To err is human, after all. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

To comply is to obey, or conform to instruction or official requirements. In a perfect world, research non-compliance wouldn’t occur and following the rules would be a behavioral norm. But the reality is, to err is human.

To err is human

Often times the judgement of our own, and others, poor decision-making is rooted in the innate tendency to view things in black or white – categorizing behaviors as either right or wrong, good or bad, thus deeming them as either ethical or unethical.

But this way of thinking often conflicts with the gray world in which we exist. So what happens when research decisions land somewhere in the moral gray area?

Before answering, here are two situations to consider that involve the over-enrollment of research participants:

Case 1:
The IRB has approved a survey for 40 subjects. The PI realizes after the survey has been open for several weeks that she forgot to set a participant limit within the survey program and 60 subjects have completed the survey.

Case 2:

A study involving a new drug to control diabetes symptoms is approved to enroll 30 participants. The study doctor thinks the drug may be beneficial, so she continues enrolling, for a total of 80 subjects.

The devil is in the details

Why is over-enrollment of subjects considered non-compliance?

Many institutions have agreed, within their assurance to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to apply the Common Rule to all human subjects research, whether the research is funded or not.

The Common Rule regulations found at 45 CFR 46.109(a) and 45 CFR 46.111 (1) state that the IRB shall review and have authority to approve, require modifications in (to secure approval), or disapprove all research activities. This includes the maximum number of research .

And what must the IRB review?

Under the above regulatory requirements, the IRB must evaluate all instances of non-compliance.

In these cases of over-enrollment, the IRB must review the number of subjects over-enrolled and assess any potential effects on additional subjects and/or the research, as well as determine if the noncompliant data may be used for research purposes.

What UH IRB says about Case 1:

While over-enrollment in a survey seems low-risk, depending on the content of the survey questions, the IRB could determine the issue to be more serious, such as for a study collecting data related to illegal substance use or questions about traumatic events (legal or psychological harm). The IRB must ensure that risks to subjects are minimized; only the number of subjects needed to statistically justify the research are approved. Depending on the number of subjects over-enrolled and the time period over which they participated, the non-compliance could also be considered continuing.

What UH IRB says about Case 2:

Investigational drug studies often pose more than minimal risk of harm to subjects. In these studies, it is even more critical to ensure that additional subjects are not exposed to potential harms without scientific justification

In a drug study, the PI may not continue a study based on opinion; the reason a physician is blinded to treatment assignment in many drug studies is to avoid potential bias.

Finding non-compliance: What can you do?

If the number of subjects enrolled exceeds the number approved by the IRB, a finding of non-compliance is justified. The IRB will review the numbers, the Principal Investigator’s reasons for over-enrollment and assess what procedures were conducted in these subjects. Often over-enrollment is inadvertent, however the committee also has the ultimate authority to determine whether the data may be used for research purposes.

Corrective actions, such as continuing education of the PI and/or study team to ensure this issue does not occur again in the future, are often required. In the most serious cases, the IRB may suspend or terminate approval.

If the non-compliance rises to the level of being serious (harms or has the potential to harm subjects or others) and/or continuing in nature, it must be reported to federal oversight agencies such as the Health and Human Services Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) and the FDA. These agencies ensure that the institution is monitoring for these activities and puts appropriate fixes in place.

The importance of intetrity

Non-compliant research can be due to inadvertent errors or deliberate acts of noncompliance. The results could be the same. Human subjects could be harmed. Funding and reputation at an institution conducting research could be negatively affected. In times of reduced federal funding for basic research, there are direct financial costs to the agencies when funds and resources are misused.

The responsibility of ensuring that research protocols are adhered to rests upon the shoulders of the researchers involved.

If you were a member on the IRB, what would you consider to be appropriate consequences for the PI in these situations?

It’s important to note that non-compliance, whether it’s a “little white lie/inadvertent error” or a deliberate violation of the approved protocol can undermine the integrity of both the research process and the academic research enterprise.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Nitiya Spearman, the author of this post, is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.

Lab safety isn't always standard. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Houston research: Why you should ditch one-size-fits-all protocols

houston voices

Safety protocols are only as good as the Principal Investigators who enforce them and the students who adopt them. Operating a lab is no easy feat. It takes patience, consistency and teamwork. In an attempt to learn more about how PIs create a culture of safety, I reached to a few across our university campus to get some tips and tricks for creating effective safety procedures.

A PI’s guide to safety protocols

“My protocol is very clear, and students know the proper attire, but I had one student who arrived at the lab with shorts on. Apparently, he came from the gym … I guess he thought it was OK, but it’s definitely not,” said Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the Cullen College of Engineering.

Orman’s research work aims to explore and analyze why some bacterial cells are stubborn to certain therapies. Currently, he uses E. Coli as a model organism to conduct his experiments. His research has the potential to uncover the best methods for combating drug resistant bacteria (aka “super bugs”) which is a seen by many researchers and health organizations as a global crisis.

