The five scientists represent five different academic institutions in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

The National Academy of Inventors has recognized 175 scientists from across the world as NAI Fellows — and five of those inventors are based at Houston institutions.

The program honors academic inventors who, according to NAI, "have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society."

The five Houston inventors join the ranks of a group of individuals who have generated over 13,000 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than 19 million jobs, according to the announcement.

These are the scientists from Houston organizations:

  • Ananth Annapragada of Baylor College of Medicine is professor of radiology and obstetrics and gynecology, vice chief of research and director of basic research at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital as well as a member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center.
  • Ronald Biediger of the Texas Heart Institute is associate director of chemistry, Wafic Said Molecular Cardiology Research Laboratories and leading a group of chemists developing small molecule integrin antagonists and agonists for use as therapies, or as adjuncts to cell based therapies, for heart, lung and vascular disease
  • Mark Clarke of the University of Houston is associate provost for faculty development and faculty affairs at the University of Houston.
  • Ashutosh Sabharwal of Rice University is professor and Ph.D of electrical engineering and was named Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 2014 for contributions to the theory and experimentation of wireless systems and networks.
  • Jia Zhou of The University of Texas Medical Branch is professor in the Department Pharmacology and Toxicology focusing on drug discovery of bioactive molecules to probe biological systems or act as potential therapeutic agents in neuroscience, cancer/inflammation, infectious diseases, and other human conditions.

The new class of inventors will be inducted on June 8 at the 10th Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Inventors in Tampa, Florida.

These scientists have already established dozens of patents between the five of them across fields and industries. Clarke specifically holds 13 U.S. patents, seven NASA technology innovation awards, and has founded two life science startup companies to commercialize his technologies, according to a news release from UH.

"Most faculty inventors, including myself, do not begin their research careers focused on creating or commercializing new technologies, nor do they usually know where to start when presented with such an opportunity," Clarke says in the release. "Helping faculty members and students transition fundamental discoveries into commercially valuable technologies and products is not only a key part of our mission as a Tier One research university, it is critical to our region's economic prosperity and ensuring that the U.S. remains competitive in an innovation-driven global economy."

From BCM, Annapragada holds 15 patents in the United States and close to 100 worldwide. The majority of his patents are in next generation imaging technologies, CT vascular imaging, and MR molecular imaging, according to a BCM release, and Annapragada is the founder of two active startup companies — Alzeca Inc. and Sensulin LLC.

Mark Clarke (left) and Wei-Chuan Shih were named among the National Academy of Inventors' inaugural class of senior members. Courtesy of the University of Houston

2 UH scientists receive prestigious national recognition for fostering innovation

top of the class

Two researchers at the University of Houston have been named to the inaugural class of senior members for the National Academy of Inventors. The new distinction recognizes the honorees for fostering innovation and educating and mentoring future innovators — as well as their contribution to science and technology.

The two UH honorees are Mark Clarke, associate provost for faculty development and faculty affairs, and Wei-Chuan Shih, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Both will be recognized at the eighth annual NAI meeting in Houston this April, a release from UH says.

"Dr. Clarke and Dr. Shih both have impressive records of producing impactful intellectual property and spurring innovation that is pertinent to the Houston region," Amr Elnashai, vice president of research and technology at UH, says in the release. "Their further efforts, including helping UH faculty commercialize technologies as well as working with graduate and undergraduate students to boost their entrepreneurial efforts, are a critical contribution to building the region's innovation ecosystem."

NAI named 65 total scientists from 37 universities as senior members. The scientists have been named on over 1,100 patents issued in the United States. Ten other Texas scientists made the inaugural class, representing Texas Tech university, Texas A&M University, Baylor College of Medicine, and University of Texas at Arlington.

The organization also has a fellowship program, in which UH has 12 current fellows.

Clarke has been at UH for over a decade and previously held the position of associate vice chancellor/vice president for technology transfer at the UH Division of Research, where he oversaw a portfolio of 360 technology patents, according to the release. Clarke has 13 patents to his name and previously worked at two startups — both commercialized technologies Clarke developed in his tenure at NASA then UH.

UH's other senior NIA member, Shih, has been granted 11 patents in the US. His NanoBioPhotonics Group has developed a number of sensing and imaging technologies and devices for biomedicine and environmental testing, among other fields. Shih, who has been at the university for over nine years, created a startup with a group of students called DotLens. The company produced and distributed lenses that could be used to convert a smartphone into a microphone.

