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.

"Knowing that behavioral and mental health is a critical aspect of one's holistic well-being, our team was thoughtful in approaching each design decision through research and with the interest of promoting health," says Diana Davis, principal and managing director of the Houston studio of Perkins and Will.

Creating the calm

Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

Each element in the space was created with the intention of creating a peaceful environment for patients and staff. From a warm color palette to scenic views, the architecture will play a role in soothing patients and offering a relaxing space.

"We were working directly with a researcher who had done a lot of work on the impact of lighting environments for helping to establish a stronger sense of circadian rhythm in the behavioral health environment," explains Davis.

Tunable lighting fixtures that can shift to warmer hues at certain times of day were one of the intentional designs featured throughout the space.

Insomnia can arise in various mental health disorders and can even be a side effect of certain medications. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 50 percent of insomnia cases are related to depression, anxiety or psychological stress.

"If you've ever suffered from a little bit of insomnia, you can imagine that that probably makes the treatment process that much harder. So anything we could do as design professionals to encourage a relaxing, sleeping space was very important," says Sarah Rolfvondenbaumen, a project architect at Perkins and Will.

Like light, sound can be a crucial element in creating an ambiance. The units in the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center is built for 24 patients — now imagine 24 patients talking in a room. "It could get very loud," says Rolfvondenbaumen, "We focused a lot on how to reduce that sound."

Rolfvondenbaumen explained how many hospital settings use two different types of acoustics that are "necessary to make a good space to be in." Sound transmission class (STC) is the measurement of how sound travels between two different spaces, and noise reduction coefficient (NRC) is a number value that describes the average sound absorption of material.

"We used a very high in our NRC ceiling tile where applicable. . .that really helps capture the sound that is bouncing around a room and displacing it instead of reflecting it back down," says Rolfvondenbaumen. The design also changes the planes of the space, avoiding the typical square layout and giving rooms non-90 degree angles.

Perkins and Will will also be collaborating with researchers at the UTHealth Science Center to research the impact of noise reduction. By comparing the space patients are in now vs. the new building, Davis hopes to conduct "a study that would show that, hopefully, by reducing the noise that we're also able to reduce adverse events and contribute to that healing environment."

Materials matter

Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will courtesy of Perkins and Will

Outside of choosing noise-reducing materials, Perkins and Will made a commitment to using sustainable items within the facility.

"We had a very rigorous process of selecting the interior finishes to make sure that they were good for the environment or at least good for the people who are living in the space," says Rolfvondenbaumen.

Material health was a big priority because "in trying to heal people's minds and bodies, we weren't subjecting them to materials that themselves might be carcinogens or involve an excess of pollutants in the process of being created," explains Davis.

A welcoming space

Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

"It was really important to us in the design to deinstitutionalize the look of the building," explains Davis, "To try to keep the height down so that it felt a little less intimidating so that it felt more like it was a part of its community."

To help patients transition from the hospital setting into the outside world, the campus includes a therapy mall. Offering opportunities for patients to practice interacting in everyday life, the therapy mall was created to be used in a multitude of ways. It can serve as a salon, boutique, fitness center, movie night spot, or music therapy space.

"One of my favorite features of the building is that the way it is designed is that the shared treatment spaces that are kind of the amenity spaces that serve multiple units are located on the ground floor and all wrap around one of the courtyards," explains Davis.

The common areas like the therapy mall and dining room feature natural light and picturesque views of the tree-filled courtyard. "We were very intentional about making sure that the key locations of therapy all had that direct communication to the outdoors and that ability to see out," says Davis.

Staff perks

Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

The healthcare field, especially during a pandemic, can be a stressful environment with high rates of employee burnout. The CDC has even published extensive guides for healthcare workers and first responders to help overcome the stress caused by COVID-19 and the healthcare system.

More than solely a relaxing space for patients, the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center is designed to make work comfortable for staff members, too. The facility's Support Pavilion holds an education center as well as break rooms, on-call sleep rooms, and a mother's room for staff.

"The Support Pavilion has its own entrance so that people coming and going are preapproved," explains Rolfvondenbaumen, "They have a badge reader so that they don't have to go through security scrutinization that the public entrance has."

Planning ahead

Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

Every Houstonian is, unfortunately, familiar with the city's flooding woes. The UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center project started post-Hurricane Harvey, so flooding was undoubtedly on the mind of the Perkins and Will team.

Evacuating a healthcare building is unideal, especially a psychiatric facility. Measures were taken to prevent flooding and keep the hospital running on generator power, so patients could stay safe in the building. Just below the hospital, the facility features underground storage tanks that could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

While weather can be planned for, a global pandemic is far less predictable. While the project with UTHealth was started prior to the coronavirus, the space is intentionally designed to allow patients to have flexibility throughout. Patients can choose to be in larger group settings or separate themselves into a breakout room, lending itself to social distancing guidelines.

While it's unclear whether Houston will be dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic at the close of next year, research shows the lasting mental health struggles the virus is creating. Davis foresees this project contributing "in a much more significant way" due to the unfortunate "need for care that we will have following this [pandemic] because of the mental stress and strain."

While mental and behavioral health has long-held stigmas, the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center will be both "welcoming and inviting," says Davis.

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Houston cardiac health startup raises $43 million series B to grow AI-backed platform

money moves

A Houston-based tech company that has a product line of software solutions for cardiac health has raised funding.

Octagos Health, the parent company of Atlas AI — a software platform for cardiac devices like pacemakers, defibrillators, ambulatory monitors and consumer wearables — has announced a $43 million series B raise that will bring their technology to many more hearts.

Morgan Stanley Investment Capital led the investment, which also included funds from Mucker Capital and other continuing strategic investors. The goal of the raise is to supply funds to accelerate Atlas AI’s growth across the United States and to expand into other areas of care, including ambulatory monitors, consumer wearables, and sleep.

"This investment will enable us to accelerate enhancements to our platform, in addition to scaling our commercial team and operations. We are currently the only company that helps cardiology practices migrate their historical data from legacy software providers and fully integrates with any EHR (exertion heart rate) system. We do this while enabling customized reporting supported by patient and practice decision-support analytics," says Eric Olsen, COO of Octagos Health, in a press release.

Octagos Health was founded by a team of healthcare pros including CEO Shanti Bansal, a cardiologist and founder of Houston Heart Rhythm, an atrial fibrillation center. The goal was to find a new way to deal with the massive amount of data that clinicians encounter each day in a way that combines software and the work of human doctors.

According to the Octagos Health website, “Our solution allows clinicians to focus on other ways of delivering meaningful healthcare and more efficiently manage their remotely monitored patients.”

It works thanks to customizable reporting features that allow patients’ healthcare teams to get help while monitoring them, but to do it precisely as they would if they were crunching numbers themselves.

"We are excited to partner with Octagos Health and support their vision of transforming cardiac care," says Melissa Daniels, managing director of Morgan Stanley Expansion Capital. "Octagos Health has demonstrated exceptional growth and innovation in a critical area of healthcare. We believe their platform and vertically integrated software and services significantly improve patient care and streamline cardiac monitoring processes for healthcare providers."

Will Hsu, co-founder and partner of Mucker Capital, agrees. “Octagos Health is poised for scale – industry leading gross margins, a very sticky product that doctors and clinical staff love, and a market ready for disruption with artificial intelligence. This is the new wave for diagnostic care,” he says. And with this raise, it will be available to even more clinicians and patients across the country.

Houston biotech company expands leadership as it commercializes sustainable products

joining the team

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita recently tapped two executives to help commercialize its sustainable fuel made from carbon waste.

Nádia Skorupa Parachin came aboard as vice president of industrial biotechnology, and Phil Garcia was promoted to vice president of commercialization.

Parachin most recently oversaw several projects at Boston-based biotech company Ginkjo Bioworks. She previously co-founded Brazilian biotech startup Integra Bioprocessos.

Parachin will lead the Cemvita team that’s developing technology for production of bio-manufactured oil.

“It’s a fantastic moment, as we’re poised to take our prototyping to the next level, and all under the innovative direction of our co-founder Tara Karimi,” Parachin says in a news release. “We will be bringing something truly remarkable to market and ensuring it’s cost-effective.”

Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita, says the hiring of Parachin represents “the natural next step” toward commercializing the startup’s carbon-to-oil process.

“Her background prepared her to bring the best out of the scientists at the inflection point of commercialization — really bringing things to life,” says Moji Karimi, Tara’s brother.

Parachin joins Garcia on Cemvita’s executive team.

Before being promoted to vice president of commercialization, Garcia was the startup’s commercial director and business development manager. He has a background in engineering and business development.

Founded in 2017, Cemvita recently announced a breakthrough that enables production of large quantities of oil derived from carbon waste.

In 2023, United Airlines agreed to buy up to one billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Cemvita’s first full-scale plant over the course of 20 years.

Cemvita’s investors include the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, an investment arm of Chicago-based United; Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based energy company Occidental Petroleum; and Japanese equipment and machinery manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a logistics startup founder, a marketing expert, and a solar energy innovator.

Matthew Costello, CEO and co-founder of Voyager Portal

Houston logistics SaaS innovator is making waves with its expanded maritime shipping platform. Photo courtesy of Voyager

For several years now, Matthew Costello has been navigating the maritime shipping industry looking for problems to solve for customers with his company, Voyager Portal.

Initially, that meant designing a software platform to enhance communications and organization of the many massive and intricate global shipments happening every day. Founded in 2018 by Costello and COO Bret Smart, Voyager Portal became a integral tool for the industry that helps users manage the full lifecycle of their voyages — from planning to delivery.

"The software landscape has changed tremendously in the maritime space. Back in 2018, we were one of a small handful of technology startups in this space," Costello, who serves as CEO of Voyager, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Now that's changed. ... There's really a huge wave of innovation happening in maritime right now." Read more.

Arielle Rogg, principal and founder of Rogg Enterprises

Arielle Rogg writes in a guest column for InnovationMap about AI in the workforce. Photo via LinkedIn

Arielle Rogg isn't worried about artificial intelligence coming for her job. In fact, she has three reasons why, and she outlines them in a guest column for InnovationMap.

"The advent of AI pushes us humans to acquire new skills and hone our existing abilities so we can work alongside these evolving technologies in a collaborative fashion. AI augments human capabilities rather than replacing us. I believe it will help our society embrace lifelong learning, creating new industries and jobs that have never existed before," she writes in the piece. Read more.

Nathan Childress, founder of Solar Slice

Solar Slice Founder Nathan Childress says his new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet. Photo via LinkedIn

Nuclear engineer and entrepreneur Nathan Childress wants consumers to capture their own ray of sunlight to brighten the prospect of making clean energy a bigger part of the power grid. That's why he founded Solar Slice. The new venture offers a fulfilling way to encourage and promote solar energy and a greener planet.

Although trained in nuclear power plant design, solar power drew his interest as a cheaper and more accessible alternative, and Childress tells InnovationMap that he thinks that the transition to cleaner energy, in Texas especially, needs to step up.

Recent studies show that 80 to 90 percent of the money invested into fighting climate change “aren’t going to things that people actually consider helpful,” Childress says, adding that “they’re more just projects that sound good, that are not actually taking any action." Read more.