Teens at a local school took initiative to create entrepreneurial solutions amid the COVID-19 crisis. Photo courtesy of The Village School

Some Houston-area high school students have stepped up to help their community during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. The students have worked on two separate teams to create an intubation box to reduce the spread of COVID-19 from patients to healthcare workers and SpeeDelivery, an app that delivers food for at-risk individuals.

The students from The Village School in the Energy Corridor, known for its unique and enriching IB diploma, are getting support from school educators. The two projects grew naturally from the interests of the high school juniors, who wanted to do anything that could help others during this crisis.

"Our teachers have been very supportive have really enjoyed having the opportunity to see the students," says TeKedra Pierre, director of experiential learning at The Village School. "It's hard enough to teach virtually but with platforms like Zoom, Google classroom, and other platforms that they have been using to communicate and make sure that our students are still doing well."

The students created the intubation box out of clear plastic with two areas of access so that doctors can put their hands through it and intubate a patient who needs a ventilator. The box prevents exposure to the virus which can be passed in microdroplets from patients to healthcare workers.

"It's extremely easy to build and effective, most importantly affordable so anyone could use it," says Varun Agarwal, one of the students who created the intubation box. "Our catalyst was reading about the shortage of N-95 masks, so we made the box essentially open-source design in our website so that anyone can take the design and send it to a hospital."

Agarwal's website is a youth engagement initiative that he started with his older brother and some friends, called Do Your Bit. The intubation box is only one of many projects. The box has already been used by doctors in the Princeton Hospital System with significant positive results due to their reusable nature.

The SpeeDelivery students were also inspired to lend a helping hand due to the hardship senior citizens were experiencing not being able to go grocery shopping for their own safety. The app allows students to safely do grocery runs for older citizens in Houston, Katy, and Sugarland.

"We came up with the idea of SpeeDelivery because we wanted to help the community who could not afford to go out," said Omar Abouelazm, web developer for the project. "Village students have this tradition to help as much as possible."

The students have currently done 15 deliveries, using appropriate personal protective equipment. They are working to ramp up their delivery system to expand the number of deliveries.

"It's helped us have that commonality and a closer connection to our fellow students because we all want to help others during this difficult time," says Mukhil Ramesh, finance director for SpeeDelivery.

Pierre and the students say that The Village School's culture has nurtured and supported their projects to help the community.

"It's part of the culture at Village, our students come from all over the world," says Pierre. "I think their ability to identify problems or identify solutions is unparalleled. It's ingrained into our school culture to be innovative, creative, and think differently."

It's crucial for Houston to prepare the next generation's workforce to succeed and fill jobs with capable talent. Educational First Steps/Facebook

Preparing Houston's tech workforce starts in school, says expert

Guest column

Recent studies have shown that nearly half of students enter college with an undecided major and as many as 70 percent of students change their major at least once during their four-year program, and it is predicted that by 2030, there will be a deficit of 7.9 million tech workers alone.

In order to better prepare the future workforce, schools are encouraging career exploration through hands-on experience. The Village School has created educational partnerships throughout Houston to offer students options to find their interests and better prepare them for postsecondary success.

Educational partnerships

Students are prone to changing their majors because often they will go into a field with an impractical idea of what a specific career actually entails. With partnerships between education and industry, Houston is able to better equip students to enter college with a realistic view of what to expect in their major.

While career-focused partnerships are beneficial for students, they also play a huge role in recruiting valuable skilled talent for years to come. A good impression, good mentors and great experience goes a long way when students start job searching.

Tuning into Houston's workforce

High school is the time for students to explore different career options. When students are placed in an internship program as early as the high school level, they are able to see exactly what the day to day looks like while building a foundation of professional development as they start to think about their future. It's important for students to have a realistic vision of what a career looks like.

There are numerous businesses in Houston that are working with high school students to help them gain experience.

For example, a few of the businesses that have partnerships with The Village School include Houston Methodist Hospital, Pimcore, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and Cisco. Students are able to gain experience in a variety of ways including:

  • Working alongside surgical technicians and experience open-heart surgery and quarantined situations
  • Learning from cancer researchers who study nicotine addiction in children and the effects on brain development
  • Leveraging data analytics to develop software helping internal team members organize calendars at a leading SAP company

All students finished their internship with a better understanding of the workforce and the skills necessary to perform in a professional environment.

Finding opportunities for everyone

If students don't attend a high school that offers internships there are still opportunities to gain experience. Many businesses are open to job shadowing or having students volunteer a few hours a week to gain experience over the summer months. The opportunity for experience is out there and available and these opportunities will continue to grow and become more accessible for all students. Houston families and businesses must work together to ensure students know their options before entering college.

Educational partnerships benefit both students and the community. It's crucial for Houston to prepare the next generation's workforce to succeed and fill jobs with capable talent. Students are able to see that while they may not think they are interested in a specific field there are opportunities within the field that match their strengths and interests.

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TeKedra Pierre is the internship coordinator at The Village School.

This week's innovators to know represents a homecoming, an accelerator launch, and a call for tech education. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

This week's innovators to know span across industries — from sports tech to education, but they are all fighting for something here in Houston. Here's what they are focused on bringing to the Houston innovation ecosystem.

