Australia-based Moonshot has opened a Houston chapter. Miriam Espacio / Pexels

It's almost an understatement to say that Houston's space economy is taking off like a rocket.

On May 28, four companies in the Houston area — Axiom Space Inc., Boeing Co., KBRwyle, and NanoRacks LLC — were tasked with helping chart NASA's course in the space economy, whose global value is projected to climb as high as $3 trillion by 2040. Three days later, Houston-based Intuitive Machines LLC was awarded a $77.2 million contract to send as many as five NASA payloads to the moon.

And a month later, on June 26, officials broke ground on the first phase of Houston Spaceport, a 450-acre project at Ellington Airport that will serve as a sort of control center for aerospace research and manufacturing, and commercial space operations.

Then, on July 19 — a day ahead of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 man-on-the-moon mission — Australia-based startup Moonshot Space Co. launched a chapter in Houston to help foster the region's multibillion-dollar space economy. Through its programming, which will kick off this fall, Moonshot seeks to corral entrepreneurs, students, job seekers, business executives, investors, university researchers, government officials, and others in an effort to nurture and promote Houston's space economy.

Troy McCann, founder and CEO of Moonshot, believes Houston — home to NASA's Johnson Space Center — can emerge as the epicenter of the global space economy.

"You'd have to have been living under a rock for the past 50 years not to be aware of Houston's stellar aerospace ecosystem," McCann says. "It's got both the historical credibility and a suite of … successful commercial space ventures based there."

"We want to help fine-tune Houston's space economy by providing a proven framework to elevate people and their ideas into successful teams and scalable businesses," McCann adds, "and to create the industries of the future and solve humanity's greatest challenges."

The Houston chapter, a nonprofit venture, is Moonshot's first in the U.S. and second outside Australia. Nathan Johnson, a Houston attorney who specializes in space law and business development, has been tapped to direct it.

"We're in the process of starting chapters across the globe because we believe that the next Nikola Tesla or Marie Curie is out there somewhere, but they don't have access to the resources they need to change the world for the better," McCann says. "Today, the average person has the ability to start a commercial space program for less than the cost of a fast-food franchise."

Johnson says Houston's prominence as NASA's hub for human spaceflight, its status as the "Energy Capital of the World," and the presence of the Texas Medical Center combine to make Space City a potent force in the space economy.

"My hope is to see Houston continue to lead in space and become a hub for the next wave of space commercialization," Johnson says. "We have a wide breadth of industries, and I would like to see that terrestrial expertise extend to new market applications in space."

If Houston does evolve into a nucleus for the global space economy, it stands to reap sky-high financial rewards. Various analysts forecast the global space economy will soar to between $1 trillion and $3 trillion by 2040, up from an estimated $415 billion in 2018.

"Space is and will be a global endeavor, depending on a strong economy, smart industries, and a talented workforce," Johnson says. "Houston already has all of those things, continues to actively develop them at all levels of the community, and does so in a way that reflects the world's population."

Houston celebrated 50 years since the Apollo moon landing on July 20. Here are some startups that are going to be a part of the next 50 years of space tech in Houston. Photo via NASA.gov

5 startups keeping Houston known as the Space City

space tech

This month, for the most part, has been looking back on the history Houston has as the Space City in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. While it's great to recognize the men and women who made this city the major player in space exploration that it is, there are still entrepreneurs today with space applications and experience that represent the future of the Space City.

From space tech to former NASA expert-founded companies, here are five companies keeping Houston's rep as the Space City.

Cemvita Factory

Cemvita Factory

Courtesy of Cemvita Factory

Carbon dioxide poses a problem for two major Houston-related industries: Oil and gas and Space. Cemvita Factory, which has a technology that can convert CO2 into other chemicals, has the potential to revolutionize both industries. The Houston startup is growing and Moji Karimi, who founded the company with his sister, Tara Karimi, says 2019 is all about execution.

"We're in Houston, and we have a technology that is from biotech and have applications in the space industry and the energy industry," Karimi says. "There would not have been any better place for us in the country than Houston."

