How can leaders inspire agility during a crisis? Learn three critical leadership strategies that helped two prominent symphonies transform during the pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

Crises, whether supply chain disruptions, natural disasters, or the arrival of an upstart rival, are a revealing moment for leaders. Such scenarios can push companies to the brink of meltdown or usher in dramatic organizational transformation. Whether an organization withers or thrives during a crisis is shaped by its resourcefulness—how it uses its existing resources.

The pandemic decimated many industries, but the performing arts industry faced especially grave challenges: rampant unemployment, limited prospects for revenue, and an existential crisis over the relevance of the arts in dire times. Initially, musicians could not congregate to practice, performance halls were shuttered, and classical music was the last thing on the public’s mind.

As tough as these circumstances appeared to be, what collaborator Kristen Nault and I learned during a multiyear study of two prominent orchestras surprised us: Not only was it possible to survive trying times, but it was also possible to emerge better because of them. The leadership key? Becoming nimbler by thinking more like jazz ensembles and less like classical orchestras.

Business leaders often call this agility, but for a musician, this is the realm of jazz improvisation. Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that helped leaders facing disruptions act like talented jazz musicians. Leaders in any industry can apply these practices during their organization’s next crisis.

The Resource Paradox During a Crisis

An organization’s most significant challenge during a crisis is that it typically needs resources — including time, money, expertise, equipment, and connections — at a time when activating resources has become more difficult. When faced with high levels of uncertainty, a leader’s first instinct might be to pare down investments to lower the risk of worst case outcomes. Ironically, such defensive behaviors can contribute to the organization’s demise. Threat rigidity sets in, with the leader doubling down on old habits and control mechanisms that make it difficult to harness the full potential of resources.

Instead of fearing crises, leaders can learn to embrace their hidden benefits. And by following the adage “Necessity is the mother of invention,” organizations can unlock the full power of their existing resources to respond to a challenge. Research on resourcefulness finds that when leaders take this approach, they can foster collective creativity to help groups solve problems in adverse times.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses discovered ways to access more knowledge (to understand how to repurpose products and services), capital (to invest in IT infrastructure), and connections (to identify new markets for revised products and services). Resourcefulness helped businesses pivot: Bakeries pivoted to selling raw ingredients for home chefs, clothing companies to producing face masks, vacuum manufacturer Dyson to designing a ventilator in 10 days, and distilleries to manufacturing hand sanitizer.

A Tale of Two Symphonies — and Leadership Approaches

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a multiyear research study with two of the world’s premier symphony organizations, the Houston Symphony and the Revenite Symphony (a pseudonym because the organization requested confidentiality).

When we began our research, it was an open question as to whether Revenite and the Houston Symphony would survive. Both organizations had struggled financially before the pandemic, with millions of dollars in losses and even more significant budget deficits. Both organizations were also steeped in customs and traditions, which, as any business leader knows, makes change difficult. Yet, crises often produce one valuable resource needed to instigate considerable change: urgency. Urgency makes it possible to rapidly implement changes that might otherwise have taken years (or not happened at all). A lack of urgency dooms many change management initiatives, making its abundance during a crisis an opportunity not to be overlooked. As we interviewed and observed symphony executives, staff members, and musicians, we discovered that the leaders of each organization took very different approaches to addressing the crisis and mobilizing their resources to respond.

Revenite announced a suspension of operations near the start of the pandemic. Its leadership could not envision how to pivot its labor and fixed assets, such as its performance hall, to capture new sources of revenue. As one Revenite executive told me, “I don’t think we had a sense of what the pathway toward restarting the business was going to be. … There were too many unknowns.”

After furloughing all of the musicians and most of its staff, Revenite focused on surviving. The organization radically slashed costs to 25 percent of the pre-pandemic budget and tried to get the remaining skeleton workforce to increase productivity to keep the symphony chugging along. Leaders sought to wait things out until the pandemic subsided. This defensive strategy led Revenite to constrict resources when the organization needed them most.

Afraid to go broke, the organization retreated — at a significant cost. Revenite lost any relevance to its community at this time of great need. Several difficult-to-replace musicians quit the industry. Trust between leadership and all employees, already strained from the furloughs, further deteriorated as Revenite’s leaders centralized control of the organization and focused on squeezing the remaining labor force to do more. Many employees felt burned out from working long hours with little purpose. No one, including executives, understood the “why” behind the work. As one executive said to me, “I’m working to sustain a thing that has no inherent meaning other than its survival. That’s a really weird place to be. … Our mission is to perform orchestral music.”

In contrast, the Houston Symphony made an early commitment during the pandemic to remain open. It abandoned the long-term planning that symphonies typically engage in (measured in years) and shifted to figuring out the next few weeks — for its concert program, staffing, safety practices, and marketing efforts.

