Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

Sarah Essama of Teach For America Houston shares how she innovated a new way for students themselves to learn how to innovate. Photo courtesy of Sarah Essama

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

The new Dream Lab from Teach For America Houston will take 25 ninth graders to the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator. Image courtesy of TFA

National nonprofit launches Houston innovation lab for kids

dreaming up innovation

Teach For America's Houston chapter has announced a new initiative for children to check out educational opportunities within innovation.

TFA Houston's Network Learning and Innovation Hub is opening a new space, called The Dream Lab. The lab is a set of immersive spaces where students leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems affecting their communities.

“The Dream Lab is one of the novel ways we’re re-imagining the ways we meet the needs of Houston’s most vulnerable students and communities,” says Sarah Essama, founder of The Dream Lab and director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, in a news release. “It introduces a non-traditional approach to learning so that students are better equipped to handle the complexities of an ever-changing world.”

This Friday, the new concept is rolling out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 25 ninth graders will get to spend the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator. The students will be tasked to creatively solve problems in their own communities.

“If there is anything we have learned over the last two and a half years, it’s the need to be innovative, and it’s a skill we must teach our younger generations so they can be adequately prepared for the future,” says Tiffany Cuellar Needham, executive director of Teach For America Houston, in the release. “We look forward to growing The Dream Lab initiative as we continue exploring ways to re-invent and re-imagine what schools can look like for students.”

TFA, which has operated out of Houston for over 30 years, has hosted two other Dream Labs for fourth graders in Houston. Those students were tasked with using technology to design their innovative dream space, and TFA Houston receved positive feedback from participants.

The Dream Lab is right in line with Teach For America Houston’s quest to create educational equity for all students regardless of their socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

“All students should have access to education that prepares them to become leaders and change-makers of tomorrow. While we have made great progress on this front, we know we have a lot more work ahead of us. Programs like Dream Lab will help us realize our mission of ensuring that one day all children in our country will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education,” says Essama.

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Houston researchers create AI model to tap into how brain activity relates to illness

brainiac

Houston researchers are part of a team that has created an AI model intended to understand how brain activity relates to behavior and illness.

Scientists from Baylor College of Medicine worked with peers from Yale University, University of Southern California and Idaho State University to make Brain Language Model, or BrainLM. Their research was published as a conference paper at ICLR 2024, a meeting of some of deep learning’s greatest minds.

“For a long time we’ve known that brain activity is related to a person’s behavior and to a lot of illnesses like seizures or Parkinson’s,” Dr. Chadi Abdallah, associate professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor and co-corresponding author of the paper, says in a press release. “Functional brain imaging or functional MRIs allow us to look at brain activity throughout the brain, but we previously couldn’t fully capture the dynamic of these activities in time and space using traditional data analytical tools.

"More recently, people started using machine learning to capture the brain complexity and how it relates it to specific illnesses, but that turned out to require enrolling and fully examining thousands of patients with a particular behavior or illness, a very expensive process,” Abdallah continues.

Using 80,000 brain scans, the team was able to train their model to figure out how brain activities related to one another. Over time, this created the BrainLM brain activity foundational model. BrainLM is now well-trained enough to use to fine-tune a specific task and to ask questions in other studies.

Abdallah said that using BrainLM will cut costs significantly for scientists developing treatments for brain disorders. In clinical trials, it can cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said, to enroll numerous patients and treat them over a significant time period. By using BrainLM, researchers can enroll half the subjects because the AI can select the individuals most likely to benefit.

The team found that BrainLM performed successfully in many different samples. That included predicting depression, anxiety and PTSD severity better than other machine learning tools that do not use generative AI.

“We found that BrainLM is performing very well. It is predicting brain activity in a new sample that was hidden from it during the training as well as doing well with data from new scanners and new population,” Abdallah says. “These impressive results were achieved with scans from 40,000 subjects. We are now working on considerably increasing the training dataset. The stronger the model we can build, the more we can do to assist with patient care, such as developing new treatment for mental illnesses or guiding neurosurgery for seizures or DBS.”

For those suffering from neurological and mental health disorders, BrainLM could be a key to unlocking treatments that will make a life-changing difference.

Houston-based cleantech unicorn named among annual top disruptors

on the rise

Houston-based biotech startup Solugen is making waves among innovative companies.

Solugen appears at No. 36 on CNBC’s annual Disruptor 50 list, which highlights private companies that are “upending the classic definition of disruption.” Privately owned startups founded after January 1, 2009, were eligible for the Disruptor 50 list.

Founded in 2016, Solugen replaces petroleum-based products with plant-derived substitutes through its Bioforge manufacturing platform. For example, it uses engineered enzymes and metal catalysts to convert feedstocks like sugar into chemicals that have traditionally been made from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas.

Solugen has raised $643 million in funding and now boasts a valuation of $2.2 billion.

“Sparked by a chance medical school poker game conversation in 2016, Solugen evolved from prototype to physical asset in five years, and production hit commercial scale shortly thereafter,” says CNBC.

Solugen co-founders Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt received the Entrepreneur of The Year 2023 National Award, presented by professional services giant EY.

“Solugen is a textbook startup launched by two partners with $10,000 in seed money that is revolutionizing the chemical refining industry. The innovation-driven company is tackling impactful, life-changing issues important to the planet,” Entrepreneur of The Year judges wrote.

In April 2024, Solugen broke ground on a Bioforge biomanufacturing plant in Marshall, Minnesota. The 500,000-square-foot, 34-acre facility arose through a Solugen partnership with ADM. Chicago-based ADM produces agricultural products, commodities, and ingredients. The plant is expected to open in the fall of 2025.

“Solugen’s … technology is a transformative force in sustainable chemical manufacturing,” says Hunt. “The new facility will significantly increase our existing capabilities, enabling us to expand the market share of low-carbon chemistries.”

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.