Houston researchers are working to provide COVID-19 solutions amid the pandemic. Getty Images

Since even the early days of COVID-19's existence, researchers all over the world were rallying to find a cure or potential vaccine — which usually take years to make, test, and get approved.

Houston researchers were among this group to put their thinking caps on to come up with solutions to the many problems of the coronavirus. From the testing of existing drugs to tapping into tech to map the disease, here are some research projects that are happening in Houston and are emerging to fight the pandemic.

Baylor College of Medicine evaluating potential COVID-fighting drug

Human Body Organs (Lungs Anatomy)

Baylor College of Medicine has identified a drug that could potentially help heal COVID-19 patients. Photo via bcm.edu

While Baylor College of Medicine has professionals attacking COVID-19 from all angles, one recent discovery at BCM includes a new drug for treating COVID-caused pneumonia.

BCM researchers are looking into Tocilizumab's (TCZ), an immunomodulator drug, effect on patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and Harris Health System's Ben Taub Hospital.

"The organ most commonly affected by COVID-19 is the lung, causing pneumonia for some patients and leading to difficulty breathing," says Dr. Ivan O. Rosas, chief of the pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine section at BCM, in a news release.

TCZ, which has been used to successfully treat hyperimmune responses in cancer patients being treated with immunotherapy, targets the immune response to the coronavirus. It isn't expected to get rid of the virus, but hopefully will reduce the "cytokine storm," which is described as "the hyper-immune response triggered by the viral pneumonia" in the release.

The randomized clinical trial is looking to treat 330 participants and estimates completion of enrollment early next month and is sponsored by Genentech, a biotechnology company.

Texas A&M University leads drug testing

A Texas A&M University researcher is trying to figure out if an existing vaccine has an effect on COVID-19. Screenshot via youtube.com

A researcher from Texas A&M University is working with his colleagues on a short-term response to COVID-19. A vaccine, called BDG, has already been deemed safe and used for treatment for bladder cancer. BDG can work to strengthen the immune system.

"It's not going to prevent people from getting infected," says Dr. Jeffrey D. Cirillo, a Regent's Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunology at the Texas A&M Health Science Center, in a news release. "This vaccine has the very broad ability to strengthen your immune response. We call it 'trained immunity.'"

A&M leads the study in partnership with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, as well as Harvard University's School of Public Health and Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp last week set aside $2.5 million from the Chancellor's Research Initiative for the study. This has freed up Cirillo's team's time that was previously being used to apply for grants.

"If there was ever a time to invest in medical research, it is now," Sharp says in the release. "Dr. Cirillo has a head start on a possible coronavirus treatment, and I want to make sure he has what he needs to protect the world from more of the horrible effects of this pandemic."

Currently, the research team is recruiting 1,800 volunteers for the trial that is already underway in College Station and Houston — with the potential for expansion in Los Angeles and Boston. Medical professionals interested in the trial can contact Gabriel Neal, MD at gneal@tamu.edu or Jeffrey Cirillo, PhD at jdcirillo@tamu.edu or George Udeani, PharmD DSc at udeani@tamu.edu.

"This could make a huge difference in the next two to three years while the development of a specific vaccine is developed for COVID-19," Cirillo says in the release.

Rice University is creating a COVID-19 map

Researchers at Rice University's Center for Research Computing's Spatial Studies Lab have mapped out all cases of COVID-19 across Texas by tapping into public health data. The map, which is accessible at coronavirusintexas.org, also identifies the number of people tested across the state, hospital bed utilization rate, and more.

The project is led by Farès el-Dahdah, director of Rice's Humanities Research Center. El-Dahdah used open source code made available by ESRI and data from the Texas Department of State Health Services and Definitive Healthcare.

"Now that the Texas Division of Emergency Management released its own GIS hub, our dashboard will move away from duplicating information in order to correlate other numbers such as those of available beds and the potential for increasing the number of beds in relation to the location of available COVID providers," el-Dahdah says in a press release.

"We're now adding another layer, which is the number of available nurses," el-Dahdah continues. "Because if this explodes, as a doctor friend recently told me, we could be running out of nurses before running out of beds."


