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

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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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

How this Houston innovator's tech is gearing up to impact EV charging, energy transition

houston innovators podcast episode 172

With more and more electric vehicles on the road, existing electrical grid infrastructure needs to be able to keep up. Houston-based Revterra has the technology to help.

"One of the challenges with electric vehicle adoption is we're going to need a lot of charging stations to quickly charge electric cars," Ben Jawdat, CEO and founder of Revterra, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "People are familiar with filling their gas tank in a few minutes, so an experience similar to that is what people are looking for."

To charge an EV in ten minutes is about 350 kilowatts of power, and, as Jawdat explains, if several of these charges are happening at the same time, it puts a tremendous strain on the electric grid. Building the infrastructure needed to support this type of charging would be a huge project, but Jawdat says he thought of a more turnkey solution.

Revterra created a kinetic energy storage system that enables rapid EV charging. The technology pulls from the grid, but at a slower, more manageable pace. Revterra's battery acts as an intermediary to store that energy until the consumer is ready to charge.

"It's an energy accumulator and a high-power energy discharger," Jawdat says, explaining that compared to an electrical chemical battery, which could be used to store energy for EVs, kinetic energy can be used more frequently and for faster charging.

Jawdat, who is a trained physicist with a PhD from the University of Houston and worked as a researcher at Rice University, says some of his challenges were receiving early funding and identifying customers willing to deploy his technology.

Last year, Revterra raised $6 million in a series A funding round. Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

The funding has gone toward growing Revterra's team, including onboarding three new engineers with some jobs still open, Jawdat says. Additionally, Revterra is building out its new lab space and launching new pilot programs.

Ultimately, Revterra, an inaugural member of Greentown Houston, hopes to be a major player within the energy transition.

"We really want to be an enabling technology in the renewable energy transition," Jawdat says. "One part of that is facilitating the development of large-scale, high-power, fast-charging networks. But, beyond that, we see this technology as a potential solution in other areas related to the clean energy transition."

He shares more about what's next for Revterra on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


Report: Houston's hot medical office market might be on track to cool

by the numbers

Houston’s medical office market is on a roll.

A report from commercial real estate services company JLL shows net absorption and transaction volume saw healthy gains in 2022:

  • The annual absorption total of 289,215 square feet was 50.5 percent higher than the five-year average.
  • Transaction volume notched a 31.7 percent year-over-year increase.

Meanwhile, net rents held steady at $26.92 per square foot, up 1.3 percent from the previous year. The fourth-quarter 2022 vacancy rate stood at 15.9 percent.

Despite those numbers, the report suggests a slowdown in medical office rentals may be underway.

“Tenants who may have previously considered building out or expanding their lease agreements are now in a holding pattern due to increased construction costs and higher interest rates,” the report says. “These factors are having a direct impact on financial decisions when it comes to lease renewals, making it more likely that tenants will remain in their existing location for the foreseeable future.”

Still, the report notes “a number of bright spots for the future of healthcare in Houston.” Aside from last year’s record-high jump in sales volume, the report indicates an aging population coupled with a growing preference for community-based treatment “will lift demand even higher in coming years.”

The report shows that in last year’s fourth quarter, 527,083 square of medical office space was under construction in the Houston area, including:

  • 152,871 square feet in the Clear Lake area.
  • 104,665 square feet in the South submarket.
  • 103,647 square feet in Sugar Land.
Last fall, JLL recognized Houston as a top city for life sciences. According to that report, the Bayou City lands at No. 13 in JLL’s 2022 ranking of the country’s top 15 metro areas for life sciences. JLL says Houston “is poised for further growth” in life sciences.

Houston financial services firm announces acquisition, plans to grow

M&A radar

A Houston-based financial services company has made a recent strategic acquisition that gives it a new banking status.

LevelField Financial, which is creating a platform that combines traditional banking and digital asset products and services, announced this week that it is acquiring Burling Bank, an FDIC-insured, Illinois state-chartered bank. According to the company, once it receives regulatory approval, "LevelField will be the first full-service bank to offer fully compliant traditional banking and digital asset services."

The financial terms of the deal's transaction, which is expected to close later this year, were not disclosed.

The combined company will be able to provide traditional banking services, as well as LevelField's digital asset management. Burling Bank's senior management team will join LevelField's leadership, per a press release. They will focus on serving the bank's existing clients and growing the banking business nationwide.

"We conducted a broad review of banks in the U.S. to find the ideal institution with both an existing business and a management team who are aligned with our vision; we exceeded our expectations with Burling Bank. With this acquisition, LevelField will become a traditional bank, albeit one serving customers interested in the digital asset class," says Gene A. Grant II, CEO of LevelField Financial, in the release.

"We are thrilled to have the Burling executives join our leadership team, and together we intend to deliver fantastic customer service and well-designed products to customers who have an interest in accessing the digital asset class through a traditional bank," he continues.

Founded in 2018 by former banking executives, LevelField's leadership believes "the future of money is digital and that banks will continue to be a trusted provider of financial services," according to the website. This acquisition comes ahead of the company's plans to expand nationally.

"LevelField's strategic approach presented a tremendous opportunity for the bank to expand beyond our local footprint and serve customers with shared interests across the nation," says Michael J. Busch, Burling Bank president and CEO. "Together, we will continue to provide superior service and demonstrate that we truly understand the expanding and unique needs of our customers. Additionally, through the carefully developed suite of products we can address our customers' interests in digital assets and introduce them to LevelField's safe, simple, and secure platform."