Houston-area researchers are innovating health and wellness solutions every day — even focusing on non-pandemic-related issues. Getty Images

Researchers across the world are coming up with innovative breakthroughs regarding the coronavirus, but Houston research institutions are also making health and wellness discoveries outside of COVID-19.

Here are three from Houston researchers from a muscular atrophy study from outer space to a research project that might allow blind patients to "see."

Houston Methodist's research on muscular atrophy in astronauts

Scientists are studying the effect of certain drugs to help preserve muscles in astronauts. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist researcher Alessandro Grattoni and his team published research on muscular atrophy in astronauts. The research was published in Advanced Therapeutics and focused on his 2017 RR-6 muscle atrophy study that was conducted on the International Space Station.

While the current standard practice for astronauts maintaining their muscles is working out over two hours a day, the research found that use of drugs could also help preserve muscles. On a SpaceX refuel mission, mice that were implanted with a "Nanofluidic Delivery System" were sent up to space and monitored, according to a report. The device gradually released small doses of formoterol, an FDA approved drug for use in bronchodilation that has also been shown to stimulate increased muscle mass.

University of Houston researcher tracking fear response to improve mental health treatment

The research could help advance wearable devices. Photo via uh.edu

University of Houston researchers are looking into the way the body responds to fear in order to enhance mental health treatment. Rose Faghih, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Dilranjan Wickramasuriya in the Computational Medicine Lab (CML) are leading the project.

"We developed a mixed filter algorithm to continuously track a person's level of sympathetic nervous system activation using skin conductance and heart rate measurements," writes Faghih in the journal PLOS One. "This level of sympathetic activation is closely tied to what is known as emotional arousal or sympathetic arousal."

When this sympathetic nervous system is activated — sometimes known as the "fight or flight" response — the heart beats faster and more oxygen is delivered to the muscles, according to a press release. Then, the body begins to sweat in order to cool down.

"Using measurements of the variations in the conductivity of the skin and the rate at which the heart beats, and by developing mathematical models that govern these relationships, CML researchers have illustrated that the sympathetic nervous system's activation level can be tracked continuously," reports Faghih.

This algorithm could be used in a wearable electronic device that could be worn by a patient diagnosed with a fear or anxiety disorder.

Baylor College of Medicine's vision-restoring research

What if a device could see for you? Photo from Pexels

When someone loses their vision, it's likely due to damage to the eyes or optic nerve. However, the brain that interprets what they eyes sees, works perfectly fine. But researchers from Baylor College of Medicine have worked on a thesis that a device with a camera could be designed and implemented to do the seeing for the blind patient.

"When we used electrical stimulation to dynamically trace letters directly on patients' brains, they were able to 'see' the intended letter shapes and could correctly identify different letters," says Dr. Daniel Yoshor, professor and chair of neurosurgery in a press release. "They described seeing glowing spots or lines forming the letters, like skywriting."

Through a study supported by the National Eye Institute with both sighted and blind people using implanted devices, the investigators determined that the process was promising. According to the release, the researchers identified several obstacles must be overcome before this technology could be implemented in clinical practice.

"The primary visual cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, contains half a billion neurons. In this study we stimulated only a small fraction of these neurons with a handful of electrodes," says said Dr. Michael Beauchamp, professor and in neurosurgery, in the release.

"An important next step will be to work with neuroengineers to develop electrode arrays with thousands of electrodes, allowing us to stimulate more precisely. Together with new hardware, improved stimulation algorithms will help realize the dream of delivering useful visual information to blind people."

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Houston startup uses AI and data to predict energy usage across sectors

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Among the many complications presented by the coronavirus pandemic is coping with power needs. Movie theaters, malls, schools, and stadiums are among the places where energy use has been uneven at best. And the unevenness promises to continue as a lot of locations turn the lights back on but their operating hours remain in flux.

Houston-based Adapt2 Solutions Inc. believes its software can help energy companies power their way through the pandemic-driven haziness of power demand from commercial and residential customers.

"Today's energy companies need the speed and flexibility that cloud-native technology provides to fully leverage the massive amounts of data available to them," Jason Kram, executive vice president of Adapt2 Solutions, said in a December 2019 release.

Kram says that by capitalizing on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and cloud computing, his company's predictive analytics models forecast unexpected fluctuations in power capacity. Amid the pandemic, this technology enables energy companies to map out demand at a time when they're balancing strained revenue and squeezed spending is paramount, according to Kram.

Armed with this forecast data, Adapt2 Solutions' customers — including utility companies, energy traders, and power generators — can more easily plot power production, sales, and purchases, Kram tells InnovationMap. This data can be applied to conventional power, renewable energy, and battery-stored power.

"In times of disruption, big data can inform decision-making for energy companies to optimize energy-market operations with timely and reliable data," Kram says.

Adapt2 Solutions' load forecasting feature generates the predictive analytics models. This feature is embedded within the company's Adapt2 Bid-to-Bill flagship product, which helps energy companies manage front-office and back-office operations. Its other products are Adapt2 Green, designed for the renewable energy market, and Adapt2 Trade-to-Tag, aimed at improving management of energy trades.

"With Adapt2's AI-enabled solutions, we strive to help more customers focus on their core operations and bring business units together on a single platform to create an integrated approach," Kram says.

The company's customers include Consolidated Edison Inc. (ConEd), Duke Energy Corp., the East Kentucky Electric Cooperative, Exelon Corp., Invenergy LLC, Sempra Energy, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Tyr Energy LLC, and Vistra Energy Corp.

Adapt2 Solutions employs about 40 people, Kram says, and plans to grow its revenue and headcount by 25 percent to 40 percent this year. He says Adapt2 Solutions has managed to turn a profit even though it hasn't taken any outside funding since Francisco Diaz founded the company in 2008.

In March, Inc. magazine placed Adapt2 Solutions at No. 222 on its inaugural list of the fastest-growing private companies in Texas. The company's revenue shot up 72 percent from 2016 to 2018.

"The growth in our business reflects a growth in our customers' business, further validating that we have taken the right steps to help energy enterprises better respond to market and technology changes," Diaz said in a March release.


Jason Kram is the executive vice president of Adapt2 Solutions. Photo courtesy of Adapt2 Solutions

Here's what challenges — and opportunities — Houston startups are facing amid COVID-19

Houston voices

There are startups struggling to keep their heads above the deluge of a pandemic-induced depression.

Between 2016 and 2018, the global startup economy generated over $3 trillion — a far cry from today's economic value. Today, startups struggle to keep operations running during the pandemic. Web companies throughout Europe have lost close to 400 billion euros during the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese venture capital investing has dipped 50 percent compared to everyone else.

"Startups that are supported by venture capital funds are merely a small part of the startup ecosystem. Startups that don't have venture capital funding, which is the majority of them, stand to lose substantial money during this pandemic-caused shutdown," says Dane Stangler, a business writer for Forbes.

"All across the country, there are startups that, while they may not have hefty venture capital funding, are still significant to the ecosystem because of their job creation," he continues.

These startups face serious setbacks and are expected to see a giant decline of growth during this pandemic. Small businesses are already in a bind because of forced closures and rapidly waning sales.

Far-reaching effects

Startups supported by venture capital have far-reaching effects on the rest of the economy. These high-tech companies generate up to five jobs for every one job they directly create.

"That means that the inevitable economic bodyslam they're about to receive or have already received will be felt by almost every other facet of the job market," explains Stangler.

According to the Startup Genome report, the pandemic will damage startups that were in the process of raising capital and will likely kill the majority of them.

What can be done?

"Federal emergency support for small businesses is certainly the right play here. The deli down the street, the local mechanic, the mom and pop burger joint; they all need help right now," Stangler says.

Tech and science startups need help too — and many of which were in the middle of getting off the ground when the corona crisis crashed the economy.

"Pumping money into them right now is the best thing that can be done to help them in the now."

The low-interest rate climate that has helped boost venture funds has also pushed many startups to survive on debt. We'll have to come to terms with this for now.

"Market momentum isn't necessarily ideal for the time being. Moreover, the "reallocation" forces that you hear entrepreneurs mention a lot has been kiboshed for now," explains Stangler.

Startups struggling to put the pieces of their company back together might see a glimmer of hope on the horizon, though.

Hope is on the horizon

Recessions breed good businesses. Don't believe me? According to the Startup Genome report, over 50 billion dollar tech startups were created during the recession of 2007 to 2009. Fun fact: more than 50 percent of the companies on the Fortune 500 list to date were founded during a recession.

Sure, startups struggling during a national pandemic can paint a demoralizing picture. But there might be some good news peaking through the dark clouds. It's clear that venture capital funding is at a standstill right now. But it could mean that more startups will get funded when things return to somewhat-normal.

The Startup Genome report shows us that during the 2001 and 2009 recessions, the number of companies that were funded by venture capitalists exploded and fast. For example, in the four years after the 2009 recession, the number of venture capital deals spiked by 25 percent every year.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu, the author of this piece, is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Houston accelerator leader shares how the cohort has seen success through virtual programming

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 34

In January, when Eléonore Cluzel was named the director of gBETA Houston, she had no clue Houston's first cohort of the international, early-stage accelerator would be conducted virtually. Now, five weeks in, the program and its five startups have adapted to provide programming and mentorship online only.

"Going virtual was a really good pivot on our end. I think that the cohort has adjusted very well," Cluzel says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It is tough. They put tremendous effort into it and I'm proud to be working with them."

Last week, gBETA Houston announced the five companies currently in the program. And, Cluzel is already excited about the second cohort, which opens applications after the first cohort's virtual pitch night on June 18. Cluzel says in light of how many applications she got for the first time around, she knows there's a lot of impact gBETA can make in Houston,

"I was really quite surprised — in a good way — how the first application round was really competitive," Cluzel says, "which shows that there is a lot of room to grow for accelerators in town."

Cluzel shares some of the challenges and opportunities gBETA Houston has seen throughout this time, and introduces each of the companies in the cohort, which represents sports tech, consumer tech, and more. Listen to the full interview with Cluzel below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.