Stroke patients have a new hope for arm rehabilitation thanks to a team from UH. Photo courtesy of UH

Almost 800,000 people in the United States suffer from a stroke annually — and the affliction affects each patient differently. One University of Houston researcher has created a device that greatly improves the lives of patients whose stroke affected motor skills.

UH engineering professor Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal developed a next-generation robotic arm that can be controlled by the user's brainwaves. The portable device uses a brain-computer interface (BCI) developed by Contreras-Vidal. Stroke patient Oswald Reedus, 66, is the first person to use a device of this kind.

Reedus lost the use of his left arm following a stroke that also caused aphasia, or difficulty speaking. While he's been able to recover his ability to speak clearly, the new exoskeleton will help rehabilitate his arm.

When strapped into the noninvasive device, the user's brain activity is translated into motor commands to power upper-limb robotics. As patients like Reedus use the device, more data is collected to improve the experience.

“If I can pass along anything to help a stroke person’s life, I will do it. For me it’s my purpose in life now,” says Reedus in a news release from UH. His mother and younger brother both died of strokes, and Reedus is set on helping the device that can help other stroke patients recover.

Contreras-Vidal, a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen distinguished professor, has led his device from ideation to in-home use, like with Reedus, as well as clinical trials at TIRR Memorial Hermann. The project is funded in part from an $813,999 grant from the National Science Foundation’s newly created Division of Translational Impacts.

"Our project addresses a pressing need for accessible, safe, and effective stroke rehabilitation devices for in-clinic and at-home use for sustainable long-term therapy, a global market size expected to currently be $31 billion," Contreras-Vidal says in the release. "Unfortunately, current devices fail to engage the patients, are hard to match to their needs and capabilities, are costly to use and maintain, or are limited to clinical settings."

Dr. Gerard E. Francisco, chief medical officer and director of the Neuro Recovery Research Center at TIRR Memorial Hermann, is leading the clinical trials for the device. He's also chair and professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston. He explains that TIRR's partnership with engineering schools such as the Cullen College of Engineering at UH and others around the nation is strategic.

“This is truly exciting because what we know now is there are so many ways we can induce neuroplasticity or how we can boost recovery,” says Francisco in the release. “That collaboration is going to give birth to many of these groundbreaking technologies and innovations we can offer our patients.”

Both parts of the device — a part that attaches to the patient's head and a part affixed to their arm — are noninvasive. Photo courtesy of UH

Over 450 student teams competed in an annual international robotics competition in Houston last weekend. Photo by Argenis Apolinario/FIRST

International robotics competition brings STEM students to Houston

automation nation

Adolescents from 40-plus countries convened in Houston to put their robotic skills to test at the annual FIRST Championship last week.

The massive robotics championship returned this year to the George R. Brown to conclude the 2021-22 season of the international program, which is aimed at preparing youth ages 12 to 18 for the future through various robotics challenges and competitions.

The theme of this year’s season was FIRST FORWARD, in which students were challenged to think of new ways to overcome transportation challenges, “from the shipment of packages in rural and urban areas, to disaster relief delivery and high-tech space transit,” according to a release from the STEM organization.

The season was sponsored by California-based semiconductor company Qualcomm and was inspired in part by the UN Sustainable Development Goal of building resilient infrastructure, promoting inclusive and sustainable industrialization, and fostering innovation, according to the statement.

“I have met so many great students, volunteers, mentors, alumni, and sponsors who truly embody the FIRST mission and core Values," FIRST CEO Chris Moore says in a statement after the event. "People who strive to be gracious professionals who innovate, compete, and collaborate with equal energy. People who share our common passion for science and technology as a force for good with the world. The rewards of your efforts don’t stop at this event.”

Teams competed in final matches for FIRST's two major competitions.

In the FIRST Robotics Competition, which featured the RAPID REACT Game presented by Boeing, students were required to reimagine the future of his-speed transport with strict rules, limited resources, and time limits and using autonomous and driver-operated skills.

More than 3,200 teams competed during this game throughout the 2002 FIRST season and 454 teams advanced to the championship at the GRB. Team 1629 from Accident, Maryland, took home the top prize in this competition. Other teams from Austin, New York, Hawaii, Mexico, and Turkey were finalists.

In the FIRST Tech Challenge, teams were asked to think like engineers, building robots from reusables kits in the game FREIGHT FRENZY presented by Raytheon Technologies. Thousands of teams competed in this event throughout the season with 160 teams advancing to Houston. Team 8565 (the TechnicBots) from Plano won the top award.

A FIRST LEGO League challenge was also open to younger students, ages 4 to 16, and the championship. Also during the event, actress and director Gillian Jacobs accepted an award for the film "More Than Robots," which follows four teams as they prepare for the 2020 FIRST competition. The film premiered at SXSW last month and is featured on Disney+.

