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

Baylor St. Luke's Hospital is using a new Bay Area technology to provide treatment to stroke patients. Photo courtesy Baylor St. Luke's

Houston hospital taps artificial intelligence to boost stroke treatment

health tech

For neurologists and neurocritical care providers like Dr. Chethan Rao, medical director of Neuroscience ICU at Baylor St. Luke's Hospital, time is incredibly important when it comes to brain-related recoveries.

"For every minute that you don't treat a patient with a stroke, 2 million nerve cells die. In the normal aging process, you lose about 35,000 cells a year or so," Rao says. "In other words, you age about 10 years every minute you don't get a treatment for stroke."

This is why his team is using new technologies, softwares, and innovation to drastically reduce the time it takes to treat patients who've suffered from a stroke starting from the moment they enter through the doors of their hospital.

One of the latest advancements at Baylor St. Luke's is the adoption of the San Francisco-based artificial intelligence app called Viz.ai across its stroke care teams.

The app received FDA approval in February 2020 and uses deep learning algorithms to analyze CAT scans for suspected large vessel occlusion (LVO) strokes. Baylor purchased the software about a year ago and is the first Houston-area hospital to use artificial intelligence for this type of treatment.

Viz.ai instantly allows doctors to determine salvageable and unsalvageable brain tissue, creating what Dr. Rao describes as a "map" for any potential procedures. Determining the viability of this type of treatment traditionally would take about 15 to 20 minutes, according to Rao.

"That's the reason artificial intelligence and automated technology has become extremely important. Because the more you've reduced the time it's required to make decisions and to provide treatments for stroke, that benefit is humungous for the patient," he says.

Rao says that his team uses the software about every day and has treated roughly 140 stroke patients with guidance from the tool.

Next the hospital aims to connect Viz.ai with additional automated systems it has adopted to speed up processes for stroke patients and manage their care, including TigerConnect for internal HIPAA-approved messaging and Decisio, a Houston-based product that captures key time stamps.

And Rao adds that the hospital is researching ways to extend the use of Viz.ai for select patients—to salvage more brain matter and analyze additional neurological events.

"More exciting things will be coming out of it," he says. "We're also working on helping it analyze aneurysms, not just blockages. Can we locate the bleeds, so that we can create different alert systems and then create different treatment pathways immediately?"

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Houston small biz tech platform launches entrepreneur-focused credit card

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When you're a small business owner, every service you sign up for or institution you open an account at should be a helpful partner on your business journey. At least, that's how Hello Alice sees it.

The Houston company has partnered up with Mastercard and First National Bank of Omaha to provide small business owners a suite of financial services with their line of credit. The Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard will offer users expert business advice, business insights, cashback, and a rewards program that gives entrepreneurs points for completing business-advancing activities on the Hello Alice platform.

“We designed the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard to meet the needs of small business owners where they are, breaking longstanding barriers to mentorship, access to credit, and overall financial health for those who have traditionally been denied access,” says Elizabeth Gore and Carolyn Rodz, co-founders of Hello Alice, in a statement.

“In times of economic boom and bust, access to capital remains the leading challenge for all small business owners, and particularly for New Majority owners, which is why we continue to focus our efforts on expanding the capital continuum beyond our existing grants and loans programs,” the duo continued.

Offered as a traditional credit card, the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard provides users with credit-building opportunities. Business owners with a limited or poor credit history also have the opportunity to a secured version of the credit card that still provides full benefits from the program.

“Small businesses are the backbone of our communities, yet too often face significant obstacles in securing the resources they deserve, particularly if the owners come from underserved communities,” says Linda Kirkpatrick, president for North America at Mastercard, in the release. “The launch of the Hello Alice Small Business Mastercard is an important step in our mission to build a more inclusive digital economy by providing small businesses with the financial tools and capital they need to thrive, while also advancing our half-billion-dollar commitment to help close the racial wealth and opportunity gap for Black communities.”

This initiative is the latest announcement from Hello Alice’s Equitable Access to Capital program, which is focused on increasing access to the capital — as well as financial products, tools, and education — small businesses need to grow sustainably and power the national economy. By 2025, according to Hello Alice, approximately $70 million in grants could fund credit enhancements for approximately 30,000 business owners, unlocking up to $1 billion in credit access.