At first, congregating in the performance hall was not allowed due to regulations and safety concerns. So instead, the Houston Symphony turned its musicians’ homes into performance venues. The musicians teamed up with musically talented (but not professional) family members, including partners and children. Instead of relying on a huge production team, the makeshift videos in its Living Room Series of performances were created by a minimal number of staff members. Other orchestras that livestreamed performances tried to re-create the symphony experience on Zoom, with 70-plus musicians appearing in tiny square boxes. The Houston Symphony realized that it would inevitably disappoint its customers by trying to transform a rich in-person experience into a mediocre online one. Instead, it reimagined the delivery of its content by inviting customers to learn about musicians and their families in an intimate setting while listening to enjoyable music.

When the Houston Symphony moved to livestreaming full concerts without an in-person audience, it could reach new geographic markets not possible with in-person-only events. It charged an admission fee for the virtual concerts (which was uncommon) and attracted donations from a wider variety of patrons. This brought in additional resources, such as revenue, new supporters, and media attention, as well as an enhanced reputation among industry peers.

Importantly, these decisions also created extra time for the organization to figure out how to safely and effectively return its patrons to the performance hall, which Houston did long before most other symphonies. However, the organization went further, using the pandemic to usher in a more profound transformation.

Instead of making deep cost cuts and unsustainable workforce reductions like Revenite did in the name of resourcefulness, the Houston Symphony took a strategic approach to resourcefulness. Leaders focused not on simply surviving but on strengthening the organization’s long-term outlook — financially, operationally, and in terms of its mission:

  • The need to be more mindful of costs during severe financial distress helped leaders balance the budget, a goal that had proved elusive in years past. The entire organization made a newfound commitment to follow a pathway of greater fiscal responsibility into the future.
  • The organization expanded its donor base beyond Houston and reached customers worldwide with the paid livestreaming product. Although at face value a livestreaming ticket yielded fewer proceeds than an in-person concert, many attendees were first-time patrons. Additionally, a large portion of these people donated money in addition to buying the livestream tickets.
  • The symphony maintained livestreaming performances after returning to a full, in-person concert schedule — earning incremental revenue with little added effort.
  • In a striking change, the organization introduced its patrons, who traditionally heard Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, to a more diverse set of composers. Prepandemic, the pressure to fill 3,000 seats deterred the Houston Symphony from experimenting with new composers: When programs featured unfamiliar works, filling the theater with ticket buyers was a challenge. But that pressure disappeared when the performance hall was restricted to less than 50 percent capacity. The organization brought in much-needed new voices, and its audiences responded positively — so much so that the symphony upped its efforts. In the year before the pandemic, fewer than 1 percent of the symphony’s classical concerts featured musical pieces composed by members of underrepresented populations or women. In the 2023 fiscal year, and with Houston’s hall at full capacity, that number expanded to 72 percent.

Learning to Get Jazzy: Three Strategies for Leaders

Many organizations, whether a symphony, manufacturing company, or professional services firm, are metaphorically structured like an orchestra. They have conductors (leaders) and rely on sheet music (routines and practices) to coordinate different parts (teams, divisions, or functional areas) of the enterprise. Organizational leaders aim for reliable and standardized performances, much like conductors aim to make the matinee performance of a symphony the same high quality as the evening one. Through many rehearsals (that is, the repetition of behaviors), it is possible to make incremental improvements, but leaders seek output that, by design, is predictable and relatively static. Operating like a symphony orchestra allows organizations to thrive in environments of stability and low uncertainty. But during a crisis, this type of model can be disastrous.

Our research found that the Houston Symphony significantly changed its operating model. It pulled ahead of peers in the industry when leaders changed the operating metaphor to that of a jazz ensemble. As one executive told me, the collective team saw the power of flexibility: “Leadership has come from the admin and staff side and the musician side. … We’ve combined different kinds of music and programs that [we] would never do before. I would say that as a large organization, we’re operating more like a small organization.”

That is the kind of result that many business leaders navigating disruptive crises only hope to nurture within their teams.

How did the Houston Symphony’s leaders inspire the organization to become so nimble? Our research found three critical changes in leadership practices that enabled them to adapt.

1. Keep the music playing.

Like a jazz ensemble, the Houston Symphony tried to keep the music playing, literally and figuratively. While Revenite stopped playing music and functioning as an organization, the Houston Symphony kept playing … anything. For example, the livestreamed Living Room Series was a far different product than a fully staffed professional production with 70 musicians in a 3,000-seat venue. However, those performances brought in new patrons and donors, and nurtured the symphony’s relevance in the community. This experiment also helped build the organization’s experience with livestreaming, which proved to be an important launching point for a more comprehensive virtual offering. Leaders, staff members, and musicians discovered their hidden capabilities around playing different types of music, utilizing novel technologies, and coordinating in new ways.

