Optellum, based in the TMC Innovation Institute, has entered into a partnership with Johnson & Johnson. Photo via Getty Images

Optellum, a startup whose technology helps doctors detect and treat lung cancer, has teamed up with one of the world's health care giants to broaden the software's reach.

On August 18, Optellum — whose U.S. headquarters is at Houston's TMC Innovation Institute — unveiled its new collaboration with the Lung Care Initiative at Johnson & Johnson, which racked up global sales of $82.6 billion last year. Optellum's key contribution to the partnership is its AI-powered software that aids medical professionals in detecting and treating patients with lung cancer.

With Optellum's AI-powered lung cancer diagnostics now being included in J&J's Lung Cancer Initiative, medical teams soon will enjoy access to an array of complementary technologies designed to improve diagnosis and treatment of early stage cancer. The Lung Cancer Initiative, launched in 2018 by J&J and Boston University, aims to prevent, detect, and cure lung cancer.

Lung cancer ranks as the world's most common type of cancer and leading cause of cancer deaths. About 1.8 million people around the world die from lung cancer each year. The current five-year survival rate is just 20 percent, primarily due to most patients being diagnosed after the disease has reached an advanced stage.

Optellum's Virtual Nodule Clinic software received clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in March. Hospitals in the U.S. are rolling out the technology, with Asia-Pacific and European hospitals on track to eventually adopt the software.

The Optellum platform identifies and tracks at-risk patients, and assigns a "lung cancer prediction" score to lung nodules — small lesions, frequently detected in chest CT scans, that may or may not be cancerous.

"Optellum's vision is to redefine the early intervention of lung cancer by enabling every patient to be diagnosed and treated at the earliest possible stage, when the chances of cure are highest," the United Kingdom-based company says in a news release.

The startup — a 2019 graduate of the Texas Medical Center's accelerator — hopes to apply the technology to other lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Optellum recently was named one of the 101 best medical device startups in the United Kingdom. In June, the startup was among 38 AI projects chosen by the UK Department of Health and Social Care to participate in a roughly $50 million health care initiative.

Václav Potěšil, founder and CEO of Optellum, says the Johnson & Johnson collaboration represents a "significant milestone" for his company.

The J&J partnership "brings us one step closer to Optellum's vision of redefining early lung cancer treatment by helping every clinician in every hospital to make the right decisions and provide their patients the best chance to fight back," Potěšil says.

Of the 35 people employed by Optellum, three are based in the U.S. and the rest in the United Kingdom. The company's team also includes several part-time consultants, most of whom are based in the U.S. By the end of this year, Optellum plans to expand its U.S. team with several full-time hires, including a senior executive located in Houston.

Beginning next year in Houston, Optellum expects its technology to be available for patients in clinical settings.

For Potěšil, Optellum's mission is personal. He lost an aunt to lung cancer within a year of her Stage 4 diagnosis.

"I've seen firsthand how very healthy people can be killed, and it's still the most common and deadliest cancer worldwide," Potěšil is quoted as saying by the Texas Medical Center. "We are really focused on enabling cancer patients to be diagnosed at the earliest possible stage and be cured. It's not just the modeled data on the computer. It's addressing the right clinical problems to add value to doctors."

Houston can expect the new vaccine in the next week. WPA Pool / Getty Images

Here's when Houston can expect the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine

coming soon

Texas can expect to receive the first 200,000 doses of the coveted Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week. The company announced that it has started the rollout process on March 1 — after the FDA approved its Emergency Use Authorization.

The Center for Disease Control gave the developer, Janssen Pharmaceutical, the final greenlight Sunday, February 28.

What does that mean for Houston? Mayor Sylvester Turner said the Houston Health Department is also anticipated to be on the list to receive Johnson & Johnson doses within the next seven days.

"That will be a game changer," Turner said at an event on February 28 afternoon. "There will be more vaccines available in a shorter period of time. We anticipate that we will probably get a shipment in sometime this week that will add to the Pfizer [doses] that we are using at NRG."

Turner said other clinics with the Houston Health Department have been administering the Moderna vaccine.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine does have noticeable differences from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, experts said.

The MRNA vaccines each require two shots which are usually delivered weeks apart and stored in freezers. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single shot that can be stored in a refrigerator for up to three months at 35 to 46 degrees.

However, Johnson & Johnson does not have as much of the COVID-19 vaccine produced as originally anticipated. ABC13 confirmed 3.9 million doses will be shipped out across the country this week. Johnson & Johnson announced roughly an additional 16 million doses by the end of the month.

"In the next few weeks, it won't have much of any impact because they only have at least three or four million doses available, and that's disappointing news," says Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. "In the longer term, over the next few months, it's really important because we need a greater vaccine supply. We are not going to get there with the two MRNA vaccines. We need probably up to five different vaccines in order to vaccinate the American people."

