At an event at the Ion, OpenStax and Rice University announced a $90 million NSF-backed initiative. Photo by Jeff Fitlow/Rice

An educational technology company based out of Rice University has received $90 million to create and lead a research and development hub for inclusive learning and education research. It's the largest research award in the history of the university.

OpenStax received the grant funding from the U.S. National Science Foundation for a five-year project create the R&D hub called SafeInsights, which "will enable extensive, long-term research on the predictors of effective learning while protecting student privacy," reads a news release from Rice. It's the NSF's largest single investment commitment to national sale education R&D infrastructure.

“We are thrilled to announce an investment of $90 million in SafeInsights, marking a significant step forward in our commitment to advancing scientific research in STEM education,” NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan says in the release. “There is an urgent need for research-informed strategies capable of transforming educational systems, empowering our nation’s workforce and propelling discoveries in the science of learning.

"By investing in cutting-edge infrastructure and fostering collaboration among researchers and educators, we are paving the way for transformative discoveries and equitable opportunities for learners across the nation.”

SafeInsights is funded through NSF’s Mid-scale Research Infrastructure-2 (Mid-scale RI-2) program and will act as a central hub for 80 partners and collaborating institutions.

“SafeInsights represents a pivotal moment for Rice University and a testament to our nation’s commitment to educational research,” Rice President Reginald DesRoches adds. “It will accelerate student learning through studies that result in more innovative, evidence-based tools and practices.”

Richard Baraniuk, who founded OpenStax and is a Rice professor, will lead SafeInsights. He says he hopes the initiative will allow progress to be made for students learning in various contexts.

“Learning is complex," Baraniuk says in the release. "Research can tackle this complexity and help get the right tools into the hands of educators and students, but to do so, we need reliable information on how students learn. Just as progress in health care research sparked stunning advances in personalized medicine, we need similar precision in education to support all students, particularly those from underrepresented and low-income backgrounds.”

OpenStax awarded $90M to lead NSF research hub for transformational learning and education researchwww.youtube.com

Cadence is investing in Girlstart, an Texas-based nonprofit empowering women in STEM. Photo by Amber Heckler

Tech company revs up support for Texas women in STEM at special F1 event

girls in the driver seat

This week, the worlds of the Lone Star State's tech scene, women in STEM, and Formula 1 collided.

At a private event on Wednesday, October 19, hosted by computational software company Cadence Design Systems, Senior VP of Global HR Tina Jones spoke highly about the pride she felt about Cadence’s company culture and their goals for leaving the world better than they found it in regards to sustainability and giving back to the community. Last week, Cadence was ranked 19th in the 2022 World’s Best Workplaces list.

One of the ways Cadence is giving back to the community is through their Giving Foundation. The foundation is investing in organizations like Girlstart, an Austin-based nonprofit whose mission is to empower young girls’ interest in STEM through educational programs and camps.

“We are determined to make a difference in access to STEM education for those who have been traditionally underrepresented,” Jones said.

Jones announced Cadence would make a $25,000 donation to Girlstart to help further the organization’s mission and to invest in the future women they want to hire. The organization has locations all around Texas, including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley, as well as locations in other states like California, Illinois, Washington, and Massachusetts.

“We want to start at Kindergarten and take them through 12th grade and give girls confidence in STEM,” Jones said, “Girlstart is doing that here in Austin, and we’re super proud to be associated with them.”

Girlstart Executive Director Shane Woods was present to accept the donation. During her speech, Woods discussed the importance of broadening young women’s understanding of what STEM is and nurturing a positive mentality so they can stay inspired in their careers.

Part of Woods’ work is to make sure girls know about the different fields that “need STEM eyes” such as biomedical engineering, environmental sustainability, and social justice.

The rest of the event centered around Cadence’s partnership with F1 team McLaren Racing, with three primary team members in attendance – CEO Zak Brown, Team Principal Andreas Seidl, and driver Daniel Ricciardo.