“I named this documentary ‘More Than Robots’ because as you all well know better than anyone, FIRST is about so much more than robots. I learned that it's about teamwork, compassion, friendship, learning new skills, and challenging yourself to do things you never dreamed you were capable of," Jacobs said at the event.

FIRST's 2022-23 season, dubbed FIRST ENERGIZE, will focus on innovative energy solutions. The season opens in May. Learn more here.

The theme of this year’s season was FIRST FORWARD, in which students were challenged to think of new ways to overcome transportation challenges. Photo by Argenis Apolinario/FIRST

Six Breezy One robots have landed in Houston's airports. Photo via buildwithrobots.com

Houston airports deploy disinfecting robots in their terminals

now boarding: automation

What stands four feet tall, measures 22 inches wide, and weighs about 265 pounds? One of the six robots that disinfect George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport and William P. Hobby Airport.

Last year, the Houston Airport System spent close to $1 million for six Breezy One robots made by Albuquerque, New Mexico-based Build With Robots. The robots, each costing $160,000, now help the airports’ human crews keep the two airports sanitized.

George Bush Intercontinental has four of the robots, and Hobby has two.

“Breezy One is an autonomous disinfecting robot. It moves on its own and disinfects any route that someone chooses at the push of a button. It disperses a disinfectant fog which reaches all surfaces, penetrates fabrics, and even disinfects the air,” according to Build With Robots.

The robot disinfects germy surfaces such as tables, chairs, doorknobs, and keyboards. A Breezy One robot can decontaminate more than 150,000 square feet of space in one hour with a patented, environmentally safe disinfectant, purportedly eliminating 99.9999 percent of viruses and bacteria. New Mexico’s Sandia National Laboratories developed the disinfectant.

Build With Robots, founded in 2017, launched Breezy One in 2020 at the Albuquerque International Sunport. The company developed the technology in conjunction with the City of Albuquerque’s Aviation Department. In January, Build With Robots announced it raised $5 million in funding. That was preceded by a seed round of about $1 million.

Before the disinfectant-filled robots go about their work, members of the Build With Robots team map the buildings where they’ll operate autonomously. The team members then load the maps into the robots. The robots follow commands given by a facility’s custodial team.

Traci Rutoski, manager of custodial services at Hobby, says Build With Robots “is providing us with the best tools to keep our passengers, employees, and stakeholders safe.”

Sam Rea, terminal manager at George Bush Intercontinental, says the Breezy One robots have enabled the airport to step up cleanliness in the COVID-19 era.

“With the onset of the pandemic, we needed to explore new and innovative solutions so that when people come through the airports, whether for work or travel, they feel safe and secure,” Rhea says in a news release.

Augusto Bernal, a spokesman for the Houston Airport System, says that while the disinfecting robots have been effective, there are no plans to add more of them.

Aside from the Houston Airport System and the Albuquerque airport, customers of Build With Robots include HVAC manufacturer Goodwin’s 4.2-million-square-foot operation at Daikin Texas Technology Park in Waller, Mount Vernon ISD in East Texas, the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and Albuquerque’s Electric Playhouse amusement center. The robots, which can be purchased or leased, are designed to sanitize airports, arenas, stadiums, school buildings, and other heavily trafficked places.

Goodwin has installed one robot in Waller.

“This robot’s going to be able to clean 200,000 square feet of office and conference rooms in two, maybe two-and-a-half hours,” Charlie Strange, facilities manager at Goodwin’s Waller operation, told The Verge last November. “It would take my team all night long to do that — wiping down every surface by hand.”

This hospital has conducted a unique and innovative procedure using robotics. Photo via hcahoustonhealthcare.com

Houston-area hospital performs first robotic-assisted lung surgery

robots in health care

HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake performed its first peripheral lung biopsy using robotic-assisted technology this month, making it the first hospital in the area to perform the minimally-invasive and innovative procedure.

Pulmonologist Dr. Alfred Maksoud performed the first two robotically-assisted procedures on March 1 and was attended by thoracic surgeon Dr. Melissa Korb and pulmonologist Dr. Maher Dahdel.

The procedures were conducted via an ultra-thin, easily maneuverable catheter that's able to navigate tight airways and pass through tight bends. A three-dimensional module of the patient's lung (created prior to surgery through a CT scan) was displayed on a computer screen to serve as a reference point for the doctors, as well as a live camera footage inside the lung.

The technology allows doctors to now reach nodules in any airway segment in the lung and extract more precise biopsies from the peripheral lung areas.

