Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine’s Human Genome Sequencing Center have trained an AI assistant to explain genetic test results to patients. Photo via Getty Images

Artificial intelligence in the health care setting has a lot of potential, and one Houston institution is looking into one particular use.

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine’s Human Genome Sequencing Center have trained an AI assistant to explain genetic test results to patients. According to findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association (JAMIA), the team has developed generative AI to understand and interpret genetic tests. They have also tested its accuracy against Open AI’s ChatGPT 3.5.

“We created a chatbot that can provide guidance on general pharmacogenomic testing, dosage implications, and the side effects of therapeutics, and address patient concerns,” explains first author Mullai Murugan in a press release. Murugan is director of software engineering and programming at the Human Genome Sequencing Center. “We see this tool as a superpowered assistant that can increase accessibility and help both physicians and patients answer questions about genetic test results.”

The initial chatbot training specifically targeted pharmacogenomic testing for statins, meaning a patient’s potential response to cholesterol-lowering drugs, as dictated by genetics.

Murugan explains why they decided to create their own chatbot in the key publication on statin pharmacogenomics was published in May 2022, four months after the training cutoff date for ChatGPT 3.5 in January 2022. Alternatively, her team’s technology uses Retrieval Augmented Generation (RAG) and was trained on the most recent guidelines.

How did the two AI assistants compare? Four experts on cardiology and pharmacogenomics rated both chatbots based on accuracy, relevancy, risk management, and language clarity, among other factors. Though the AI scored similarly on language clarity, Baylor’s chatbot scored 85 percent in accuracy and 81 percent in relevancy compared to ChatGPT’s 58 percent in accuracy and 62 percent in relevancy when asked questions from healthcare providers.

“We are working to fine-tune the chatbot to better respond to certain questions, and we want to get feedback from real patients,” Murugan says. “Based on this study, it is very clear that there is a lot of potential here.” Nonetheless, Murugan emphasized that there is much work still to be done before the program is ready for clinical applications. That includes training the chatbot to explain results in the language used by genetic counselors. Funds from the NIH’s All of Us Research Program helped to make the research possible.

Allowing employees to select their incentives increases both the quantity and quality of their ideas. Photo via Getty Images

Rice research: Incentives increase employee contribution to company success

houston voices

Companies can increase not only the volume but also the quality of employee suggestions and ideas by offering rewards and a choice, according to a study we published in 2022.

We conducted the study on 345 telemarketers at a call center in Taiwan, which already had a suggestion program set up to solicit creative ideas to improve the organization. The company rewarded those who suggested ideas deemed the most valuable by giving them a trophy.

We wanted to see how tweaking the reward changed the quantity and quality of suggestions. So we invited the employees to submit ideas and that if their suggestions ranked among the top 20% most creative ideas – as evaluated by a team of managers and researchers – they would receive one of four rewards: US$80 in cash for themselves, $80 to share with colleagues, $80 to give to a preferred charitable organization or priority when selecting days off. About half of the employees were offered a choice of the four rewards they would receive for submitting ideas. We then randomly assigned one of the four rewards to the remaining employees.

In total, we received and evaluated 144 ideas over a one-month period.

We found that employees who were given a choice of reward submitted 86% more ideas than those who were told what they would be getting. Moreover, the average creativity score of their ideas was 82% higher. Overall, our suggestion program elicited double the number of ideas as the company’s own program and resulted in ideas that were ranked 84% more creative.

Why it matters

Soliciting employee ideas can be a key driver of innovation in organizations.

When employees share their ideas about products, services or policies using a suggestion program, an organization can take those ideas and refine and then implement them.

These implemented ideas can enhance an organization’s ability to adapt and compete. A 2003 study of 47 organizations found that ideas submitted to employee suggestion programs saved those organizations more than $624 million in a single year.

Our own study suggests small incentives could have a significant impact on the quantity and quality of those employee suggestions.

What’s next?

Research is still needed on whether there is an optimal number of rewards that organizations should offer to get more submissions. One past study found that when employees were asked to choose from a large set of rewards, they felt overwhelmed and produced few ideas.