With such important work, Orman must run a tight ship in his lab. When I spoke to him, he provided his best practices for lab safety.

1. Signage is key

Hazard communication is critical in the lab. “Signage is VERY important. we’ve had students leave Bunsen burners on, which is extremely hazardous. I have signs up everywhere reminding students to turn off the flame.”

2. Remind and repeat

The rule of thumb: you need to hear something 5-7 times for it to sink in. “My lab is new, and my students are young and still learning how to conduct themselves safely. I have to remind them of the protocol religiously, but I’d rather repeat something a million times than have an unfortunate incident occur.”

3. Tailor safety protocols to suit your lab

One size does not fit all when it comes to lab safety. “UH has wonderful, baseline safety protocol and resources for me to use, but every lab is different. I take the foundational information provided by the university and tailor it to fit the needs of my work.”

4. Take baby steps

Throwing students into the experimental deep end can be a big risk when it comes to safety. “Because I am a new researcher at UH and my students are new, I decided to take baby steps with my experiments. My work is about studying drug resistant bacteria, so I decided to begin my scientific exploration with E. coli, a less dangerous organism.” – No pseudomonas aeruginosa just yet.

5. Note to all students: Don’t be shy

“Over time, many of the students become friends. This becomes awkward if they witness their friend violating a safety rule. I encourage the students to speak up (even if it’s their friend), if they see something that threatens everyone’s safety. Everyone wins in the end.”

Safety is a part of the scientific process

Rachel Redfern, O.D., Ph.D., FAAO, is a UH faculty member and an active researcher. Her work focuses on ocular surface inflammation and the impact of contact lenses on normal and diseased eyes. With such sensitive work, safety in the lab is incredibly important to Redfern. She believes keeping her students safe begins at the top but depends on everyone in the lab.

“When students enter my lab, it’s my responsibility to create a safe space where they can perform experiments to answer their growing scientific questions,” said Redfern. “We work as a team to put safety first, but we’re all aware that everyone has different levels of lab safety experience – Every question (regarding safety) is a good one and the questions never asked are the dangerous ones.”

When asked how her students internalize a culture of safety, Redfern praised the education resources of the university.

“At UH, we have access to excellent training to promote a safe culture (shout out to Joe and the UH Environmental Health and Life Safety team!) and training is non-negotiable,” said Redfern. “Also, I often pair new students with seasoned students because setting a good example (among peers) is the best way to encourage students to follow safety practices during routine lab work.”

Eye on safety

When Redfern was a youngster in the lab, she learned that safety was critical to research.

“I was trained by scientists (and worked with peers) who view safety as an element of the scientific process,” said Redfern. “Fortunately, I haven’t been exposed to a ton of outrageous safety violations in my career; however, I have witnessed researchers smoking with latex gloves on and even eating in their dirty lab coats.”

At the end of the day, Redfern just wants to learn more about the complexities of the human eye and Orman wants to study super bugs and how to address a significant health issue. In order to do that, they must conduct experiments with the help of students in a safe environment. This takes team work, group and individual accountability, and everyone’s eye on safety.

When asked about his overall message to PIs and lab safety, Orman simply said, “We’re here for a purpose. We all must have each other’s back to stay safe and conduct meaningful research. It’s just how it is.”

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Ciandra Jackson, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

If there are fewer grant proposals, does that mean innovation has slowed? UH gets to the bottom of the question. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

University of Houston: What a drop in NSF proposals means for the country's rate of innovation

houston voices

A 17 percent drop in proposals over the past decade to the National Science Foundation may be a mixed blessing.

A consistently rising budget – and this is in billions of dollars – is the preferred method of keeping the number of funded proposals ever higher. But a dip in the number of proposals submitted in the first place can have a similar effect of increasing the number of funded proposals, since the pool of submissions is much smaller.

In an article for Science Magazine, author Jeffrey Mervis poses the question: Has there been a decline in grant-worthy ideas? In NSF’s biology sector, Mervis notes that “demand has tumbled by 50 percent over the decade and the chances of winning a grant have doubled, from 18 percent in 2011 to 36 percent in 2020.” NSF’s leadership suggests two possible reasons for this phenomenon.

Eliminating fixed deadlines

“Dear Colleague” letters went out to numerous directorates within the NSF notifying PIs that fixed deadlines for small projects ($500,000 and less) would be taken out of the equation. For instance, the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering’s letter read: “in order to allow principal investigators (PIs) more flexibility and to better facilitate interdisciplinary research across disciplines” deadlines would be eliminated. The letter goes on to state that by eliminating fixed deadlines, PIs will be free to think more creatively and collaboratively – without the added stress of a deadline.

Wouldn’t less stress mean more applications? This doesn’t seem to be the case. In one instance, according to another article in Science, proposals dropped when the program ceased annual deadlines and replaced them with rolling deadlines.

Reducing stress for grant reviewers

That article goes on to say that these changes alleviate the strain on the grant reviewers without lowering standards. James Olds, assistant director of the Directorate for Biological Sciences, anticipated that the NSF program managers would get somewhat of a break, and that the new policy would relieve university administrators who process the applications from being overwhelmed.