Ricciardo has never been shy about his love for the capital of Texas. He said he was naive about the city when F1 first arrived in 2012, but now it’s one of his favorite places. Circuit of the Americas is one of his favorite challenging tracks, noting the “high speed snake section” at turns three through eight that remind him of similar turns Maggotts and Becketts at Silverstone.

“A circuit that really pushes the car to the limits is fun,” he said, “That’s what I love about Austin.”

McLaren’s partnership with Cadence is significant for more than their expertise with computational fluid dynamics. Both companies share similar goals in regards to environmental sustainability and equality. In 2021, McLaren became the first F1 team to release an annual sustainability report, showing they are on track to achieve carbon net zero by 2040. In that same year, they announced Emma Gilmour would be the team’s first female racing driver, racing in Extreme E alongside Tanner Foust.

When asked about what they predict the next 10 years of Formula 1 will look like, Brown and Ricciardo agreed they hoped to see F1 still thriving and at the pinnacle of motorsport, while also giving recognition to the rise of other motorsports. Brown said he would like to see the introduction of rotational races in other countries.

“We have a lot of countries that want races. We’re at a maximum schedule of 24…I would love to see us in 30 countries, but 24 times a year. You might land on 18 permanent races and then have 10 that rotate every two years or something like that,” Brown said. “I think there’s room to grow the sport globally."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

A new program at UH is providing Houston students with access to research tools and mentorship. Photo via UH.edu

Houston high school students step into STEM thanks to UH program

science friction

A group of Houston high schoolers aren't taking a break this summer. Instead, they are researching the human body thanks to a new program from the University of Houston.

The STEM Research Inquiry Summer Experience was launched to encourage future STEM leaders and combat the underrepresentation of people of color working in science, technology, engineering and math. Students from Jack Yates High School in Houston's Third Ward are researching hypertension, breast cancer, the spleen, and more during the summer program, according to a news release.

“STEM RISE was inspired by the goal to broaden participation in STEM teaching and learning, and to inspire students from our neighborhood community of Third Ward to envision themselves with futures at UH and ultimately in promising STEM careers,” says Mariam Manuel, director of STEM RISE student success, in the release.

UH students from across STEM fields and departments — science, math, medical, etc. — serve as mentors for the program, which received funding from the National Science Foundation.

“This unique opportunity also gives the young visitors a glimpse into college life,” says Jacqueline Ekeoba, director of STEM RISE instruction, in the release.

In collaboration with UH’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, teachHOUSTON, the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine, and Jack Yates High School, the program provides the students with hands-on experience and access to research equipment and lab space.

“Creating safe and supportive learning experiences for the next generation of scientists and doctors is crucial for ensuring diversity in science and medicine," says Thomas Thesen, director of STEM RISE research experience and associate professor of neuroscience at the Fertitta Family College of Medicine. "Not only is this a valuable experience for our high school participants, but our UH students receive training in culturally responsive pedagogy by acting as near-peer mentors."

From left to right, the UH STEM RISE team includes Jacqueline Ekeoba, Mariam Manuel, and Thomas Thesen. Photo via UH.edu

Common Desk, which has locations across Houston, has been acquired — and other innovation news. Rendering courtesy of Common Desk

Houston startup secures big contract, coworking company acquired, and more local innovation news

short stories

Houston is starting 2022 strong in terms of innovation news, and there might be some headlines you may have missed.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston startups and tech, the Bayou City is ranked based on its opportunities for STEM jobs, a Houston blockchain startup scores a major contract, Rice University opens applications for its veteran-owned business competition, and more.

Data Gumbo announces contract with Equinor

After a successful pilot, Equinor has signed off on a contract with Data Gumbo.. Courtesy of Data Gumbo

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that it has signed a contract with Equinor. The global energy company's venture arm, Equinor Ventures, supported the startup's $7.7 million series B round, which closed last year.

The company's technology features smart contract automation and execution, which reduces contract leakage, frees up working capital, enables real-time cash and financial management, and delivers provenance with unprecedented speed, accuracy, visibility and transparency, per the release.

