Breakthrough research on metastatic breast cancer, a new way to turn toxic pollutants into valuable chemicals, and an evolved brain tumor chip are three cancer-fighting treatments coming out of Houston. Getty Inages

Cancer remains to be one of the medical research community's huge focuses and challenges, and scientists in Houston are continuing to innovate new treatments and technologies to make an impact on cancer and its ripple effect.

Three research projects coming out of Houston institutions are providing solutions in the fight against cancer — from ways to monitor treatment to eliminating cancer-causing chemicals in the first place.

Baylor College of Medicine's breakthrough in breast cancer

Photo via bcm.edu

Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine and Harvard Medical School have unveiled a mechanism explains how "endocrine-resistant breast cancer acquires metastatic behavior," according to a news release from BCM. This research can be game changing for introducing new therapeutic strategies.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and shows that hyperactive FOXA1 signaling — previously reported in endocrine-resistant metastatic breast cancer — can trigger genome-wide reprogramming that enhances resistance to treatment.

"Working with breast cancer cell lines in the laboratory, we discovered that FOXA1 reprograms endocrine therapy-resistant breast cancer cells by turning on certain genes that were turned off before and turning off other genes," says Dr. Xiaoyong Fu, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology and part of the Lester and Sue Smith Breast Center at Baylor, in the release.

"The new gene expression program mimics an early embryonic developmental program that endow cancer cells with new capabilities, such as being able to migrate to other tissues and invade them aggressively, hallmarks of metastatic behavior."

Patients whose cancer is considered metastatic — even ones that initially responded to treatment — tend to relapse and die due to the cancer's resistance to treatment. This research will allow for new conversations around therapeutic treatment that could work to eliminate metastatic cancer.

University of Houston's evolved brain cancer chip

Photo via uh.edu

A biomedical research team at the University of Houston has made improvements on its microfluidic brain cancer chip. The Akay Lab's new chip "allows multiple-simultaneous drug administration, and a massive parallel testing of drug response for patients with glioblastoma," according to a UH news release. GBM is the most common malignant brain tumor and makes up half of all cases. Patients with GBM have a five-year survival rate of only 5.6 percent.

"The new chip generates tumor spheroids, or clusters, and provides large-scale assessments on the response of these GBM tumor cells to various concentrations and combinations of drugs. This platform could optimize the use of rare tumor samples derived from GBM patients to provide valuable insight on the tumor growth and responses to drug therapies," says Metin Akay, John S. Dunn Endowed Chair Professor of Biomedical Engineering and department chair, in the release.

Akay's team published a paper in the inaugural issue of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine & Biology Society's Open Journal of Engineering in Medicine and Biology. The report explains how the technology is able to quickly assess how well a cancer drug is improving its patients' health.

"When we can tell the doctor that the patient needs a combination of drugs and the exact proportion of each, this is precision medicine," Akay explains in the release.

Rice University's pollution transformation technology

Photo via rice.edu

Rice University engineers have developed a way to get rid of cancer-causing pollutants in water and transform them into valuable chemicals. A team lead by Michael Wong and Thomas Senftle has created this new catalyst that turns nitrate into ammonia. The study was published in the journal ACS Catalysis.

"Agricultural fertilizer runoff is contaminating ground and surface water, which causes ecological effects such as algae blooms as well as significant adverse effects for humans, including cancer, hypertension and developmental issues in babies," says Wong, professor and chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering in Rice's Brown School of Engineering, in a news release. "I've been very curious about nitrogen chemistry, especially if I can design materials that clean water of nitrogen compounds like nitrites and nitrates."

The ability to transform these chemicals into ammonia is crucial because ammonia-based fertilizers are used for global food supplies and the traditional method of creating ammonia is energy intensive. Not only does this process eliminate that energy usage, but it's ridding the contaminated water of toxic chemicals.

