A Houston-based software startup received a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health for its work within neurophysiology. Getty Images

Armed with a nearly $3.8 million federal grant, a Houston startup aims to boost neuroscience research around the world.

Vathes LLC, a developer of data management software that collaborates with neuroscience research labs in North America and Europe, recently received the $3.78 million grant from the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That initiative is part of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Vathes says the NIH funding will enable the startup to ramp up its DataJoint Pipelines for Neurophysiology project. The project aims to make open-source software for data science and engineering available to researchers who specialize in neurophysiology, a branch of neuroscience that looks at how the nervous system functions. The pipeline project holds the promise of benefiting research in areas like autism, Alzheimer's disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

The project's principal investigator is Dimitri Yatsenko, vice president of research and development at Vathes. Technologically speaking, neuroscientists are playing catch-up with their counterparts in fields like astrophysics, genomics, and bioinformatics, according to Yatsenko.

Neuroscience "is undergoing a fast transformation in terms of moving toward much more data-centric, data-intensive, computation-intensive, and collaborative projects," Yatsenko says. This means that neuroscientists are "now finding themselves having to quickly adapt to an environment," he adds, "where they have to share big data and computations with their collaborators in very dynamic settings and perform them in a very fluid way."

Yatsenko says the NIH-funded project will help smaller research groups tap into the technical expertise of larger research labs.

Vathes' DataJoint Neuro platform and services, which help create so-called DataJoint pipelines, enable neuroscientists to streamline, analyze, and visualize complex data. Among its customers are Princeton University's Neuroscience Institute and Columbia University's Zuckerman Institute. The federally funded project will empower smaller labs to capitalize on existing DataJoint pipelines as ready-to-go turnkey packages, Yatsenko says.

In essence, Vathes' technology acts as a translator. Big research labs collect data in databases that can vary by computer language and platform. Through the Vathes setup, that data can be incorporated by a lab of any size into algorithmic, machine learning, and artificial intelligence mechanisms, regardless of the computer language or platform.

Edgar Walker, CEO of Vathes, says this simplifies the construction and use of databases, giving scientists "more room to focus on the logic of their data pipeline rather than on the physical implementation of it."

Founded in 2016, Vathes is housed at the Texas Medical Center's Innovation Institute. It employs 10 people. The startup previously received a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Yatsenko says the project backed by the $3.78 million NIH grant will propel the startup's growth, as it "gives us a big window of opportunity" to provide tools and services that support the startup's open-source software.

"As the NIH and other funding agencies are shifting a lot of their focus to collaborative projects that are distributed among multiple institutions," Walker says, "we've established a reputation as the company that can facilitate such research, be efficient, and actually be cost-effective as well, and make the projects very smooth."

"We expect to continue to grow this business at the same exponential rate," he adds. "We'll keep our fingers crossed and see how things go."


CEO Edgar Walker (left) and Dimitri Yatsenko, vice president of research and development, lead Houston-based Vathes. Photos courtesy of Vathes

Two Houston hospitals — Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine — have received funding from the National Institutes of Health. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston researchers receive $3.2 million grant to enhance fetal monitoring technology

Fresh funds

Thousands of cases of fetal growth restriction occur annually that can lead to complications at birth. In order to get a better idea of condition and to develop better monitoring technology, the National Institutes of Health has granted $3.2 million to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital.

The researchers are tasked with developing "an improved way to evaluate umbilical venous blood flow using 3D and Doppler ultrasound techniques" in small fetuses, according to a release from Baylor College of Medicine.

"Our research team will initially validate the accuracy and reproducibility of new 3D volume flow measurements and then develop corresponding reference ranges in normal pregnancies," says Dr. Wesley Lee, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor, in the release.

"Detailed observations of fetal growth, heart function, and circulatory changes will be made in over 1,000 small fetuses with estimated weights below the 10th percentile," Lee continues. "The results will be correlated with pregnancy outcomes to identify prenatal predictors of clinical problems in newborns."

The grant will fund a five-year investigation collaboration between the two Houston hospitals, as well as the University of Michigan, Perinatology Research Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health, and Human Development and GE Healthcare.

FGR is a condition that affects fetuses that are below the weight normal for their gesticular age — usually in the 10th percentile of weight or less, according to Stanford Children's Health. Underlying issues with placenta or umbilical cord can increase the risks of the condition and causes of FGR can range from blood pressure problems to drug and alcohol use.

Affected fetuses can be at risk of stillbirth or neonatal death. Babies that overcome FGR complications at birth are predisposed to developmental delay and the development of adult diseases such as obesity, diabetes, coronary artery disease, and stroke, according to the release.

According to Dr. Lee, identifying these FGR and at-risk fetuses can benefit their health in infancy as well as throughout their lives.

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Houston startup founded by former NASA architect moves into new space amid booming business

go outside

In 2014 Garrett Finney, a former senior architect at the Habitability Design Center at NASA, brought his expertise in what he describes as "advocating for human presence living in a machine" to the outdoors market.

After being less-than enchanted by the current RV and camper offerings, the Houstonian developed a new series of adventure vehicles that could safely and effectively get its users off-grid — even if still Earth-bound — under the company he dubbed TAXA Outdoors.

