From biomolecular research to oral cancer immunotherapy, here are three research projects to watch out for in Houston. Photo 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, a couple local scientists are honored by awards while another duo of specialists tackle a new project.

University of Houston professor recognized with award

Mehmet Orman of UH has been selected to receive an award for his research on persister cells. Photo via UH.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. The award comes with a $500,000 grant to study persister cells — cells that go dormant and then become tolerant to extraordinary levels of antibiotics.

"Nearly all bacterial cultures contain a small population of persister cells," says Orman in a news release. "Persisters are thought to be responsible for recurring chronic infections such as those of the urinary tract and for creating drug-resistant mutants."

Previously, Orman developed the first methods to directly measure the metabolism of persister cells. He also developed cell sorting strategies to segregate persisters from highly heterogeneous bacterial cell populations, and, according to the release, he will be using his methods in the NSF research project.

Houston researchers collaborate on oral cancer innovation

Dr. Simon Young of UTHealth and Jeffrey Hartgerink of Rice University are working on a new use for an innovative gel they developed. Photo via Rice.edu

Two Houston researchers — chemist and bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink at Rice University and Dr. Simon Young at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — have again teamed up to advance their previous development of a sophisticated hydrogel called STINGel. This time, they are using it to destroy oral cancer tumors.

SynerGel combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors. Once there, the gel controls the release of its cargo to not only trigger cells' immune response but also to remove other suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment. The duo reported on the technology in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

SynerGel, combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors, where they not only control the release of the drugs but also remove suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment.

"We are really excited about this new material," Hartgerink says in a news release. "SynerGel is formulated from a specially synthesized peptide which itself acts as an enzyme inhibitor, but it also assembles into a nanofibrous gel that can entrap and release other drugs in a controlled fashion.

In 2018, the pair published research on the use of a multidomain peptide gel — the original STINGel — to deliver ADU-S100, an immunotherapy drug from a class of "stimulator of interferon gene (STING) agonists."

The research is supported by the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Welch Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.

Texas Heart Institute researcher honored by national organization

Dr. James Martin of Texas Heart Institute has been named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo courtesy of THI

The National Academy of Inventors have named Houston-based Texas Heart Institute's Dr. James Martin, director of the Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab, a senior member.

Martin is an internationally recognized developmental and regenerative biologist and his research is focused on understanding how signaling pathways are related to development and tissue regeneration.

"Dr. Martin has long been a steward of scientific advancement and has proven to be a tremendous asset to the Texas Heart Institute and to its Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab through his efforts to translate fundamental biological discoveries in cardiac development and disease into novel treatment strategies for cardiac regeneration," says Dr. Darren Woodside, vice president for research at THI, in a news release. "Everyone at the Texas Heart Institute is thrilled for Dr. Martin, whose induction into the NAI as a Senior Member is well-deserved."

Martin has authored over 170 peer-reviewed papers in top journals he holds nine U.S. patents and applications, including one provisional application, all of which have been licensed to Yap Therapeutics, a company he co-founded.

The full list of incoming NAI Senior Members, which includes three professionals from the University of Houston, is available on the NAI website.

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Houston health tech startup secures $27M in financing

money moves

A virtual health care and analytics provider startup has closed its latest round of funding for a total of $27 million in financing.

Medical Informatics Corp. closed a $17 million series B co-led by Maryland-based Catalio Capital Management and California-based Intel Capital. The financing also includes an additional $10 million in debt led by Catalio through Catalio’s structured equity strategy, according to a news release.

“We are excited to have had this round co-led by Catalio and Intel Capital," says Emma Fauss, CEO and co-founder of MIC, in the release. "Catalio brings significant financial and technical resources, while Intel Capital possesses strong operational and industry experience, and we look forward to continuing to leverage both firms’ expertise as we continue to scale.”

MIC created an FDA-cleared virtual care platform, called Sickbay, that gives health care providers and hospitals away to remotely monitor patients in any setting with vendor-neutral real-time medical device integration, workflow automation and standardization.

“We have seen an increased demand for our solution as our clients face significant staffing challenges and are looking for ways to amplify and empower their workforce," Fauss says in the release. "Some of the largest health care systems in the country are standardizing their infrastructure on our Sickbay platform while consolidating IT spend."

Other participants in the round included new investors TGH Innoventures, Tampa General Hospital’s innovation center and venture fund, and Austin-based Notley — as well as existing investors San Francisco-based DCVC, the Texas Medical Center, and nCourage, a Houston-based investment group.

As a part of the round, two individuals from Catalio will join the board at MIC. Jonathan Blankfein, principal at Catalio will join the board of directors, Diamantis Xylas, head of research at Catalio, will join as board observer.

“Health care systems’ need for high-caliber, cost-saving, data-driven technology is only going to increase, and MIC’s proprietary platform is perfectly positioned to address some of the most critical clinical challenges that health care organizations face,” says Blankfein in the release. “We look forward to continuing to support MIC’s strong team as it continues to deliver better outcomes for health care organizations and patients alike.”

