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.

These four medical research projects are ones to watch in Houston. Getty Images

These are 4 medical innovations coming out of Houston institutions

Research roundup

Houston — home to one of the largest medical centers in the world — isn't a stranger when it comes to medical innovations and breakthrough research discoveries.

In the latest roundup of research innovations, four Houston institutions are working on innovative and — in some cases — life-saving research projects.

Houston Methodist study observes that strep throat germ is becoming resistant to antibiotics 

If the germ, group A streptococcus, continues to grow resistant to antibiotics, it can have a profoundly negative affect on the millions who get the illness annually. Photo via houstonmethodist.org

Researchers at Houston Methodist have discovered some troubling information about the strains of group A streptococcus that cause strep throat and a flesh-eating disease are becoming more resistant to beta-lactams antibiotics like penicillin.

James M. Musser is the lead author of the study and chair of Methodist's Department of Pathology and Genomic Medicine. The study — which received funding from grants from the Fondren Foundation, Houston Methodist Hospital and Houston Methodist Research Institute, and the National Institutes of Health — appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, according to a news release.

"If this germ becomes truly resistant to these antibiotics, it would have a very serious impact on millions of children around the world," Musser says in the release. "That is a very concerning but plausible notion based on our findings. Development of resistance to beta-lactam antibiotics would have a major public health impact globally."

Musser and his team found 7,025 group A streptococcus strains that have been recorded around the world over the past several decades. Of those strains, 2 percent had gene mutations that raised the alarm for the researchers and, upon investigation, Musser's team came to the conclusion that antibiotic treatments can eventually be less effective — or even completely ineffective. This, Musser says, calls for an urgent need to develop a vaccine.

"We could be looking at a worldwide public health infectious disease problem," says Musser in the release. "When strep throat doesn't respond to frontline antibiotics such as penicillin, physicians must start prescribing second-line therapies, which may not be as effective against this organism."

University of Houston professor is searching for a way to stop persistent cells that cause chronic infections

University of Houston Professor Mehmet Orman is looking into cells that are able to persist and cause chronic illnesses. Photo via uh.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston, is looking into a specific type of persister cells that have been found to be stubborn and drug-resistant.

The research, which is backed by a $1.9 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, could answer questions about chronic health issues like airway infections in cystic fibrosis patients, urinary tract infections, and tuberculosis, according to a news release.

"If we know how persister cells are formed, we can target their formation mechanisms to eliminate these dangerous cell types," says Orman in a news release.

Orman is looking into cells' self-digestion, or autophagy, process that is found to stimulate persister formation. Per the release, cells can survive periods of starvation by eating their own elements. Specifically, Orman will analyze self-digestion in E. coli.

"By integrating our expertise in bacterial cell biology with advanced current technologies, we aim to decipher the key components of this pathway to provide a clear and much-needed picture of bacterial self-digestion mechanisms," says Orman in the release.

Baylor College of Medicine is working to understand and prevent post-op kidney failure

operation

Some patients are predisposed to kidney injury following surgery, this study found. Photo via bcm.edu

Scientists at Baylor College of Medicine are looking into the lead cause of kidney failure in patients who undergo surgery. Individuals who have heightened levels of suPAR protein — soluble urokinase-type plasminogen activator receptor — have a greater risk of this post-op complication, according to a news release.

"suPAR is a circulating protein that is released by inflammatory cells in the bone marrow and produced by a number of cell/organs in the body," says Dr. David Sheikh-Hamad, professor of medicine – nephrology at Baylor College of Medicine and collaborating author of the study, in the release.

The study, which was published in The New England Journal of Medicine, conducted research on mice that were engineered to hive high suPAR levels in their blood. Compared to the control mice, the suPAR mice had more risk of kidney industry. These mice were given suPAR-blocking antibodies, which then helped reduce kidney injury.

"This protective strategy may be used in humans expressing high suPAR levels prior to contrast exposure, or surgery to decrease the likelihood of developing kidney failure," Sheikh-Hamad says in the release.