"I'm excited about removing nitrite, forming ammonia and hydrazine, as well as the chemistry that we figured out about how all this happens," Wong says in the release. "The most important takeaway is that we learned how to clean water in a simpler way and created chemicals that are more valuable than the waste stream."

A TMCx company has raised money in Houston, UH's online program named best in the nation, and more Houston innovation news. Courtesy of TMCx

TMCx company receives investment from Houston VC, UH program recognized, and more innovation news

short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has seen a busy January so far — the city has claimed a unicorn in High Radius, The Ion has named a series of new execs, and so much more.

Given this influx of news, you might've missed some other Houston innovation headlines, like UH being recognized for its online master's program, recent fundings, and Texas being named a state for female entrepreneurs. Here's a few short stories to catch you up.

Texas Halo Fund invests in TMCx company

Photo via kegg.tech

A medical device company that focuses on keeping its female users in control of their fertility health just received an investment from a Houston venture capital firm.

Texas Halo Fund invested $200K in kegg, a San Francisco-based startup that participated in the Texas Medical Center's TMCx09 cohort. The device is an easy-to-use fertility tracker that easily analyzes cervical fluid to help detect a woman's ovulation up to 7 days in advance. Kegg pairs with a smartphone app to inform and track the user's fertility.

"kegg appeals to us for many reasons. We believe the FemTech space is growing and that women are looking take charge of their fertility. There is an increased desire to have insights into one's health and understanding trends in fertility is a natural progression, says Kyra Doolan, managing Director at Texas Halo Fund, in a news release.

"We've been impressed by the company's CEO Kristina Cahojova and how far she's taken the company with a limited budget. We look forward to seeing the product hit the consumer market."

University of Houston recognized for online graduate program

Photo courtesy of University of Houston

The University of Houston's College of Education's online master's degree programs have been recognized by U.S. News & World Report as among the top in the nation.

The college ranked No. 8 for its program in a ranking that factored in student engagement, technology tools, surveys of deans, faculty credentials, and student excellence, according to a news release from UH.

"Our faculty and staff strive to give students a top-notch experience online," says Bob McPherson, dean of the UH College of Education, in the news release. "We work to emphasize high-quality instruction and support while allowing students the flexibility and personalization of an online learning environment."

UH's program tied for No. 8 with six other schools, but it's still a huge step up from last year's ranking of No. 19.

Texas ranks No. 5 for female entrepreneurs

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According to a new ranking from Fit Small Business, Texas is the fifth best state for female entrepreneurs. The Lone Star State is holding strong in the top tier but slipped from its No. 1 ranking last year.

"High start-up growth, no corporate income tax, and a moderate cost of living are all big pluses for the state, but how does it do regarding a friendly women's business and safety climate?" the report reads. "Well, sort of 'middle-of-the-road,' by the numbers we sourced."

Each state was evaluated by four equally weighted factors: its general business climate and opportunity, the number of female-owned businesses, economic and financial health, and safety and well-being for women. Texas's startup climate and opportunity, which was weighted by 35 percent in the study, was ranked No. 4. When it came to economic and financial health, weighted at 15 percent, Texas also snagged the No. 4 spot.

Rice Business Plan Competition startup raises $1.1 million

Photo via resonado.com

Resonado, the runner-up at the 2019 Rice Business Plan Competition, has raised $1.1 million in funding for its thinner, better-sounding speaker system technology.

The company was founded by four University of Notre Dame University classmates — Brian Cho, Christian Femrite, Erik Perez-Perez, and Peter Moeckel.

Rice University's OWL Investment contributed to the round.

Fannin Innovation Studio makes strategic hire

Praveen Kudithipudi

Photo via fannininnovation.com

Praveen Kudithipudi has been named as director of business development at Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio. He supports the licensing of Fannin's portfolio technologies as well as collaborations with pharmaceutical companies and academic partners.

"I am excited to have a wonderful opportunity to work at Fannin," says Kudithipudi in the news release. "Fannin builds successful life sciences startups while helping to catalyze the formation of a thriving and sustainable life sciences entrepreneurship ecosystem in Houston. The opportunity to lead licensing, diligence, and collaboration efforts with academic institutions and biotechnology companies here in Houston is truly a unique opportunity."