“FNBO has been committed to helping small businesses succeed for 165 years, and we are proud to partner with Hello Alice and Mastercard in this vital initiative to elevate all small businesses,” says Jerry J. O’Flanagan, executive vice president of Partner Customer Segment at First National Bank of Omaha.


The new credit card will provide credit and financial advice, support, and education to small business owners. Image via helloalice.com

Houston Methodist to open health innovation center in the Ion

coming soon

The Houston Methodist healthcare system has teamed up with the Ion innovation hub to open a health care innovation center.

The 1,200-square-foot tech hub is expected to open later this year. It initially will be geared toward activities like entrepreneurial programming, networking, mentoring, and pitching.

The space will be modeled after Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation Technology Hub, which opened in 2020. In fact, the new hub will be a smaller “twin” of the existing hub, according to a news release.

Jan Odegard, executive director of the Ion, says the collaboration with Houston Methodist “will advance the Ion’s ability to support entrepreneurs and innovators that are already at the Ion as we embark on a new focus in health care innovation.”

Amid the rise of artificial intelligence and other tech advancements, along with the health care sector’s continuing drive to cut costs, one forecast indicates the value of the global market for digital health care will jump from $216.4 billion in 2022 to $441 billion by 2026. That would represent an increase of 104 percent.

Houston Methodist is the Ion’s first health care partner. The Ion already has partnerships in the aerospace and energy sectors.

“We are advancing the evolution of the hospital’s role in health care through digital transformation,” said Michelle Stansbury, vice president of innovation and IT applications at Houston Methodist. “Having a footprint at the Ion will not only provide the Ion’s network and Houston community with a window into what we are doing for patients, consumers and providers, but also gives The Ion community and rising innovators an opportunity to bring its own ingenuity and ideas to life with ours.”

Houston Methodist operates eight hospitals in the Houston area.

The 266,000-square-foot Ion anchors a 16-acre innovation district in Midtown. Rice Management Co. developed the district on behalf of Rice University.

“By enhancing opportunities for our network of academics, businesses, entrepreneurs, and innovators to collaborate across the Ion District and globally, we’re creating a more resilient future economy for our region,” says Bryson Grover, investment manager of real estate at Rice Management.

The space will be modeled after Houston Methodist’s Center for Innovation Technology Hub, which opened in 2020. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

4 Houston innovators to know this week

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Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to four local startup founders across industries — from electric vehicles to app development— recently making headlines in Houston innovation.

Jeff James, co-founder and CEO of PickleJar

Jeff James and his company, PickleJar, are streamlining and strengthening the connection between performer and audience. Photo courtesy of PickleJar

Jeff James had the idea for a platform that allows musicians to engage with their audiences — specifically when it came to receiving tips. Right when he started working on the idea for PickleJar, an app-based, performer-focused platform where fans can conduct cashless tips, the pandemic hit.

"As the pandemic lingered on, we realized the project wasn't just about tipping or on-stage engagement, it's about something greater than that," James says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's all the different ways how artists are being disenfranchised. We really set out on a mission to help artists make more money."

As distracting as the pandemic was at first to PickleJar, which officially launched in May of 2021, the company ended up having a huge opportunity to be a revenue stream for artists when they needed it most. The duo decided they had to build the company — even during the pandemic and uncertain times. Click here to read more and listen to the episode.

Madison Long and Simone May, co-founders of Clutch

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, has fresh funding after closing its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on.

"We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.” Click here to continue reading.

Tarun Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces

Houston-based Spark Spaces is looking to build out luxury spots for electric vehicle charging. Rendering courtesy of Spark Spaces

Tarun Girish wanted to upgrade EV drivers' charging experiences. His idea became Sparks Spaces, a startup formed in 2021 looking to shake up the EV charging game — the company aims to elevate the experience of charging electric vehicles by focusing on the space between car and charger by creating an airport lounge-type space for drivers. These EV lounges would include luxury waiting areas, clean restrooms, high-end food options, and availability to utilize them 24/7.

“We’ve seen a huge issue in the EV charging space where the experience side has been neglected,” says Girish, founder and CEO of Sparks Spaces.

Currently, Sparks Spaces is operating out of The Ion and installed a charging point outside of the building to help collect insights into what drivers are needing and are wanting to learn more about their customer base. Click here to learn more.