It will make the treatment easier on patients, which traditionally would require a CT scan and needle inserted into the patient's chest wall from outside of the body to reach these abnormal spots. This presented high risks of lung collapses for those with advanced lung disease.

“The technology allows us to go through the natural airways of the lung, so there is no puncturing of the lung tissue from the outside of the lining of the lung,” Maksoud said in a statement. “It is a safer way to approach lesions that are in the periphery of the lung for patients who have fairly advanced underlying lung disease.”

Additionally, this technology will support early diagnosis of lung disease when used for screenings due to its ability to reach previously unreachable areas of the lung.

“Approximately 75 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed in an advanced stage. Early lung cancer detection is imperative to increase the survival rate,” Todd Caliva, CEO at HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake, said in a statement. “We're excited to implement new innovations that allow us to enhance the level of care our patients receive.”

Houston-area hospitals have become hubs for robotic-assisted surgery in recent years.

Baylor St. Luke's has become a top cardiac robotics program since 2019. Meanwhile, others, like Houston Methodist, have developed AI technologies to simulate entire surgeries artificially with a goal of allowing surgeons to practice and plan their technique.
Dr. Kenneth Liao, chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, is one of around 50 surgeons in the country considered experts of this new surgery robotics tool. Photo courtesy of Baylor St. Luke's

Houston cardiac surgeon outpaces much of the country in game-changing robotics

matters of the heart

Dr. Kenneth Liao is pioneering a less invasive form of heart surgery at a time when distanced medicine has become more important than ever with the help of six team members and one robot.

As the chief of cardiothoracic transplantation and mechanical circulatory support at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center, Liao has performed 116 robotic cardiac surgeries since coming on board in 2019 (as of press time). With Liao at the helm, Baylor St. Luke's has become a top cardiac robotics program in the country and is the only hospital in Houston to practice this highly-specialized form of surgery.

Liao's four-armed robot friend is known as the da Vinci robotic system and was first designed to assist in battlefield procedures. Now on its fourth generation, the robot allows surgeons like Liao to treat heart diseases and conditions that typically would require open heart surgery through a one-to-two inch incision near the ribs. In many surgeries, it also allows surgeons to keep a patient's heart beating, lowering the risk of stroke.

"It's a totally game changing component to conventional surgery," Liao says, who's one of about 50 surgeons in the country with his level of command over the tool.

Once inside, the da Vinci robot uses tiny instruments to perform surgical practices from suturing to cutting to tying a knot all within the rigid chest cage, which in a typical open heart surgery would have to be broken to perform such tasks.

The surgeon, who's seated about 10 feet away from the patient, controls the tools through a joystick connected to a computer console that shows an enhanced 3D view of the patient's chest. Liao says the screen provides a better visual of the heart than if he was seeing it with his own eyes, as it magnifies the field of surgery tenfold. This method also gives surgeons a better view of areas of the heart that they cannot easily see from above during traditional procedures.

The da Vinci can be used for bypass, grafting, pacemaker, and valve repair surgeries, and it has been proven to result in less blood loss and a faster, less painful recovery. Similar technology has also been adopted for prostate and gynecological surgeries. "It gives you the advantage of minimizing the trauma," Liao says.

And though the da Vinci was developed years before the pandemic, it puts patients at a lower risk of exposure to any outside contaminants, Liao adds, as the robot alone is interfacing with the patient through a small port, compared to doctors, nurses, and assistants hovering over an open chest cavity.

"Technology will theoretically reduce a patient's exposure to COVID in the operation room," he says. "I think that's common sense."

Liao was an early adopter of robotics, when the technology was much less user friendly. He performed the first robotic heart surgery in the state of Minnesota in 2003 and has worked with the developers of the da Vinci ever since to help improve the product after many other surgeons dismissed it.

He says today there is a renewed interest in the highly technical process and he believes it will become an emphasis for younger surgeons.

"This generation of surgeons are young and they are very indebted to computer technology and games. For them looking at screens and controlling the hand joystick control is much more familiar than for the older generation that was trained 20 years ago." he says.

The incredible technology helps, too. "A lot of times, as surgeons, we train in the old way. It's very difficult to change the systems," he says. "You need a major technology revolution to change the teaching and training."

Nicolaus Radford — CEO, CTO, and co-founder of Houston Mechatronics Inc. — joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss his plans to take his cloud robotics company global. Photo courtesy of HMI

Houston robotics company founder plans to take his startup global

houston innovators podcast episode 45

What do space and the ocean have in common? Both have a lot left to explore — while also having environments that aren't so easy for human exploration. A former robotics expert at NASA, Nicolaus Radford founded his cloud robotics company six years ago to create a fleet of robots that can help better complete the tasks that offshore industries need.