Kudithipudi received his medical degree in India and specialized in neuroscience in the United Kingdom. He received his MBA from New York University. Prior to this role, he worked in banking, venture capital, and investments in New York.

"We are excited to have someone with the range of experiences and caliber of Praveen on the team," says Atul Varadhachary, Fannin managing partner, in the release. "In our business, we look for high potential technologies at an early stage. Having someone with both a medical background and Wall Street know-how is invaluable to us as we review opportunities and reach out to prospective development partners."

Jan E. Odegard, Deanea LeFlore, and Chris Valka have been named senior directors at The Ion. Photos courtesy of The Ion

The Ion Houston names 3 new execs to its team

new hires

The Ion, an entrepreneurship center being developed in the old Sears building in Midtown by the Rice Management Company, has named three new senior directors to its team.

Deanea LeFlore, Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka are the three newly named leaders of the organization, effective immediately. They join — and will report to — Gabriella Rowe, who was named executive director in October.

"To grow the Houston innovation system and spearhead our mission for the Ion we've hired three new leaders with fresh perspectives, ideas, and approaches," says Allison K. Thacker, president and chief investment officer of the Rice Management Company, in a news release. "Each individual has a unique connection to Houston and the Ion, and we're thrilled to have them join our effort to build on the culture of innovation across our city, and within the community we're cultivating at the Ion."

To focus on the Ion's Academic Partner Network, Jan E. Odegard has been appointed senior director of industry and academic partners. Odegard's background includes research and leadership at Rice University in computing. Odegard will also oversee The Ion's labs, which include human/robotics interaction lab, an immersive reality lab and an industrial prototyping lab.

Deanea LeFlore has been named senior director of community and corporate engagement. Like Rowe, LeFlore had a similar role at Station Houston before this new position. Before that, she spent most of her career working for the city of Houston and served under four Mayors over 17 years.

Lastly, Chris Valka, has been hired as senior director of operations, overseeing finance, accounting, human resources, operations, and facilities management. Prior to this position, Valka served in the president's cabinet overseeing a similar spectrum of responsibilities at the University of St. Thomas.

"As we prepare for The Ion's opening in early 2021, we are excited to welcome Deanea LeFlore, Dr. Jan E. Odegard, and Chris Valka, to our growing team," says Rowe in the release. "I am excited to see what this diverse group of experts will bring to our efforts to build an inclusive innovation hub in a tech-forward environment that promotes all that is great about Houston."

The 270,000-square-foot Ion building broke ground in July of last year and is slated to open in 2021. Recently, the organization announced its first programming partner — Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, and select courses have already begun.

Firms looking to expand globally need to ensure that their organizational resources are adaptable to new markets. Getty Images

Houston startups planning to go global need to prioritize adaptability, researchers find

Houston voices

When foreigners invest in emerging markets, the prospect for those markets' local businesses looks bright. The payoffs for a country's companies can range from injections of foreign capital to better managerial talent, technological sophistication and international know-how. But does foreign investment ever push local firms to venture into international projects of their own?

Rice Business professor Haiyang Li looked closely at the ripple effects of foreign investments, and concluded it all depends on the local businesses' adaptability. That — and their appetite for risk.

Together with Xiwei Yi of Peking University and Geng Cui of Lingan University, Hong Kong, Li launched a large-scale study of Chinese manufacturers to better understand how multinational investment in domestic companies influences the global market.

The subject was ripe for analysis. Over the past decade, more and more companies in China and other emerging markets have been testing the waters of direct investment in other countries in sectors as varied as food and beverages, apparel, electronics and transportation equipment.

Li's team hypothesized that these emerging market companies were leveraging benefits that foreign investment had ferried into their home markets. This investment, the researchers theorized, had brought in useful resources and skills, which helped ease the local companies into international business markets.