Recently, there has been a decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations and COVID-19 cases reported statewide. As of Sunday, about 5,700 Texans are in the hospital due to COVID-19, which is half the number of hospitalization in the beginning of the month.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Troisi says it's important for people to not let their guard down and that people should get tested if they have been in a high-exposure situation, or if they have been in direct contact with someone who has tested positive.

"Get vaccinated, don't worry about what vaccine it is," Dr. Troisi notes. "It's true that unfortunately there are not as many doses right now of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as we have hoped, but the company is saying that by the end of June, they will have a 100 million doses, and that's into 100 million people because you don't need two doses.

"So, we expect to have 600 million doses of the other two vaccines, that's 300 million people," she continues. "That should be enough for everyone who wants the vaccine to be able to get it. With one caveat and that is as of right now we do not have a vaccine for children under age 16. Those trials are going on, hopefully as we go throughout the year there will be a vaccine licensed to 12 year-olds and then maybe going down to 8 years or older."

For more details on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine rollout, visit the FDA's website.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap. For more on this story, visit our news partner ABC13.

Tom Luby will run the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. Courtesy of TMC

TMC names former JLABS leader as the director of the Innovation Institute

taking control

The Texas Medical Center didn't have to go very far to find its new Innovation Institute director. Tom Luby, who most recently served as the site head for Johnson & Johnson Innovation's JLABS @ TMC, has been hired for the position.

"I am very excited to begin the next chapter in my journey at TMC Innovation," Luby says in a release. "My time at JLABS @ TMC has shown me the tremendous opportunity there is to work with a host of talented people and companies here in Houston. Now, I'm ready to expand my role and help take TMC Innovation as a collective unit to the next level."

Luby replaces Erik Halvorsen, who left abruptly in December. According to LinkedIn, Halvorsen is now the chief business and strategy officer for Houston-based FAR Biotech, for which he previously served on the board of directors. Lance Black, associate director at TMCx, served as the director in the interim for the past few months.

Prior to JLABS, Luby was in Boston at Johnson & Johnson and served as the new ventures lead. He has 14 years of research and design experience in the Boston area.

TMC as an organization has a lot up its sleeves, says President and CEO Bill McKeon in a release, and he trusts Luby to take the lead on innovation.

"With major developments in 2018, including the announcement of the forthcoming TMC3 translational research campus, Texas Medical Center is now on the fast track to becoming the third coast for life sciences, and TMC Innovation is a critical component in the ultimate realization of this goal," says McKeon. "Tom Luby is an outstanding individual, and his proven track record working with startups in Boston and within the walls of JLABS @ TMC will serve him well as he leads us through the next evolutionary phase of the TMC Innovation Institute."

Luby will oversee the med center's accelerator program, TMCx, which is currently in the midst of its eighth cohort.

Houston has just been named an emerging life sciences hub by CBRE. The recognition took job growth and lab space into consideration for the ranking.

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16 Houston-based companies hailed best places to work by U.S. News

the standouts

More than a dozen Houston-based companies are sharing the spotlight in U.S. News and World Report's collection of the "Best Companies to Work For" in 2024-2025.

The annual report examines publicly-traded companies around the world to determine the best employers based on six metrics including work-life balance and flexibility; quality of pay and benefits; job and company stability; career opportunities and professional development; and more. The companies were not ranked, but included based on reader surveys and publicly available data about each workplace.

New for the 2024-2025 report, U.S. News analyzed549 companies across 29 different lists, including the overall best companies list — which includes the best 300 companies across the U.S., the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Bermuda — 24 industry-specific lists, and four regional lists.

There were 16 total companies based around Houston that made the lists, with the majority being based in the city, while one each were located in Spring and The Woodlands.

Leading the pack in Houston is construction company Comfort Systems USA, which provides HVAC, plumbing, and electrical services. Comfort Systems employs 15,800 people, brings in $5.57 billion in annual revenue, and has a market cap of $11.21 billion. The company earned high ratings for its job stability, "belongingness," and professional development opportunities, according to U.S. News.

Comfort Systems also made appearances on U.S. News' industry-specific "Best in Construction" list, and the "Best Companies in the South" list.

Independent energy company Marathon Oil was another top-rated Houston employer, with nearly 1,700 employees, an annual revenue stream of $6.38 billion, and a $15.4 billion market cap. The company was specifically highlighted with a "Top Quality of Pay" label, but also boasts high ratings for its employees' work-life balance, job stability, and belongingness.

In addition to being included in the overall "Best Companies" list, Marathon Oil earned recognition in the industry-specific "Best in Energy" list and the "Best Companies in the South" list.

A second Houston-based energy company earning a spot among the top employers is Occidental (also known as Oxy). The petroleum corporation, which has been in operation since 1920, has nearly 12,600 employees and brings in $27,43 billion in revenue every year.

According to U.S. News, Occidental offers many financial, health and wellness, and workplace benefits including 401k matching, tuition assistance, an employee assistance program, flexible work arrangements, and much more. The company was also given a "Top Quality of Pay" designation.

