The Texas Medical Center is buzzing with recent innovation news, from Texas A&M University naming its buildings, Houston Methodist is introducing a new technology, and more. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, Deloitte is looking for tech companies to honor, a few Houston innovators have fresh funds, buildings rising in the Texas Medical Center now have names, and more.

Texas A&M names buildings in Innovation Plaza

Texas A&M University has named the buildings that will be a part of its Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

The Texas A&M University System has revealed the names of the three buildings in the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza rising near the Texas Medical Center: Discovery Tower, Life Tower, and Horizon Tower.

Discovery Tower is the future home of A&M's EnMed program and is currently being renovated from an 18-story office building. Life Tower, which is expected to deliver in June 2022, is a 19-story, 714-bed student housing tower for Texas A&M medical students and Prairie View A&M University nursing students. Lastly, the Horizon Tower will be a 17-story, 485,000 square-foot integrated building that will feature a 13-story parking structure at the bottom.

SecurityGate closes series A

Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate, announced the closing of his company's series A. Courtesy of Security Gate

SecurityGate.io, a software-as-a-service cybersecurity startup based in Houston, has closed its series A fundraising round. Houston Ventures led the capital raise. The amount raised has not been disclosed.

"It was very attractive to us how tightly tuned SecurityGate.io is to the needs of their customers," says Chip Davis, managing partner at Houston Ventures, in a news release. "Successful enterprise software companies generally know they are instruments of change for their customers."

Davis says the feedback from SecurityGate's customers was what sealed the deal.

"Digital transformation is no easy task in highly dynamic environments, especially when the risk of cyberattacks keeps rising daily. We're excited to partner with Houston Ventures who sees this market growing, and our clients that see our vision of the future," says Ted Gutierrez, CEO of SecurityGate, in the release.

Well Health launches at Houston Methodist

Thanks to tech from the West Coast, a Houston hospital has optimized virtual visits. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

Through a partnership with California-based WELL Health Houston Methodist was able up the ante on virtual visits during the pandemic. According to a news release, WELL enabled Houston Methodist to deliver over 260,000 text messages to patients Houston Methodist. The messages educated them about virtual care, schedule visits, and more.

"The ability to communicate back and forth, assuring patients that we are here for them both virtually and in-person is crucial as we continue to safely provide care in the midst of this pandemic," says Tesha Montgomery, vice president of operations and patient access at Houston Methodist, in the release.

Houston podcast network raises over $1 million

A podcast network with Houston ties has raised a seed round. Pexels

Lemonada Media, a podcast network with Houston roots that launched in September, has raised $1.38 million in a seed funding round led by Blue Collective, an early-stage venture capital firm. The fresh funds will allow for strategic growth for the two co-founders, Jessica Cordova Kramer, CEO, and Houstonian Stephanie Wittels Wachs, chief creative officer. Lemonada also plans to hire several positions including vice presidents across finance, production, and marketing.

"We are slated to be a content and talent incubator, spinning out new audio concepts and hit series that present humanity, unfiltered," says Wittels Wachs in a news release. "Now more than ever, people are hungry for content that addresses their lived experience, those that are mundane, and those that may be painful and isolating. Because our company was built off a mountain of personal grief and loss, Lemonada is well-situated to cut through the noise, create beautiful works of art, and make people laugh and feel less alone along the way."

Deloitte is looking for tech companies for annual competition

For the 26th year, Deloitte is looking for cutting edge tech companies. Photo courtesy of Deloitte

Deloitte has opened applications for its 2020 Technology Fast 500. The application is available online and closes July 17. To be eligible for the award, the startup must be in business for a minimum of four years, have its headquarters in North America, have fiscal year 2016 operating revenues of at least $50,000, a fiscal year 2019 operating revenues of at least $5 million USD with a growth rate of 75 percent or greater, and own proprietary intellectual property or proprietary technology which must be sold to customers in products or services that contribute to a majority of the company's operating revenues, according to the contest's rules.

Companies should also fall within one of the following industry categories: biotechnology/pharmaceutical, communications/networking, digital content/media/entertainment, electronic devices/hardware, energy tech, medical devices, semiconductor, or software/SaaS.

Lazarus 3D delivers PPE to Haiti

A few Houston innovators have helped get Haitians critical PPE. Photo courtesy of Orolait

A few Houston innovators have helped connect health care workers in Haiti to some PPE. Ana Rojas Bastidas, founder of Orolait, and Jacques and Smriti Agrawal Zaneveld of Lazarus 3D, teamed up to ship over 1,000 pieces of PPE to United States Foundation for the Children of Haiti which supported orphanages, schools, and a hospital called Hopital Espoir.