Click here to read more about Cemvita Factory.

Re:3D

Courtesy of re:3D

Two NASA colleagues hung up their metaphorical space space suits to start a 3D-printing company. Six years later, re:3D had grown large enough to warrant a new, swankier space — just down the street from the Johnson Space Center.

The company makes an affordable and customizable 3D printer, called the Gigabot, and has clients across industries in over 50 countries. Recently, re:3D introduced sustainable options, including printing using plastic waste. The 7,000-square-foot space allows for anyone in the community to learn about the 3D printing process, tour the facility, attend social events or workshops, or even buy a printer or some of the company's merchandise.

Click here to read more about re:3D.

Cognitive Space

Pexels

Satellites are getting smaller and easier to launch, which has causing a significant growth in these devices entering earth's atmosphere. Former NASA specialist Guy de Carufel — through his company Cognitive Space — created a much-needed solution to managing satellites using cloud-based AI technology.

"By next year we will have major contracts, and growing our team to 15 to 20 people. We'll have a commercial product by then and servicing some commercial players," de Carufel says on his company's growth plan. "Five years from now, we'll probably be in many different verticals, spawning from what we have now to really expand and apply our systems to as many applications as possible."

Click here to learn more about Cognitive Space.

Zibrio

Pexels

Balance is extremely important for humans. Being off balanced can be an indicator of a bigger health issue or a warning sign not to attempt something dangerous. During her postdoctoral work, Katharine Forth and her colleagues at NASA developed a technology to help track balance for astronauts. They designed a compact tool that was a game changer.

"The machines typically used for balance measurement can be as large as a telephone booth, so we invented a new way to measure postural control using a much smaller mechanism that fit inside a moon boot," Forth says.

Forth evolved her technology to create a commercial product that allows for users to track their own balance for her Houston-based company, Zibrio. The startup has grown since its founding in 2015 and just this month worked with the 13,700 athletes at the National Senior Games. Zibrio measured the balance of the seniors aged 50 to 103 in order to make sure they were ready and healthy enough to compete without risking injury.

Click here to read more about Zibrio.

Blue Bear Capital

Courtesy of Tim Kopra

Tim Kopra spent over 244 days in space, and now he's using his tech background to invest in emerging energy companies with his Houston-based investment firm, Blue Bear Capital.

"On face value, it may sound like an odd match, taking someone with a tech and operational background and putting them in venture, but quite frankly it feels very familiar to me because my career has really been focused on working on complex technology and operations with very small teams," Kopra tells InnovationMap in a previous interview. "It's not just a theoretical understanding of the technology, but understanding how to use the technology and how it works."

Blue Bear Capital focuses on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to make waves in the oil and gas industry.

Click here to read more about Blue Bear Capital.

Mario Diaz, CEO of the Houston Airport System addresses the crowd gathered to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary this weekend. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Overheard: Aerospace and airport VIPs commemorate Space City Month at IAH

Out of this world

Houston, we have liftoff of a space-filled weekend. Saturday, July 20, marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the moon, and that calls for a celebration, as well as a commemoration.

Houston First, Space Center Houston, NASA, and United Airlines teamed up to host an international delegation at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Terminal C on July 17. Various space or Space City VIPs took the stage to discuss their memories of the lunar landing and the role Houston played in the monumental event.

“Our hope is to be an airport system that reflects Houston’s role as a leader on the global stage and to have our city standing as truly international business and cultural center. With both Bush and Hobby airports having earned four-star ratings, we are built to meet those expectations.”

— Mario Diaz, executive director at Houston Airport System. Bush Intercontinental Airport is also celebrating its 50th anniversary since opening in 1969.

“It is the innovative spirit of the people of this city that help give the world our new perspective. We are all neighbors, and we must all face the future as one. How wonderful that understanding is now with Houston having become the nation’s most diverse city in the country with one in four Houstonians being foreign born.”

— Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, referencing a ranking released earlier this year.