To confirm this, the team needed to test whether the converse was true: Might information gained from foreign investors actually dull a local firm's interest in branching out overseas? Maybe the risks of that type of venture — which are higher for firms in emerging markets — would seem too stark.

To find out, the researchers first vetted the literature on inward and outward investment activities. How, they wanted to know, did domestic firms interact with foreign players in the technology or product importing process? In equipment manufacturing? In franchising and licensing, mergers and acquisitions and activities such as setting up subsidiaries?

Working with a global research company, Li and his colleagues next surveyed 1,500 Chinese businesses in the food, clothing, electronics and vehicle industries. (Firms in finance, banking, natural resources and business services were ruled out because of their government ties, and also because such organizations usually use fewer resources, which made them harder to evaluate.)

Each company that took part in the survey rated how much they engaged with foreign investors in activities such as importing products and services or forming joint ventures. They also indicated if dealing with foreign direct investment had brought them foreign capital, advanced manufacturing know-how, managerial experience or competitive insight into overseas business.

The researchers also measured the "fungibility" of these firms' resources — in other words, how easily could their organizational, cultural and technological resources be adapted to various geographical settings?

Finally, managers rated how risk-prone they thought their firms were.

After Li and his coauthors processed the answers, they found several links between foreign investment in domestic firms and local companies' internationalization efforts.

First, there was a positive relationship between the local gains from foreign investment and a firm's interest in internationalization projects. While this effect was indirect, it was amplified when foreign investment gave a firm new capabilities that made it more adaptable. In other words, the Chinese companies whose contact with foreign multinationals made them more adaptable in general were better positioned to prosper in ventures abroad.

This stands to reason, the researchers note. That's because by its very nature foreign investment sparks awareness of new opportunities: every business trip, plant visit or negotiation with foreign partners is a hands-on lesson in international trade.

But the researchers also uncovered a significant downside to foreign investment for local Chinese firms. When a project was considered high-risk, such as a merger or establishment of a wholly owned subsidiary, the local firms were less prone to venture abroad. This adverse effect was worse for firms that labeled themselves risk-averse, probably because exposure to foreign investors only made the risks of internationalizing clearer.

These findings add important detail to the way foreign investment can affect their local partners' own international plans — for good and ill. Already, businesses in emerging markets are used to optimizing resources, wrangling diverse idioms and artisans and adapting logistically to get their products to market. That nimbleness, Li and his colleagues propose, should also be seen as a globalization tool. For businesses in emerging markets, the researchers conclude, day-to-day technical ability is actually less important than cultural and organizational flexibility — and applying lessons learned from foreign investors to their own projects abroad.

In other words, for firms in emerging markets, globalization is not just a path to new markets. It's a way to study interactions with foreign firms while on their home turf – and learn how to apply those lessons abroad.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Haiyang Li is Area Coordinator and Professor of Strategic Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Rice University's Glasscock school of Continuing Studies is the Ion's first academic partnership to be announced. Courtesy of Rice University

The Ion names inaugural academics partner, course programming for Houston hub

Teaming up

A burgeoning entrepreneurship hub has taken a major step forward in its development with the announcement of its first academic partner and coursework for the partnership.

The Ion has teamed up with Rice University's Glasscock School of Continuing Studies to bring programming to the to-be hub, which is expected to open in early 2021.

"We are thrilled to extend our programming to the Ion constituents and Houston's innovation ecosystem," says Robert Bruce Jr., dean of Rice's Continuing Studies school, in a news release. "Continuing education, whether that takes the form of an advanced certificate or a single course, is an important part of the innovation lifecycle, and we are excited to provide this to Houston's entrepreneurs."

The school will offer a mix of online and hybrid courses and certificate programs for personal and professional development. Select courses are slated to begin on January 13, and sign-ups for the courses are live online.

"We know business leaders have many goals and responsibilities and we look forward to supporting them to achieve new levels of success through our responsive and proven programming," Bruce adds.