The vehicles would follow much of the same standards that Finney worked under at NASA, in which every scenario and square inch would be closely considered in the smartly designed spaces. And rather that designing the habitats for style alone, function and storage space for essential gear took precedence. According to Finney, the habitat was to be considered a form of useful adventure equipment in its own right.

"Ceilings should be useful. They're not just for putting lights on," he says. "Even when there's gravity that's true."

Today TAXA offers four models of what they call "mobile human habitats" that can be towed behind a vehicle and sleep three to four adults, ranging from about $11,000 to $50,000 in price.

TAXA's mobile human habitats range in size and price. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

And amid the pandemic — where people were looking for a safe way to escape their homes and get outside — the TAXA habitats were flying off the shelves, attracting buyers in Texas, but mainly those in Colorado, California, and other nature-filled areas.

"January, was looking really good — like the break out year. And then the pandemic was a huge red flag all around the world," Finney says. "[But] we and all our potential customers realized that going camping was the bet. They were with their family, they were getting outside, they were achieving sanity having fun and creating memories."

According to TAXA President Divya Brown, the company produced a record 430 habitats in 2020. But it still wasn't enough to match the number of orders coming in.

"We had we had almost a year and a half worth of backlog at the old facility, which we've never experienced before," Brown says.

To keep up with demand, the company moved into a 70,000-square-foot space off of U.S. 290 that now allows multiple operations lines, as well as a showroom for their vehicles and enough room for their staff, which tripled in size from 25 to 75 employees since the onset of the pandemic.

The first priority at the new facility is to make up the backlog they took on in 2020. Next they hope to produce more than 1,000 habitats by the end of 2021 and 3,000 in the coming years.

"It's a pretty significant jump for us," Brown says. "We really believe there's a huge market for this."

With the new facility, the TAXA team hopes to catch up with the explosive sales growth. Photo courtesy of TAXA Outdoors

This is how much credit card debt the average Houstonian carries, says report

MONETARY MISFORTUNE

Residents of Houston are nursing New Year's hangovers of another kind — credit card debt.

According to a LendingTree study of the 50 largest U.S. metro areas, Houston consumers rank fourth for the highest median amount of credit card debt to ring in the new year: $3,720. In second place is Austin ($3,911), with Dallas at No. 7 ($3,560). San Antonio holds down the No. 14 spot ($3,414).

Hartford, Connecticut, claims the dubious distinction of ranking first in this category, with median credit card debt of $3,994.

Matt Schulz, LendingTree's chief credit analyst, says people with good credit and high income typically are more inclined to carry bigger credit card balances, since they usually have access to higher credit limits. But he notes that a significant number of younger consumers carry a high amount of credit card debt.

"When you're young and don't have a lot of financial experience, that scary combination can lead to more debt, especially for those living in big, expensive cities," according to LendingTree.

By another yardstick, Texas' four major metros fare much better in the LendingTree study.

Houston ranks 38th for the share of credit card users with debt (81.1 percent). Austin ranks No. 21 (84.7 percent), followed by Dallas at No. 37 (81.2 percent), and San Antonio at No. 48 (75.7 percent).

LendingTree researchers used an anonymized sample of more than 40,000 My LendingTree users from the first 15 days of December 2020 to estimate the percentage of credit card users carrying debt into 2021. They also relied on that data to compile median credit card debts.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In the week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three innovators who have tons to share — from recent venture capital data and observations to public relations and marketing tips for startups.

Kathryn Worsham Humphries, co-founder of All You Need

What does your company plan on bringing into the new year — and how do you plan to communicate your efforts? Photo courtesy of All You Need Method

It's a new year — and it's time for a new marketing and public relations plan for your startup. Thankfully, that's exactly what Houstonian Kathryn Worsham Humphries and her New York-based business partner Carla M. Nikitaidis specialize in with their new company, All You Need. The duo penned a guest column for InnovationMap last week with tips for refocusing on your target audience and prioritizing authenticity.

"Remember, these challenging times will pass," they write. "There is massive opportunity for the businesses and brands who are willing to reflect, pivot, and plan for a brighter future." Read more.

Heath Butler, network partner at Mercury Fund

Mercury Fund's Heath Butler joins the Houston Innovators Podcast this week to discuss Houston, venture capital, and more. Photo via mercuryfund.com

After 14 years at human resources company Insperity, Heath Butler has a specialty when it comes to thinking about the future of work. Butler was recently promoted within Mercury and the the move represents another aspect the firm is focusing on — something Butler discusses on last week's Houston Innovators Podcast episode.

"The world continues to be shaped by how the workforce and the workplace — and the actual work gets — done, and that couldn't have been put to the forefront more than during COVID," Butler says. "The promotion really reflects my focus on building out a very broad and deep theme for the firm around the future of work." Read more and stream the episode.

Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at Houston Exponential

HX has released a report on Houston venture capital. Photo courtesy of Serafina Lalany

Serafina Lalany and her team at Houston Exponential have crunched the numbers again to look at what sort of venture capital deals Houston startups brought in last year.

According to her report based on Pitch Book data, the Bayou City dredged up $715 million across 117 VC deals in 2020 — a year marked by challenges and opportunities from the pandemic and the oil price drop.

In the report, Lalany found that 2020 VC trends in Houston included fewer, larger deals and a rise in angel investment. Read more.