Amid the pandemic and the rising need for remote care technology, MIC scaled rapidly in the past two years. The company will use the funding to continue fueling its growth, including hiring specialized talent — deep product specialists and client engagement teams — to support long-term strategic partnerships.

“One of the main barriers to advanced analytics in health care is the siloing of data and today there is a significant need for a platform to enable flexible, centralized and remote monitoring at scale and on demand,” says Mark Rostick, vice president and senior managing director at Intel Capital, in the release. “Medical Informatics is setting a new standard of health care by removing these data silos for health care providers of all sizes and transforming the way patients are monitored from hospital to home with real-time AI.”

Innovation pioneers on why Pumps & Pipes is so uniquely Houston

A Day of Discussion

Pumps & Pipes 2022, Houston’s premier innovation event, is rapidly approaching on December 5 from 8 am-3 pm at the Ion.

Leading up to this exciting event, InnovationMap spoke with several of the speakers representing various industries to ask them, "What makes Pumps & Pipes uniquely Houston?"

Here are their responses:

Dr. Alan Lumsden, chair of cardiovascular surgery at Houston Methodist and Pumps & Pipes founder:

“…What can we learn from one another? What is inside the other person’s toolkit? A lot of solutions are already out there but sometimes we don’t have the ability to see into their toolkit. This has become the driving force behind Pumps & Pipes throughout the last 15 years…”

Dr. Lucie Low, chief scientist for microgravity research at Axiom Space:

“‘Houston, we have a problem’ — everyone knows Houston as a major player in the aerospace industry as highlighted by this famous quote from Apollo 13. What people may not know and what is exciting to me about Houston are the opportunities for collaboration with other industries that can help drive our mission to build communities of healthy humans in space. With the largest medical center in the world right next to Johnson Space Center, Houston is a prime city for innovation at the intersection of medicine and space.”

David Horsup, managing director of technology at OGCI Climate Investments:

“The remarkable diversity of thought, culture, and expertise that exists in Houston creates an incredible cauldron for innovation. The city has been the leading light in pushing frontiers in energy, aerospace, and medicine for many years, and Pumps & Pipes is a powerful ‘node’ for some of the brightest minds across these industries to connect, collaborate, and innovate. I am extremely excited to see how Houston is pivoting to embrace the challenge that climate change is presenting, and the city will play a defining role going forward.”

Purchase tickets for Pumps & Pipes here and follow Pumps & Pipes on social media at LinkedIn, Twitter, and YouTube.

Houston startup founders report on clean energy tech efficacy

seeing results

A team from Rice University has uncovered an inexpensive, scalable way to produce clean-burning hydrogen fuel.

In research published this month in the journal Science, researchers from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics, in partnership with Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, detail how they converted ammonia into carbon-free fuel using a light-activated catalyst.

The new catalyst separates the liquid ammonia into hydrogen gas and nitrogen gas. Traditional catalysts require heat for chemical transformations, but the new catalyst can spur reactions with just the use of sunlight or LED light.

Additionally, the team showed that copper-iron antenna-reactors could be used in these light-driven chemical reactions, known as plasmonic photocatalysis. In heat-based reactions, or thermocatalysis, platinum, and related precious (and expensive) metals like palladium, rhodium, and ruthenium are required.

“Transition metals like iron are typically poor thermocatalysts,” Naomi Halas, a co-author of the report from Rice, said in a statement. “This work shows they can be efficient plasmonic photocatalysts. It also demonstrates that photocatalysis can be efficiently performed with inexpensive LED photon sources.”

Halas, Rice's Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, was joined on the project by Peter Nordlander, Rice’s Wiess Chair and Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and Rice alumni and adjunct professor of chemistry Hossein Robatjazi. Emily Carter, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and Environment, represented Princeton University.

“These results are a great motivator," Carter added. "They suggest it is likely that other combinations of abundant metals could be used as cost-effective catalysts for a wide range of chemical reactions.”

Houston-based Syzygy, which Halas and Nordlander founded in 2018, has licensed the technology used in the research and has begun scaled-up tests of the catalyst in the company’s commercially available, LED-powered reactors. According to Rice, the test at Syzygy showed the catalysts retained their efficiency under LED illumination and at a scale 500 times larger than in tests in the lab setup at Rice.

“This discovery paves the way for sustainable, low-cost hydrogen that could be produced locally rather than in massive centralized plants,” Nordlander said in a statement.

Earlier this month, Syzygy closed its $76 million series C round to continue its technology development ahead of future deployment/

Houston is home to many other organizations and researchers leading the charge in growing the hydrogen economy.

Earlier this year, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced he's determined to position the city as hub for hydrogen innovation as one of the EPA's Regional Clean Hydrogen Hubs. Organizations in Texas, Southwest Louisiana and the surrounding Gulf Coast region, known and HyVelocity Hub, also announced this month that it would be applying for the regional funding.

And according to a recent report from The Center for Houston's Future, the Bayou City is poised to "lead a transformational clean hydrogen hub with global impact."