U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao used SXSW to make the announcement. Photo courtesy of Hyperloop One

Creation of a transportation-in-a-tube system that promises to whisk passengers from Houston to Dallas in 30 minutes got a big boost March 12 from the federal government.

During an appearance at SXSW, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said she has established a transportation technology council that will aim to clear regulatory and legal roadblocks for the traffic-busting Virgin Hyperloop One concept and similar transit innovations.

In September 2017, the company behind Hyperloop One picked a 640-mile route in Texas for the initiative. The futuristic system — with passengers riding in pods carried through a massive tube — would connect Houston, Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Laredo, and San Antonio. Hyperloop One would provide two stops each in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, and one each in Austin, Laredo, and San Antonio.

The north-south leg of Hyperloop One would run between Dallas-Fort Worth and Laredo, while the east-west leg would operate between Houston and San Antonio. As imagined now, a trip between Austin and Dallas would last 19 minutes at speeds up to 670 mph — two to three times faster than high-speed rail and 10 to 15 times faster than traditional rail. A ride from Houston to Austin would take 21 minutes, while a trek from Houston to San Antonio would last 26 minutes.

"Texas is exploring how to make hyperloop a reality at the state and local level, but federal support is a huge key for us to be certified and successful," Ryan Kelly, head of marketing and communications for Virgin Hyperloop One, tells CultureMap. "It is exciting that the federal government is recognizing us as a potential new mode of transportation that can be a leap forward for America. Hopefully, Texas can be a first mover."

Aside from Texas, Virgin Hyperloop One has U.S. projects underway in Colorado, Missouri, and the Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh corridor. Virgin Group, led by Sir Richard Branson, is among the investors in Hyperloop One.

The federal council unveiled at SXSW will help fast-track a first-of-its-kind transportation network in the U.S. that shares components with trains, planes, and self-driving vehicles. Members of the council will explore technological innovations, such as transit tunnels and self-driving vehicles, in the quest to speed up development of Virgin Hyperloop One and other emerging modes of mass transportation.

"Hyperloop is a new mode of transportation that is built for the 21st century," Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop One, says in a release. "We want to be the company that spearheads the next giant leap forward in transportation here in the United States, but we know we can't do it alone."

Kelly says it's unclear when Texas passengers might be able to travel on Virgin Hyperloop One's network, but the company hopes the first route — wherever it may be — will be ready by the end of 2028.

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.