Future research can also test whether our results can be found in other types of organizations, with employees in other types of jobs and in other parts of the world. We plan to examine these issues in our future studies of suggestion programs.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and was based on research from Jing Zhou, the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor of Management and Psychology in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business of Rice University.

NASA selected 12 companies to provide services to its ISS program and five hail from just down the road of the program. Photo via nasa.gov

5 Houston-area space companies score ISS contracts with NASA

ready for takeoff

NASA has tapped a dozen companies to work on services for the International Space Station Program, and five come from the greater Houston region.

Houston-based Aegis Aerospace Inc., Cimarron Software Services, JES Tech, and Oceaneering were are all admitted to the program, as was Webster-based Leidos. The companies, along with the other seven selected, will provide research, engineering, and/or mission integration services to the ISS.

The program, which is based at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, is supported by a $478 million Research, Engineering & Mission Integration Services-2 or REMIS-2 contract, according to NASA.

The other selected companies are:

  • Axient Corp, based in Huntsville, Alabama
  • Consolidated Safety Services, based in Exploration Park, Florida
  • KBR Wyle, based in Fulton, Maryland
  • Metis, based in Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Tec-Masters, based in Huntsville
  • Teledyne Brown Engineering, based in Huntsville
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama

"The companies will provide spaceflight, ground hardware and software, sustaining engineering functions and services, payload facility integration, and research mission integration operations services," reads a NASA news release. "The majority of the work will take place at contractor facilities across the country. Services also may be required at other NASA centers, contractor or subcontractor locations, or vendor facilities as requirements warrant."

Each of the selected companies will receive a "multiple-award, indefinite-quantity contract with firm-fixed price and cost-plus-fixed-fee task orders." The contract officially began January 12 and extends through Sept. 30, 2030, with an option to extend through Sept. 30, 2032.

Half of the selected companies — Aegis, Cimarron, Consolidated Safety Services, JES Tech, Metis, and Tec-Masters — are small businesses and were selected as a part of the contract's small business reserve.

Houston-based Eden Grow Systems hopes to disrupt the agtech industry and revolutionize — and localize — produce. Photo via edengrowsystems.com

Houston startup with next-gen farming tech calls for crowdfunding as it plans to grow

seeing green

Whether it’s on Mars or at the kitchen table, entrepreneur Bart Womack wants to change what and how you eat.

But the CEO and founder of next-generation farming startup Eden Grow Systems is seeking crowdfunders to help feed the venture.

The company evokes images of a garden paradise on earth. But the idea behind the Houston-based NASA spinoff came from a more pragmatic view of the world. Womack’s company sells indoor food towers, self-contained, modular plant growth systems built on years of research by NASA scientists looking for the best way to feed astronauts in space.

The company has launched a $1.24 million regulated crowdfunding campaign to raise the money it needs to scale and expand manufacturing outside the current location in Washington state.

Additionally, the U.S. Air Force recently chose Eden as a food source for the U.S. Space Force base on remote Ascension Island, in the Atlantic Ocean, Womack tells InnovationMap. Another project with Space Center Houston is also in the works.

“We want to be the government and DOD contractor for these kind of next-generation farming systems,” he says.

The Houston-based company includes former NASA scientists, like recent hire Dr. L. Marshall Porterfield, of Purdue University, as an innovation advisor.

Womack, a former digital marketer, Houston public channel show host, night club owner and entertainment entrepreneur, left those ventures in 2012, after the birth of his first child. While taking a year to study trends research, in 2014, what he read intrigued and alarmed him.

“I’ll never forget, I came across a report from Chase Manhattan Bank….of the top 10 disruptive investment sectors, over the next decade,” he says. “At the very top of the list was food.”

Bart Womack founded Eden Grow Systems in 2017. Photo courtesy

His conclusions on the fragility of the world’s food supply system, due to overpopulation, and scarcer land, led him to launch Eden in 2017, funded by venture capital firm SpaceFund, Womack, his family, friends and angel investors.

Womack believes “black swan” events will only increase, disrupting the food supply system and further jeopardizing food supplies.

