From advanced computation to robots, Rice University, the University of Houston, and Houston Methodist are all working on using technology for medical innovation. Graphic via Getty Images

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 news, three Houston institutions are working on brain-related health care solutions thanks to technologies.

University of Houston research team focused on brain injury treatment through computation

Badri Roysam and his team at the University of Houston are working with the National Institute of Health to develop tools to treat concussions and brain injuries. Photo via uh.edu

A University of Houston researcher is tapping into technology to better treat brain injuries and conditions that scientists have not yet figured out treatment for. Badri Roysam, the current chair of electrical and computer engineering at UH and a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor, and his team have created a new computational image analysis methods based on deep neural networks.

"We are interested in mapping and profiling unhealthy and drug-treated brain tissue in unprecedented detail to reveal multiple biological processes at once - in context," Roysam says in a UH press release about his latest paper published in Nature Communications. "This requires the ability to record high-resolution images of brain tissue covering a comprehensive panel of molecular biomarkers, over a large spatial extent, e.g., whole-brain slices, and automated ability to generate quantitative readouts of biomarker expression for all cells."

Roysam's system, which was developed at the the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, analyzes the images on UH's supercomputer automatically and can reveal multiple processes at once – the brain injury, effects of the drug being tested and the potential side effects of the drug, per the release.

"Compared to existing screening techniques, using iterative immunostaining and computational analysis, our methods are more flexible, scalable and efficient, enabling multiplex imaging and computational analysis of up to 10 – 100 different biomarkers of interest at the same time using direct or indirect IHC immunostaining protocols," says Roysam in the release.

The open-source toolkit, which was developed thanks to a $3.19 million grant from the National Institute of Health, is also adaptable to other tissues.

"We are efficiently overcoming the fluorescence signal limitations and achieving highly enriched and high-quality source imagery for reliable automated scoring at scale," says Roysam. "Our goal is to accelerate system-level studies of normal and pathological brains, and pre-clinical drug studies by enabling targeted and off-target drug effects to be profiled simultaneously, in context, at the cellular scale."

Houston Methodist and Rice University launch new collaboration to use robotics for clinical solutions

Rice University's Behnaam Aazhang and Marcia O'Malley are two of the people at the helm of the new center along with Houston Methodist's Dr. Gavin Britz. Photos via Rice.edu

Rice University and Houston Methodist have teamed up to create a new partnership and to launch the Center for Translational Neural Prosthetics and Interfaces in order to bring together scientists, clinicians, engineers, and surgeons to solve clinical problems with neurorobotics.

"This will be an accelerator for discovery," says the new center's co-director, Dr. Gavin Britz, chair of the Houston Methodist Department of Neurosurgery, in a news release. "This center will be a human laboratory where all of us — neurosurgeons, neuroengineers, neurobiologists — can work together to solve biomedical problems in the brain and spinal cord. And it's a collaboration that can finally offer some hope and options for the millions of people worldwide who suffer from brain diseases and injuries."

The center will have representatives from both Rice and Houston Methodist and also plans to hire three additional engineers who will have joint appointments at Houston Methodist and Rice.

"The Rice Neuroengineering Initiative was formed with this type of partnership in mind," says center co-director Behnaam Aazhang, Rice's J.S. Abercrombie Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who also directs the neuroengineering initiative. "Several core members, myself included, have existing collaborations with our colleagues at Houston Methodist in the area of neural prosthetics. The creation of the Center for Translational Neural Prosthetics and Interfaces is an exciting development toward achieving our common goals."

The team will have a presence on the Rice campus with 25,000 square feet of space in the Rice Neuroengineering Initiative laboratories and experimental spaces in the university's BioScience Research Collaborative. The space at Houston Methodist is still being developed.

"This partnership is a perfect blend of talent," says Rice's Marcia O'Malley, a core member of both the new center and university initiative. "We will be able to design studies to test the efficacy of inventions and therapies and rely on patients and volunteers who want to help us test our ideas. The possibilities are limitless."

Health care leaders joined a virtual panel to discuss the effects of COVID-19 and more. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Overheard: Houston health care experts sound off on how tech and COVID-19 have affected the industry

eavesdropping in houston

There has been an undeniable paradigm shift in the health care industry due to COVID-19 as well as the growth of technology. A group of professionals sat down to discuss what in particular has changed for the industry as a whole as well as at local institutions.

At a panel for Venture Houston, a two-day conference put on by the HX Venture Fund on February 4th and 5th, a few health care professionals weighed in on all the changes to the industry for the startups, investors, corporations, and more who attended the virtual event. Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual panel — Thinking Past a COVID World.

“For most of health care, this last year has been probably five years of rapid cycle re-innovation and movement forward — particularly in the digital realm.”