“This week, we are celebrating this anniversary and time when we did so much more than we thought we could. … [the Apollo mission] was an inspiration to us then, and I think continues to be an inspiration to all of us even now.”

Peggy Whitson, former NASA astronaut who holds the record for the United States for her 665 days in space.

“Houston is the Space City, because the Johnson Space Center is the home of human space flight. As you know, ‘Houston’ was the very first word spoken from the surface of the moon. And, it wasn’t a fluke. They knew who they needed to talk to, and it was Houston.”

— Mark Geyer, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.

“In roughly three years, we will have astronauts back in the region of the moon — this time women and men. And soon after that, back onto the surface of the moon again in our mission called Artemis.”

— Geyer continues to say of NASA's lunar exploration plans.

“Just a few weeks ago, [Space Center Houston] inaugurated the completely restored mission control operations room from the Apollo era. We’ve done a restoration and taken it back to the 1960s, and it appears as if the flight controllers just got up to take a break.”

— William Harris, CEO of Space Center Houston. The organization is NASA's official tourism arm and houses 250,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibition space.

Steven Gonzalez wants to give NASA technology to startups for free. Courtesy of NASA

Houston-based NASA technology strategist aims to connect the entity to startups and technologies across the country

Featured innovator

NASA has 1,400 technologies that are available for licensing across industries, but only 20 percent of those technologies have been licensed — traditionally by mid- to large-sized companies.

NASA Technology Transfer Strategist Steven Gonzalez, who's had a 30-year career at NASA at the Johnson Space Center, is responsible for moving these technologies out into the community. About four years ago, his department created a program to target startups and engage them with the organization's technology. Startup NASA is a program in which startups can license NASA technology for free for three years before the licensing fees kick in.

"We thought that once we created this program we'd have startups coming to break the door down to get these technologies, and that isn't the case," Gonzalez tells InnovationMap. "So, what I've been focusing on is trying to find was to connect to ecosystems across the country to introduce them to this program and our technology and find people who will be the bridge between us and these ecosystems."

All this month, with the world's focus on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, Gozalez is able to benefit from this momentum and reenergized focus on space. He spoke with InnovationMap about his career in space and the future Houston will play in the next 50 years.

InnovationMap: What initially got you interested in space and how did it turn into a career?

Steven Gonzalez: Star Trek, the original series. I had the desire to be Captain Kirk and be on the Starship Enterprise. I was born in New York, and raised in the Northeast. In 8th grade, I already had the bug to go to NASA and be the first in my family to go to college. I remember having all my classes picked out with college course credit, and — by this time we had moved to New Jersey, and we were only the second Spanish family there — the guidance counselor looked at my schedule and told me I would be better going to autoshop.

I went to Boston University and then got my master's at Texas A&M University. Right after A&M, I started at the Johnson Space Center in 1988, and I was working in mission control bringing in new technology. I remember getting there and expecting to see something along the lines of the Starship Enterprise, and it looked the same as it did from the Apollo timeframe. After that, I trained astronauts for a couple years before going back and working to bring the new control center online. The Houston Chronicle compared it to the tech on the Starship Enterprise, and I finally felt like I had arrived.

IM: From your strategic roles to now managing technology, what are some of the challenges you've faced in your NASA career?

SG: I looked at the 20-year strategy for the Johnson Space Center and how to get it positioned for the growth of commercial and international space. It was a great role, and the challenge for NASA predicting a long-term strategy was that every four or eight years, we get a new president, and when we get a new president, we get a new direction. We did all this strategy planning and using all the tools — this was in 2006 before we knew what Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos were up to — and we said that over 20 years, we predicted that the commercial market would grow and our role would have to shift. That was a hard message to swallow at that time when we had so much going on.

After working in strategy, I shifted to focus on partnerships, and now my role is technology transfer. After most of my career focused on impacting life space, now this last part of my career is focused on impacting life here on earth. My role now is to move technology out and find technology to bring in — mostly moving technology into startups around the country.