“We’re going to enter a period of hyper novelty in history,” Womack says.. "The system we’ve built for the last 100 years, the super optimized system, is going to begin to break apart."

To avert a centralized food production outcome, operated by corporate giants like Amazon or Walmart, Womack’s vision offers a decentralized alternative, leaving it in local hands.

With $2 million put into the company so far and a half million-dollars in sales last year, Womack argues that Eden has achieved much and can make food independence within reach for everyday families.

The company commercialized NASA technology to fill what it viewed as “a huge gap within the controlled…agricultural space.”

The tower is the building block of a modular, automated and vertical indoor plant growth system, with calibrated misting, fans, and LED lighting, controlled by an app.

The company website touts the towers as an easy way to grow plants like lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, and potatoes, with little water, no soil, and lots of air, without the expense and work of cultivating an earth-based garden.

For those who want to eat more than greens, the towers provide a way to breed fish and shrimp in an aquaponic version, recycling fish waste as plant fertilizer.

However, big plans come with big costs. The towers range in price from $5,000 to $7,000, although payment plans for those who qualify make it affordable.

Eden has sold around 100 of their towers so far, to a variety of customers. But rising costs and shipping delays have led to a a three-month backlog.

The manufacturing and shipping associated with larger installations means that even if the company made a million-dollar sale, delivery of the product would take a year.

“One of the hardest things…as a start-up, the last couple of years, is trying to narrow down exactly where the biggest payback is,” Womack says. “There is the lower hanging fruit, of small sales to individual buyers, but there’s the larger fruit of institutional buyers. But they can take months and years to convert into an actual buyer.”

Customers include several universities, including Texas A&M University and Prairie View A&M University, and talks are underway with other large academic institutions.

For now, attracting investors so the company can reach its funding goal poses the biggest challenge.

“Texas investors are very, very hard-nosed, and they’re not like West Coast investors. They want to understand exactly how they’re going to get their money back, and exactly how quickly,” he says.

Womack says the crowdfunding round would allow the company to expand manufacturing operations into Houston, deliver product faster, and invest in advertising.

“When we complete this round, and become completely self sufficient, we’re planning on moving to a $25 million valuation,” Womack says. “We can show, given money, we can scale the company.”

The city of Nassau Bay, next to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, has purchased towers and plans to purchase more, not for the production of food, but to grow ornamental flowers.

Womack says that city officials there found that it’s cheaper to grow the decorative plants themselves, rather than buying them.

The towers are adaptable, and can grow not only food but cannabis and other plants, and if buyers want to use them other purposes, that adds to the product’s appeal, Womack says.

Eden has also sold some towers to Harris County Precinct 2 and the city of Houston, as part of a project he says will turn food deserts throughout the area into “food prosperity zones.”

“Our goal is to be the farming equivalent of Boeing,” Womack says.

For the third year, Rice University has tapped 10 Rice Innovation Fellows working in engineering and materials science fields to support. Photo via rice.edu

10 Houston scientists named to fellowship for turning research into businesses

top of class

Rice University has announced its latest cohort of fellows who aim to translate research into real-world startups.

The 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows is the third of its kind since the university's Office of Innovation and The Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (or Lilie) launched the program in 2022. The group includes 10 Ph.D. and postdoctoral students working in engineering and materials science fields.

The program provides personalized mentorship and up to $20,000 equity-free funding.

According to Lilie, the 10 members of the 2024 cohort are:

  • Barclay Jumet, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of mechanical engineering, working under Dan Preston and specializing in mechanics, thermal systems and wearable technologies. InnovationMap covered his recent technology here.
  • Tianshu Zhai, a Ph.D. student studying materials science specializing in hexagonal boron nitride-based thermal interface materials
  • Zachary Kingston, a postdoctoral research associate and lab manager for the Kavraki Lab in the Computer Science department at Rice, working under the direction of Dr. Lydia Kavraki, a pioneer in the field of robot motion planning. Kingston is developing a novel approach to high-performance, low-cost robot motion planning with Wil Thomason.
  • Soobin Cho, a Ph.D. student and co-founder of Duromem, which created the Dual-Role Electrically Conductive Membrane to improve existing water treatment systems
  • Sara Abouelniaj, a Ph.D. candidate in Material Science and Nanoengineering and founder of Graphene Grids LLC, which is exploring opportunities to diversify its range of grid types services offered
  • Alisha Menon, is founding a medical device startup that's developing wireless, AI-enabled patient monitoring devices for babies in the NICU. Her work is being done in collaboration with the Texas Medical Center and Rice, with support from NSF and the Southwest Pediatric Device Consortium.
  • Wil Thomason, a CRA Computing Innovation postdoctoral fellow in the Kavraki Lab at Rice University who is developing low-cost robot motion planning with Kingston
  • Jeremy Daum, a Ph.D. candidate at Rice in the Materials Science department working on a a novel production method to create photocatalysts
  • Jonathan Montes, a Ph.D. candidate in Bioengineering focused on combating neurodegenerative diseases with highly selective neuromodulation
  • Andrew (AJ) Walters, a Ph.D. student in Bioengineering working in the labs of Dr. Caleb Bashor (Rice) and Dr. Scott Olson (UTHealth Houston McGovern Medical School) who's building an accessible allogeneic cell therapy to treat inflammation disorders and potentially cancer. He was awarded a three-year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in 2022.

Over the last three years, Innovation Fellows have brought in more than $6 million in funding for their ventures, according to Rice.

Last year, the cohort of 10 included doctoral and postdoctoral students working in fields from bioengineering and chemistry to civil and environmental engineering.

Late last year, Lilie also announced its new entrepreneurship council known as Lilie’s Leadership Council. The group is made up of 11 successful business leaders with ties to Houston from the likes of co-founder Frank Liu to former Houston Mayor Annise Parker and several other CEOs and board members of successful companies. The council members agreed to donate time and money to the university’s entrepreneurship programs.

The 250,000-square-foot building is the new home for four key research areas at Rice: advanced materials, quantum science and computing, urban research and innovation, and the energy transition. Photo courtesy of Rice

University opens its newest, largest campus research facility in Houston

research @ rice

As the academic year officially kicks off, professors have started moving in and Rice University has opened its largest core campus research facility, The Ralph S. O’Connor Building for Engineering and Science.

The 250,000-square-foot building is the new home for four key research areas at Rice: advanced materials, quantum science and computing, urban research and innovation, and the energy transition. The university aims for the space to foster collaboration and innovation between the disciplines.

"To me it really speaks to where Rice wants to go as we grow our research endeavors on campus," Michael Wong, Chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, whose lab is located in the new facility, said in a video from Rice. "It has to be a mix of engineering and science to do great things. We don’t want to do good things, we want to do great things. And this building will allow us to do that."

At $152 million, the state-of-the-art facility features five floors of labs, classrooms and seminar rooms. Common spaces and a cafe encourage communication between departments, and the top level is home to a reception suite and outdoor terrace with views of the Houston skyline.

It replaces 1940s-era Abercrombie Engineering Laboratory on campus, which was demolished in 2021 to make way for the new facilities. The iconic sculpture "Energy" by Rice alumnus William McVey that was part of the original building was preserved with plans to incorporate it into the new space.

The new building will be dedicated to its namesake Ralph O'Connor on Sept. 14 in Rice's engineering quad at 3 p.m. O'Connor, a Johns Hopkins University grad, became a fan Rice when he moved to Houston to work in the energy industry in the 1950s.

The former president and CEO of the Highland Oil Company and founder of Ralph S. O’Connor & Associates left the university $57 million from his estate after he died in 2018. The gift was the largest donation from an estate in Rice's history and brought his donations to the university, including those to many buildings on campus and endowments and scholarships, to a total of $85 million.

“How fitting that this building will be named after Ralph O’Connor,” Rice President Reginald DesRoches said in a statement last summer. “He was a man who always looked to the future, and the future is what this new engineering and science building is all about. Discoveries made within those walls could transform the world. Anybody who knew Ralph O’Connor knows he would have loved that.”