Without clarity on how the pandemic would unfold, the Houston Symphony focused on short-term decisions, asking “What can we play this week?” instead of trying to have an answer for the rest of the year. This allowed the symphony to have the most relevant information to inform its operations — real-time information that could be used to make decisions today, instead of relying on shaky assumptions about an unknown future. Leaders of any type of organization can understand a crisis by experimenting and then taking stock of lessons learned instead of remaining frozen by fear and uncertainty.

2. Don’t wait to practice transparency.

Houston’s leaders fostered strong trust between management and all employees. As resources become scarce during a crisis, it’s easy for trust to erode if decisions lack transparency. Instead of shrouding decision-making in secrecy, the Houston Symphony invited representatives from the front-line staff to weigh in on critical decisions. Relationships with the musicians’ union strengthened. By revealing sensitive information and disclosing the dire predicament the organization faced early on, leaders built trust and sparked a sense of urgency. Both were required in order for the team to quickly make significant changes.

Trust also came from empowering employees to experiment and not punishing them for making mistakes. For example, the marketing team had to try different campaign messages until they found one that resonated with patrons. The development team turned the mere fact that the symphony was playing into a comeback story—one that donors eagerly supported. The operations team discovered ways to socially distance musicians and audiences and continually modified its plans as the pandemic evolved.

3. Collaborate on a postcrisis identity.

Finally, the Houston Symphony constructed a new postcrisis identity that reflected its leadership role in the community. Instead of trying to return to pre-pandemic norms, leaders expanded the organization’s mission to cater to a wider, more diverse set of community members. The organization committed to experimenting with new types of music and continued with livestreaming to introduce audiences worldwide to a larger repertoire of selections. Expanded educational programs helped it reach underserved communities, providing a stronger foundation to diversify the artistic talent base.

Having helped shape the Houston Symphony’s comeback during the pandemic, employees embraced this community centered vision and rallied to keep the transformation momentum going. Additionally, they all came to see their own skill sets differently. After effectively coping with major adversity and helping to build a stronger organization, employees came to see themselves as capable crisis navigators — which will help everyone during future crises.

A Second Act

As our research progressed into its second year, we grew increasingly certain that Revenite would fold. We turned out to be wrong. As the organization neared the brink of death, Revenite’s leaders stopped waiting for the crisis to abate and ushered in a dramatic turnaround. It began when leaders engaged in updating. Updating is a leadership competency in which prior beliefs are revised to better address problems. It’s often a struggle for leaders to change direction after committing to a course of action, but Revenite’s leaders managed to dislodge their previous views of the crisis as the organization withered. They managed to adapt, as any jazz musician must.

Although the relationship with Revenite’s musicians had been deeply tarnished, leaders restarted a dialogue. The full impact of the furlough and Revenite’s decision to suspend operations became clear. Leaders updated their assessments of employees’ emotional states, gaining a more vivid understanding of how they had suffered economically and emotionally. Musicians explained that they had felt disconnected from their love of performance and struggled to stay sharp without practicing as an entire orchestra. After learning about employees’ hardships, leaders finally felt an urgent need to course-correct.

Revenite’s leaders next updated their assumptions about financial resources. They finally acknowledged that cost cutting was not a viable business strategy or a pathway to transformation. Instead of viewing employees as cost centers, leaders shifted to seeing them as revenue generators. By becoming more strategic with their resourcefulness, Revenite’s leaders could mobilize their existing resources to respond to the crisis more effectively. Musicians returned from furlough and started helping to increase revenues through donor outreach and, eventually, concerts.

Leaders also started noticing more about how other entities were adjusting to the crisis. They found inspiration in the Houston Symphony’s ability to operate during the pandemic — and also learned from Revenite’s musicians’ efforts to create COVID-safe concerts to raise money for themselves during the furlough. These examples showed Revenite’s leaders that operating during a pandemic was possible — something they had thought was insurmountable earlier in the year. By the end of year two of the pandemic, Revenite was well on its way to returning to its precrisis strength.

When a crisis hits, getting jazzy will help leaders in any industry adapt and positively transform their organizations. Instead of fearfully retreating at the onset of a crisis, using resourcefulness as a set of strategic tools can help leaders turn a threat into an opportunity. By unlocking the hidden potential of existing resources, organizations can emerge from a crisis with better financials, stronger operations, higher team morale, and a reinvigorated sense of purpose.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Scott Sonenshein, the Henry Gardiner Symonds Professor of Management at Rice University, author of Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less — and Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined (HarperCollins, 2017), and coauthor (with Marie Kondo) of Joy at Work: Organizing Your Professional Life (Little, Brown Spark, 2020).

Things seem to be ever-so-slowly improving. Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston's post-pandemic economy slowly creeping back, new study says

bouncing back

While COVID-19 cases are alarmingly surging in Texas, here in Houston, businesses are slowly returning to a new normal (for now). So, just how well is the Bayou City recovering economically from the pandemic, compared to other big-city counterparts around the United States and in Texas?

So-so, according to a revealing new report.

A new list, published July 29 by financial advice website SmartAsset, ranks the U.S. cities with the strongest economic recoveries from the pandemic.

SmartAsset looked at five data points for 49 of the largest U.S. cities to determine the economic winners:

  • Percentage change in consumer spending
  • Percentage change in small businesses that are open
  • Percentage change in small business revenue
  • Percentage change in job postings
  • March 2021 unemployment rate

Houston performed slightly better than the studywide average in three of the metrics, (although some of the numbers still look pretty bleak). The Houston stats are:

1. Change in consumer spending (January 2020-April 2021)

  • Houston: 11.7 percent
  • Studywide average: 7.3 percent

2. Change in small businesses open (January 2020-April 2021)

  • Houston: -34.5 percent
  • Studywide average: -32.51 percent

3. Change in small business revenue (January 2020-April 2021)

  • Houston: -36.6 percent
  • Studywide average: -30.9 percent

4. March 2021 unemployment rate

  • Houston: 10.6 percent
  • Studywide average: 6.6 percent

Elsewhere in Texas, The SmartAsset ranking puts Dallas at No. 19, and Fort Worth, at No. 11. Among the most populous cities in the SmartAsset study, Dallas ranks highest. Austin lands at No. 23 for pandemic economic recovery, with San Antonio at No. 38.

Only one other Texas city, El Paso, appears in the top 20 (No. 8). Salt Lake City, Utah tops the list.

University of Houston's Bauer College of Business recently analyzed Houston's pandemic recovery. In its report, the Bauer study notes a bigger bounce-back in the U.S. than Houston — and that oil and gas downturns selectively hurt Houston more than the rest of Texas.

In some good news, the Bauer study reports the biggest sectors that have the biggest recoveries: healthcare, retail, and food service.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Here's what Houston tech is making a difference locally amid the pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

How technology helped Houston fight against the pandemic

guest column

The entire world came to a standstill when the COVID-19 pandemic came knocking at the door, and Houston was no different than the rest. Businesses got shut down, people were losing jobs left and right, the medical infrastructure was wheezing from the huge patient-influx, and whatnot.

However, the Space City managed to weather the storm thanks to its firm resolve and technological interventions from Houston-based businesses and several other players. But that doesn't mean we are out of the woods yet.

The silver lining, however, is that we now know the threat can be mitigated with the help of technologies at our disposal. In this article, we'll discuss how technology has facilitated the fight against the pandemic. Some of the local businesses from Houston also had a significant role to play in providing an arsenal for this war, and we'll be discussing their contribution as well. So let's get started:

Remote healthcare assistance with smart data collection and management

The biggest challenge at the beginning of the pandemic was to provide proper care to those exposed to the virus without putting the lives of frontline workers in danger. On top of that, hospitals also had to make sure that patients suffering from other illnesses do not come into contact with the virus.

With the number of patients rising exponentially, the medical infrastructure could've never been able to cope up if it were not for telemedicine. It's a combination of remote and data technologies that allow healthcare workers to assist and treat patients without going in their physical proximity.

Houston's Medical Informatics Corp. did some exceptional work in making remote healthcare a feasible option for medical institutions. Their solution aims at collecting accurate and comprehensive data that'll further allow physicians to provide better care to the patients. While the luxury of social distancing is among the most significant benefits of this solution, there are several other benefits in the long run.

Since MIC's solution focuses on collecting quality data from all the possible data points, the information can also help identify any significant trends in how the virus is affecting the patients. Artificial intelligence and machine learning seem like the perfect allies to bolster MIC's solution further.

The tech also allows for patients to get quality consultation from experts located in other geographical locations. Hospitals can also leverage such an infrastructure to scale up and down with ease by quickly bringing in more remote caregivers in case of a spike in patients' numbers.

Telemedicine has been brilliant in helping the world deal with the coronavirus pandemic and paved the way for a revamped healthcare infrastructure in the future. The one in which affordable healthcare is a norm and physical distances are not an issue anymore.

Drones and robots for sanitization and upkeep

Once the lockdown restrictions were slowly uplifted, businesses needed to be more cautious about sanitizing the facilities and ensure there was no reason forcing them to close the shop again. The challenge turned out to be bigger for larger facilities as they can't simply deploy a large workforce to take care of it. It would be impossible to follow social distancing norms under such circumstances.

Many stadiums in Houston concluded that employing drones for the job is the way to go, and they couldn't have been more correct. Texas Medical Technology used 'SaniDrones' to spray disinfectants over large facilities and equipment. These drones are pretty much like what is used for agricultural fields and carry large amounts of spraying material at a time to get the job done.

