential makes strategic marketing hire

innovator to know

Houston Exponential has made another new hire. Clemmie Pierce Martin has joined Houston Exponential as director of marketing and strategy. The nonprofit helps spur the growth of Houston’s innovation ecosystem.

She most recently was director of strategic partnerships and products at Houston-based startup Goodfair, which operates an online thrift store. Before that, she was head of client success at Austin-based startup Mesa Cloud, which offers a platform for tracking student progress.

Martin, who grew up in Houston and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and Houston’s The Kinkaid School, says her new employer “sees the potential in Houston and our startup ecosystem that I’ve always felt was underserved and underrepresented nationally. I couldn’t be more excited to join a team that is working tirelessly to make sure that for founders and startups anywhere in the world, Houston is not just a choice but rather the clear choice of venue.”

Martin is a great-niece of the late President George H.W. and the late first lady Barbara Bush.

Serafina Lalany, the new executive director of Houston Exponential (HX), says Martin’s experience with startups “is an invaluable asset to the organization.”

“Her insights and experiences … couldn’t be more fitting for HX’s mission to lower the barrier of entry for early stage startups in the city,” Lalany says in a news release.

Lalany became executive director of HX in September. She had been the organization’s vice president of operations and chief of staff. Lalany succeeds Harvin Moore, who resigned this summer as president and CEO of the four-year-old nonprofit.

Earlier this month, HX named Ivery Boston III as director of inclusive innovation. He previously worked for the Miami Downtown Development Authority.

Aside from the new hires, the organization recently restructured its board of directors. The board transitioned to a more informal “convening” board, and an executive committee now oversees HX’s operations.

University of Houston: Navigating between researcher and professor

houston voices

What is the difference between a professor teaching and conducting research? When does a professor need an Institutional Review Board to provide oversight on their project? The NSF has had this come up often enough, presumably, that they wrote a vignette on their website.

Let's take a quiz

The NSF presented the following scenario: “Professor Speakwell teaches undergraduate courses in linguistics in which he demonstrates variability in both the syntax and vocabulary of spoken expression across individuals and cultures. Professor Speakwell involves his students in active learning in the classroom. He brings recordings of spoken English to class and calls on students to say whether they find the example grammatical and to explain or guess what the utterance means.”

Pretty straightforward, right? A professor is a teacher. But most professors move from role-to-role like a chameleon: researcher, artist, CEO, etc. depending on their discipline.

Here's the question

“Professor Researchit, a colleague of Speakwell’s, uses these same techniques with undergraduate student volunteers to do research on variables that predict understanding of utterances. Dr. Researchit develops a protocol, and obtains IRB approval and students’ signed informed consent. Professor Researchit tells Speakwell that he had better get IRB approval and student informed consent since he is doing the same thing.”

Is Professor Researchit Correct?

Danielle Griffin, Ed.D., associate director of the Research Integrity and Oversight Office in the Division of Research at University of Houston was asked to weigh in on this vignette. She answered by saying, “No, Speakwell is not doing the same thing. Speakwell is teaching, not doing research.”

“The keywords in the first paragraph are ‘involves his students in active learning in the classroom.’ Active learning and research are two different things. They are doing hands-on learning about how to conduct research,” she went on to say. “Professor Researchit is actually doing research because the students are participants and the subjects of the data collection.”

Decision tree

When does a professor need an IRB? The government’s Health and Human Services website boasts an Office for Human Research Protections. You can find a “decision tree” there. It helps professors to determine whether an IRB is required for their research. Every institution has something similar; for instance the University of Rhode Island offers a similar tool to figure out the IRB process in a flow chart. The overarching rule is that if you are using human subjects in a clinical trial — you do need IRB oversight.

According to the University of Iowa, “publicly available data do not require IRB review. Examples: census data, labor statistics.” But they also provide a dense, comprehensive list of what else can be conducted without an IRB in place.

The Big Idea

When in doubt of whether you need an IRB or not, reach out to your institution’s IRB facilitators or the office that handles oversight, ethics and integrity. The Research Integrity and Oversight (RIO) Office at the University of Houston, for instance, “supports and educates the research community in all areas of compliance with federal regulations concerning human subjects, animal subjects, conflicts of interest, grant congruency and responsible conduct of research.” It’s better to be safe than sorry, but if the lesson you’re teaching benefits the student, it is probably not a research project.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton, the author of this piece, is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.