The Welch Foundation, a Houston-based nonprofit, has doled out fresh funding to research organizations, with over a third being deployed to Houston-area institutions. Photo via Getty Images

Five schools in the Houston area have landed $10.8 million in research grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

The 36 grants were awarded to Rice University, Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, the Baylor College of Medicine, and the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

In all, the foundation announced nearly $28 million in Texas research grants for 2023. All of the money — in the form of 91 grants for 15 Texas colleges and universities — goes toward chemical research. This year’s total for grant funding matches last year’s total.

“The Welch Foundation continues to emphasize the creative pursuit of basic chemical research,” Adam Kuspa, the foundation’s president and a former dean at the Baylor College of Medicine, says in a news release. “Our funding allows investigators throughout the state to follow their curiosity and explore the foundations chemical processes.”

Since its establishment in 1954, the Welch Foundation has contributed about $1.1 billion to the advancement of chemistry in Texas.

One of this year’s local grant recipients is Haotian Wang, assistant professor in Rice’s chemical and biomolecular department. The professor’s grant-funded research will focus on the conversion of carbon dioxide into useful chemicals, such as ethanol.

Last year, Rice reported that Wang’s lab in the George R. Brown School of Engineering had replaced rare, expensive iridium with ruthenium, a more abundant precious metal, as the positive-electrode catalyst in a reactor that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.

The lab’s addition of nickel to ruthenium dioxide resulted in production of hydrogen from water electrolysis for thousands of hours.

“There’s huge industry interest in clean hydrogen,” Wang says. “It’s an important energy carrier and also important for chemical fabrication, but its current production contributes a significant portion of carbon emissions in the chemical manufacturing sector globally.”

“We want to produce it in a more sustainable way,” he adds, “and water-splitting using clean electricity is widely recognized as the most promising option.”

Here's what researchers raked in the cash to support their research. Photo via Getty Images

Fresh funds: 2 Houston organizations dole grants to advance research

research roundup

Funding fuels the research that supports the innovations of tomorrow. Two Houston-based scientific organizations announced funding recipients that are working on advancing research in space health and chemistry.

4 research teams receive funds to advance space health work

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine has announced almost $4 million in grants to four research teams. As more and more plans to launch humans into space continue to develop, TRISH is working to support research addressing human health in space.

TRISH's Biomedical Research Advances for Space Health initiative looked for new ways to reduce potential damage from the environment through manipulation of human metabolism and the normal state-of-being at the cellular or whole organism level, according to a press release.

"These outstanding awardees brought cutting-edge proposals to the table. Each project provides a unique opportunity to advance human health research on the bleeding edge of science fiction," says TRISH Executive Director, Dorit Donoviel, in the release. "This creative research has the potential to protect all humans through advancing tissue transplantation or helping patients that have medical conditions such as heart or brain damage that could be aided by reducing cellular activity."

The awardees, who will begin their TRISH-funded research in April 2022, for BRASH 2101 included:

  • Clifton Callaway, M.D., Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
    • Cold-Sleep for Long Duration Spaceflight
  • Tammy Chang, M.D., Ph.D., University of California, San Francisco
    • The Effect of Isochoric Supercooling on Human Liver Metabolic Function
  • Allyson Hindle, Ph.D., University of Nevada, Las Vegas
    • Can Humans Hibernate at Warm Temperatures?
  • Christopher Porada, Ph.D., Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
    • Using Human Organoids and Fossilized Remains from Extinct Hominins to Unlock the Secrets of Torpor/Hibernation

Houston organization names 2021 award recipient

The Welch Foundation has named professor Chi-Huey Wong as the 2021 recipient of the Robert A. Welch Award in Chemistry. Wong is a leader in synthetic chemistry and chemical biology. Specifically, the award recognizes Wong for his development of new methods for the synthesis of complex carbohydrates and glycoproteins and the elucidation of carbohydrate-mediated biological recognition associated with disease progression, according to a press release.

"The mission of The Welch Foundation is to improve the lives of others through the advancement of chemical research, and Dr. Wong has been working towards that goal for decades," says Carin Barth, chair and director of The Welch Foundation Board of Directors. "Not only has he made revolutionary advances in chemistry and biology, but his methodologies will facilitate new drug and vaccine developments for years to come."

Wong is the Scripps Family Chair Professor in the Department of Chemistry at The Scripps Research Institute. He will receive $500,000 to advance his research. Houston-based Welch Foundation has contributed more than $1.1 billion to the advancement of chemistry since 1954.

Both Rice University and the University of Houston were selected by the Department of Energy to receive funds for ongoing research projects. Photo via Getty Images

Houston researchers snag government funds for net-zero emissions projects

seeing green

Rice University and the University of Houston were two of four national institutions to receive sizable grants from the Department of Energy last month to go toward the research and development of projects that will improve CO2 storage to help move the country toward the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Each of the four projects works to advance long-term, commercial-scale geologic sequestration of CO2. According to a release from the DOE, the process of carbon capture and storage (known as CSS) separates and captures CO2 from the emissions of industrial processes before it is released into the atmosphere. Once captured, the CO2 is then injected into deep underground geologic formations, known as caprock.

However, during seismic events, like an earthquake or volcanic eruption, the CO2 can leak through the ground and contaminate the water supply.

"Large scale carbon capture efforts are vital to getting America emissions free by 2050, and how we store this CO2 must be safe, secure and permanent," said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. "The R&D investments in new tools and technology to monitor underground activity near CO2 storage sites will help us minimize risk from natural events like earthquakes, safeguard the environment and water supply, and get us that much closer to our clean energy goals."

Rice was awarded nearly $1.2 million from the DOE for its project that aims to develop a new strategy for monitoring seal integrity in the CCS process. The project "has the potential to provide a powerful platform for identifying CO2 leakage through reactivated faults or fracture zones," the statement said.

UH received a nearly $800,000 grant for its project that will work to determine cost-effective seismic data processing technologies that will automatically detect faults on 3D seismic migration images.

The project is being developed by Yingcai Zheng at the University of Houston in collaboration with Los Alamos National Lab and Vecta Oil and Gas and aims will help not only estimate seismic activity, but will also be able to estimate the fluid leakage pathways in certain regions, according to a separate release from UH.

"Most think of applied geophysics as linked to the oil and gas industry," Zheng said in the statement. "While that is true, when we think of the energy transition and how to achieve our goals, it is important to realize that this cannot happen without studying the geophysics of the subsurface – in a way, it literally holds the well-being of humanity's future."

The remaining two projects that received grants from the DOE come from the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio and The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. In total the DOE issues $4 million to support the projects.

A number of Houston energy leaders are looking at smarter ways to store CO2. This spring, Joe Blommaert, the Houston-based president of ExxonMobil Low Carbon Solutions, said that he envisions creating a $100 billion carbon-capture hub along the Houston Ship Channel. And that same month Occidental's venture arm, Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, announced plans to construct and operate a pilot plant that would convert carbon dioxide into feedstocks.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

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 podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.