Rice University research finds expressing emotions during mourning is healthier

Christopher Fagundes of Rice University analyzed the emotions of 99 widows and widowers. Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

A new study done by researchers at Rice University finds that spouses that lose their husband or wife and try to suppress their grief are not doing themselves any favors. The study monitored 99 people who had recently lost a spouse, according to a news release.

"There has been work focused on the link between emotion regulation and health after romantic breakups, which shows that distracting oneself from thoughts of the loss may be helpful," says Christopher Fagundes, an associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator, in a news release. "However, the death of a spouse is a very different experience because neither person initiated the separation or can attempt to repair the relationship."

The study included asking participants to respond to how they felt about certain coping strategies, as well as blood tests to measure cytokines levels‚ an inflammatory marker.

"Bodily inflammation is linked to a host of negative health conditions, including serious cardiovascular issues like stroke and heart attack," Fagundes says in the release.

The research, which was funded by a grant from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, found that the participants who avoided their emotions suffered more of this bodily inflammation.

"The research also suggests that not all coping strategies are created equal, and that some strategies can backfire and have harmful effects, especially in populations experiencing particularly intense emotions in the face of significant life stressors, such as losing a loved one," adss Richard Lopez, an assistant professor of psychology at Bard College and lead author of the study, in the release.

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston startup grows C-suite, Deloitte opens awards apps, SDO names leader, and more innovation news

short stories

The Houston innovation ecosystem has been especially busy this year, and for this reason, local startup and tech news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, local organizations announce new innovators, Deloitte opens apps for its annual tech awards, Houston Tech Rodeo prepares for its annual events, and more.

Early stage accelerator names new Houston leader

Kate Evinger will lead gBETA Houston. Photo via LinkedIn

A Houston early-stage startup accelerator has named its new director. Kate Evinger has joined gener8tor's gBETA Houston as director. She will run the third gBETA cohort in Houston, adding to the 10 alumni from the two cohorts held in 2020.

Evinger has replaced Anu Pansare, who was previously named director in February. Pansare, who replaced the accelerator's inaugural director Eléonore Cluzel, moved on to another opportunity, Evinger says.

Based in Houston's Downtown Launchpad, gBETA's third cohort of early stage startups will soon start its free 7-week program, which is designed to help participating companies gain early customer traction and develop key metrics that will make them more marketable for future investment.

Evinger has been a part of the gener8tor family since 2016 when she joined the team as associate for gBETA Madison. She was promoted to program manager in 2019 when she graduated from Indiana University with degrees in finance, entrepreneurship and corporate innovation, according to a news release.

"Downtown Launchpad's inclusive set of tools, resources and opportunities empower Houston founders to accelerate and scale their businesses to solve humankind's boldest challenges," says Robert Pieroni, director of economic development at Central Houston, in a news release. "Kate Evinger brings experience and valuable insights to the gBETA Houston program and will help us continue to support founders, Houston-based partners and the community."

Houston Tech Rodeo launches registration and names headliner

Master P will be the headlining guest for Houston Tech Rodeo. Photo courtesy of HTR

Houston Tech Rodeo, a week-long collaboration of events hosted by Houston Exponential, has opened registration and announced Percy Miller, also known as musical artist Master P, as the headliner.

Miller, who began his career as an international rap artist, later became a CEO, investor, and founder of Nemesis RR.

"I'll be sharing my journey, my secrets, my success, my feelings, and my rebuilding. Transitioning from international artist to CEO to investing in philanthropy, I want to educate you and give you that gain," says Miller in a news release. "I want to add diversity into technology and the automotive industry."

HTR kicks off May 16 at Saint Arnold Brewing Company with live music, beer, and swag bag pick ups with registration. The week concludes on May 23. Registration is free and available online.

Houston industrial blockchain company expands C-suite

Data Gumbo has a new C-level executive. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo, a Houston-based industrial smart contract network powered by blockchain — announced that it has brought on Robin Macmillan as chief corporate development officer to lead the company's corporate development team.