Now, my challenge in my role of moving technology out is that, especially when we go to startups, people think of NASA technology as being space technology. But, of our 1,400 technologies we have, so many of them have already impacted all different industries. So, trying to get people to figure out how to connect to the startup ecosystems is another challenge.

IM: What's been the effect on NASA now that commercialization has ramped up?

SG: First, we were created with a two-fold mission — to explore and to benefit humanity. From day one we have been moving our technology out. Unfortunately, we at NASA have the reputation of giving to the world Tang and Velcro, and neither one of that is true. The reality is so much more fantastic. The camera on our phones and LASIK came from NASA technology. There's a technology I love to talk about. We were working with Texas Children's Hospital, and they had a challenge of moving premature infants from room to room. The gurney would vibrate quite a bit and hurt their internal organs — some would even pass away from this. Our astronauts train two to three hours a day to keep their muscles and bones up and running, so they exercise on treadmills and bikes on the space station. Left unchecked, those vibrations from the equipment would ruin the experiments on the space station. So, we have the technology and expertise here in Houston that we worked with TCH and created a carrier that allows these children to be transferred without any harm to them.

The second part is that our technology is seeding this new commercial space market. Back in the '90s here in Houston, we developed a technology that was an inflatable habitat. When we send astronauts to the moon or mars, they need a spacious habitat that isn't too heavy to be transported via spacecraft. So, we created that technology, and Bob Bigelow, who owns a bunch of hotels and wanted to have the first hotel in space, long story short, he licensed our technology, created this hotel that's circling space and waiting until Uber can transport his paying customers up there. In the process, he thought that NASA and the ISS can use it in the meantime. So it's a technology we started, but we didn't have to commercialize it, someone else did the full development of it.

IM: So, it sounds like it's much more collaborative of a relationship between NASA and commercial entities than it is competitive, would you say?

SG: I'm glad you brought that up. A lot of times people think it's a competition. In the 1960s, it was a competition between us and the Russians. Then, the space station became this collaborative community. With the commercial market now, people keep talking about it being a competition, but in reality we need one another. We have 60 years of history that they can stand on and they are doing things differently that we're learning from. Also, we still are doing things that are tougher to make money on. We do things that has no return on investment, and the commercial companies are focusing on things they can make a market for.

IM: What role do you see Houston playing in the future of space?

SG: Right now, it's a bit premature to really talk about anything, but we're in conversations with various startup organizations about growth and collaborations. Between NASA, the Houston Spaceport, and the annual SpaceCom, Houston in an incredible position to be the hub for this growing, trillion-dollar commercial space market. Through events like SpaceCom, we are a hub for a lot of international activity. Houston already being a hub for international travel and business already, it could be an international gateway for the space industry.

IM: What does Space City Month mean to you and the city of Houston?

SG: We've always been the Space City, but for a while there, it was taken for granted. It's part of our history, but it's nice to see it brought back into the foreground to realize that it's not just history, it's who we are today. It's been better over the past few years as we've seen this conversation increasing. This anniversary is bringing back to the forefront how Houston embraces space for the future.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

David Alexander of the Rice University Space Institute says Houston's past accomplishments in space aren't all the Space City has to offer. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University's Space Institute director on the future of exploration, development, and the role Houston will play in space

Featured Innovator

While the city is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo mission that got man to the moon, this month should also be about looking forward to the Space City's future.

From commercial space travel momentum to upcoming governmental projects, there's a lot in the works for space, and Houston will play a big role in both sides of the equation, says David Alexander, director of the Rice University Space Institute.

"In Houston, we tend to think of space as a destination, but it really is a resource," he says. "And we need to be thinking about it as a resource."

New, and increasingly more accessible technologies are changing the landscape — especially for universities. Smaller satellite devices, called CubeSacs, are so easy to build and launch into space that students are able to it themselves, Alexander says, and they are. These projects across the country are collecting new data on a massive level.

"Students these days really want to solve meaningful problems rather than just academic problems, and space is way of giving them access to what information and data that can help them with that," Alexander says.

