Planned Parenthood has made several of its services — including gender-affirming hormone therapy — available virtually. Getty Images

Naomi West has been homebound since COVID-19 became a threat in February. Sitting in front of her computer screen, much of her time is spent pursuing her graduate degree in physics from Rice University and teaching courses through Zoom. Most of her virtual meetings are the same except for one recurring appointment. Every 90 days, West logs on her computer to sit with a Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast (PPGC) nurse practitioner and check-in on her gender-affirming hormone therapy.

West, a Houston trans woman, made her first appointment to receive hormone therapy in October, prior to the pandemic. As she embarked on her transition, she saw an immediate change within herself.

"There was absolutely no going back...it was a night and day difference within 24 hours," she explains.

West has been receiving treatment for ten months at Planned Parenthood. After being hospitalized for depression and drowning in hundred-hour work weeks, West was feeling hopeless. Inspired by her best friend's journey with hormone therapy at Planned Parenthood, West felt motivated to change her life.

"The difference [trans care] makes is immeasurable to say the least," she says, "I couldn't imagine having it any other way. I couldn't imagine being without it."

Trans care is offered at two Houston-area Planned Parenthood locations—Prevention Park and Northville. Since the coronavirus, Planned Parenthood's services have gone virtual, allowing Texans outside of Houston to experience the service.

"COVID-19 has really changed the way we approach patient care," says Dr. Bhavik Kumar, medical director of Primary and Trans Care at PPGC.

The centers first rolled out virtual appointments on April 1, allowing them to safely serve 5,539 patients in four months.

"We've moved a lot of our care towards telehealth, which has allowed people to access care in a way that is safer for them and also protects our frontline workers," explains Dr. Kumar.

The healthcare provider has six centers in the Houston area, as well as two in Louisiana, that are providing virtual appointments with experts as well as access to curbside birth control. Trans care first became available at Planned Parenthood in 2019, and includes gender-affirming hormone therapy for patients over 18.

"We went into providing trans care knowing that a lot of folks have bad experiences accessing healthcare and perhaps bad experiences with providers," says Dr. Kumar. "There's a lot of fear and anxiety in accessing care for trans communities, whether it's being misgendered, having their dead name used, or having a number of different things that can lead to traumatic experiences," he explains.

To a transgender person, access to health isn't just a hot button political issue but a lifeline. Like West, many transgender Americans struggle with depression and feelings of hopelessness.

In a 2019 survey from The Trevor Project, 29 percent of trans and non-binary youth reported that they'd attempted suicide while 54 percent considered it. The striking statistics are a glimpse into the struggles trans and nonbinary people face daily as they experience discrimination, violence, and cohersion due to their gender identity.

West, like many in the trans community, shared the same fears prior to her first appointment.

"I've always come down with what I say is white coat syndrome, but within 10 minutes I realized it was all completely unfounded," she explains.

PPGC follows an informed consent treatment model, meaning patients are not required to receive an approval letter from a therapist to begin treatment. After speaking with a patient to explain the risks and benefits of hormone therapy, patients can make the decision to move forward.

"It was just a conversation," explained West, "I felt no judgement. It was just support for my decision to begin hormone therapy and suggestions for how to go about it, when to go about it—they were nothing if not accommodating.

Telehealth lends itself as a suitable substitution for in person care, according to West. Many of the appointments are spent discussing her psychological state and feelings regarding the treatment, and she goes for a blood test every 90 days. West, who has been very careful to prevent exposure to COVID-19, has felt at ease meeting virtually with her nurse practitioner.

Thanks to the ability telehealth has to connect us with people regardless of distance, transgender Texans have access to care at any distance. One of the core benefits of trans telehealth is that "folks who are further away from our health centers, perhaps in rural communities, don't have to make the several hour drive to the health center and then back," says Dr. Kumar.

The convenience has allowed PPGC to accommodate 240 gender-affirming hormone therapy appointments and serve 176 transgender patients.

More than cut travel time, the emergence of telemedicine also welcomes comfort. "They get to be in the safety and the comfort of their home or wherever they do feel safe," explains Dr. Kumar, "They can have other folks around them if they want, whether it's family or friends."

"We are constantly analyzing the way we provide care, but even more so in a different way during the pandemic," shares Dr. Kumar. Telehealth services include birth control consultation, emergency contraception, long-acting birth control implant consultations, PrEP follow-ups, primary care, STI treatment, and other healful visits to address problems like pelvic pain or bleeding.