“Equinor is an industry trailblazer, demonstrating the true value of our international smart contract network to improve and automate manual processes, and bring trust to all parties,” says Andrew Bruce, founder and CEO of Data Gumbo, in a news release. “Smart contracts are playing a critical role in driving the energy industry forward. Our work with Equinor clearly demonstrates the benefits that supermajors and their supply chain customers, partners and vendors experience by automating commercial transactions. We are proud to continue our work with Equinor to help them realize the savings, efficiencies and new levels of transparency available through our smart contract network.”

Equinor opted into a pilot with the company a few years ago.

“Since piloting Data Gumbo’s smart contracts for offshore drilling services in 2019, we have worked with the company to continually refine and improve use cases. We now have the potential to expand Data Gumbo’s smart contract network to enable transactional certainty across our portfolio from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to our Brazilian operated assets and beyond,” says Erik Kirkemo, senior vice president at Equinor. “GumboNet reduces inefficiencies and processing time around contract execution in complex supply chains, which is a problem in the broader industry, and we look forward to realizing the streamlined process and cost savings of its rapidly expanding smart contract network.”

WeWork acquires Dallas coworking brand with 6 Houston locations

Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston including in The Ion, has been acquired. Photo courtesy of Common Desk

Dallas-based Common Desk, which has six locations in Houston, announced its acquisition by WeWork. The company's office spaces will be branded as “Common Desk, a WeWork Company,” according to a news release.

“Similar to WeWork, Common Desk is a company built on the concept of bringing people together to have their best day at work," says Nick Clark, CEO at Common Desk, in the release. "With the added support from WeWork, Common Desk will be able to not only leverage WeWork’s decade of experience in member services to improve the experience of our own members but also leverage WeWork’s impressive client roster to further build out our member base.”

Here are the six Common Desk spaces in Houston:

Here's how Houston ranks as a metro for STEM jobs

Source: WalletHub

When it comes to the best cities for jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math, Houston ranks in the middle of the pack. The greater Houston area ranked at No. 37 among the 100 largest metros across 19 key metrics on the list compiled by personal finance website, WalletHub. Here's how Houston fared on the report's metrics:

  • No. 36 – percent of Workforce in STEM
  • No. 74 – STEM Employment Growth
  • No. 43 – Math Performance
  • No. 16 – Quality of Engineering Universities
  • No. 2 – Annual Median Wage for STEM Workers (Adjusted for Cost of Living)
  • No. 90 – Median Wage Growth for STEM Workers
  • No. 75 – Job Openings for STEM Graduates per Capita
  • No. 88 – Unemployment Rate for Adults with at Least a Bachelor’s Degree

Elsewhere in Texas, Austin ranked at No. 2 overall, and Dallas just outranked Houston coming in at No. 34. San Antonio, El Paso, and McAllen ranked No. 51, No. 65, and No. 88, respectively.

Rice University calls for contestants for its 8th annual startup pitch competition for veterans

Calling all veteran and active duty startup founders and business owners. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University is now accepting applications from Houston veterans for its annual business competition. To apply for the 2022 Veterans Business Battle, honorably discharged veterans or active duty founders can head online to learn more and submit their business plan by Feb. 15.

“We’re looking forward to giving veterans the opportunity not just to share their ideas and get financing, but learn from other past winners the lessons about entrepreneurship they’ve lived through while growing their businesses,” event co-chair Reid Schrodel says in a news release.

Over the past few years, finalists have received more than $4 million of investments through the program. This year's monetary prizes add up to $30,000 — $15,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second place, and $5,000 for third place.

Finalists will be invited to make their business pitch April 22 and 23 at Rice University. Click here to register for the event.

City of Houston receives grant to stimulate STEM opportunities

Houston's youth population is getting a leg up on STEM opportunities. Photo via Getty Images

Thanks to a $150,000 grant from the National League of Cities, the city of Houston has been awarded a chance to provide quality education and career opportunities to at-risk young adults and students. The city is one of five cities also selected to receive specialized assistance from NLC’s staff and other national experts.

“This award is a big win for young people. They will benefit from significant career development opportunities made possible by this grant,” says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. “These are children who would otherwise go without, now having experiences and connections they never thought possible. I commend the National League of Cities for their continued commitment to the future leaders of this country.”