The dedication event will be open to the public. It will feature remarks from DesRoches, as well as Rice Provost Amy Dittmar, Dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences Thomas Killian, Chair of the Rice Board of Trustees Robert Ladd and Dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering Luay Nakhleh. A reception and tours of the new building will follow.

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Houston tech platform raises series C round backed by Mastercard

money moves

Hello Alice, a fintech platform that supports 1.5 million small businesses across the country, has announced its series C round.

The amount raised was not disclosed, but Hello Alice reported that the fresh funding has brought the company's valuation to $130 million. Alexandria, Virginia-based QED Investors led the round, and investors included Mastercard, Backstage Capital, Guy Fieri, Golden Seeds, Harbert Growth Partners Fund, How Women Invest I, LP, Lovell Limited Partnership, Tyler “Ninja” and Jessica Blevins, and Tamera Mowry and Adam Housley, per a news release from the company.

“We are thrilled to hit the milestone of 1.5 million small businesses utilizing Hello Alice to elevate the American dream. There are more entrepreneurs launching this year than in the history of our country, and we will continue to ensure they get the capital needed to grow,” Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, say in a news release. “In closing our Series C, we welcome Mastercard to our family of investors and continue to be grateful to QED, How Women Invest, and our advocates such as Guy Fieri.”

The funding will go toward expanding capital offerings and AI-driven tools for its small business membership.

“Our team focuses on finding and investing in companies that are obsessed with reducing friction and providing superior financial services solutions to their customers,” QED Investors Co-Founder Frank Rotman says in the release. “Hello Alice has proven time and time again that they are on the leading edge of providing equitable access to capital and banking services to the small business ecosystem."

Hello Alice, which closed its series B in 2021 at $21 million, has collaborated with Mastercard prior to the series C, offering small business owners the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard in 2022 and a free financial wellness tool, Business Health Score, last year. Mastercard also teamed up with other partners for the the Equitable Access Fund in 2023.

“With Hello Alice, we’re investing to provide support to small business owners as they look to access capital, helping to address one of the most cited business challenges they face,” Ginger Siegel, Mastercard's North America Small Business Lead, adds. “By working together to simplify access to the products and services they need when building and growing their business, we’re helping make a meaningful impact on the individuals who run their businesses, the customers they serve, and our communities and economy at large.”

While Hello Alice's founders' mission is to help small businesses, their own company was threatened by a lawsuit from America First Legal. The organization, founded by former Trump Administration adviser Stephen Miller and features a handful of other former White House officials on its board, is suing Hello Alice and its partner, Progressive Insurance. The lawsuit alleges that their program to award10 $25,000 grants to Black-owned small businesses constitutes racial discrimination. Gore calls the lawsuit frivolous in an interview on the Houston Innovators Podcast. The legal battle is ongoing.

Inspired by the lawsuit, Hello Alice launched the Elevate the American Dream, a grant program that's highlighting small businesses living out their American dreams. The first 14 grants have already been distributed, and Hello Alice plans to award more grants over the next several weeks, putting their grant funding at over $40 million.


NASA awards $30M to Houston space tech company to develop lunar rover

moon rider

Houston-based space technology company Intuitive Machines has landed a $30 million NASA contract for the initial phase of developing a rover for U.S. astronauts to traverse the moon’s surface.

Intuitive Machines is one of three companies chosen by NASA to perform preliminary work on building a lunar terrain vehicle that would enable astronauts to travel on the moon’s surface so they can conduct scientific research and prepare for human missions to Mars.

The two other companies are Golden, Colorado-based Lunar Outpost and Hawthorne, California-based Astrolab.

NASA plans to initially use the vehicle for its Artemis V lunar mission, which aims to put two astronauts on the moon. It would be the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 that astronauts would step foot on the lunar surface.

The Artemis V mission, tentatively set for 2029, will be the fifth mission under NASA’s Artemis program.

“This vehicle will greatly increase our astronauts’ ability to explore and conduct science on the lunar surface while also serving as a science platform between crewed missions,” says Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Intuitive Machines says the $30 million NASA contract represents its entrance into human spaceflight operations for the space agency’s $4.6 billion moon rover project. The vehicle — which Intuitive Machines has dubbed the Moon Reusable Autonomous Crewed Exploration Rover (RACER) — will be based on the company’s lunar lander.