Marc Boom, president and CEO of Houston Methodist. From rapid adoption of telemedicine to developing a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year, health care has seen rapid growth. However, there's fine tuning still needed, Boom continues.

"At the end of the day there's only so much we can do virtually," he adds.

“The most incredible thing was how the vaccines got developed so quickly.”

Chris Rizik, CEO of Renaissance Venture Partners. A large portion of the industry wasn't excited about RNA vaccines, but the COVID-19 vaccines might have changed some minds. It took 11 months to get it out into the world, but 10 of that was purely regulatory, he adds.

"One of the sustaining changes of the COVID-19 pandemic is I think RNA vaccines are here to stay."

​— Paul Klotman, executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine. Klotman adds that the vaccine's trials were so impressively quick because there were just so many COVID patients sick and eligible to enroll.

“I think one of the things the TMC institutions did really well was to decide really early on was to share data.”

Boom says, adding that the TMC represents around 70 percent of Houston's adults and around 90 percent of the city's pediatric patients. This opportunity for data is "one of the most robust sources of real-time data."

"Yes, you're going to compete clinically, but there's a lot of collaboration to be done especially during a pandemic," Boom says of the TMC's member organizations prioritizing collaboration with data sharing.

“Houston has done better than almost all major metropolitan areas because we have came together as a city and a community.”

Klotman says, adding that the vast patient base the TMC is key.

"There's a huge opportunity here for early biotech development," he says. "Because there are so many patients, there are huge opportunities to do new trials."

“The real challenge is for investors to be in tune to know what’s here to stay, and to invest around that."

Rizik says, adding that 2020 was the biggest year for health care investment with more money going into deals, rather than more deals occuring.

“We’re seeing a huge uptick in people interested in health professions, thanks to COVID.”

Boom says of the industry's workforce, which has usually been hard to recruit and grow.

“The medical school communities are all racing to change the way we teach and the kind of information we teach.”

Klotman says of the future of the workforce.

“Unlike most industries, technology is tended to be cumbersome in health care.

​— Boom says adding that new technology means added costs and slowed down processes that can't replace the human touch. Houston Methodist is looking for innovations that don't take health care professionals away from patients.

“If there’s anything this last year has shown us is that as fast as we thought we were going, we need to go faster. We’re excited to work with companies with great ideas.”

— Boom says of the future of tech in health care. "I think we're on a very transformational era in digital health right now — but there's a lot of work to be done still."

COVID-19-related stories topped this year's health tech trending articles on InnovationMap. Photo via Getty Images

Here are Houston's top 5 health innovation stories of the year

2020 in review

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. The medical world has had a busy year amid the pandemic, and health tech innovation has never been more important. InnovationMap's top stories of the year included a new academic psychiatric hospital, Houston-based COVID-19 innovations, and more.

These 7 Houston health tech companies are providing COVID-19 solutions

These Houston startups have created health care-related solutions amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

It's all hands on deck in Houston in the battle against coronavirus — and local biotech startups have risen to the occasion.

From mental health solutions and online portals to virtual medicine and new treatments, these Houston companies have recently launched or pivoted to new options in health care. Click here to continue reading.

Houston to be home to the largest academic psychiatric hospital in the country

The UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center, set to open next year, will be unlike anything in Houston. Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

Film and TV portrayals of psychiatric hospitals have driven a narrative based in cold, clinical rooms and unwelcoming corridors. That picture couldn't be more inaccurate when it comes to Houston's first public mental health hospital in more than three decades. Breaking stigmas and setting a new bar for design, the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center is set to open its doors in late 2021.

UTHealth has brought on architecture firm Perkins and Will to design the upcoming mental health facility. The behavioral health campus will be the largest facility of its kind in the United States, becoming a place to train future physicians and specialists. Located near Texas Medical Center, the space will consist of two buildings connected by a glazed bridge, surrounded by a tranquil green space.

The 220,000-square-foot facility includes 264 new inpatient beds and will provide access to mental healthcare, substance use intervention and treatment, and medical care via integrated treatment programs. Click here to continue reading.

Photos: Houston Methodist opens new hub to showcase health tech of the future

The Center for Innovation at Houston Methodist has opened its new Technology Hub to showcase its efforts to advance digital health. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist is regularly exploring new digital health technologies, but, until recently, lacked a proper space to demonstrate their vision for the future of health care. Now, with the Center for Innovation's Technology Hub, the hospital has just that.

The tech hub opened earlier this month in Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more.

"Basically this space is like a laboratory for digital health innovations," says Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist. "It's an opportunity to bring doctors, administrators, and subject matter experts to talk through what digital health could be at Houston Methodist."

The tech hub has re-imagined the experiences patients have and demonstrated the effect technology can have in various experiences — from the waiting room or outpatient care to at-home health and a voice control-optimized patient room. There's a virtual reality demo room that showcases the hospital's use of VR for distraction therapy, as well as for a doctor to demonstrate a surgical procedure for his or her patient. Click here to continue reading.

Houston organization names 10 most promising life sciences startups

Here's which life science companies — in Houston and beyond — are ones to watch. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Last week, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship gathered over 1,000 life science experts and attendees virtually for thought leadership as well as 40 company presentations.

The three-day 2020 Virtual Texas Life Science Forum was made possible through a partnership with BioHouston and support from Texas Medical Center and Insperity. At the close of the summit, several companies were recognized with awards.

Houston-based Starling Medical won the Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award, established by BioHouston in honor of the groundbreaking Houston cardiovascular surgeon. The digital health device company is revolutionizing severe bladder dysfunction management with artificial intelligence.

Every year at the forum, the Rice Alliance names its 10 most promising companies working on developing innovative solutions in medical devices, digital health, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, and therapeutics. This year, Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, says they had more applications to present than ever before. Additionally, the presenting companies — about half of which are Houston-based — have already raised more than $275 million in funding. Click here to continue reading.

Houston biotech company is creating a drug that could fight the coronavirus

Pulmotect, a clinical-stage biotechnology company based in Houston, is testing a drug that could be useful in mitigating the threats of the coronavirus, which is currently been recognized as a global health emergency. Getty Images

A drug being developed by a Houston biopharmaceutical company eventually could help combat what the World Health Organization has proclaimed a global health emergency.

Experiments conducted by clinical-stage biotechnology company Pulmotect Inc. show its PUL-042 inhaled drug has proven effective in protecting mice against two types of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

In the Galveston experiments, a single inhaled dose of PUL-042 protected lab mice from the SARS virus, and it greatly reduced the amount of virus in their lungs after the mice became infected with SARS or MERS.

"With the risks of virulent coronaviruses and other threats increasing, as shown by the recent outbreak in Wuhan that has already spread from China to other countries including the United States, Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of current and emerging pathogens and protecting vulnerable populations," says CEO Dr. Colin Broom in a news release. Click here to continue reading.

Front-line and health care workers will get the vaccine first. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

7 Houston-area hospitals receive first doses of COVID-19 vaccine

CORONAVIRUS NEWS

Four sites in Texas received the COVID-19 vaccine on December 14, part of a rollout of doses being shipped out across the U.S.

Texas received 19,500 doses, with another 250,000 doses being distributed to 109 facilities in Texas this week.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, the first four sites to get it were:

  • MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston
  • Methodist Dallas Medical Center
  • Wellness 360 at UT Health San Antonio
  • UT Health Austin's Dell Medical School

Another 75,000 doses will be delivered on December 15 to 19 sites in Texas:

  • Houston, Texas Children's Hospital Main
  • Houston, LBJ Hospital
  • Houston, CHI St. Luke's Health
  • Houston, Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center
  • Houston, Houston Methodist Hospital
  • Houston, Ben Taub General Hospital
  • Galveston, University of Texas Medical Branch Hospital
  • Amarillo, Texas Tech Univ. Health Science Center Amarillo
  • Corpus Christi, Christus Spohn Health System Shoreline
  • Dallas, Parkland Hospital
  • Dallas, UT Southwestern
  • Edinburg, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance
  • Edinburg, UT Health RGV Edinburg
  • El Paso, University Medical Center El Paso
  • Fort Worth, Texas Health Resources Medical Support
  • Lubbock, Covenant Medical Center
  • San Angelo, Shannon Pharmacy
  • Temple, Baylor Scott and White Medical Center

Health care and front-line workers will receive the vaccine first. Officials are still working out the timeline but the general public is not expected to get the vaccine until spring 2021 at the earliest.

Dr. Paul Klotman, president of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said in a press conference that getting vaccinated is helpful to both individuals and their communities.

"The thing about everyone pitching in, do it for yourself because it will help protect you, but when you get the herd immunity it will help protect people who are unable medically to get the vaccine," Klotman said.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

This week's innovators to know roundup includes Roberta Schwartz of Houston Methodist, Jani Tuomi of imaware, and Jill Chapman of Insperity. Photos courtesy

3​ Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In today's Monday roundup of Houston innovators, I'm introducing you to three innovators across industries — including some with COVID-19 news.

Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president of Houston Methodist Hospital

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

Houston Methodist and its Center for Innovation — led by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president of Houston Methodist Hospital — has been in the innovation news around Houston in a few ways. First, the health care innovation hub was recognized with the Listies award for corporate innovation and Schwartz accepted the award on behalf of her team.

Last week, Houston Methodist was announced to be on the short list for the COVID-19 vaccine being developed and distributed by Pfizer.

And finally, Schwartz shared details about a new voice technology the hospital has implemented into their operating rooms. The technology uses ambient listening to help surgeons operate hands free from typing or note taking and focus on their patient. Read more.

Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware

Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his company's, early disease screening, COVID-19 testing, and more. Photo courtesy of imaware

As COVID-19 was emerging as an international threat across January and February, Jani Tuomi and his team at imaware — a Houston health tech startup providing at-home testing for chronic conditions — quickly jumped on a way to provide at-home coronavirus testing.

"Right away there was an amazing reception," Tuomi says, adding that big companies were looking to provide their employees on-site training. "There was way more need for testing than supply was available."

Imaware formed strategic partnerships with other Texas companies, including Austin-based startup Wheel — the telemedicine partner. Basically, users take a quick assessment online and if they are high risk, a health care worker is deployed to the patient's site to conduct the test. Once finished, the lab analyzes the sample and telemedicine professionals reach out with results and next steps. Read more and stream the podcast.

Jill Chapman, senior performance consultant with Insperity

Jill Chapman is a senior performance consultant with Insperity. Photo courtesy of Insperity

With Thanksgiving in the rearview, the holiday season is in full swing. And, as some companies in Houston have either partially or completely resumed in-office workdays, businesses might also be looking to spread some holiday cheer around the workspace. Jill Chapman, a senior performance consultant with Insperity, shared in a guest column for InnovationMap her ideas for safe virtual and in-person festivities.

"Business leaders should consider hosting holiday celebrations that honor their employees and align with their ongoing safety protocols," she writes. "For companies that continue to conduct in-person business, holiday celebrations may be safely held outside in Houston's temperate climate. For companies that plan to proceed with virtual celebrations, think outside the box for developing an event that colleagues will enjoy." Read more.

Meet MIA — Houston Methodist's new voice technology assistant. Photo via Getty Images

Houston hospital introduces first-of-its-kind voice technology into its operating rooms

Hey, MIA

Hey, MIA. Start surgery.

These are the words Houston doctors are learning to say in the operating rooms, thanks to a first-of-its-kind voice technology developed by the Houston Methodist's Center for Innovation in collaboration with Amazon Web Services. In the same way we use programs like Alexa or Siri to make our everyday tasks easier, the Methodist Intelligent Automation, or MIA, is allowing medical professionals to improve the way they interact both with technology and patients alike.

"There's been a push in the industry for a long time that people sitting behind computers and typing and staring at a computer screen is inadequate," says Houston Methodist Chief Innovation Officer Roberta Schwartz. "There's been a desire to return people back to each other rather than physicians and look at a screen and patients look at a doctor looking at a screen."

Currently in its pilot phase, MIA is working to do just that through two key functions that shift the way medical professionals work in what Schwartz calls the "era of electronic medical records."

The first is through operating room voice commands. Here medical professionals can run through a series or checklists and initiate important actions, such as starting timers or reviewing time of anesthesia, through voice instead of by typing or clicking, which can become cumbersome during lengthy and highly detailed surgeries. Information is displayed on a large 80-inch TV in the operating suite and following surgery all of the data captured is imported into the traditional EMR program. The technology has been prototyped in two Houston Methodist O.R. suites so far and the hub aims to trial it in a simulation surgery by the end of the year.

Additionally, the hub is developing ambient listening technology to be used in a clinical setting with the same goal. Houston Methodist and AWS have partnered with Dallas-based Pariveda to create specialized hardware that (after gaining patient permission) will listen into doctor-patient conversations, transcribe the interaction, and draft a note that is then coded and imported directly into the EMR.

"For EMR the feedback is that it's clunky, it's click-heavy, it's very task oriented," says Josh Sol, who leads digital and clinical innovation for Houston Methodist. "Our goal with the Center for Innovation and this technology hub is to really transform that terminology and bring back this collaboration and the patient-physician relationship by removing the computer but still capturing all the pertinent information."

The ambient listening technology is further off and is currently in user acceptance testing with clinicians.

"They've had some great feedback, whether it's changing how the note is created, changing the look and feel of the application itself," Sol adds. "All feedback is good feedback at this point. So we've taken it in, we prioritize the work, and we continue to improve the application."

And the hub doesn't plan to stop there. Schwartz and Sol agree that the next step for this type of medical technology will be patient facing. They envision that in the near future appointment or surgery prep can be done through Alexa push notifications and medication reminders or follow up assessments could be done via voice applications.

"It's all going to be of tremendous value and it's coming," Schwartz says. "We may be taking the first baby steps, but each one of these voice technologies for our patients is out there on the horizon."

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.