According to the release, the grant money will support the Hire Houston Youth program by connecting diverse opportunity youth to the unique STEM and technology-focused workforce development.

"Our youth deserve educational opportunities that connect them to the local workforce and career exploration, so they can make informed choices about their future career path in Houston’s dynamic economy. Houston youth will only further the amazing things they will accomplish, thanks to this grant," says Olivera Jankovska, director of the Mayor's Office of Education.

Local kids can pursue STEM and space dreams thanks to the generous gift. Photo courtesy of Space Center Houston

Jeff Bezos' foundation gifts Space Center Houston with $1 million grant

space funds

Billionaires such as Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos may be blasting off into the beyond, but for now, space travel is still primarily relegated to the expert astronauts who train here in Houston.

Now, a new $1 million grant to our beloved hub of all things cosmic may just inspire local kids to rocket towards a career in space exploration or STEM careers. Space Center Houston has just received the generous, two-comma grant from Blue Origin, Bezos' company.

Blue Origin auctioned off seats on first crew New Shepard suborbital flight, which yielded an impressive $28 million. Bezos, his brother Mark, and Wally Funk, one of the Mercury 13 women will join the auction winner on the upcoming trip.

With the $28 million proceeds, Blue Origin then awarded $1 million to 19 organizations (each) through its foundation, Club for the Future.

"This donation is enabling Club for the Future to rapidly expand its reach by partnering with 19 organizations to develop and inspire the next generation of space professionals," said Bob Smith, Blue Origin CEO, in a statement. "Our generation will build the road to space and these efforts will ensure the next generation is ready to go even further."

The $1 million Space Center Houston received will go towards the center's Title 1 school field trip program, enabling students with access to the center's extensive space artifact collection, per a press release. Space Center Houston's Girls STEM Pathway initiative, which promotes learning experiences for girls in STEM careers, will also receive funds. The comprehensive, six-phase initiative includes an introductory elementary school experience, a middle school project-based STEM experience, a summer bridge program with mentoring support, and a program for high school girls to engage in scientific research, the center notes.

"Blue Origin's grant will further enable Space Center Houston to provide immersive science learning experiences for underserved Houston area youth," said the center's president and CEO, William T. Harris, in a release. "We are very thankful to Blue Origin for helping us inspire and prepare students for future STEM careers. With Blue Origin's support, we can empower students with hands-on STEM learning opportunities through the wonders of space exploration."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston cleantech company tests ​all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology

RESULTS ARE IN

Houston-based clean energy company Syzygy Plasmonics has successfully tested all-electric CO2-to-fuel production technology at RTI International’s facility at North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.

Syzygy says the technology can significantly decarbonize transportation by converting two potent greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, into low-carbon jet fuel, diesel, and gasoline.

Equinor Ventures and Sumitomo Corp. of Americas sponsored the pilot project.

“This project showcases our ability to fight climate change by converting harmful greenhouse gases into fuel,” Trevor Best, CEO of Syzygy, says in a news release.

“At scale,” he adds, “we’re talking about significantly reducing and potentially eliminating the carbon intensity of shipping, trucking, and aviation. This is a major step toward quickly and cost effectively cutting emissions from the heavy-duty transport sector.”

At commercial scale, a typical Syzygy plant will consume nearly 200,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of taking 45,000 cars off the road.

“The results of this demonstration are encouraging and represent an important milestone in our collaboration with Syzygy,” says Sameer Parvathikar, director of renewable energy and energy storage at RTI.

In addition to the CO2-to-fuel demonstration, Syzygy's Ammonia e-Cracking™ technology has completed over 2,000 hours of performance and optimization testing at its plant in Houston. Syzygy is finalizing a site and partners for a commercial CO2-to-fuel plant.

Syzygy is working to decarbonize the chemical industry, responsible for almost 20 percent of industrial CO2 emissions, by using light instead of combustion to drive chemical reactions.

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This article originally ran on EnergyCapital.

Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.