Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago.

The 2021 winners, according to Rice's news release, were:

  • Kevin McHugh, an assistant professor of bioengineering, is working on a method to automate an encapsulation process that uses biodegradable microparticles in the timed release of drugs to treat cancer and prevent infectious disease. He suggested the process could help ramp up the manufacture of accessible multidose vaccines.
  • Daniel Preston, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is developing a novel filtration system that will recover water typically released by cooling towers at natural gas power plants. The inexpensive filters will result in a significant savings in water costs during power generation.
  • Geoff Wehmeyer, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering; Matteo Pasquali, the A.J. Hartsook Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and a professor of chemistry and materials science and nanoengineering; Junichiro Kono, the Karl F. Hasselmann Chair in Engineering, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, physics and astronomy and materials science and nanoengineering and chair of the applied physics program, and Glen Irvin Jr., a research professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering, are creating a solid-state, active heat-switching device to enable the rapid charging of batteries for electric vehicles. The lightweight device will use carbon nanotube fibers to optimize battery thermal management systems not only for cars but also, eventually, for electronic devices like laptops.
  • Xia Ben Hu, an associate professor of computer science, is developing his open-source machine learning system to democratize and accelerate small businesses’ digital transformation in e-commerce.
  • Bruce Weisman, a professor of chemistry and of materials science and nanoengineering, and Satish Nagarajaiah, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering, are working to advance their strain measurement system based on the spectral properties of carbon nanotubes. The system will allow for quick measurement of strain to prevent catastrophic failures and ensure the safety of aircraft, bridges, buildings, pipelines, ships, chemical storage vessels and other infrastructure.
  • Aditya Mohite, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and associate professor of materials science and nanoengineering, and Michael Wong, the Tina and Sunit Patel Professor in Molecular Nanotechnology, a professor and chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering and a professor of chemistry, materials science and nanoengineering and of civil and environmental engineering, are scaling up novel photoreactors for the environmentally friendly generation of hydrogen. Their process combines of perovskite-based solar cells and state-of-the-art catalysts.
  • Rebekah Drezek, a professor of bioengineering, and Richard Baraniuk, the C. Sidney Burrus Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a professor of statistics and computer science, are developing a system to rapidly diagnose sepsis using microfluidics and compressed sensing to speed the capture and analysis of microbial biomarkers.
  • Fathi Ghorbel, a professor of mechanical engineering and of bioengineering, is working on robotic localization technology in GPS-denied environments such as aboveground storage tanks, pressure vessels and floating production storage and offloading tanks. The system would enable robots to precisely associate inspection data to specific locations leading to efficiency and high quality of inspection and maintenance operations where regular inspections are required. This will dramatically improve the environmental impact and safety of these assets.
  • Kai Fu, a research scientist, and Yuji Zhao, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are working to commercialize novel power diodes and transistors for electric vehicles. They expect their devices to reduce the volume of power systems while improving integration, power density, heat dissipation, storage, and energy efficiency.
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Houston biopharma company launches equity crowdfunding campaign

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A clinical-stage company headquartered in Houston has opened an online funding campaign.

FibroBiologics, which is developing fibroblast cell-based therapeutics for chronic diseases, launched a campaign with equity crowdfunding platform StartEngine. The platform lets anyone — regardless of their net worth or income level — to invest in securities issued by startups.

The funding, according to a press release, will be used to support ongoing operations of Fibrobiologics and advance its clinical programs in multiple sclerosis, degenerative disc disease, wound care, extension of life, and cancer.

"We're excited to partner with StartEngine on this campaign. StartEngine has over 600,000 investors as part of their community and has raised over half a billion dollars for its clients," says FibroBiologics' Founder and CEO Pete O'Heeron, in the release.

"This is an exciting time at FibroBiologics as we continue progressing our clinical pipeline and developing innovative therapies to treat chronic diseases," he continues. "This new funding will fuel our growth in the lab and bring us one step closer to commercialization."

The campaign, launched this week, already has over 100 investors, at the time of publication, and has raised nearly $2 million, according to the page. The minimum investment is set at around $500, and the company's indicated valuation is $252.57 million.

In 2021, FibroBiologics announced its intention of going public. Last year, O'Heeron told InnovationMap on the Houston Innovators Podcast of the company's growth plans as well as the specifics of the technology.

Only two types of cells — stem cells and fibroblasts — can be used in cell therapy for a regenerative treatment, which is when specialists take healthy cells from a patient and inject them into a part of the body that needs it the most. As O'Heeron explains in the podcast, fibroblasts can do it more effectively and cheaper than stem cells.

"(Fibroblasts) can essentially do everything a stem cell can do, only they can do it better," says O'Heeron. "We've done tests in the lab and we've seen them outperform stem cells by a low of 50 percent to a high of about 220 percent on different disease paths."


Texas ranks as a top state for female entrepreneurs

women in business

Texas dropped three spots in Merchant Maverick’s annual ranking of the top 10 states for women-led startups.

The Lone Star State landed at No. 5 thanks in part to its robust venture capital environment for women entrepreneurs. Last year, Texas ranked second, up from its No. 6 showing in 2021.

Merchant Maverick, a product comparison site for small businesses, says Texas “boasts the strongest venture capital scene” for women entrepreneurs outside California and the Northeast. The state ranked fourth in that category, with $6.5 billion invested in the past five years.

Other factors favoring Texas include:

  • Women solely lead 22 percent of all employees working for a business in Texas (No. 4).
  • Texas lacks a state income tax (tied for No. 1).

However, Texas didn’t fare well in terms of the unemployment rate (No. 36) and the rate of business ownership by women (No. 29). Other Texas data includes:

  • Average income for women business owners, $52,059 (No. 19).
  • Early startup survival rate, 81.9 percent (No. 18).

Appearing ahead of Texas in the 2023 ranking are No. 1 Colorado, No. 2 Washington, No. 3 California, and No. 4 Arizona.

Another recent ranking, this one from NorthOne, an online bank catering to small businesses, puts Texas at No. 7 among the 10 best states for women entrepreneurs.

NorthOne says Texas provides “a ton of opportunities” for woman entrepreneurs. For instance, it notches one of the highest numbers of women-owned businesses in the country at 1.4 million, 2.1 percent of which have at least 500 employees.

In this study, Texas is preceded by Colorado at No. 1, Nevada at No. 2, Virginia at No. 3, Maryland at No. 4, Florida at No. 5, and New Mexico at No. 6. The rankings are based on eight metrics, including the percentage of woman-owned businesses and the percentage of women-owned businesses with at least 500 employees.