The new technology from University of Houston could make any mask more resistant to viruses. Photo courtesy of Seamus Curran/Integricote

The start of 2020, though most didn't know it at the time, meant a huge change to society. Though coronavirus didn't yet seem to be an issue for the United States, the world was entering into a new normal where wearing face masks in public is common and necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"We left normal in December," says Seamus Curran, a professor of physics at the University of Houston, "and, when everyone was planning their New Year's resolutions, little did we know that the old normal of before is gone. None of us saw that life passing away — and it was taken away by a bug 1,000 times smaller than lice. And like lice, it's going to be with us for a long time."

To that end, Curran, who is well-known for his work commercializing nanotechnologies, is pulling from his past to deal with a future demand. The professor is using a hydrophobic coating he developed nearly 10 years ago to improve the ability of surgical masks to protect against transmission of the virus.

It's no secret that good face masks are a dire, worldwide need. But Curran notes that standard masks are "somewhat porous, and especially if they get wet, they can allow the virus to penetrate." People infected with the virus, he adds, could spread it even through a mask, while people who aren't sick could still become infected, despite wearing a less-protective mask.

Curran calls N95 masks, "the gold standard, able to filter very small particles and offering better protection than standard surgical masks." But he notes that they are hard to manufacture, and global demand is for tens of millions of items. His work will make masks impervious to water, thus improving protection, he explains.

That means those who already own masks are in luck: Curran's team is planning to sell spray for the hydrophobic coatings so that people can apply it themselves at home or at work. "However, it's cheaper and far more effective to be able to apply it in large batch quantities that manufacturers can do," Curran adds.

The globally minded Curran has only one local requirement: "We will only sell to U.S. manufacturers that manufacture here in the U.S. It's not a limiting factor and may change in the future, but right now, I have to deal with my community here in Houston, Texas, and the U.S. It has to be my priority."

University of Houston's Dr. Seamus Curran. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

Curran and his team are working though the process to make sure their coatings are compliant with all federal rules. "Sometimes, this is making sure your materials are registered and allowed," he says. "Sometimes it's making sure the products follow relevant EPA and FDA guidelines. However, we are very close, as in weeks, and not some arbitrary academic timeline in the distant future."

He first launched a nanotechnology business in 2013, according to UH. His company, Integricote, based at the UH Technology Bridge, focuses on manufacturing sealers for masonry, wood, and concrete. The professor has developed nanotech coatings for fabrics since 2011, technology that he now is using to demonstrate a way to provide more protection against SARS and COVID-19.

Curran, who often says he hates to "play defense," hopes to get a jump on the virus spread with his new technology and take a proactive approach to a long-term issue. "Remember, H1N1 affected 61 million Americans and 12,500 people died from it between 2009 and 2010," he notes. "Do we think that's it? Did we think Ike was the last big hurricane to hit us, or do we expect more? Yet, we have compensated for this and found a way to be resilient and have a normal life."

Technical and scientific in his work, the passionate professor says he is galvanized by a simple, primal motive. "This is personal, this virus has threatened my family and I'm not sitting back, ideally, just letting this happen," Curran says. "I'm just like any other husband, father, son, brother, and uncle: I will do all I can to protect those dearest to me and I will not have it any other way."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston space tech company reaches major milestone for engine technology

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A Houston company that's creating the next generation of space exploration technology is celebrating a new milestone of one of its technologies.

Intuitive Machines reports that its VR900 completed a full-duration hot-fire test, qualifying it for its IM-2 lunar mission. With the qualification, the company says its VR3500, an engine designed for larger cargo class landers, also advances in development.

The engine technology is designed, 3D-printed, and tested all at Intuitive Machines' Houston facility, which opened in the Houston Spaceport last year.

Intuitive Machines CEO Steve Altemus says in a news release that the company's goal was to lead the way in scalable deep space engines as the industry heads toward lunar missions.

“This validated engine design meets current mission demand and paves the way for our VR3500 engine for cargo delivery such as lunar terrain vehicles, human spaceflight cargo resupply, and other infrastructure delivery," Altemus continues. "We believe we’re in a prime position to build on our successful development and apply that technology toward current contracts and future lunar requirements for infrastructure delivery.”

Earlier this year, Intuitive Machines was one of one of three companies selected for a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Another Houston company has seen success with its engine testing. In March, Venus Aerospace announced that it's successfully ran the first long-duration engine test of their Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine in partnership with Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Houston is the most stressed out city in Texas, report finds

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Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but a new report by WalletHub shows Houston residents are far more stressed out than any other city in Texas.

Houston ranked No. 18 out of 182 of the largest U.S. cities based on work, financial, family-related, and health and safety stress, according to WalletHub's "Most & Least Stressed Cities in America (2024)" report. 39 relevant metrics were considered in the report, including each city's job security, the share of households behind on bills within the last 12 months, divorce rates, crime rates, among others.

Houston was ranked the most stressed out city in Texas, but it's still far less stressed than many other U.S. cities. Cleveland, Ohio took first place as the most stressed city in America, followed by Detroit, Michigan (No. 2), Baltimore, Maryland (No. 3), Memphis, Tennessee (No. 4), and Gulfport, Mississippi (No. 5).

Out of the four main categories, Houstonians are struggling the most with work-related stress, ranking No. 13 nationally. The report found Houston has the No. 1 highest traffic congestion rate out of all cities in the report. But at least Houston drivers are solidly average, as maintained by a separate Forbes study comparing the worst drivers in America.

Houston workers can rejoice that they live in a city with a generally high level of guaranteed employment, as the city ranked No. 151 in the job security comparison. The city ranked No. 16 nationwide in the metric for the highest average weekly hours worked.

Houston fared best in the financial stress category, coming in at No. 72 nationally, showing that Houstonians aren't as worried about pinching pennies when it comes to maintaining a good quality of life. The city ranked No. 39 in the comparison of highest poverty rates.

Here's how WalletHub quantified Houston's stress levels:

  • No. 17 – Health and safety stress rank (overall)
  • No. 36 – Family stress rank (overall)
  • No. 63 – Unemployment rates
  • No. 81 – Percentage of adults in fair/poor health
  • No. 95 – Divorce rate
  • No. 96 – Percentage of adults with inadequate sleep

WalletHub analyst Cassandra Happe said in the report that living in particularly arduous cities can play a big role in how stressed a person is, especially when considering uncontrollable circumstances like family problems or work-related issues.

"Cities with high crime rates, weak economies, less effective public health and congested transportation systems naturally lead to elevated stress levels for residents," Happe said.

Happe advised that residents considering a move to a place like Houston should consider how the city's quality of life will impact their mental health, not just their financial wellbeing.

Other Texas cities that ranked among the top 100 most stressed cities in the U.S. are:

  • No. 20 – San Antonio
  • No. 38 – Laredo
  • No. 41 – Dallas
  • No. 47 – Corpus Christi
  • No. 61 – El Paso
  • No. 68 – Fort Worth
  • No. 71 – Brownsville
  • No. 75 – Arlington
  • No. 78 – Grand Prairie
  • No. 88 – Garland
The full report and its methodology can be found on wallethub.com

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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

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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.