Alexander shared his thoughts and professional opinion on some of the exciting advancements the space industry has on its radar — and where Houston comes into play for these initiatives.

InnovationMap: What got you really interested in space exploration?

David Alexander: I was always interested in science, but one of the things got really interested in the human aspect of space was an event at the Rice Baker Institute a few years ago, shortly after the cancellation of the shuttle program. It was just a great discussion about the space in general, but what kind of hit me hard was the fact that a lot of history — we're talking about 50 years in space since the Apollo mission — has influenced the whole world. Modern human history has been hugely impacted by the presence of space, and a lot of that happened in Houston. And, some of the people who've made it happen are still around, and that day at the Baker Institute, some of them were there. So, that hit home for me.

IM: What are some of the focuses of the Rice Space Institute?

DA: We've got the outreach part, then we have the the science, the research, and then student activities and the connection to NASA that we have.

We have a professional master's program for students who are not particularly interested in research, but what they want to do is combine management and business training with technical training in science and engineering related to space. We've been building that program all for over the last six years or so. We also have this fairly popular public lectures series that we've been running since January of 2011.

One of the prime reasons for institutes at Rice, which are small entities, is to bring faculty from different disciplines together. And so that's been our primary effort when it comes to research. We'll try and get some of the bioengineers, for instance, working with NASA on the human side, and get some of the engineers working with NASA on things like sensor wireless technologies.

IM: What does the future of space exploration look like to you?

DA: I think one of the things that we're seen this helping drive that difference between now and then is the growth in the private and commercial enterprises in space. I think that what we're finding is that space is becoming more accessible. The actual cost of getting to space is radically coming down, and the kind of resources that we can put in space and the capability of these resources is changing.

IM: Do you think there's been a resurgence of interest in space lately?

DA: NASA made space kind of look routine, which is good because you want astronauts to be safe and you want your hardware to survive. So, it became less exciting. However, within the government side of things, that has been a huge steady progress. You can follow the path from the technology development all the way through to today. But I think from the general public's perception, people like Elon Musk, even though he has some ambitious ideas, has seen successes with reusable rockets with these landings. And people like Jeff Bezos, who are also developing their own rockets and their own plans for space, have kind of opened people's eyes again a little bit. I think they have added a bit of star power, and they have shown an excitement for space that's infectious.

IM: What does the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission mean to the city of Houston?

DA: There's a balance that we have to find between looking too much in the past — you don't want to see your successes in the rearview. I think we should rightly be proud of the Apollo history and what it did for the region. The history part is really important, and, in my opinion, the biggest thing that came out of Apollo is the fact that so many young people got interested in science, technology, engineering, and math. I firmly believe that created the means by which the U.S. economy drove the world.

IM: What's Houston's role in the future of space exploration?

DA: On the space exploration side, NASA has announced that we're going to go back to the moon by 2024. Now, that's a huge challenge. The NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who's a Rice graduate, is aware of those challenges. Whether it's 2024 or if we have to wait until 2028, a lot of that work is going to be driven by what's being done in Houston, particularly the Johnson Space Center. There's a big rocket that they're developing, as well as the Orion capsule, Houston has a big role in those.

On the commercial side, there's the Houston Spaceport, which was the 10th licensed commercially licensed spaceport in the United States. There's now 12 within the United States, but Houston's spaceport is the only one located in a large city. There's a great company out there called Intuitive Machines, and they just got one of the lunar landing contracts. So, sometime between now and 2021, there may actually be a piece of hardware land on the moon that was built here in Houston.

IM: What should the Houston innovation ecosystem be focused on?

DA: The pieces are all there. We just need to work together to get them working coherently. If you get someone who understands space data talking to one of these companies who are trying to monitor flooding, for example, then both of those groups will grow together. We need to start bringing them together.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

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Over $1.4M in prizes awarded at Rice University's student startup competition

RBPC 2021

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

Houston health center working with new study that uses app to track long-term COVID-19 effects

pandemic innovation

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco