Let's look at the pace of innovation in Houston over the past couple of years. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

When the world came to a halt in 2020 due to COVID-19, innovation moved forward as normal day to day operations went virtual. Small business incubators like the University of Houston Technology Bridge, The Cannon and The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, have found that, even during a lockdown, new innovations and leading-edge technologies have become easier to create.

“Hardship always leads to innovation. People have to get scrappy and creative. There’s always a lot of good that comes from the bad, ” founder and president of The Cannon, Lawson Gow, said.

Incubators coping with lockdown

Small business incubators provide a wide variety of crucial resources that startups, entrepreneurs, investors and corporate innovators need to succeed.

What did these incubators do to continue to help push their communities toward success when the lockdown went into effect?

The very first thing The Cannon did was set up a 24-hour hotline that businesses could call if they needed help with anything.

“The Cannon Emergency Response Team emerged from these efforts and was on the front lines of doing whatever we could to help people survive and get back on track,” Gow said.

He also said that it was hard to see hundreds of businesses struggling at the beginning of the pandemic. Kerri Smith, the associate managing director of The Rice Alliance said, as an organization built on forging connections that accelerate startup success, The Rice Alliance knew that staying afloat and continuing to offer their programs were crucial aspects of their important work.

“Within a matter of weeks, we organized and hosted our first virtual pitch event for startups innovating in the energy sector. Originally slated to be held at the Offshore Technology Conference but then cancelled, The Rice Alliance Energy Tech Venture Day portion of the OTC event provided a great platform for our startups to get exposure,” Smith said.

The University of Houston Technology Bridge began to connect businesses to the Small Business Development Center, where they could get help with all their preliminary operational tasks. Also, the SBDC helped businesses access the COVID-related funding that the government was offering.

“That seemed to help some of them get through some of the challenging times early on in the pandemic, ” said Chris Taylor, executive director of the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation.

Growing digitally

After the lockdown went into effect, just about everything went virtual. At this point social distancing wasn’t even an option unless you were going to the doctor’s office or the grocery store.

As organizations that were made to help and support small businesses, it was important that incubators remained connected to their communities and communicate with them even in a virtual world.

“We provided intentional and comprehensive updates on resources, events and community opportunities through email outreach and social media, and featured success stories of entrepreneurs who participated in our programs,” Smith said.

Through The Cannon’s CERT program, they stayed extremely connected to their community and even built an entire digital platform called Cannon Connect that served and continues to serve their virtual community.

“It’s our own internal LinkedIn for Cannon members inside and outside Cannon spaces. It has educational curriculum, a job board, an equity crowdfunding site, and much more,” Gow said.

Gow said Cannon Connect will be the “lasting legacy of the COVID era.”

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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.

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Houston-based health tech startup is revolutionizing patient selection for clinical trials

working smarter

On many occasions in her early career, Dr. Arti Bhosale, co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health, found herself frustrated with having to manually sift through thousands of digital files.

The documents, each containing the medical records of a patient seeking advanced treatment through a clinical trial, were always there to review — and there were always more to read.

Despite the tediousness of prescreening, which could take years, the idea of missing a patient and not giving them the opportunity to go through a potentially life-altering trial is what kept her going. The one she didn’t read could have slipped through the cracks and potentially not given someone care they needed.

“Those stories have stayed with me,” she says. “That’s why we developed Sieve.”

When standard health care is not an option, advances in medical treatment could be offered through clinical trials. But matching patients to those trials is one of the longest standing problems in the health care industry. Now with the use of new technology as of 2018, the solution to the bottleneck may be a new automated approach.

“Across the globe, more than 30 percent of clinical trials shut down as a result of not enrolling enough patients,” says Bhosale. “The remaining 80 percent never end up reaching their target enrollment and are shut down by the FDA.”

In 2020, Bhosale and her team developed Sieve Health, an AI cloud-based SaaS platform designed to automate and accelerate matching patients with clinical trials and increase access to clinical trials.

Sieve’s main goal is to reduce the administrative burden involved in matching enrollments, which in turn will accelerate the trial execution. They provide the matching for physicians, study sponsors and research sites to enhance operations for faster enrollment of the trials.

The technology mimics but automates the traditional enrollment process — reading medical notes and reviewing in the same way a human would.

“I would have loved to use something like this when I was on the front lines,” Bhosale says, who worked in clinical research for over 12 years. “Can you imagine going through 10,000 records manually? Some of the bigger hospitals have upwards of 100,000 records and you still have to manually review those charts to make sure that the patient is eligible for the trial. That process is called prescreening. It is painful.”

Because physicians wear many hats and have many clinical efforts on their plates, research tends to fall to the bottom of the to-do list. Finding 10-20 patients can take the research team on average 15-20 months to find those people — five of which end up unenrolling, she says.

“We have designed the platform so that the magic can happen in the background, and it allows the physician and research team to get a jumpstart,” she says.” They don’t have to worry about reviewing 10,000 records — they know what their efforts are going to be and will ensure that the entire database has been scanned.”

With Sieve, the team was able to help some commercial pilot programs have a curated data pool for their trials – cutting the administrative burden and time spent searching to less than a week.

Sieve is in early-stage start up mode and the commercial platform has been rolled out. Currently, the team is conducting commercial projects with different research sites and hospitals.

“Our focus now is seeing how many providers we can connect into this,” she says. “There’s a bigger pool out there who want to participate in research but don’t know where to start. That’s where Sieve is stepping in and enabling them to do this — partnering with those and other groups in the ecosystem to bring trials to wherever the physicians and the patients are.”

Arti Bhosale is the co-founder and CEO of Sieve Health. Photo courtesy of Sieve

Houston nonprofit unveils new and improved bayou cleaning vessel

litter free

For over 20 years, a nonprofit organization has hired people to clean 14 miles of bayou in Houston. And with a newly updated innovative boat, keeping Buffalo Bayou clean just got a lot more efficient.

Buffalo Bayou Partnership unveils its newest version of the Bayou-Vac this week, and it's expected to be fully operational this month. BBP Board Member Mike Garver designed both the initial model of the custom-designed and fabricated boat as well as the 2022 version. BBP's Clean & Green team — using Garver's boat — has removed around 2,000 cubic yards of trash annually, which is the equivalent of about 167 commercial dump trucks. The new and improved version is expected to make an even bigger impact.

“The Bayou-Vac is a game changer for our program,” says BBP field operations manager, Robby Robinson, in a news release. “Once up and running, we foresee being able to gain an entire workday worth of time for every offload, making us twice as efficient at clearing trash from the bayou.”

Keeping the bayou clean is important, since the water — and whatever trash its carrying — runs off into Galveston Bay, and ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico. The improvements made to the Bayou-Vac include removable dumpsters that can be easily swapped out, slid off, and attached to a dump truck. The older model included workers having to manually handle trash and debris and a secondary, land-based vacuum used to suck out the trash from onboard.

Additionally, the Bayou-Vac now has a moveable, hydraulic arm attached to the bow of the vessel that can support the weight of the 16-foot vacuum hose. Again, this task was something done manually on the previous model of the Bayou-Vac.

“BBP deeply appreciates the ingenuity of our board member Mike Garver and the generosity of Sis and Hasty Johnson and the Kinder Foundation, the funders of the new Bayou-Vac,” BBP President Anne Olson says in the release. “We also thank the Harris County Flood Control District and Port Houston for their longtime support of BBP’s Clean & Green Program.”