The company also has an army of various other robots that can help businesses abide by pandemic norms. They have one that automatically puts protective coverings on the visitor's shoes to help prevent outside elements from entering the facility. Then they also have a robot that can take orders from customers in restaurants. It can show them 3-D menus and expertly ask customers what they'd like to order. They also offer SaniGate, which disinfect visitors before entering the premises, thus curbing the spread of the virus.

Airobotics is another Houston-based company coming up with technologically advanced solutions for businesses to deal with the pandemic. They provide drones to industrial players, such as oil and gas companies, to monitor and inspect the facility. The drones collect information critical to such plants' smooth functioning and prevent the analysts from going around and touching surfaces on the plant.

The pandemic made us realize that we can't always rely on human workers to care for the fieldwork. Drones and robots provide a suitable alternative to such jobs, and as these solutions get more commonplace, we can also expect them to get more affordable.

Bringing the economy back to life by keeping the virus out of the ecosystem

The economic slowdown brought by the coronavirus is unlike what most of us could even comprehend. With small businesses taking the biggest hit and a good fraction of them shutting down forever, it's necessary for the remaining ones free from the clutches of the pandemic.

And one of the better ways to do that is by minimizing the virus's spread at places where people frequent the most. One of the primary reasons for the coronavirus to be so transmissible is because of how it can travel through seemingly healthy carriers. It might cause a mild fever in some, but that usually doesn't keep people from getting out.

DataVox, a Houston based tech company, provides thermal scanners to make sure possibly infected humans stay away from the virus. The thermal scanners provided by them only check for the temperature and don't affect the privacy of those being scanned. It's a seemingly simple but effective way to deal with such a dangerous element.

Another positive news in this context is that researchers at the University of Houston have designed an air filter capable of filtering out the coronavirus to a great deal of effectiveness. Once commercially available, this can be installed in closed facilities and ensure the virus doesn't enter even through the vents.

There is no doubt that leveraging technology is the way to go forward despite how the situation unfolds. Houston is now implementing smart city solutions with the same thing in mind, and we should also be following their lead.

With a workforce of skilled software developers in Houston, and the city's rich background in technology, the adoption of tech measures should not turn out to be a tough deal. And Houston-based firms coming up with advanced solutions is only a good sign for the city.

Let's hope we'll be seeing more of these in the future, and more Houston businesses will help the city and the world fight this pandemic.

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Colin Simpson is project manager at BlueKite Apps, which recently started its software development services in Houston.

COVID-19-related stories topped this year's health tech trending articles on InnovationMap. Photo via Getty Images

Here are Houston's top 5 health innovation stories of the year

2020 in review

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. The medical world has had a busy year amid the pandemic, and health tech innovation has never been more important. InnovationMap's top stories of the year included a new academic psychiatric hospital, Houston-based COVID-19 innovations, and more.

These 7 Houston health tech companies are providing COVID-19 solutions

These Houston startups have created health care-related solutions amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

It's all hands on deck in Houston in the battle against coronavirus — and local biotech startups have risen to the occasion.

From mental health solutions and online portals to virtual medicine and new treatments, these Houston companies have recently launched or pivoted to new options in health care. Click here to continue reading.

Houston to be home to the largest academic psychiatric hospital in the country

The UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center, set to open next year, will be unlike anything in Houston. Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

Film and TV portrayals of psychiatric hospitals have driven a narrative based in cold, clinical rooms and unwelcoming corridors. That picture couldn't be more inaccurate when it comes to Houston's first public mental health hospital in more than three decades. Breaking stigmas and setting a new bar for design, the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center is set to open its doors in late 2021.

UTHealth has brought on architecture firm Perkins and Will to design the upcoming mental health facility. The behavioral health campus will be the largest facility of its kind in the United States, becoming a place to train future physicians and specialists. Located near Texas Medical Center, the space will consist of two buildings connected by a glazed bridge, surrounded by a tranquil green space.

The 220,000-square-foot facility includes 264 new inpatient beds and will provide access to mental healthcare, substance use intervention and treatment, and medical care via integrated treatment programs. Click here to continue reading.

Photos: Houston Methodist opens new hub to showcase health tech of the future

The Center for Innovation at Houston Methodist has opened its new Technology Hub to showcase its efforts to advance digital health. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist is regularly exploring new digital health technologies, but, until recently, lacked a proper space to demonstrate their vision for the future of health care. Now, with the Center for Innovation's Technology Hub, the hospital has just that.

The tech hub opened earlier this month in Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more.

"Basically this space is like a laboratory for digital health innovations," says Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist. "It's an opportunity to bring doctors, administrators, and subject matter experts to talk through what digital health could be at Houston Methodist."