Radford remembers his time at NASA and how the organization was looking for opportunities to incorporate more public-private partnerships. Through some meetings and tours, Radford began to see that there was an emerging interest in underwater robotics.

"It became evident that not only was there a huge desire and requirement for what people wanted to do under water, but Houston was likely an epicenter for it," Radford says on the Houston Innovators Podcast.

With this in mind — and an entrepreneurial itch — Radford started Houston Mechatronics Inc. in 2014. He's grown the company through a few venture capital raises and across the energy biz and into new industries. Now, he's looking to take the company global with plans for opening new offices in the United Kingdom and in the Asia Pacific region.

"We're absolutely going to be a global company," Radford says, explaining that new clients in these areas are what's calling for the new offices. "The next 12 months of this company are going to be extremely vibrant and dynamic."

Radford also discusses how the pandemic has affected his business and his challenges raising a round in the episode of the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Houston doctors recognized among top creative leaders in business

winners

This week, Fast Company announced its 14th annual list of Most Creative People in Business — and two notable Houstonians made the cut.

Dr. Peter Hotez and his fellow dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, were named among the list for “open sourcing a COVID-19 Vaccine for the rest of the world.” The list, which recognizes individuals making a cultural impact via bold achievements in their field, is made up of influential leaders in business.

Hotez and Bottazzi are also co-directors for the Texas Children's Hospital's Center for Vaccine Development -one of the most cutting-edge vaccine development centers in the world. For the past two decades it has acquired an international reputation as a non-profit Product Development Partnership (PDP), advancing vaccines for poverty-related neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and emerging infectious diseases of pandemic importance. One of their most notable achievements is the development of a vaccine technology leading to CORBEVAX, a traditional, recombinant protein-based COVID-19 vaccine.

"It's an honor to be recognized not only for our team's scientific efforts to develop and test low cost-effective vaccines for global health, but also for innovation in sustainable financing that goes beyond the traditional pharma business model," says Hotez in a statement.

The technology was created and engineered by Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development specifically to combat the worldwide problem of vaccine access and availability. Biological E Limited (BE) developed, produced and tested CORBEVAX in India where over 60 million children have been vaccinated so far.

Earlier this year, the doctors were nominated for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for their research and vaccine development of the vaccine. Its low cost, ease of production and distribution, safety, and acceptance make it well suited for addressing global vaccine inequity.

"We appreciate the recognition of our efforts to begin the long road to 'decolonize' the vaccine development ecosystem and make it more equitable. We hope that CORBEVAX becomes one of a pipeline of new vaccines developed against many neglected and emerging infections that adversely affect global public health," says Bottazzi in the news release from Texas Children's.

Fast Company editors and writers research candidates for the list throughout the year, scouting every business sector, including technology, medicine, engineering, marketing, entertainment, design, and social good. You can see the complete list here

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Samsung sets sights on nearly $200 billion expansion in Texas

chipping in

As it builds a $17 billion chipmaking factory in Taylor, tech giant Samsung is eyeing a long-term strategy in the Texas area that could lead to a potential investment of close to $200 billion.

Samsung’s plans, first reported by the Austin Business Journal, call for an additional $192.1 billion investment in the Austin area over several decades that would create at least 10,000 new jobs at 11 new chipmaking plants. These facilities would be at the new Taylor site and the company’s existing site in Northeast Austin.

The first of the 11 new plants wouldn’t be completed until 2034, according to the Business Journal.

“Samsung has a history already in the Austin market as an employer of choice, providing high wages, great benefits, and a great working environment. All of this will be on steroids in the not-too-distant future, creating a historic boost to the already booming Austin economy,” John Boyd Jr., a corporate site selection consultant, tells CultureMap.

Samsung’s preliminary plans were revealed in filings with the State of Texas seeking possible financial incentives for the more than $190 billion expansion. The South Korean conglomerate says the filings are part of the company’s long-range planning for U.S. chipmaking facilities.

Given that Samsung’s 11 new plants would be decades in the making, there’s no certainty at this point that any part of the potential $192.1 billion expansion will ever be built.

Last November, Samsung announced it would build a $17 billion chipmaking factory in Taylor to complete its semiconductor operations in Northeast Austin. Construction is underway, with completion set for 2024. Boyd proclaimed last year that the Taylor project will trigger an “economic tsunami” in the quiet Williamson County suburb.

The Taylor facility, which is expected to employ more than 2,000 people, ranks among the largest foreign economic development projects in U.S. history. The impact of a nearly $200 billion cluster of 11 new chipmaking plants would far eclipse the Taylor project.

The Taylor factory will produce advanced chips that power mobile and 5G capabilities, high-performance computing, and artificial intelligence.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.