In the middle of April, Bastidas saw the organization's need for PPE and saw how Lazarus 3D was creating materials. The group in Haiti received the supplies by the beginning of June.

"I'm really proud of the collaboration between myself and the Lazarus 3D team," Bastidas says. "Smriti and Jacques are absolute gems and while our businesses are completely separate, we found a common problem we both had the resources to tackle."

CryptoEQ begins offering consulting packages

Need custom cryptocurrency support? CryptoEQ is here to help. Courtesy of CryptoEQ

A cryptocurrency startup based in Houston has expanded its service to include custom-consulting packages.

"With our personalized packages, gain the market insights you need to refine your cryptocurrency investing and trading strategies," writes Spencer Randall, co-founder and principal of CryptoEQ.

The packages come at three levels: the enthusiast, the professional, and the expert. The individualized support begins at $499, and more information can be requested from the startup by emailing team@cryptoeq.io.

Reliant and Aramco Americas have provided Houston Methodist funds to move forward pertinent research and opportunities. Courtesy of Methodist Hospital/Facebook

2 corporations write checks to go toward Houston hospital's COVID-19 efforts

money moves

Two Houston companies have doled out cash to a Houston hospital's efforts in driving innovation during the pandemic as well as moving forward in a post-COVID-19 world.

Houston Methodist received $500,000 from Houston-based Aramco Americas and $130,000 from Houston-based Reliant. Aramco's gift will go toward funding ongoing research on convalescent plasma therapy as a treatment for COVID-19 and Reliant's donation will create the Reliant Innovation Fund.

"The challenges that we have and will continue to face with the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies the need for fresh ideas to combat this disease and treat those who have been affected," says Dr. Faisal Masud, medical director of the Center for Critical Care at Houston Methodist Hospital, in a news release from Reliant. "Innovating is at the core of what we do at Houston Methodist, and this generous gift from Reliant will make a difference for patients both now and for years to come."

According to the release, $100,000 will go toward supporting students in the Texas A&M University's Engineering Medicine program, which combines engineering and medical courses to allow for students to receive a master's in engineering and a medical degree in four years. Currently, A&M is renovating a building in the Texas Medical Center that will be the future home of the program.

"The EnMed program is educating a new type of physician — one with an engineering background and a forward-thinking, innovative medical mindset. Reliant's partnership and donation will allow our students to innovate for the dynamic needs on today's clinical front lines," says Dr. Timothy Boone, director of the Houston Methodist Education Institute and Associate Texas A&M Dean, in the release.

The other $30,000 of Reliant's gift will go towards expanding the hospital's patient-centric mobile app, CareSense, which Houston Methodist has used to connect with COVID-19 patients after they have left the hospital.

Aramco's donation will be used to support Houston Methodist's plasma research on COVID-19 treatment. The hospital was the first academic medical center in the United States to get FDA approval for this type of treatment on COVID-19 patients.

"Convalescent plasma therapy has been effective in other infectious diseases and our physician-scientists are working to develop it into a first-line treatment for COVID-19," says Dr. Dirk Sostman, president at the Houston Methodist Academic Institute, in a news release from Aramco.

The treatment collects blood from recovered COVID-19 patients and infuses the plasma into currently ill COVID-19 patients in hopes that the recovered patient's plasma can provide the antibodies for the ill patient to fight off the disease.

"Houston Methodist Hospital is a world-leader in healthcare as well as research and development," says Mohammad S. Alshammari, president and CEO of Aramco Americas in the release. "Our donation is an opportunity to support the innovative work occurring there in support of the Houston community and to contribute to long-term medical solutions for this global health crisis."

The latest Houston innovation news includes a name for the burgeoning Texas A&M University campus in the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy of TAMU

Houston startup raises $10M, A&M names TMC campus, and more innovation news

short stories

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks. From a Texas university naming its burgeoning new campus to a Houston SaaS startup with fresh funds, here are some short stories in Houston innovation.

ThoughtTrace raises $10M series B

ThoughtTrace has received investment from Chevron Technology Ventures. Photo via thoughttrace.com

ThoughtTrace Inc., a Houston-based software-as-a-service startup closed a $10 million series B round led by Canadian venture capital fund McRock Capital with contribution from Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures.

"Chevron Technology Ventures (CTV) pursues externally-developed technologies and new business solutions that have the potential to enhance the way Chevron produces and delivers affordable, reliable and ever-cleaner energy," says Barbara Burger, president of CTV, in a release. "ThoughtTrace fits that mandate with the potential to automate the complex, time-consuming, and document-intensive workflows required for our ongoing business operations."

ThoughtTrace's software quickly analyzes documents and contracts and produces results at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional methods. With the fundraising deal, Scott MacDonald, McRock's co-founder and managing partner, will join ThoughtTrace's Board of Directors.

"We are extraordinarily excited to have both McRock and Chevron join the team. McRock brings a great background in the industrial space, which we see as a great fit. In the case of Chevron, they went from being a new customer in 2019 to an investor in 2020," says Nick Vandivere, ThoughtTrace CEO, in a release.

"With the new capital raise, ThoughtTrace will accelerate its investment in creating AI with unparalleled speed and accuracy, grow strategic partnerships and platform integrations, and add to its existing team of talented professionals, all of which will bring further value to the growing ThoughtTrace customer-base," Vandivere continues.

Texas A&M names its Texas Medical Center campus

The new campus will be called Texas A&M Innovation Plaza. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

After announcing its plans for a $546 million medical complex in Houston's Texas Medical Center in February, Texas A&M University has released the name of the 5-acre campus rising at the intersection of Holcombe Boulevard and Main Street: Texas A&M Innovation Plaza.

The project will be completed in phases. The first phase, which will open later this year, is a renovation of an 18-floor building at 1020 Holcombe Blvd., which will to be the new home for EnMed, a dual degree program that produces both a master's in engineering and a medical degree.

"EnMed is just the first example of innovation that Texas A&M System intends to bring to the Texas A&M Innovation Plaza," says Chancellor John Sharp in a news release. "We are excited to have such a visible location in the Texas Medical Center."

Rice Business Plan Competition lays out virtual plans

The competition must go on. Photo via rbpc.rice.edu

This year's Rice Business Plan Competition, which was planned for March 26 to 28, was canceled due to COVID-19, but the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has decided to offer up an alternative: A virtual RBPC. Forty two student teams will compete over three virtual events.

  • Elevator Pitch Competition on June 17 (Open to the public): Each team will deliver 60-second pitches.
  • Round 1 on June 18 (Open to startups and judges only ): Each team will deliver 10-minutes to pitch to a panel of judges followed by Q&A.
  • Live finals on June 19 (open to the public): The seven finalists will pitch to the judges, and following a round of questions from judges, the winners and prizes will be announced.

Two health care educational institutions team up for new program

Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine have launched a collaborative medical track. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Louisiana's Xavier University and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston have joined forces to allow Xavier students a smooth transition into Baylor's graduate programs. Xavier students, including traditionally underrepresented minorities — according to a press release — will have the opportunity to apply for the program in November. Three students will be selected for the program, which facilitates acceptance into the medical school.

"Our commitment at Baylor College of Medicine to diversity and inclusion creates the best environment for success across our mission areas of healthcare, research, education and community outreach," says Dr. Paul Klotman, president, CEO and executive dean of Baylor College of Medicine, in the release. "This important collaboration with Xavier University will strengthen this commitment, and I look forward to welcoming students from this new partnership into the Baylor family."

Klotman continues to express how inclusiveness is a priority for BCM and for this partnership.

"We live in a world where healthcare is changing and evolving," says Dr. Anne McCall, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Xavier, in the release. "This partnership will further equip our students with the diverse tools and training that they'll need to foster equity in the medical field and compete on an international level."

University of Houston begins offering virtual tours for perspective students

Potential UH Cougars can get the 411 on campus via a virtual tour tool. Photo via uh.edu

Before COVID-19 sent everyone home and canceled gatherings, classes, and events across the world, the University of Houston was already working on a way for potential students to tour and learn more about the campus. Now, in light of the pandemic, UH has released this virtual tour offering complete with live interaction from UH student ambassadors.

"I'm really excited about the live component we just added because prospective students can ask questions just like during a face-to-face campus tour and that interaction is invaluable," says Mardell Maxwell, executive director of UH Admissions, in a release. "UH is so committed to access, and we see this as a great opportunity not only for students in Houston and Texas, but for those coming from out of state. We are opening up access to campus across the world."

Anyone can sign up for a tour online through the university's website.

Houston researchers are working to provide COVID-19 solutions amid the pandemic. Getty Images

These 5 Houston-area research institutions have bright minds at work to battle COVID-19

research roundup

Since even the early days of COVID-19's existence, researchers all over the world were rallying to find a cure or potential vaccine — which usually take years to make, test, and get approved.

Houston researchers were among this group to put their thinking caps on to come up with solutions to the many problems of the coronavirus. From the testing of existing drugs to tapping into tech to map the disease, here are some research projects that are happening in Houston and are emerging to fight the pandemic.

Baylor College of Medicine evaluating potential COVID-fighting drug

Human Body Organs (Lungs Anatomy)

Baylor College of Medicine has identified a drug that could potentially help heal COVID-19 patients. Photo via bcm.edu

While Baylor College of Medicine has professionals attacking COVID-19 from all angles, one recent discovery at BCM includes a new drug for treating COVID-caused pneumonia.

BCM researchers are looking into Tocilizumab's (TCZ), an immunomodulator drug, effect on patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center and Harris Health System's Ben Taub Hospital.

"The organ most commonly affected by COVID-19 is the lung, causing pneumonia for some patients and leading to difficulty breathing," says Dr. Ivan O. Rosas, chief of the pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine section at BCM, in a news release.

TCZ, which has been used to successfully treat hyperimmune responses in cancer patients being treated with immunotherapy, targets the immune response to the coronavirus. It isn't expected to get rid of the virus, but hopefully will reduce the "cytokine storm," which is described as "the hyper-immune response triggered by the viral pneumonia" in the release.

The randomized clinical trial is looking to treat 330 participants and estimates completion of enrollment early next month and is sponsored by Genentech, a biotechnology company.

Texas A&M University leads drug testing

A Texas A&M University researcher is trying to figure out if an existing vaccine has an effect on COVID-19. Screenshot via youtube.com

A researcher from Texas A&M University is working with his colleagues on a short-term response to COVID-19. A vaccine, called BDG, has already been deemed safe and used for treatment for bladder cancer. BDG can work to strengthen the immune system.

"It's not going to prevent people from getting infected," says Dr. Jeffrey D. Cirillo, a Regent's Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis and Immunology at the Texas A&M Health Science Center, in a news release. "This vaccine has the very broad ability to strengthen your immune response. We call it 'trained immunity.'"

A&M leads the study in partnership with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, as well as Harvard University's School of Public Health and Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp last week set aside $2.5 million from the Chancellor's Research Initiative for the study. This has freed up Cirillo's team's time that was previously being used to apply for grants.

"If there was ever a time to invest in medical research, it is now," Sharp says in the release. "Dr. Cirillo has a head start on a possible coronavirus treatment, and I want to make sure he has what he needs to protect the world from more of the horrible effects of this pandemic."

Currently, the research team is recruiting 1,800 volunteers for the trial that is already underway in College Station and Houston — with the potential for expansion in Los Angeles and Boston. Medical professionals interested in the trial can contact Gabriel Neal, MD at gneal@tamu.edu or Jeffrey Cirillo, PhD at jdcirillo@tamu.edu or George Udeani, PharmD DSc at udeani@tamu.edu.

"This could make a huge difference in the next two to three years while the development of a specific vaccine is developed for COVID-19," Cirillo says in the release.

Rice University is creating a COVID-19 map

Researchers at Rice University's Center for Research Computing's Spatial Studies Lab have mapped out all cases of COVID-19 across Texas by tapping into public health data. The map, which is accessible at coronavirusintexas.org, also identifies the number of people tested across the state, hospital bed utilization rate, and more.

The project is led by Farès el-Dahdah, director of Rice's Humanities Research Center. El-Dahdah used open source code made available by ESRI and data from the Texas Department of State Health Services and Definitive Healthcare.

"Now that the Texas Division of Emergency Management released its own GIS hub, our dashboard will move away from duplicating information in order to correlate other numbers such as those of available beds and the potential for increasing the number of beds in relation to the location of available COVID providers," el-Dahdah says in a press release.

"We're now adding another layer, which is the number of available nurses," el-Dahdah continues. "Because if this explodes, as a doctor friend recently told me, we could be running out of nurses before running out of beds."


Texas Heart Institute is making vaccines more effective

A new compound being developed at Texas Heart Institute could revolutionize the effect of vaccines. Photo via texasheart.org

Molecular technology coming out of the Texas Heart Institute and 7 HIlls Pharma could make vaccines — like a potential coronavirus vaccine — more effective. The oral integrin activator has been licensed to 7 Hills and is slated to a part of a Phase 1 healthy volunteer study to support solid tumor and infectious disease indications in the fall, according to a press release.

The program is led by Dr. Peter Vanderslice, director of biology at the Molecular Cardiology Research Laboratory at Texas Heart Institute. The compound was first envisioned to improve stem cell therapy for potential use as an immunotherapeutic for certain cancers.

"Our research and clinical colleagues are working diligently every day to advance promising discoveries for at risk patients," says Dr. Darren Woodside, co-inventor and vice president for research at the Texas Heart Institute, in the release. "This platform could be an important therapeutic agent for cardiac and cancer patients as well as older individuals at higher risk for infections."

University of Houston's nanotech health monitor

UH researchers have developed a pliable, thin material that can monitor changes in temperature. Photo via uh.edu

While developed prior to the pandemic, nanotechnology out of the University of Houston could be useful in monitoring COVID patients' temperatures. The material, as described in a paper published by ACS Applied Nano Materials, is made up of carbon nanotubes and can indicate slight body temperature changes. It's thin and pliable, making it ideal for a wearable health tech device.

"Your body can tell you something is wrong before it becomes obvious," says Seamus Curran, a physics professor at the University of Houston and co-author on the paper, in a news release.

Curran's nanotechnology research with fellow researchers Kang-Shyang Liao and Alexander J. Wang, which also has applications in making particle-blocking face masks, began almost 10 years ago.

Texas A&M University is planning a three-building project to bring parking, housing, retail, and more to the Texas Medical Center. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

Texas A&M University reveals plans for $546M medical complex in Houston

coming soon

Texas A&M University has announced a new three-building project in the Texas Medical Center that will bring a renovated space for its Engineering Medicine program, student housing, parking, retail, and more.

The $546 million complex will be funded in part by a public-private partnership, according to a news release from the university. The project includes one 18-story building to be purchased and renovated for $145 million, and an additional $401 million will go toward constructing two new buildings.

"The Board of Regents of the Texas A&M University System recognized an opportunity in Houston to help Texans and contribute more to the global medical community," says Elaine Mendoza, chairman of the Board of Regents of the Texas A&M University System, in the news release. "We are eager and fortunate to further enhance the world's greatest medical center through this endeavor."

The first of the three buildings to debut will be the EnMed renovation project at 1020 Holcombe Blvd. This project, which had previously been announced, is expected to deliver by this summer and should be monumental for the already successful program, says Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, in a statement.

"Texas A&M's EnMed program fits right into what we are doing in Houston," Harvey says. "Our city has long been recognized as a destination for world-class health care and cutting-edge research, thanks to the incredible institutions in the Texas Medical Center. Houston is also becoming known as an attractive location for both mature and emerging life science and biotech companies. We are, indeed, becoming the 'third coast' for life sciences."

A&M TMC The first of the three buildings is expected to be complete this summer. Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University System

The two new construction buildings will be paid for through public-private partnerships. The student housing building, a 19-story building planned to have 572 units with 704 beds in a 365,000 square-foot space, will be completed by June 2022, according to the release. The building will also include a 3,444-spot parking garage. Students from A&M campuses will get priority housing, but students at other institutions will also be allowed spots if available.

"We saw a need for student housing and medical offices in Houston. Plus, our EnMed students needed the facilities to create the latest medical devices," says Greg Hartman, a vice chancellor at Texas A&M University System and interim senior vice president of the Texas A&M Health Science Center, in a news release. "So, we began the process of expanding the Texas A&M footprint in Houston and I believe the work done by Aggies in Houston will be life-changing for a lot of people."

The third component of the plans includes a 587,000-square-foot, 30-floor Integrated Medical Plaza — another public-private partnership — and it has a June 2023 expected completion. Thirteen of the stories will be parking, and 72,000 square feet of space will be for retail use, while 8,700 square feet will be green space.

According to the release, the developer for the two new construction projects is Houston-based Medistar Corp., which is run by CEO Monzer Hourani. New York-basedAmerican Triple I Partners is on the financing team and was founded by Henry Cisneros, a Texas A&M alumnus.

Representatives from both the school and the city see the potential impact of the complex for medical innovations.

"Last year, Houston had its best year ever in terms of attracting venture capital to the region," Harvey says in his statement on the news. "This program and this facility will provide one more reason for major VCs to give Houston's innovative companies a look – and for talented students, researchers, and entrepreneurs to make Houston their home."

Dr. M Katherine Banks, who serves the university of vice chancellor of engineering and national laboratories at the Texas A&M System, notes in the release how the EnMed program has set up its students for breakthrough medical device innovation.

"I expect to see transformative ideas generated by Texas A&M's broadened presence in Houston," says Dr. Banks in the release.

Two researches at Texas A&M University have developed a diagnostic software for monitoring electrical equipment to prevent outages and even wildfires. Getty Images

Texas A&M University technology used to prevent outages and wildfires

hot tech

The threat of wildfires is on most people's minds as Australia suffers from devastating, uncontrollable fires in its southeastern region. While Australia's fires are alleged to be caused by natural occurrences, some, like the California wildfires of late 2019, are caused by electrical malfunctions and sparks

Engineers at Texas A&M University have found a solution for preventing these electricity-caused wildfires — and the subsequently caused electrical outages — with their diagnostic software called Distribution Fault Anticipation, or DFA. The software can interpret variations in the electrical current on utility circuits — usually caused by issues with the equipment — that can cause outages or spark fires.

A Texas A&M research team — spearheaded by B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and research professor Carl L. Benner — is behind the DFA software.

The technology has been tested at over a dozen utilities in Texas over the past six years, according to a news release, and now two Californian utility companies — Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — will be testing DFA. In 2018, a state law from the California Public Utilities Commission began requiring utilities to submit Wildfire Mitigation Plans, per the release.

Up next: The researchers are preparing to test the software in Australia and New Zealand.

DFA's specific algorithms are based on and refined through 15 years of research. Russell and Benner liken DFA to the diagnostic tools cars use, and, comparatively, the utilities industry is way behind the times.

"Utility systems operate today like my 1950s Chevy," Russell says in the release. "They have some fuses and breakers and things, but they really don't have anything diagnostic. They don't have that computer under the hood telling them what's about to go wrong."

B. Don Russell, professor of electrical and computer engineering, led the research at A&M. Photo via A&M

Normal wear and tear on electrical equipment is inevitable, but it's hard for inspectors to visually see this damage. Until this DFA software, utilities had no choice but to react to failures or outages, rather than put money into prevention. The software allows for these companies to better see what could potentially cause issues. And, now with the ability to factor in dry conditions and weather, the software can even predict potential wildfires.

"Power is being turned off with nothing known to be wrong with a given circuit," Russell says in the release. "Utilities need a crystal ball, something telling them which circuit is going to start a fire tomorrow because it is already unhealthy. We are kind of that crystal ball."

DFA has the potential to prevent outages and devastation caused by wildfires, and it also is a huge economic solution for utilities companies — especially the ones reeling from the recent fires in California.

Pacific Gas & Electric, which is testing nine DFA devices, is the state's largest utility company and recently filed for bankruptcy due to a near $100 billion required from settlements following recent fires. By comparison, a DFA device costs only $15,000, according to the release.

"DFA is a new tool, allowing utilities to transform their operating procedures to find and fix problems before catastrophic failures." Russell says in the release. "Utilities operators need real time situational awareness of the health of their circuits…..DFA does that."

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4 startups pitch at virtual demo day for Houston accelerator program

resillience

In light of COVID-19, it is more relevant than ever to discuss and support startups with sustainability and resiliency in mind. At the Ion Smart and Resilient Cities Cohort 2 Demo Day, a virtual audience was reminded of that.

"So, 2020 has certainly been a year of unprecedented uncertainty and change for Houston, for Texas, for our country, and for our world," says Christine Galib, director of the accelerator. "The past few months in particular have been especially difficult as the global pandemic and civil unrest continue to spotlight systemic and structural scars on the face of humanity."

The virtual event was streamed on July 1 and hosted several thought leaders and presenters before concluding with pitches from four of the cohort companies.

"Through it all, and in a virtual world, Cohort 2 startups, the mentors, and our Ion team have been the change we wish to see in the world," Galib continues. "For these startups, failure is simply not an option — and neither is going at it alone."

Earlier this year, Galib announced the second cohort would be focused on solutions for Houston's air quality, water purification, and other cleantech needs. The program, backed by Intel, Microsoft, and TX/RX, launched on Earth Day and commenced shortly after. Cohort 3 is expected later this year.

Here are the four companies that pitched and the problems they are trying to solve.

Re:3D

re:3D was founded just down the street from NASA's Johnson Space Center to address the need for a mid-market 3D printing solution. The Houston-based startup also wanted to create their 3D printer that operates on recycled plastics in order to prevent excess waste.

"Where some see trash, we see opportunity," Charlotte Craff, community liaison at Re:3D says in her presentation.

Re:3D's clients can get their hands on their own Gigabot for less than $10,000, and the printer uses pellets and flakes from recycled plastics —not filament — to print new designs. Clients are also supported by the company with design software and training.

"We can help the city of Houston help meet its climate action and resilient city goals by transforming the way people think about recycling," Craff says about Re:3D's future partnerships with the city.

Water Lens

While two-thirds of the world is covered in water, only 0.7 percent is drinkable. And of that fresh water, 92 percent of it is used in agricultural and industrial settings. This is how Keith Cole, CEO and founder of Water Lens, set the scene for his presentation.

Water Lens, which is based in Houston with a lab located in Austin, wants to solve the problem of cities and countries running out of fresh, drinkable water by equipping huge water-using companies with a water testing tool.

"We've developed a system to let anyone test any water literally anywhere in the world," Cole says, citing clients like ExxonMobil, Shell, and Halliburton.

S2G Energy

S2G Energy, based in Mexico, is focused on optimizing energy management in order to digitize, empower, and unlock potential for cost-saving efforts and technology.

In his pitch, Geronimo Martinez, founder of S2G Energy, points out that restaurants, commercial buildings, and other adjacent industries can save money by implementing energy management solutions that come out of S2G Energy's expertise. In Mexico, Martinez says, clients include the top two restaurant chains that — especially during COVID-19 — need optimization and cost saving now more than ever.

Eigen Control

A refinery's distillation columns are expensive — their fuel use accounts for 50 of operating costs, says Dean Guma, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based Eigen Control.

Guma explains in his pitch how Eigen Control's technology can plug into existing sensors, model networks based on data, and employ the startup's artificial intelligent technology to reduce carbon emissions and save money on operating costs.

Houston researchers find new eco-friendly way to preserve produce

preventing waste

Hunger impacts over 800 million people worldwide, leaving nearly 10 percent of the population suffering from chronic undernourishment. The distressing reality of food shortages co-exists in a world where 1.3 billion tons of food — nearly a third of what's produced — is wasted each year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rice University's scientific research team's latest discovery takes a crack at ending food shortages and improving sustainability with a common kitchen necessity: eggs.

The discovery of egg-based coating is promising to researchers, as it manages to both prolong produce shelf-life by double while impacting the environment.

"We are reducing the cost, and at the same time we are reducing the waste," says Muhammad M. Rahman, a research scientist at Rice University. "One in every eight people are hungry...on the other side, 33 percent of food is wasted."

It's no secret that overflowing landfills contribute to the climate crisis, piling high with food waste each year. While the United States produces more than seven billion eggs a year, manufacturers reject 3 percent of them. The Rice University researchers estimate that more than 200 million eggs end up in U.S. landfills annually.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, half of all landfill gas is methane, a hazardous greenhouse gas that contributes to detrimental climate change. Landfills are the third-largest contributor to methane emissions in the country, riding the coattails of agriculture and the energy industry.

COVID-19 has upended supply chains across the nation, and in recent months food waste has become an even more pressing issue. The disruptions of consumer purchasing habits and the indefinite closures of theme parks and select restaurants put a burden on farmers who planned for larger harvests and restaurants unsure of how to adjust. With more Americans cooking at home, panic-buying from grocery stores is also playing a role in accumulating waste.

To understand the challenges of the food industry, it's important to acknowledge the biggest menace to the supply chain: perishability. Fruits and vegetables only last a few days once arriving in grocery stores due to culprits like dehydration, texture deterioration, respiration and microbial growth. Rice University researchers sought to create a coating that addresses each of these issues in a natural, cost-effective way.

Brown School of Engineering materials scientist, Pulickei Ajayan, and his colleagues, were looking for a protein to fight issues like food waste. Rahman, a researcher in Ajayan's lab, received his Ph.D. from Cornell University studying the structure-property relationship in green nanocomposites. He and his fellow researchers found that egg whites were a suitable protein that wouldn't alter the biological and physiological properties of fruit. The study published in Advanced Materials took one year and three months to complete.

According to Rahman, the egg-based coating is non-toxic, biodegradable and healthier than other alternatives on the market. Wax is one common method of fruit preservation that can result in adverse effects on gut cells and the body over time.

"Long-term consumption of wax is not actually good and is very bad for your health," says Dr. Rahman. After wax is consumed, gut cells fragment the preservatives in wax to ions. This process can have a negative impact on "membrane disruption, essential metabolite inhibition, energy drainage to restore homeostasis, and reductions in body-weight gain," according to the research abstract.

Preservation efforts like wax, modified atmospheric packaging and paraffin-based active coatings are not only more expensive and less healthy, but they also alter the taste and look of fruits.

"Reducing food shortages in ways that don't involve genetic modification, inedible coatings or chemical additives is important for sustainable living," Ajayan states in a press release.

The magic of preservation is all in the ingredients. Rice University's edible coating is mostly made from household items. Seventy percent of the egg coating is made from egg whites and yolk. Cellulose nanocrystals, a biopolymer from wood, are mixed with the egg to create a gas barrier and keep the produce from shriveling. To add elasticity to the brittle poly-albumen (egg), glycerol helps make the coating flexible. Finally, curcumin—an extract found in turmeric—works as an antibacterial to reduce the microbial growth and preserve the fruit's freshness.

The experiment was done by dipping strawberries, avocados, papayas and bananas in the multifunctional coating and comparing them with uncoated fruits. Observation during the decaying process showed that the coated fruits had about double the shelf-life of their non-coated counterparts.

For people with egg allergies, the coating can be removed simply by rinsing the produce in water. Rice University researchers are also beginning to test plant-based proteins for vegan consumers.

For its first iteration, Rahman finds that the coating shows "optimistic results" and "potential" for the future of food preservation.

"These are already very green materials. In the next phase, we are trying to optimize this coating and extend the samples from fruits to vegetables and eggs," says Rahman.

Researchers will also work to test a spray protein, making it easier for both commercial providers as well as consumers looking for an at-home coating option. From a lab in Rice University to a potential shelf life in stores, the innovation of food coating is just beginning.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

It's a new month and Houston's innovation ecosystem is continuing to grow amid the coronavirus pandemic. This week's Houston innovators to know roundup reflects that growth with a new-to-town incubator's newly names leader — plus an entrepreneur creating an virtual reality app to escape and a communications expert's advice on navigating COVID-19.

Juliana Garaizar, launch director of Greentown Houston

Juliana Garaizar is working to help set up Houston's Greentown Labs incubator with diversity and inclusion in mind. Courtesy photo

Juliana Garaizar has had to keep a huge secret for a while. The launch director of new-to-Houston Greentown Labs has known about the cleantech incubator's plan to expand to the Bayou City for a while, and now the news is out. Of course, launching amid a pandemic isn't ideal, but Garaizar says its allowed a strong relationship with the original group based in Boston to form.

"I think the silver lining of this COVID-19 experience is that we are much more integrated with the Boston team, and we're learning at a much faster rate," she says. "That's why we decided to also open Houston for virtual memberships before we open our building in Q1 of 2021."

Garaizar joined the Houston Innovators Podcast last week to share her experience with the organization and how she'll be setting up Houston operations with diversity and inclusion in mind. Read more and stream the episode.

Derek Armstrong, CEO and founder of Armstrong Innovations

Derek Armstrong, a Houston native, founded his design company, Armstrong Innovations. Photo courtesy of Oculus Go

Derek Armstrong had been working on a new virtual reality app for relaxation and meditation that users can enter into for an opportunity to escape reality for a bit — little did he know that was something more people than ever would want to do.

His company, a Houston-area industrial design startup, Armstrong Innovations, just launched two Oculus Go app games, aptly named 'Escape'. The VR app was designed with relaxation and meditation in mind but has doubled as a new way to relax and sightsee without leaving your home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The sights and sounds of our new app assist with mindfulness and meditation," says CEO and founder Derek Armstrong. "It's about focusing on the sights and sounds, especially with the virus growing. It's a quick getaway without having to physically go anywhere." Read more.

Megan Silianoff, founder and creative director of Mad Meg Creative Services

Megan Silianoff has been helping clients navigate communications during a pandemic. Courtesy photo

The worst part of contracting COVID-19 — aside from suffering from the disease itself — is diligently communicating the risk of exposure to people you've been around especially to coworkers, employees, clients, etc. In a guest article for InnovationMap, Megan Silianoff of Mad Meg Creative Services, sets the scene for you to be prepared should you find yourself in this situation,

"We understand as communication experts, informing a client, boss, or anyone that you've potentially exposed them is scary messaging to share," she writes. "Guilt is the number one emotion people report experiencing when they realize they've potentially exposed someone or a group of people, even though the respective exposure was inadvertent. Nevertheless it's crucial to communicate the exposure quickly and effectively as that's how Houston can hinder the spread of this disease through our city." Read more.