"The sheer breadth of Macmillan's experience will serve as an invaluable asset to Data Gumbo as we continue to exponentially grow and mature our company into new industrial markets and further solidify our leadership in energy," says Andrew Bruce, CEO and founder of Data Gumbo, in a news release. "Macmillan has the experience to expand Data Gumbo's commercial market penetration to aid companies in undertaking digital transformation with smart contracts to reveal streamlined efficiencies and cost savings, sustainability insights across supply chains and transactional certainty in any commercial relationship."

Macmillan has over 40 years of experience in the energy industry, most recently at National Oilwell Varco and is the vice president of drilling services at the International Association of Drilling Contractors,

"There is tremendous opportunity right now to change how business is executed," says Macmillan in the release. "Data Gumbo is poised to deliver trust through automated, auditable blockchain-backed smart contracts that execute transactions in real-time. I am thrilled to be a part of the Data Gumbo executive team as the company is in a period of hyper growth into new industries, serving as a harbinger for significant digital transformation across commercial relationships and transparent, accurate sustainability impact data."

Deloitte opens annual tech awards nominations

Calling all fast-growing tech companies. Image via Deloitte

Deloitte's Technology Fast 500 awards — which celebrate the fastest growing, most innovative technology, media, telecommunications, life sciences and energy tech companies in the country — has opened applications for its 2021 program.

Applications opened online on April 9 and will remain open until June 29. Winners will be announced on November 15. The program ranks applicants based on percentage of fiscal year revenue growth and the list is compiled from applications. For more information, visit the Technology Fast 500 website.

"Each year, we are excited to see the variety of Houston's Fast 500 applicants, which represent the city's positive momentum in both diversifying its core competencies and highlighting the boom in technology innovations coming to market," says Amy Chronis, vice chair and Houston managing partner at Deloitte LLP. "We look forward to seeing what Houston's innovators will bring in 2021."

Energy incubator announces latest cohort

Fifteen energy startups are joining the Plug and Play family. Gif courtesy of Plug and Play

Plug and Play Tech Center has announced 154 startups into its 2021 summer program — 15 of which were named to the Houston-based Batch 8 Energy Program. During the course of the next three months, these companies will receive access to our corporate, venture capital, and mentor network.

The new energy cohort consists of the following companies:

Texas expert: Energy reliability and climate sustainability are not mutually exclusive

Guest Column

It's no secret that Texas has long been a leader in energy production, but it may surprise you to learn that Texas leads the nation in wind-powered generation, producing 28 percent of all US wind-powered electricity in 2019.

We're not just producing a lot of renewable energy, we're increasingly consuming it.

Contrary to the caricaturistic portrayal of Texans in mainstream culture, a recent study by the University of Houston revealed that 4 out of 5 Texans believe the climate crisis is real.

In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, more and more households are making the decision to switch to 100 percent renewable energy. And this adoption isn't isolated to core urban areas. We're witnessing a diverse spread in smaller, more rural markets.

These reasons and more are why Bulb, one of Europe's fastest growing company that provides 100 percent renewable energy, chose Texas as its first home in the U.S. Less than a year after launching here, it's safe to say we made the right choice as we're experiencing even faster growth in Texas than we did in our early stages in the United Kingdom.

One of the many reasons Texans have rapidly adopted our simpler, cheaper and greener energy is because they no longer have to choose between being budget and climate conscious. Sadly, the progress the state has made could be knocked back following the recent winter storm.

After the nation witnessed Texas' massive outages during the winter storm, our state leaders understandably feel the pressure to "do something," quickly.

We share our leaders' determination in avoiding another crisis of this magnitude, but we fear that Texas may be heading in the wrong direction. In the mad rush to avoid another catastrophe, some regulators and politicians wrongly and disproportionately blamed renewable energy sources for the outages.

Numerous media outlets and energy experts have overwhelmingly refuted these claims. An AP fact check described the efforts to blame renewable energy sources as "false narratives." And, they're not alone in their conclusion.

According to Reuters' fact check, "These claims are misleading, as they shift blame for the crisis away from what appears, so far, to be the root cause...The state's woes mainly stem from issues surrounding its independent power grid. The cold weather affected all fuel types, not just renewables."

Determining what went wrong isn't a blame game. A proper diagnosis is essential to any problem solving. And a failure to conduct a thorough analysis could have serious consequences. Currently, a number of legislative solutions are floating around the state Capitol that would shift the blame and consequences to renewable energy.

These proposals would increase the financial burden on Texas consumers, many of whom are still recovering from the storm, and hamper new investments in renewable energy. Additionally, and perhaps even more concerning, they don't adequately address the root cause of the winter storm energy crisis, further exposing Texans to another meltdown.

Texas' leadership on renewable energy production is no small feat, and it didn't happen by chance. For two decades, our lawmakers have made strategic decisions that led to the advancement of renewable energy production, and it has paid dividends in terms of jobs, economic growth, energy reliability, sustainability and even the state's reputation.

We are at a critical juncture, but Texas doesn't have to choose between reliability, affordability and sustainability. We can offer reliable energy and green energy, stop another crisis before it happens again and move forward with renewable energy investments.

Continuing to promote policies that pushed Texas to its leadership position will unleash even more investments and innovation, which is good for Texas, good for Texans and good for the planet.

As we observe Earth Day, we would urge our leaders to consider the possibilities. Rather than turn the clock back, let's use this storm as an opportunity to innovate further.

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Vinnie Campo is the general manager for Bulb U.S., a new type of energy company that aims to make energy simpler, cheaper, and greener by providing renewable electricity to its members from Texas wind and solar. He is based in Texas.

Houston-based software startup aims to connect workers with wages in real time

there's an app for that

Could you incur an unexpected $400 expense if it hit your bank account today? According to Jeff Price, founder and CEO of Houston-based Pronto Pay, many hourly workers could not. He's set out to change that.

"When you think about it, payroll hasn't changed in nearly two centuries. As far as we can remember, you get paid weekly or bi-weekly. And that's precisely the point we're trying to solve," Price says.

A recent graduate from Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, Price founded Pronto Pay in the first quarter of 2021. The software aims to connect hourly works with transparent access to wages earned before pay day without disrupting the employers' books. Currently the company has seven staff members, is actively hiring and is looking to expand outside of Houston soon.

Pronto Pay partners with the employers to seamlessly build out connections with their time and attendance system and payroll processor. After the company signs up, ProntoPay automatically creates an account for each employee, which allows them to view their accrued wages and withdraw their earnings instantly from the app or next-day for automated clearing house payments — all via the Pronto Pay App. When an employee wishes to withdraw funds prior to their normal pay cycle, Pronto Pay applies a small fixed fee — $2.99 — for completing the transaction. .

Come pay day, the employer's system will automatically balance the difference and route the withdrawn money back to Pronto Pay. As Price describes it, Pronto Pay aims to compete "directly with (while severely undercutting the price of) payday and other predatory lenders."

The idea was born out of a series of simple questions Price started to ask himself when he envisioned what his newborn son's first job would be earlier this year.

"My wife and I were having our son and it challenged me to ask questions like, 'Hey, why do we get paid bi-weekly? If I can Venmo 100 bucks in real time, why can't a company do that?'" Price recalls.

Apart from the impact of advanced pay, Price envisions that earned wages access will improve workplace culture and retention, too. Pronto Pay has already on-boarded users in the local staffing and warehousing markets, in the janitorial and security guard fields, and at call centers. As Price describes, Pronto Pay's clients "typically have a lot of hourly employees that struggle with employee retention and keeping folks at the same job for longer than three to 12 months."

"We're hoping that we can permanently change that employee-employer relationship," he adds. "And help those employees."

Jeff Price is the founder and CEO of Pronto Pay.