Of the many services that are now remote, Depo birth control shots and oral contraceptives, are available curbside.

"Patients don't have to get out of the car; they don't have to worry about touching the door handle or anything else they have anxiety around," explains Dr. Kumar, "They're able to access the care they need without having to deal with potential exposure."

Will telehealth at PPGC become a permanent staple? Only time will tell, but Dr. Kumar has found that patients have found the service to be helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We always strive to provide as many options for our patients so that they can get the healthcare that's best for them," shares Dr. Kumar.

With some help from there humans, Houston pets can get virtual care through a Texas startup. Image courtesy of TeleVet

This Texas startup is helping Houston pets get virtual care during coronavirus

fur-tual care

A Texas-based, digitally optimized company focused on veterinary care is helping pet owners connect with medical professionals from the comfort of their homes, offsetting the impact of the social distancing measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

TeleVet Inc., which is based in Austin but is used by local veterinarians, recently announced that they will be providing their animal telemedicine platform free for one month to provide essential animal healthcare, connecting animal patients to veterinarians all over the country. TeleVet is used across 1,000 clinics and is accessible on phone, tablet, or computer.

The free month will be provided to cities that have been hard-hit by the virus such as New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle, Miami, Las Vegas, and Chicago.

"In some cases, clinics in impacted cities are having to suddenly shut down or doing drop off visits," Steven Carter, co-founder, and CEO of TeleVet, tells InnovationMap. "We see that telemedicine is a huge component to keeping their staff and their client base during a time when social distancing is critical to flattening the curve of coronavirus cases."

Houston-area vet Amy Garrou and the other vets in her practice have been using TeleVet for several months before the outbreak of the virus. Before the platform, animal patients and their owners had to come into the office for post-surgery check-ups or other outpatient procedures. Garrou says her practice has been increasing the number of patients who use the platform since before the social distancing measures, making it a part of their daily workflow.

"We can check for infections such as ear infections or drainage from either a still picture or a video, or even a live video conference with the owner," says Garrou. "The platform has been useful because we can do any of those consultations and get the information we need to manage the case without the pet owner having to come into the clinic."

In January, TeleVet closed a $2 million seed round with investments from Houston-based Mercury Fund and Nebraska-based Dundee Venture Capital. (Amy Garrou is the wife of Mercury Fund Managing Director Blair Garrou.) According to the company's LinkedIn page, TeleVet is hiring.

Since being founded in 2015, the company has become a U.S. market leader in animal telemedicine. Over the last few years, telemedicine has been quickly expanding, and during the coronavirus outbreak, there has been a greater rush to move towards providing telemedicine for humans as well as pets.

"We realized that a lot of stuff can be solved remotely, keeping the client and the pet at home so that the staff does not have to physically interact with the client which offers convenience to both the client and the vet," says Carter.

Vets like Garrou say TeleVet helps them streamline the process by syncing with their medical records software seamlessly. This cuts costs and saves time from administrative duties. This also allows pet-owners to have access to medical notes regarding the health of their pet.

Her office is thinking of offering a curbside pick up service where they use TeleVet to communicate with pet owners to provide a contactless vet visit. A medical professional with personal protection equipment meets them in the parking lot and escorts the pet inside the vet's office where they use live video feed during the consultation so the owner can continue to be part of the process.

"It's proved to be really vital, especially in those cities where there's a complete shutdown," says Garrou. "The number of people that are realizing they've got to do something in this environment to keep their businesses afloat is rising."

As reliance on telemedicine increases due to the crisis, Garrou says it will eventually become part of the options available for pet owners, and especially vets who work long hours and tend to suffer from high levels of stress and burnout.

"We're really focused on helping, not only just to keep vets' businesses afloat right now," says Carter. "We can't stress enough that we care about the individuals in those practices. We want to help vets with work-life balance and reduce the burnout rate."

Lance Black says the COVID-19 outbreak has led to some interesting opportunities for Houston startups and health tech as a whole. Photo courtesy of TMCx

COVID-19 provides huge opportunity for telehealth, says Houston health tech leader

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 24

The Texas Medical Center's accelerator program has one foot in the health care system of today — operating in collaboration with the TMC's wide network of member institutions — as well as representing the future of health care as it cultivates new technologies those medical institutions need.

This unique setting makes Lance Black, associate director of TMCx, an interesting perspective on the COVID-19 outbreak, and something he says he's excited to see rise to the occasion — and, in this case, crisis — is telehealth.

"One of the things we focus on at TMCx is the ability to remotely monitor and care for patients outside the four walls," Black says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, "and this particular crisis really lends to that."

For better or for worse, the outbreak has forced a turning point in health care, and it's also put telehealth and other health tech companies to the test.

"This is going to force the health care system to take a hard look at what these platforms are capable of doing," Black says. "And it's going to stress the capabilities of these companies. To be honest, if there's a silver lining, that is one of them in my mind, that this will prove out the technology [in telehealth.]"

In the episode, Black provides some tips for startups going through the crisis, as well as praises the collaborative effort within the tech community in Houston. And in a way, something felt familiar to Black, a medical doctor who previously served in the United States Air Force.

"In the military, we joked about how there's a 'hurry up and wait' attitude. You hurry up to get things ready, and then you're just sitting there waiting for the right time to respond," Black says. "I feel like that's what our startups are doing now."

Black says he has seen startups taking inventory of their resources, accommodating their products for different uses, assessing their personnel, and waiting to see where they fit in to help.

Meanwhile, there's plenty Black can do to help serve TMCx's startups. This year marked the first cohort of TMCx's revamped program, and last month the TMC Innovation Institute welcomed in 19 startups for a bootcamp. While that went off without a hitch, Black says, the next phase — due to start in May — could be pushed back.

"Out of respect for our hospitals and member institutions, we want to delay the physical presence of the companies in Houston," Black says. "But that doesn't mean we're not able to call or virtually meet with the companies. There's a lot of pre-work we can do in order to prep the companies appropriately so that when they do have meetings face to face, they can put their best foot forward."

Black discusses the coronavirus' effects and offers his advice to startups on the podcast. Listen to the full episode below — or wherever you get your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


EverlyWell's online results will be available within 48 hours. EverlyWell/Facebook

Texas company first to launch at-home test for COVID-19

COVID-19 WATCH

As reports keep indicating a shortage of supply for COVID-19 tests around the country, a Texas startup has rolled out a new at-home test for consumers beginning today, March 23.

Everywell, which already offers an array of at-home lab tests, says 30,000 COVID-19 tests will be available in the initial batch. Free telehealth consultations will be provided for people who test positive for COVID-19, or the coronavirus.

As TIME first reported, this is the first U.S. company to offer at-home COVID-19 test kits directly to consumers.

"The extreme shortage of tests for COVID-19 puts millions of Americans at risk," Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of Everlywell, said in a March 18 release. "Everlywell is committed to helping stop the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. by making this test widely available. As the national leader in at-home lab testing, we want to use our resources and expertise to help as many people as we can. We are committed to this fight, and we're here to help."

Working with a number of diagnostic labs, Everlywell plans to create testing and diagnosis capacity for 250,000 people per week.

Everlywell recently launched a $1 million program aimed at encouraging labs to fast-track development of an at-home COVID-19 diagnostic test. Many labs stepped up to the task, enabling Everlywell to create a COVID-19 testing and diagnosis infrastructure in a matter of days.

"Our team has been working around the clock with top scientists and laboratories in the nation to develop a test that we will make available at the lowest price possible while covering our costs, at no profit to the company," Cheek says. "We have also reached out to government and public health officials to explore possibilities to provide it for free."

Each test costs $135, and is covered by participating providers of health savings accounts and flexible spending accounts.

The test can be requested online by consumers experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Samples can be collected at home, preventing further exposure for consumers and the public. All of Everlywell's lab partners conducting COVID-19 tests comply with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's emergency rules for COVID-19 testing.

"Given the high demand for testing, the company will work rapidly to make more tests available as the global supply shortage for COVID-19 diagnostic kits is addressed," the company says.

Like Everlywell's other tests, the COVID-19 test will be shipped to customers with everything needed to collect a test sample at home and safely send that sample to a certified lab. Samples will be shipped to labs overnight, secure online results will be available within 48 hours of the lab receiving a sample, and a free telehealth consultation with an independent board-certified physician will provided to anyone who tests positive.

Anyone seeking a test will be asked to fill out an online screening questionnaire.

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Ad Placement 300x100
Ad Placement 300x600

CultureMap Emails are Awesome

Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

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. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

------

This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.