Texas Heart Institute is making vaccines more effective

A new compound being developed at Texas Heart Institute could revolutionize the effect of vaccines. Photo via texasheart.org

Molecular technology coming out of the Texas Heart Institute and 7 HIlls Pharma could make vaccines — like a potential coronavirus vaccine — more effective. The oral integrin activator has been licensed to 7 Hills and is slated to a part of a Phase 1 healthy volunteer study to support solid tumor and infectious disease indications in the fall, according to a press release.

The program is led by Dr. Peter Vanderslice, director of biology at the Molecular Cardiology Research Laboratory at Texas Heart Institute. The compound was first envisioned to improve stem cell therapy for potential use as an immunotherapeutic for certain cancers.

"Our research and clinical colleagues are working diligently every day to advance promising discoveries for at risk patients," says Dr. Darren Woodside, co-inventor and vice president for research at the Texas Heart Institute, in the release. "This platform could be an important therapeutic agent for cardiac and cancer patients as well as older individuals at higher risk for infections."

University of Houston's nanotech health monitor

UH researchers have developed a pliable, thin material that can monitor changes in temperature. Photo via uh.edu

While developed prior to the pandemic, nanotechnology out of the University of Houston could be useful in monitoring COVID patients' temperatures. The material, as described in a paper published by ACS Applied Nano Materials, is made up of carbon nanotubes and can indicate slight body temperature changes. It's thin and pliable, making it ideal for a wearable health tech device.

"Your body can tell you something is wrong before it becomes obvious," says Seamus Curran, a physics professor at the University of Houston and co-author on the paper, in a news release.

Curran's nanotechnology research with fellow researchers Kang-Shyang Liao and Alexander J. Wang, which also has applications in making particle-blocking face masks, began almost 10 years ago.

This week's batch of Houston innovators includes Lawson Gow of The Cannon, Tracey Shappro of VISION Production Group, and Seamus Curran of the University of Houston. Photos courtesy

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Across industries, Houston innovation leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators are coming up with creative solutions for the coronavirus or its subsequent challenges — from digital resources to reliable face masks.

This week's innovators to know shared their thoughts with InnovationMap on how the pandemic is affecting their industries.

Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon

Innovation leaders have worked hard to advance its innovation infrastructure, and Lawson Gow doesn't want to see COVID-19 hold Houston back. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Lawson Gow is confident his coworking and entrepreneurial-focused business will survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but he remarks on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that there will be a significant shift in how the city's developing innovation districts present themselves.

"What's interesting is if you read the academic literature on innovation districts, it talks about density, collisions, interactions, and an ecosystem of swirling hustle and bustle of people interacting with each other," Gow says. "It reads like a how-to manual for how to spread disease."

Gow, who is the son of David Gow, owner of InnovationMap's parent company, Gow Media, joins the podcast to explain what he's closely watching throughout the pandemic. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Tracey Shappro, CEO and founder of VISION Production Group

A Houston company focused on event production is helping its clients navigate a socially distant, increasingly digital time. Photo courtesy of VISION Production Group

Events and conferences across the world have been hit hard by the coronavirus as everyone focuses on staying home and socially distant. But for Tracey Shappro, CEO and founder of Houston-based VISION Production Group, who's worked for over a decade in event production, says she sees an opportunity to advance her clients' digital presences.

"We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences," she tells InnovationMap. "And I think this position is really going to help our clients make the right decisions and [allow them to] have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences."

Shappro sat down with InnovationMap to talk about how to use technology to make events virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to continue reading.

Seamus Curran, professor of physics at the University of Houston

A new technology developed by the University of Houston's Seamus Curran is making a mask that's more resistant to viruses. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Seamus Curran is well-known for his work commercializing nanotechnologies, and he is pulling from his past to deal with a future demand. The professor is using a hydrophobic coating he developed nearly 10 years ago to improve the ability of surgical masks to protect against transmission of the virus.

The world is in dire need of more face masks, and Curran notes that standard masks are "somewhat porous, and especially if they get wet, they can allow the virus to penetrate." People infected with the virus, he adds, could spread it even through a mask, while people who aren't sick could still become infected, despite wearing a less-protective mask.

Curran is hoping his solution can prove to be much more effective at preventing the spread of the disease. Click here to continue reading.