Mike T. Brown, founder of Win-Win

Courtesy of Win-Win

Mike T. Brown decided to move his Silicon Valley sports tech platform that gamifies charitable donations to his hometown of Houston. Win-Win, which launched in 2016 and since raised $1.2 million in funding, is ready to scale and launch full-scale during the 2019 NFL season.

"I couldn't be more excited about returning to Houston to become a part of the city's tech revolution," says Brown in the release. "After visiting The Cannon, I immediately felt the energy and have witnessed their commitment to pushing Houston's tech startup movement. I can't wait to get fully plugged into the city's ecosystem, to start hiring local talent and raising money from local investors." Read more about Brown and Win-Win here.

Yvette Casares Willis, director of strategic partnerships for MassChallenge Texas

Courtesy of MassChallenge Texas

Yvette Casares Willis has been working to put Houston on the map for MassChallenge Texas, and her work is finally coming to fruition. The organization opened applications for its inaugural cohort last week. As excited as she is to work with the cohort, Willis is looking forward to what it means for the program to arrive in Houston and help to connect the dots across the city's innovation ecosystem.

"I'm excited about what Houston has to offer," says Willis, who is the director of partnerships for the organization. "We have everything we could possibly provide in this ecosystem to be amazing, as long as we all work together. If we can all collaborate and if we all have the same mission, we can really make a difference in Houston." Read more about Willis and MassChallenge Texas here.

TeKedra Pierre, internship coordinator at The Village School

Courtesy of The Village School

Tekedra Pierre's job is to help students be aware of real-life needs in the workforce through internship programs. And what's extremely clear to Pierre is the need for more professionals in tech — specifically the cybersecurity space. She wrote a piece for InnovationMap on the subject.

"Employers struggle to keep employees up to speed on the latest technologies and skill sets needed to succeed and thrive in the rapidly changing and evolving business landscape," she writes. "To remain competitive, Houston businesses must attract qualified workers to fill these positions that range from cybersecurity to industrial technology, engineering and medicine. And the earlier we can reach them, the better." Read Pierre's piece here.

Like a lot of cities, Houston might have a talent problem when it comes to cybersecurity. Getty Images

How Houston can bridge the cybersecurity talent gap

From education to implementation

According to Inc.'s Emerging Risks Survey, the talent shortage jumped to first place as the top risk for businesses worldwide in 2019. More specifically, a recent study reported a gap of almost three million global cybersecurity jobs.

Cyber attacks continue to skyrocket but there are nowhere near enough cybersecurity professionals to handle all the threats. The field has plenty of job openings, companies are desperate for talent and employees can eventually earn $95K a year, and often more. So, what's the issue?

Employers struggle to keep employees up to speed on the latest technologies and skill sets needed to succeed and thrive in the rapidly changing and evolving business landscape. To remain competitive, Houston businesses must attract qualified workers to fill these positions that range from cybersecurity to industrial technology, engineering and medicine. And the earlier we can reach them, the better.

One way to address the talent gap is for Houston employers, academic institutions and parents to share the responsibility to prepare young children to be adaptable. While these ideas are for the cybersecurity space, they can be applied to any industry.

Parents: Pay attention to child's interests at a young age

Encouraging creativity and exploration at home is the first step to fostering children's potential career interest. Children show at a young age what they are interested in. Do they color and draw? They may like a more creative field like graphic design. Nurturing artistic interests at home can be as simple as letting kids make projects with household supplies such as paper towel rolls, or old clothes and asking them about their creations.

Or, do they tinker and take things apart? Foster those engineering and computer interests through career days, science fests, coding camps and through trips to retail locations like Apple and Microsoft. When parents, guardians, older siblings, aunts, or uncles express excitement in their interests, children are more likely to feel encouraged and continue finding their passion over time.

Educators: Encourage career exploration

Educators are continuously working to prepare students for the workforce by asking the persistent question of how do we teach students about jobs and careers that haven't even been created yet? We can't. We don't prepare them for jobs, but we provide them with the skills to be adaptable, flexible, creative, critical, collaborative and curious. At The Village School in Houston, we have an internship program that helps students gain a better sense of their future, even for those who are unsure about their career path.

Businesses: Shape the next workforce through educational partnerships

Local businesses must have relationships with schools and organizations. Reflect on what your business can do to better prepare the next generation of talent. Go beyond the norm of only involving college-age students and also partner with local K-12 schools to broaden outreach even more extensively. This will work to help students have a better idea of potential careers and can also be a great recruitment tool. Offer internships to students, externships to teachers and be vocal about the skills and foundation necessary to succeed at your workplace. The talent shortage can't be fixed overnight but businesses can work to be proactive in creating the partnerships and programs needed.

At Village, we currently have partnerships with companies like Cisco, Houston Methodist Hospital, and Pimcore. Our students learn directly from these companies exactly what a career can look like and gain a better sense of what expectations are in the real world. With Cisco, students are able to acquire experience within in-demand careers in computer science, information technology and cybersecurity to see first hand what these jobs consist of.

Dell Technologies recently published a report saying 85 percent of the jobs in 2030 haven't been invented yet. That's an intimidating statistic for today's learners — and businesses. Together, parents, business executives, and educators can prepare the next generation of workers to succeed while combating the crucial need to fill jobs with passionate and capable employees.

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TeKedra Pierre is the internship coordinator at The Village School.

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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.

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.