Occidental appeared in U.S. News' "Best in Mining and Raw Materials," the overall "Best Companies," and "Best Companies in the South" lists.

Other top companies to work for in Houston include:

  • Insperity, Kingwood – Best in Professional Services; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • Southwestern Energy Company, Spring – Best in Energy; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • PROS – Best in IT, Software and Services; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • Powell Industries – Best in Manufacturing; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • Stewart – Best in Insurance; Best Companies (overall); Best Companies in the South
  • ConocoPhillips – Best in Energy, Best Companies in the South
  • LGI Homes, The Woodlands – Best in Construction; Best Companies in the South
  • Service Corporation International – Best in Consumer Products and Services; Best Companies in the South
  • Skyward Specialty Insurance – Best Companies in the South
  • Camden Property Trust – Best in Real Estate; Best Companies in the South
  • Cheniere – Best in Energy
  • EOG Resources – Best in Energy
  • Murphy Oil Corporation – Best in Energy

"Prospective and current employees understand the significant impact their employer has on their quality of life," said Carly Chase, vice president of careers at U.S. News and World Report, in a release. "Whether a new grad seeking a company to launch their career, an established professional looking for a change or an HR professional researching the strengths of their company and others, Best Companies to Work For provides a central space to see which companies are meeting their employees' needs best.

Top workplaces around Texas
In all, 42 different employers headquartered in the Lone Star State made it onto U.S. News' 2024-2025 "Best Places to Work For" lists. The Houston metro area tied with Dallas-Fort Worth with the highest number of top-rated employers, at 16 each. Only one company from West Texas made it onto the list: Diamondback Energy in Midland.

The top companies to work for in Austin are:

  • Cirrus Logic
  • CrowdStrike
  • Digital Realty
  • Silicon Labs
  • E2open
  • Q2

The top companies to work for in San Antonio are:

  • Frost Bank
  • iHeartMedia
  • Rush Enterprises, Inc., New Braunfels

The best places to work for across Dallas-Fort Worth are:

  • Thryv Holdings, Inc., Dallas
  • Comerica, Dallas
  • Veritex Community Bank, Dallas
  • Charles Schwab, Westlake
  • Southwest Airlines, Dallas
  • CMC, Irving
  • Sabre, Southlake
  • Texas Instrument, Dallas
  • Omnicell, Fort Worth
  • Enhabit, Dallas
  • Builders FirstSource, Irving
  • Invitation Homes, Dallas
  • Celanese, Irving
  • Atmos Energy, Dallas
  • Lennox, Richardson
  • Caterpillar, Irving
The full list of the best companies to work for can be found at usnews.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

$1M donation to Rice establishes pioneering neuro-policy center in Houston

brainy support

A big donation to Rice University will soon help researchers better understand the workings of the human brain.

Harry Yan and Weiman Gao have bestowed $1 million on the Baker Institute of Public Policy to establish the interdisciplinary Neuro-Policy Program.

Neuro-policy is a newer field that explores how brain health and function can help to fuel economic growth.

“The Neuro-Policy Program is at the forefront of pioneering data analysis, empirical research and policy application,” says Harris Eyre, the lead for the program, as well as a senior fellow in brain health at the Baker Institute, in a news release. “Investing in evidence-based strategies for prevention, diagnosis and treatment can reduce brain and mental health disparities, optimize cognitive development and performance and foster innovation to build more resilient communities.”

Eyre describes the collective value of the human brain as “brain capital.” That’s because brains that are suffering from any number of neurodegenerative or mental health disorders (including depression, anxiety, brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease) have actually taken a toll on the U.S. economy, Eyre explains.

The Neuro-Policy Program seeks to improve brain performance, and consequently enhance economic growth, national security, and our overall standing as a nation of healthy brains. The program’s primary projects include establishing a task force to advise Texas “brain and mind” legislative efforts as well as a Texas Brain Capital Dashboard, collaborating on Texas Forward (Texas Brain Health Plan) with the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth, thereby working toward U.S. brain capital policy and investment advances. These projects are expected to yield deliverables as early as 2026.

“The Neuro-Policy Program aims to leverage the university’s proximity to the Texas Medical Center and the institute’s strong connections to state and federal policymakers. This is an important yet underrepresented area of research that Houston is poised to lead,” says David Satterfield, the director of the Baker Institute.

Yan and Gao said in a press release that they were inspired to gift the grant funds to Eyre and his research after attending a March 28 Baker Institute event on brain health that featured U.S. Rep. Morgan Luttrell, a co-chair of the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus.

"We are honored to support Dr. Harris Eyre and the Neuro-Policy program he leads. Dr. Eyre’s work has greatly impressed us, highlighting the critical importance of brain health in our society today,” say Yan and Gao. “We hope our contribution can inspire further support and advocacy in the field, helping individuals lead healthier lives through a comprehensive approach to prevention.”