The tech hub has re-imagined the experiences patients have and demonstrated the effect technology can have in various experiences — from the waiting room or outpatient care to at-home health and a voice control-optimized patient room. There's a virtual reality demo room that showcases the hospital's use of VR for distraction therapy, as well as for a doctor to demonstrate a surgical procedure for his or her patient. Click here to continue reading.

Houston organization names 10 most promising life sciences startups

Here's which life science companies — in Houston and beyond — are ones to watch. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Last week, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship gathered over 1,000 life science experts and attendees virtually for thought leadership as well as 40 company presentations.

The three-day 2020 Virtual Texas Life Science Forum was made possible through a partnership with BioHouston and support from Texas Medical Center and Insperity. At the close of the summit, several companies were recognized with awards.

Houston-based Starling Medical won the Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award, established by BioHouston in honor of the groundbreaking Houston cardiovascular surgeon. The digital health device company is revolutionizing severe bladder dysfunction management with artificial intelligence.

Every year at the forum, the Rice Alliance names its 10 most promising companies working on developing innovative solutions in medical devices, digital health, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, and therapeutics. This year, Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, says they had more applications to present than ever before. Additionally, the presenting companies — about half of which are Houston-based — have already raised more than $275 million in funding. Click here to continue reading.

Houston biotech company is creating a drug that could fight the coronavirus

Pulmotect, a clinical-stage biotechnology company based in Houston, is testing a drug that could be useful in mitigating the threats of the coronavirus, which is currently been recognized as a global health emergency. Getty Images

A drug being developed by a Houston biopharmaceutical company eventually could help combat what the World Health Organization has proclaimed a global health emergency.

Experiments conducted by clinical-stage biotechnology company Pulmotect Inc. show its PUL-042 inhaled drug has proven effective in protecting mice against two types of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

In the Galveston experiments, a single inhaled dose of PUL-042 protected lab mice from the SARS virus, and it greatly reduced the amount of virus in their lungs after the mice became infected with SARS or MERS.

"With the risks of virulent coronaviruses and other threats increasing, as shown by the recent outbreak in Wuhan that has already spread from China to other countries including the United States, Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of current and emerging pathogens and protecting vulnerable populations," says CEO Dr. Colin Broom in a news release. Click here to continue reading.

A new AI-optimized COVID screening device, a free response resource, and more — here's your latest roundup of research news. Image via Getty Images

These are the latest COVID-19-focused research projects happening at Houston institutions

research roundup

Researchers across the Houston area are working on COVID-19 innovations every day, and scientists are constantly finding new ways this disease is affecting humankind.

From a COVID breathalyzer to a new collaboration in Houston — here's your latest roundup of local coronavirus research news.

A&M System to collaborate on a COVID-19 breathalyzer

A prototype of the device will be used on the Texas A&M campus. Photo via tamu.edu

Researchers at Texas A&M University System are collaborating on a new device that uses artificial intelligence in a breathalyzer situation to detect whether individuals should be tested for COVID-19. The technology is being developed through a collaboration with Dallas-based company, Worlds Inc., and the U.S. Air Force.

The device is called Worlds Protect and a patient can use a disposable straw to blow into a copper inlet. In less than a minute, test results can be sent to the person's smartphone. Worlds Inc. co-founders Dave Copps and Chris Rohde envision Worlds Protect kiosks outside of highly populated areas to act as a screening process, according to a news release.

"People can walk up and, literally, just breathe into the device," says Rohde, president of Worlds Inc., in the release. "It's completely noninvasive. There's no amount of touching. And you quickly get a result. You get a yay or nay."

The university system has contributed $1 million in the project's development and is assisting Worlds Inc. with engineering and design, prototype building and the mapping of a commercial manufacturing process. According to the release, the plan was to test the prototypes will be tried out this fall on the Texas A&M campus.

"Getting tech innovations to market is one of our sweet spots," says John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, in the release. "This breakthrough could have lasting impact on global public health."

Baylor College of Medicine researchers to determine cyclosporine’s role in treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients

BCM researchers are looking into the treatment effect of an existing drug on COVID-19 patients. Photo via BCM.edu

The Baylor College of Medicine has launched a randomized clinical trial to look into how the drug cyclosporine effects the prevention of disease progression in pre-ICU hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drug has been used for about 40 years to prevent rejection of organ transplants and to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

"The rationale is strong because the drug has a good safety profile, is expected to target the body's hyperimmune response to COVID and has been shown to directly inhibit human coronaviruses in the lab," says Dr. Bryan Burt, chief of thoracic surgery in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor, says in a press release.

Burt initiated this trial and BCM is the primary site for the study, with some collaboration with Brigham and Women's. The hypothesis is that the drug will help prevent the cytokine storm that patients with COVID-19 experience that causes their health to decline rapidly, according to the release.