Some of the first semesters programming is expected to focus on computer and data science education, corporate financial planning, leadership courses, project management, and more, according to the release. Mary Lynn Fernau, the Glasscock School's director of executive and international programs, will manage the partnership.

"As The Ion seeks to increase access to flexible career development in tech and entrepreneurial programming, our partnership with the Glasscock School serves as a model for what professional activation at The Ion can look like at its best," says Gabriella Rowe, executive director of The Ion, in the release.

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California self-driving vehicle startup has all eyes on Houston — here's why

On a roll

Houston — with its sprawl and winding roads broken up across various neighborhoods — is particularly challenging when it comes to self-driving car navigation. And that's exactly why Nuro, a California-based tech startup that's raised over $1 billion in funding, decided to focus on the Bayou City for its autonomous vehicle delivery pilot programs.

"Houston is our first full-scale operations city," Sola Lawal, product operations manager in Houston, tells InnovationMap. "All eyes at Nuro are focused on Houston."

Last year alone, Nuro launched three pilots in six of Houston's ZIP codes from Bellaire to the Heights. The first of which was a partnership with Kroger in March, followed by the announcement of autonomous pizza delivery from Domino's in June. Last month, Nuro announced its latest delivery partner was Walmart.

Lawal explains Houston's appeal to Nuro in a few ways, but the challenging landscape is key. Nuro cars are learning from the narrow, tree-laden streets of West University or the pedestrian-heavy, ditch-lined paths in the Heights.

"There's a ton for us to learn, but it's a great microcosm of the United States in a number of different ways," he says.

In addition to its diversity within its street types, Houston, named the most diverse city in the country, represents an ideal customer base, says Lawal, a Houston native himself. Houstonians are open minded about new experiences.

"If you think and look across Houston, the average commute is over 60 minutes for people to get back and forth," Lawal tells InnovationMap. "As we surveyed across major cities we were interested in, Houston stood out as a place where customers said they don't want go to the grocery store if they don't have to or get in their cars again to pick up their pizza."

The third reason Houston was a great market for Nuro is the amount of regulatory support the state of Texas has — Gov. Greg Abbott announced the launch of the Texas Connected and Autonomous Vehicle task force a year ago — as well as the support at the city level.

"It's been a welcoming environment from the mayor's office down for us to be here," Lawal says.

Since entering the Houston market, Nuro's local operations have grown to over 100 employees. The company still has software operations out of California, and some work being done in Arizona, but the Houston is the largest — and growing as the company seeks new partnerships with more stores with a goal of eliminating errands once and for all.

"The way that we think about this is that this new technology and our mission of accelerating robotics for everyday life, is we will bring the people what they want," Lawal says when asked about what types of stores Nuro is looking to partner with.

Eventually, Lawal says, the plan would be to have every errand be delivery optimized with Nuro technology — from big-box stores like Walmart to your local florist.

"Our goal is to have a platform that retailers can connect to in order to provide easy and inexpensive delivery," he says.

Currently, Nuro's technology is still in learning mode. Nuro's fleet of Prius cars with staff onboard are driving up and down Houston streets mapping and taking notes on a daily basis. The company also has bots, called the R2 fleet, that are designed to be unmanned.

These bots are smaller than normal cars and are completely electric. Rather than being designed to protect passengers inside like traditional automobiles, the R2s are designed to be safe for people outside the vehicle.

"It's a new way of thinking about transportation and what our vehicles can and should do," Lawal says.

2020 is the year of these R2 bots, and some areas can expect to see them in action — specifically focused on Domino's pizza delivery — in just a matter of weeks.

Preparing Houston's tech workforce starts in school, says expert

Guest column

Recent studies have shown that nearly half of students enter college with an undecided major and as many as 70 percent of students change their major at least once during their four-year program, and it is predicted that by 2030, there will be a deficit of 7.9 million tech workers alone.

In order to better prepare the future workforce, schools are encouraging career exploration through hands-on experience. The Village School has created educational partnerships throughout Houston to offer students options to find their interests and better prepare them for postsecondary success.

Educational partnerships

Students are prone to changing their majors because often they will go into a field with an impractical idea of what a specific career actually entails. With partnerships between education and industry, Houston is able to better equip students to enter college with a realistic view of what to expect in their major.

While career-focused partnerships are beneficial for students, they also play a huge role in recruiting valuable skilled talent for years to come. A good impression, good mentors and great experience goes a long way when students start job searching.

Tuning into Houston's workforce

High school is the time for students to explore different career options. When students are placed in an internship program as early as the high school level, they are able to see exactly what the day to day looks like while building a foundation of professional development as they start to think about their future. It's important for students to have a realistic vision of what a career looks like.

There are numerous businesses in Houston that are working with high school students to help them gain experience.

For example, a few of the businesses that have partnerships with The Village School include Houston Methodist Hospital, Pimcore, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and Cisco. Students are able to gain experience in a variety of ways including:

  • Working alongside surgical technicians and experience open-heart surgery and quarantined situations
  • Learning from cancer researchers who study nicotine addiction in children and the effects on brain development
  • Leveraging data analytics to develop software helping internal team members organize calendars at a leading SAP company

All students finished their internship with a better understanding of the workforce and the skills necessary to perform in a professional environment.

Finding opportunities for everyone

If students don't attend a high school that offers internships there are still opportunities to gain experience. Many businesses are open to job shadowing or having students volunteer a few hours a week to gain experience over the summer months. The opportunity for experience is out there and available and these opportunities will continue to grow and become more accessible for all students. Houston families and businesses must work together to ensure students know their options before entering college.

Educational partnerships benefit both students and the community. It's crucial for Houston to prepare the next generation's workforce to succeed and fill jobs with capable talent. Students are able to see that while they may not think they are interested in a specific field there are opportunities within the field that match their strengths and interests.

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TeKedra Pierre is the internship coordinator at The Village School.

Booming Houston suburb hauls in top spot among growing U.S. cities

making moves

The Houston metro area's population is poised to continue booming over the next decade, so it should be no surprise that U-Haul calculated one Houston suburb as one of the top U.S. cities for growth.

In its annual report, released January 7, the company details migration trends across the U.S. Analyzing data from 2019, the moving and rental company placed Spring-The Woodlands at No. 14 among the 2019 U-Haul Growth Cities.

To determine the country's top 25 growth cities, U-Haul analyzed more than 2 million rental transactions over the calendar year. It then calculated the net gain of one-way U-Haul trucks entering an area versus those leaving an area.

Unlike U.S. Census Bureau or real estate data, the company says its U-Haul Growth Cities offers a snapshot of an area's retention rates versus strictly growth.

"While U-Haul migration trends do not correlate directly to population or economic growth, the company's growth data is an effective gauge of how well cities and states are attracting and maintaining residents," it explains in a release.

Three other Texas cities were perched on the list: the Austin suburb of Round Rock-Pflugerville (No. 5), the San Antonio suburb of New Braunfels (No. 11), and the Dallas suburb of McKinney (No. 17).

The top spot this year went to Raleigh-Durham, where arrivals accounted for nearly 51.4 percent of all one-way U-Haul traffic. In its explanation as to why the North Carolina hub is growing, the company points to the region's booming tech sector, which is says rivals that of Austin.

"We have tons of businesses coming here, bringing new residents in U-Haul trucks," said Kris Smith, U-Haul Company of Raleigh president, in a release. "Raleigh-Durham is rivaling Austin for attracting tech businesses and young professionals. We're seeing Silicon Valley talent and companies flock to the area. With a competitive cost of living, good wages, and job growth, Raleigh-Durham is experiencing a boom in population."

But when it came to the top growth state, neither Texas nor North Carolina got the No. 1 spot. That honor went to Florida, which took the crown from Texas, the winner in 2018. The Sunshine State claimed seven cities among the top 25, including five in the top 10.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.