The new technology from University of Houston could make any mask more resistant to viruses. Photo courtesy of Seamus Curran/Integricote

Physics professor at University of Houston puts nanotech to work to fight the spread of COVID-19

making better masks

The start of 2020, though most didn't know it at the time, meant a huge change to society. Though coronavirus didn't yet seem to be an issue for the United States, the world was entering into a new normal where wearing face masks in public is common and necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"We left normal in December," says Seamus Curran, a professor of physics at the University of Houston, "and, when everyone was planning their New Year's resolutions, little did we know that the old normal of before is gone. None of us saw that life passing away — and it was taken away by a bug 1,000 times smaller than lice. And like lice, it's going to be with us for a long time."

To that end, Curran, who is well-known for his work commercializing nanotechnologies, is pulling from his past to deal with a future demand. The professor is using a hydrophobic coating he developed nearly 10 years ago to improve the ability of surgical masks to protect against transmission of the virus.

It's no secret that good face masks are a dire, worldwide need. But Curran notes that standard masks are "somewhat porous, and especially if they get wet, they can allow the virus to penetrate." People infected with the virus, he adds, could spread it even through a mask, while people who aren't sick could still become infected, despite wearing a less-protective mask.

Curran calls N95 masks, "the gold standard, able to filter very small particles and offering better protection than standard surgical masks." But he notes that they are hard to manufacture, and global demand is for tens of millions of items. His work will make masks impervious to water, thus improving protection, he explains.

That means those who already own masks are in luck: Curran's team is planning to sell spray for the hydrophobic coatings so that people can apply it themselves at home or at work. "However, it's cheaper and far more effective to be able to apply it in large batch quantities that manufacturers can do," Curran adds.

The globally minded Curran has only one local requirement: "We will only sell to U.S. manufacturers that manufacture here in the U.S. It's not a limiting factor and may change in the future, but right now, I have to deal with my community here in Houston, Texas, and the U.S. It has to be my priority."

University of Houston's Dr. Seamus Curran. Photo courtesy of University of Houston

Curran and his team are working though the process to make sure their coatings are compliant with all federal rules. "Sometimes, this is making sure your materials are registered and allowed," he says. "Sometimes it's making sure the products follow relevant EPA and FDA guidelines. However, we are very close, as in weeks, and not some arbitrary academic timeline in the distant future."

He first launched a nanotechnology business in 2013, according to UH. His company, Integricote, based at the UH Technology Bridge, focuses on manufacturing sealers for masonry, wood, and concrete. The professor has developed nanotech coatings for fabrics since 2011, technology that he now is using to demonstrate a way to provide more protection against SARS and COVID-19.

Curran, who often says he hates to "play defense," hopes to get a jump on the virus spread with his new technology and take a proactive approach to a long-term issue. "Remember, H1N1 affected 61 million Americans and 12,500 people died from it between 2009 and 2010," he notes. "Do we think that's it? Did we think Ike was the last big hurricane to hit us, or do we expect more? Yet, we have compensated for this and found a way to be resilient and have a normal life."

Technical and scientific in his work, the passionate professor says he is galvanized by a simple, primal motive. "This is personal, this virus has threatened my family and I'm not sitting back, ideally, just letting this happen," Curran says. "I'm just like any other husband, father, son, brother, and uncle: I will do all I can to protect those dearest to me and I will not have it any other way."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

From Houston inventors being recognized to Chevron's latest investment, here's what innovation news you need to know. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Chevron makes another investment, Houston researchers nationally recognized, and more innovation news

Short Stories

Houston's innovation news hasn't quite slowed yet for the holidays. This most recent news roundup includes lots of money raised, a new contract for a Houston startup, innovators recognized and more.

For more daily innovation news, subscribe to InnovationMap's newsletter, which goes out every weekday at 7 am.

Chevron Technology Ventures invests in Texas company

Courtesy of CTV

Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures has contributed to Austin-based motor tech company Infinitum Electric's $12.5 million Series B round of financing. New Mexico-based Cottonwood Technology Fund and includes participation AJAX Strategies and other individual investors.

The company plans to use the funds to build out its research and development, engineering, supply chain, and production teams.

"Infinitum's mission aligns well with our goals for the Future Energy Fund," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in a release. "The purpose of the Future Energy Fund is to invest in breakthrough energy technologies that reflect Chevron's commitment to lower emission energy sources and that are integral to low-carbon and efficient value chains."

4 Houston researchers named fellows of the National Academy of Inventors

ideas

Getty Images

The National Academy of Inventors named 168 academic innovators to NAI Fellow status — and four conduct their research right here in Houston. The program "highlights academic inventors who have demonstrated a spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society," reads the news release.

The four Houston inventors and their institutions are as follows:

List ranks Houston's fastest growing companies

Chart via Grojo.com

Growjo named the 100 fastest-growing companies in Houston for 2019, and, while the study notes the city's large oil and gas and medical industries, also acknowledges its growing tech and software scene. The companies were selected by a myriad of factors.

"Our algorithm is based on multiple datasets including employee growth, estimated revenue growth, valuations, quality and quantity of funding, hiring announcements, current job openings, leadership team announcements, and numerous other growth triggers," reads the website.

The top five companies on the list are:

  1. Midcoast Energy, which has 183 employees and a 17 percent employee growth rate.
  2. ibüümerang, which has 528 employees, and a 633 percent employee growth rate.
  3. Arion, which has 136 employees and a 216 percent employee growth rate.
  4. GoExpedi, which as 59 employees and a 119 percent employee growth rate.
  5. Code Ninjas, which has 338 employees and a 63 percent employee growth rate.

For the full list, visit Growjo.com.

TMCx company wins awards 

Image via abilitechmedical.com

Abilitech Medical, which recently completed the TMCx program, has taken home some wins in Minnesota, where it's based. The company was named named among the state's topmed tech companies by the Minnesota High Tech Association at the 2019 TEKNE awards and 2019, as well as the grand prize winner and top woman-led business by the University of Minnesota's business school at its 2019 Minnesota Cup competition.

The medical device company's technology includes the Abilitech™ Assist, which assists patients with Multiple Sclerosis, rehabilitating from stoke, or other conditions with eating, drinking, and using a computer.

"We've met so many people whose lives will be changed with this innovation," says CEO and founder Angie Conley in a news release. "Through the Texas Medical Center accelerator, we met Dr. Hany Samir who championed our upcoming stroke study."

Samir is a cardiac anesthesiologist at Houston Methodist. He lost his ability to work and perform simple daily functions after a stroke debilitated his left arm.

"I'm unable to practice the medicine I love. I want to hold my wife again with two hands and enjoy dinner with her, without having her cut my food. I want to have a cup of coffee without asking for help," says Samir in the release. "Regaining function in my arm will restore my life."

Pandata Tech receives Department of Defense contract

Photo courtesy of Pandata Tech

Houston-based ​Pandata Tech secured a contract with the United States Department of Defense from the Rapid Sustainment Office of the the United States Air Force last month. The Phase II contract will allow the company to work with Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska to develop a scalable data quality platform.

The access to data will aid in natural disasters, per the release. The goal of the contract would be for a Phase III contract and an opportunity to scale the technology into other branches of military. The company also had a Phase I contract signed in August before securing the Phase II in November.

"Pandata Tech's proprietary DQM software was built during a development partnership with one of the world's largest offshore drilling companies. Because the technology was tested and built with offshore drilling data, the shift to aircraft carriers would be smooth," explains Gustavo Sanchez, co-founder of Pandata Tech, in a news release.

Houston company receives Department of Energy funding

Photo via aerominepower.com

The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory — with funding from the DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Wind Energy Technologies Office — selected a Houston company for its Competitiveness Improvement Project.

Westergaard Solutions, founded by Houstonian Carsten Westergaard, was named among the 2019 CIP Awardees. Among the company's assets is AeroMine, which competed in the most recent Houston cohort in MassChallenge Texas. The company "will implement an innovative building-integrated wind generation concept with no external moving parts, moving from a preliminary conceptual design to a pre-production prototype design that is ready for testing," according to the release.

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These are the 10 most promising energy tech startups, according to judges at Rice Alliance forum

best of the best

This week, energy startups pitched virtually for venture capitalists — as well as over 1,000 attendees — as a part of Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship's 18th annual Energy and Clean Tech Venture Forum.