The study, which is funded by Novartis, plans to enroll 75 hospitalized COVID-19 patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center who are not in the ICU. There will be an initial evaluation at six months but Burt expects to have the final study results in one year.

Rice launches expert group to help guide pandemic response

A new response team is emerging out of a collaboration led by Rice University. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University is collaborating with other Houston institutions to create the Biomedical Expert Panel, supported by Texas Policy Lab, to assist officials in long-term pandemic recovery.

"Not all agencies and decision-makers have an in-house epidemiologist or easy access to leaders in infectious disease, immunology and health communications," says Stephen Spann, chair of the panel and founding dean of the University of Houston College of Medicine, in a news release. "This panel is about equity. We must break out of our knowledge siloes and face this challenge together, with a commitment to inclusivity and openness."

The purpose of the panel is to be available as a free resource to health departments, social service agencies, school districts and other policymakers. The experts will help design efficient public health surveillance plans, advise on increasing testing capacity and access for underserved communities, and more.

"The precise trajectory of the local epidemic is difficult to predict, but we know that COVID-19 will continue to be a long-term challenge," says E. Susan Amirian, an epidemiologist who leads the TPL's health program, in the release. "Although CDC guidelines offer a good foundation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when managing a crisis of this magnitude across diverse communities with urgent needs."

By September 1, Project V delivered its first order of 30,000 ventilators just 154 days after launching. Photo by AJ Mast for General Motors and Ventec

Houston company partners with General Motors, others to boost country’s ventilator supply

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Houston-based Velentium played a key role in mobilizing thousands of ventilators in the United States at a time when the pandemic and the uncertainty around it was surmounting around the country.

The medical technology company primarily worked in code, software, and cloud-based programs up until March.

"Then we had this opportunity come up in COVID that changed everything for us," says CEO Dan Purvis.

On March 14, an article for Forbes referenced one of Velentium's long-time clients Ventec Life Systems, a manufacturer of ventilators based in Washington. In the article, their client said they could increase production of their much-needed ventilators five-fold if they only had the right resources and partners. Purvis quickly decided that he and his team at Velentium would be one of them.

Velentium first aimed to help the small factory double or triple their production.

"When we first joined the process we were just going to our client, which was a relatively young start up firm, to try to help them go from 120 to 250 [units]," Purvis says.

But then General Motors showed up. And the scale changed dramatically.

The automotive behemoth launched Project V, which would marry it's manufacturing prowess with the technical expertise of the technology and engineering companies to mass produce Ventec's VOCSN ventilator systems. By March 25, operations launched at GM's Kokomo, Indiana, powerhouse plant where they were to produce 10,000 ventilators per month in just about eight week's time.

Velentium was charged with creating 141 automated test stands to verify that every one of Project V's 10,000 units were up to FDA standards. The stands featured 27 unique test systems that monitored 14 critical subcomponents, like air flow in metering valves and oxygen blends, and ultimately approved a ventilator for use through two final tests.

"It's one thing to build [ventilators]," Purvis says. "You need to build them safely, accurately, and in a repeatable way that is going to help people. And that's what our test systems insured."

And though Velentium had created many of these systems before, they had never done so at this scale or speed. Success required around-the-clock work from the then-60-person firm and new risks, that today Purvis says were worth taking.

"I was like, 'If we really want this to work we have to jump on this like nobody's business,'" Purvis recalls. "We bought $2 million worth of parts for test systems essentially at risk. We had not gotten our negotiation with General Motors done yet. But there was no way I could wait an extra week if I had eight weeks to do it. It was kind of terrifying, but it was the right thing to do. It totally aligned with our culture of saving lives."

By September 1, Project V delivered its first order of 30,000 ventilators to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, just 154 days after launching.

Today, Velentium maintains a few team members at the Kokomo facility who run sustaining engineering. Throughout the project, Velentium added 60 team members to their staff and doubled down on manufacturing capabilities. They plan to double their production space again as they continue to place more emphasis on their manufacturing arm, which Purvis says opens up new opportunities for the firm that he hopes only continues to grow.

"One of the big goals for me as a strategic leader at the company was to make sure that pre-Project V to post-Project V the transformation that happened to our company through that period would not regress to where we were before," he says. "We had so much impact and so much growth through that time I didn't ever want to change."

He adds: "We asked the question over and over again during the first few weeks of the pandemic in March: Why not us? If I will continue to ask the question…we can accomplish major things."

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TMC Innovation announces second cohort of promising Danish health tech companies

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A new cohort of scientists from the Texas-Denmark BioBridge has been selected to join a Texas Medical Center Accelerator, joining forces with some of Houston’s best advisers and mentors.

This is the second year that four Danish companies have been chosen to join a special TMC Innovation Accelerator program with plans to bring their technologies to the American market. In a joint press release, the Texas Medical Center (TMC) and the BioInnovation Institute (BII), announced that the participants are scheduled to arrive in Houston on May 13 for their first session, in which they’ll work on US customer validation. After that, they’ll take part in the full program, which will allow the founders to make their plans for strategic development over the course of six months.

Just as the TMC Innovation Factory offers help for founders who have set their sights on success in the US market, the Danish BioInnovation Institute provides life science startups with the connections, infrastructure and financial support necessary to bring their ideas to the public.

The companies selected include:

  • Alba Health is pioneering a gut microbiome test for young children that’s informed by AI.
  • AMPA Medical has created InterPoc, a more discrete alternative to types of stoma bags currently available for ileostomy patients.
  • Droplet IV is a medical device that automatically flushes IV lines, reducing waste and making nurses’ jobs easier.
  • Metsystem is a cancer metastasis platform aimed at predicting what the most effective cancer drug is for each patient.

“We are excited to welcome these startups to TMC as Danish companies are making significant strides in drug discovery and health tech developments” says Devin Dunn, head of the accelerator for Health Tech, in the release. “As they look to expand into the US market, the collaborative environment fostered by our dedicated team, programs, and clinical community will help them advance their innovations, foster research collaborations, and further develop their technologies here in Houston.”

The program for the accelerator is based on the successes of the TMC Innovation (TMCi) Health Tech Accelerator program. The TMC Denmark BioBridge was established in 2019 as a collaboration between TMC and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.

Houston hospital flies in drone delivery service for medical supplies, prescriptions

incoming

A Houston hospital system has announced that it has plans to launch a drone delivery service for specialty prescriptions and medical supplies in 2026.

Memorial Hermann Health System announced that it intends to be the first health care provider in Houston to roll out drone delivery services from San Francisco-based Zipline, a venture capital-backed tech company founded in 2014 that's completed 1 million drone deliveries.

"As a system, we are continuously seeking ways to improve the patient experience and bring greater health and value to the communities we serve. Zipline provides an innovative solution to helping our patients access the medications they need, quickly and conveniently, at no added cost to them," Alec King, executive vice president and CFO for Memorial Hermann, says in a news release.

Zipline boasts of achieving delivery times seven times faster than traditional car deliveries and can usually drop off packages at a rate of a mile a minute. The drones, called Zips, can navigate any weather conditions and complete their missions with zero emissions.

Per the release, the service will be used to deliver items to patients or supplies or samples between its locations.

"Completing more than one million commercial deliveries has shown us that when you improve health care logistics, you improve every level of the patient experience. It means people get better, faster, more convenient care, even from the comfort of their own home," adds Keller Rinaudo Cliffton, co-founder and CEO of Zipline. "Innovators like Memorial Hermann are leading the way to bring better care to the U.S., and it's going to happen much faster than you might expect."

Houston tech founder shines spotlight on small businesses with new awards initiative

houston innovators podcast episode 234

For decades, small businesses have operated in essentially the same manner — handwritten notes to request time off, manual punch cards to clock in, and verbal agreements to swap shifts. And 10 years ago, Houstonian Rushi Patel thought it was time to upgrade these local shops, eateries, and other businesses.

Homebase, which was founded in San Francisco in 2014 and has its largest office in Houston, provides a suite of software tools for employee scheduling, time tracking, communication, and task management for its users, most of which are small businesses.

After a decade of growing its technology and clientbase, Patel, co-founder and COO of the company, explains the unique challenges these small businesses face on the Houston Innovators Podcast — as well as how Homebase helps.

"It's a bit of an orchestra in terms of what entrepreneurs have to do. Your job is to compose a little, but conduct as well," Patel says on the show. "You've built the song of what you want to have happen, but you're conducting lots of different things to make it a reality as a small business owner."



Patel explains how optimizing these personnel aspects of the business frees up founders and managers and improves the employee experience too. Currently, the job market is competitive for these types of businesses, and retention and hiring are major focus points for entrepreneurs.

With 10 years of data and experience of working with small businesses, Homebase introduced a new awards program this week in honor of National Small Business Week. The inaugural Top Local Workplace Awards honored over 50,000 businesses across the country for a range of positive workplace factors — like pay transparency and employee engagement.

"There are over 2 million employee-centric, main street type of businesses in the United States," Patel says, "these are the restaurants, the retailers, and the service providers. They employ north of 70 million people, so there's a lot of impact that these businesses can have. But what we found was they deserve recognition, and there wasn't recognition for the good practices that these employers were doing."

Using its data, which includes over 2.5 million hourly worker data points, Homebase's team implemented the awards to highlight the companies providing their employees — who are in most cases considered a work family, as Patel says — with a great experience.