UH — along with some industry partners — has announced plans to work on applications for the industrial metaverse. Image via Getty Images

The University of Houston is helping advance the industrial metaverse.

UH has teamed up with the AI Innovation Consortium, software company Nvidia, and oil and gas engineering and services company TechnipFMC to create applications for the industrial metaverse. The project is affiliated with the Artificial Intelligence Industry Incubator and Digital Oilfield Lab at UH’s campus in Sugar Land. The incubator and lab opened in 2020.

As VentureBeat defines it, the industrial metaverse can transform the way every physical asset — such as a building, plane, robot, or car — is created, assembled, and operated. The industrial metaverse marries the “real world” with technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, cloud computing, edge computing, the internet of things (IoT), 5G, and extended reality (virtual, augmented, and mixed reality).

Global revenue for the industrial metaverse is projected to reach $540 billion by 2025. A key fixture of the industrial metaverse are “digital twins,” which are virtual replicas of physical entities or systems (such as factories).

Adam Berg, manager of learning solutions at TechnipFMC, has been working with the UH College of Technology and the AI Innovation Consortium to test an augmented reality program for management of upstream resources. TechnipFMC is a pioneer in extended reality.

One of the UH professors participating in this effort is David Crawley, professor of practice at the university’s College of Technology and a trustee of the AI Innovation Consortium. Last year, the consortium hosted an AI conference at the UH campus in Sugar Land. The consortium is a think tank whose members include UH, Pennsylvania State University, Louisiana State University, and the University of Louisville (Kentucky).

Crawley says the consortium’s “academic ecosystem” is critical to developing the workforce of the future.

Konrad Konarski, chairman of the consortium, says the group is building the world’s largest portfolio of industrial metaverse apps for the oilfield services industry and various manufacturing sectors.

“This means a maintenance manager, an operations technology expert, or whoever is responsible for a metaverse technology project will be able to pick up an augmented reality platform or a wearable computer, or simply a smartphone, and seamlessly interconnect their real-world operating environment to and from the metaverse,” Konarski, an AI and IoT expert, says in a news release.

At the recent Global Corporate Venture conference, two corporate venture execs peeled back the curtain on what they look for from startups. Getty Images

Here's what corporate venture programs are looking for from startups within the energy industry

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One of the challenges for Houston energy startups is not knowing what potential big corporate partners want from them. At the recent Global Corporate Venture, two corporate venture execs shared what all they're looking for and the challenges they are facing.

Diana Grauer, director of external technology engagement and venture capital at Technip FMC, and Bradley Andrews, president of digital at Worley joined a panel with moderator Wade Bitaraf, founder of Plug and Play Energy & Sustainability. The panel, entitled "How globalization and diversification can boost a local innovation ecosystem," explored what each exec looks for in potential partnerships with startups.

At TechnipFMC, which has a newer corporate investment group, Grauer says her team looks for startup technologies within four key categories, industry 4.0, digitization, materials and processes, and energy transition. Within those categories, she says they aren't looking for startups that will provide a big return on investment, rather technologies that will advance the company's capabilities.

"We're focused on strategic returns, not necessarily your conventional financial returns," she says.

Andrews echoed this point, admitting that while a big exit for a portfolio company is never bad, but Worley would rather have technologies that benefit their business platform.

"As long as [a technology is] under core strategy and driving internal strategy, we're kind of in," he says. "Anything around data science, automation, new energy, sustainability, those are all kind of sweet spots for us."

A big challenge, Andrews says, is communicating companywide the importance of looking outward for innovative opportunities, rather than relying on the company's staff.

"The idea of corporate tech startups coming to fruition within our industry is kind of new. We used to build from within," Andrews says. "We're still as an industry trying to figure out how to do this."

Grauer says that, similarily, her biggest challenge is getting pushback from within TechnipFMC of people who just think their company should fund its current workforce to find solutions. But Grauer responds to them explaining that the company needs to move faster than that and the way to do that is through working with startups. That's why the company has created an Open Innovation Program. According to Grauer, the organization expects to make its first investment by the end of the year.

For Andrews, the state of Houston's innovation ecosystem is exciting, and he notes that he looks at emerging technologies across industries. A technical solution in medicine might have an application in energy, for example. And, considering the state of the energy industry, now is the time to be more collaborative within Houston as more and more global challenges emerge.

"I think Houston has everything it needs to make a stake in this," Andrews says. "We're not competing with each other in this industry. We're competing against what the world is going to demand from us. It's time for us in corporate land and set our egos aside."

Grauer says she's seen the city's innovation resources grow over the years, noting the emergence of The Cannon, Rice Alliance, and Plug and Play.

"I really think that the energy industry in Houston is really starting to catch up and blossom," she says.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

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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.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.