At the close of the three-day event, Rice Alliance announced its 10 most-promising energy tech companies. Here's which companies stood out from the rest.

W7energy

Based in Delaware, W7energy has created a zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicle technology supported by PiperION polymers. The startup's founders aim to provide a more reliable green energy that is 33 percent cheaper to make.

"With ion exchange polymer, we can achieve high ionic conductivity while maintaining mechanical strength," the company's website reads. "Because of the platform nature of the chemistry, the chemical and physical properties of the polymer membranes can be tuned to the desired application."

Modumetal

Modumetal, which has its HQ in Washington and an office locally as well, is a nanotechnology company focused on improving industrial materials. The company was founded in 2006 by Christina Lomasney and John Whitaker and developed a patented electrochemical process to produce nanolaminated metal alloys, according to Modumetal's website.

Tri-D Dynamics

San Francisco-based Tri-D Dynamics has developed a suite of smart metal products. The company's Bytepipe product claims to be the world's first smart casing that can collect key information — such as leak detection, temperatures, and diagnostic indicators — from underground and deliver it to workers.

SeekOps

A drone company based in Austin, SeekOps can quickly retrieve and deliver emissions data for its clients with its advance sensor technology. The company, founded in 2017, uses its drone and sensor pairing can help reduce emissions at a low cost.

Akselos

Switzerland-based Akselos has been using digital twin technology since its founding in 2012 to help energy companies analyze their optimization within their infrastructure.

Osperity

Osperity, based in Houston's Galleria area, is a software company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze and monitor industrial operations to translate the observations into strategic intelligence. The technology allows for cost-effective remote monitoring for its clients.

DroneDeploy

DroneDeploy — based in San Francisco and founded in 2013 — has raised over $92 million (according to Crunchbase) for its cloud-based drone mapping and analytics platform. According to the website, DroneDeploy has over 5,000 clients worldwide across oil and gas, construction, and other industries.

HEBI Robotics

Pittsburgh-based HEBI Robotics gives its clients the tools to build custom robotics. Founded 2014, HEBI has clients — such as NASA, Siemens, Ericsson — across industries.

CarbonFree Chemicals

CarbonFree Chemicals, based in San Antonio and founded in 2016, has created a technology to turn carbon emissions to useable solid carbonates.

SensorUp

Canadian Internet of Things company, SensorUp Inc. is a location intelligence platform founded in 2011. The technology specializes in real-time analysis of industrial operations.

"Whether you are working with legacy systems or new sensors, we provide an innovative platform that brings your IoT together for automated operations and processes," the company's website reads.

Amazon unlocks 2 prime brick-and-mortar stores in the Houston area

THAT'S SOME PRIME SHOPPING

The juggernaut that is Amazon considers to rule the universe and expand. Now, local fans of Jeff Bezos' digital behemoth can look forward to two new brick-and-mortar stores in the Houston area.

Amazon announced the opening of two Houston stores on September 18: Amazon 4-star in The Woodlands Mall and Amazon Books in Baybrook Mall.

For the uninitiated, the Amazon 4-star is a new store that carries highly rated products from the top categories across all of Amazon.com — including devices, consumer electronics, kitchen, home, toys, books, games, and more.

As the name implies, all products are rated four stars and above by Amazon customers. Other determinants include the item being a top seller, or if it is new and trending on Amazon.com, according to a press release.

Shoppers can expect fun features such as "Bring Your Own Pumpkin Spice," "Stay Connected Home Tech for Work and Play," "Fresh Off the Screen," and "Trending Around Houston" to discover must-have products. The Woodlands Amazon 4-star (1201 Lake Woodlands Dr.) is the 23rd Amazon 4-star location nationwide.

Meanwhile, shoppers in Baybrook Mall's Amazon Books (1132 Baybrook Mall Dr.) can expect myriad titles rated as customer favorites, whether trending on the site, devices, or listed as customer favorites. Amazon Books in the Baybrook Mall is the 23rd Amazon Books location nationwide.

Books customers can shop cookbooks alongside a highly curated selection of cooking tools, as well as, popular toys, games, and other home items. Amazon Books is open to all: Prime members pay the Amazon.com price in store, and customers who aren't already Prime members can sign up for a free 30-day trial and instantly receive the Amazon.com price in store, according a release.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.