“Our global team is on a path to provide essential lunar infrastructure services to NASA in a project that would allow [us] to retain ownership of the vehicle for commercial utilization during periods of non-NASA activity over approximately 10 years of lunar surface activity,” says exploration,” says Steve Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines’ partners on the RACER project include AVL, Boeing, Michelin, and Northrop Grumman.

Intuitive Machines plans to bid on the second phase of the rover project after finishing its first-phase feasibility study. The second phase will involve developing, delivering, and operating the rover.

In February, Intuitive Machines became the first private company to land a spacecraft on the moon with no crewmembers aboard. NASA was the key customer for that mission.

Houston expert: How to avoid 'ghost hiring' while attracting top talent

guest column

One of the latest HR terms grabbing attention today is “ghost hiring.” This is a practice where businesses post positions online, even interviewing candidates, with no intention to fill them. In fact, the role may already have been filled or it may not exist.

Usually, an applicant applies for the job, yet never hears back. However, they may be contacted by the recruiter, only to learn the offer is revoked or a recruiter ghosts them after a first-round interview.

Applicants who are scouring job sites for the ideal position can become discouraged by ghost hiring. Employers do not usually have any ill intentions of posting ghost jobs and talking with candidates. Employers may have innocently forgotten to take down the listing after filling the position.

Some employers may leave positions up to expand their talent pool. While others who are open to hiring new employees, even if they do not match the role, may practice ghost hiring when they want a pool of applicants to quickly pull from when the need arises. Finally, some employers post job roles to make it look like the company is experiencing growth.

When employers participate in ghost hiring practices, job candidates can become frustrated, hurting the employer brand and, thus, future recruiting efforts. Even with the tight labor market and employee turnover, it is best not to have an evergreen posting if there is no intention to hire respondents.

There are several ways employers can engage candidates and, likewise, build a talent pool without misleading job seekers.

Network

A recruiter at their core is a professional networker. This is a skill that many have honed through the years, and it continues to evolve through social media channels. While many recruiters lean on social media, you should not discount meeting people face-to-face. There is power in promoting your organization at professional meetings, alumni groups and civic organizations. Through these avenues, many potential candidates will elect for you to keep them in mind for future opportunities.

Employee Referrals

When recruiters want to deepen their talent pool, they cannot discount the employee referral. Simply letting employees know and clearly stating the exploratory nature of the conversation can lead to stellar results. Employees understand the organization, its culture and expectations, so they are more likely to refer the company to someone who would be a good fit and reflect highly on them.

Alternative Candidates

In recent years, organizations and recruiters are more dialed into skills-first recruiting practices. Creating job postings that emphasize the skill sets needed rather than the years of experience, specific college degree or previous job titles, can yield a crop of candidates who may be more agile and innovative than others. Fostering relationships with people who fit unique skills needed within the organization can help you develop a deeper bench of candidates.

Contingent Workforce

Part-time workers, freelancers, and independent contractors are a great way to build connections and the talent pool. These workers and their skills are known entities, plus they know the organization, which makes them valuable candidates for open roles. If their expertise is needed on a regular basis, it is easier to have open conversations about a potential expansion of their duties or offer full-time work.

Internal Talent

Human resources and recruiters need to work with managers and leadership to intimately know what kind of talent lies within their own organization. Current employees may have the strengths, skills, and capabilities to fill new positions or roles. Through conversations with employees and their managers, you can identify who can flex different skills, but even more importantly, the ambition to grow within the company.

In every instance, it is crucial for recruiters and hiring managers to be transparent in their intentions. Communicating within your network that you are always looking for great talent to fill future roles sets the tone. When communicating with candidates, whether there is a pressing job opportunity or not, be clear from the onset regarding your intentions for hire. With a transparent approach to hiring and candidate development, you will keep the employer brand intact and maintain recruiting power.

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Jaune Little is a director of recruiting services with Insperity.