A few months ago, a Houston scientist received international recognition when he

won the Nobel Prize for the cancer research he did for the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer center. Jim Allison won for his work in launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor.
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Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.

Report: Federal funding, increased life science space drive industry growth in Houston

by the numbers

Federal funding, not venture capital, continues to be the main driver of growth in Houston’s life sciences sector, a new report suggests.

The new Houston Life Science Insight report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows Houston accounted for more than half (52.7 percent) of total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) across major Texas markets through the third quarter of this year. NIH funding in the Houston area totaled $769.6 million for the first nine months of 2022, exceeding the five-year average by 19.3 percent.

VC funding for Houston’s life sciences sector pales in comparison.

For the first nine months of this year, companies in life sciences raised $147.3 million in VC, according to the report. Based on that figure, Houston is on pace in 2022 to meet or surpass recent life sciences VC totals for most other years except 2021. JLL describes 2021 as an “outlier” when it comes to annual VC hauls for the region’s life sciences companies.

JLL notes that “limited venture capital interest in private industry has remained a challenge for the city’s life sciences sector. Furthermore, it may persist as venture capital strategies are reevaluated and investment strategies shift toward near-term profits.”

While life sciences VC funding has a lot of ground to cover to catch up with NIH funding, there are other bright spots for the sector.

One of those bright spots is the region’s rising amount of life sciences space.

The Houston area boasts more than 2.4 million square feet of space for life sciences operations, with another 1.1 million under construction and an additional 1.5 million square feet on the drawing board, the report says. This includes a soon-to-open lab spanning 25,000 square feet in the first phase of Levit Green.

A second bright spot is the migration of life sciences companies to the region. Two Southern California-based life sciences companies, Cellipoint Bioservices and Obagi Cosmeceuticals, plan to move their headquarters and relocate more than half of their employees to The Woodlands by the first half of 2023, according to the report.

“Houston’s low tax rate and cost of living were primary drivers for the decisions, supported by a strong labor pool that creates advantages for companies’ expansion and relocation considerations,” JLL says.

Here's what Houston startups need to know about internal communications

guest column

Startup founders often focus on outward victories. However, if they look inward and get internal communications right, this can prioritize, inspire, and retain talent, which is the heart of the company.

Consistent internal communication helps employees to understand the company's core values and mission and the evolving internal policies and procedures — health care benefits, reorganizations, remote work — that accompany a young business. Investing in internal communications also supports external public relations efforts because the best company storytellers are well-informed employees.

Consider these tactics for effective internal communications.

Prioritize messaging

In any startup, internal procedures evolve as the company grows. Take control of the narrative while easing employees' minds by prioritizing internal messaging.

Whether transitioning to a more flexible work schedule, updating healthcare benefits, or rolling out a performance review process, planning messages in advance can help team members understand the change, the impact, and how they can contribute positively to the development.

Well-informed employees help mitigate uneasiness and tend to achieve business goals more quickly. Make sure to allow the employees time to reflect and react.

Support managers

Leaders and mid-level managers play an integral role in internal communications by cascading information throughout the organization. They regularly engage with their employees, so it is important that managers feel confident and supported in their communication skills.

Managers can benefit from a common company language, talking points, or communications training for more effective and productive conversations. By identifying, clarifying, and reinforcing common goals and key objectives for managers, companies can strengthen productivity and eliminate confusion, especially if the company changes teams' roles and responsibilities.

Be consistent

Make sure that the drumbeat remains steady, whether this includes a monthly town hall meeting or weekly CEO emails. Since communication is not necessarily one-size-fits-all, use a communication approach tailored to the workforce.

For example, there might be more effective communication methods than email for employees not behind a desk. As a smaller company, take that time to connect with the team directly because as the company swells, that one-on-one experience will become increasingly difficult to manage.

Listen to employees

Delivering top-down messaging that resonates with the workforce remains critical. However, internal communication is a two-way street.

Allow team members to give valuable feedback. Encourage team members to share their thoughts about the company, concerns, and how to improve communications. Issue internal surveys or hold face-to-face meetings to gain useful insight.

Understanding these critical proof points will enable more effective communication and quick action on any issues.

Be a human

Keep humanity at the heart of internal communications. Amid the company's transition, maintain transparency and recognize the emotional toll some changes can have on teammates. The best talent will remain when they feel connected, informed and listened to.

Greater employee engagement can help build a strong company culture of accountability, authenticity and communication, setting up the business for bigger success.

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Melanie Taplett is a communications and public relations consultant for the technology, energy, and manufacturing industries.