Other factors at play

“It is highly unlikely there was one specific reason for the decrease,” said David Schultz, assistant vice president for Sponsored Projects in the Office of Contracts and Grants at the University of Houston, “but rather multiple factors contributing over time. One potential cause is that many major research institutions are diversifying their funding sources away from NSF and into other federal agencies more aligned with their strategic areas of research interest, such as NIH, DOD, and DOE. The NIH has seen an 11 percent increase in proposals over the same period, from 49,592 in 2011 to 55,038 in 2020.”

Tenure

“Another component is the documented decrease in the number of tenured faculty across the nation. Generally tenured faculty are more research-focused, as their ability to obtain externally funded research is a major criterion for promotion and tenure,” said Schultz. “While this may lead to fewer proposals, it does encourage new tenure track faculty to focus more efforts on the higher likelihood of being awarded an NSF grant.”

The Big Idea

Some people work better and more efficiently when presented with a deadline. Could that be the reason fewer proposals are being turned in? In his article, Mervis, deliberates over whether the number of proposals means that the nation is innovating more slowly than before. But how could that be?

The National Science Board, NSF’s presidentially appointed oversight committee, is trying to get to the bottom of the issue so as to mitigate it. Olds stands by the decision to remove deadlines, pointing out that it should be the strength of the proposal not the threat of a deadline which motivates the research project.

Schultz sees a silver lining. “With fewer proposals being submitted to the NSF, the shift creates an opportunity for smaller, emerging universities to increase their proposal submission and success rates.”

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

When taking research and innovation to the business sector, there are some disclosures you should factor in. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

University of Houston: Navigating compliance in on-campus research and innovation

Houston voices

Meet Professor Doolittle, a biologist and chair of Genetics at Zoo U.

After studying genetic mutations in small-ear pigs to better understand coat color variation for breed preservation and development, Doolittle and his post-doc invented a genetic test and launched a startup called PigMentation. The post-doctoral co-inventor runs PigMentation’s day-to-day business operations; she receives no salary from PigMentation but receives equity in the company. Doolittle is the chief technology officer. Like many faculty startups, PigMentation licensed the technology from Zoo U to begin commercialization. Due to the fact that the company does not have a laboratory yet to scale the technology, funds were raised by PigMentation to establish a sponsored research agreement with the university to support R&D in Professor Doolittle’s lab on campus. The company ultimately hopes to receive a National Institutes of Health STTR award and subcontract to Zoo U to supplement further development.

In addition, Doolittle received additional research funding from a Hungarian agricultural company to study color variation in a large population of Mangalitsa pigs, the “Kobe Beef of Pork, ” in Hungary. As part of this project, he partnered with an institution in Hungary as part of a collaborative research program that allows U.S. students to work in the lab overseas and Hungarian students to come to the U.S. Before kicking off the project, Doolittle will purchase 1,500 units at $179 per unit from PigMentation to do the first phase of the study.

How many potential disclosures should Professor Doolittle make to Zoo U? How much potential risk does Doolittle present?

  1. External Consulting, Employment and Professional Activities
  2. Pending Relationships
  3. Related Party Interests
  4. Research Conflict of Interest
  5. Conflict of Commitment
  6. Dual Employment
  7. Foreign Influence
  8. Licensing

If you selected every disclosure listed in Professor Doolittle’s case, you are correct. But do you think Doolittle understands each little detail of his scenario and who manages that risk across the university? Is it the research compliance office, contracts and grants, human resources, legal or his department?

And even if he succeeds in disclosing it all, can each individual office manage their part without introducing a certain level of risk to the professor, the university and the funding agency?

Risky business

While Professor Doolittle’s case is complex, it’s not farfetched. Better managing risk for cases like Doolittle’s is top of mind for university compliance operations right now. As the regulatory environment becomes increasingly complex, there is more at stake today than what senior investigators are used to, and that creates risk.

“There are more regulations than in the past, there is more scrutiny. We’re not the same University we were 20 years ago,” said Lauri Ruiz, senior assistant in the University of Houston’s Office of General Counsel. “If researchers have an NIH grant, for example, they have to comply with federal regulations as well as state and institutional regulations.”

In addition to changing and expanding regulations, there is also enhanced enforcement of the rules, said Ruiz, making it critical for universities and their researchers to comply. The problem: It’s hard to know every single detail that needs to be disclosed.

“There are a lot of people with good intentions, but they may not know about the rules,” she said.

And then there’s the matter of doing it.

“Faculty want to do the right thing, but they don’t get around to disclosing it all,” said Kirstin Holzschuh, executive director of Research Integrity and Oversight at UH. “If we know about it, we can manage it before it becomes a problem.”

To complicate the matter, many universities like UH have offices across the institution that manage specific disclosures, making it more difficult for researchers to know what to disclose where.

“Universities tend to be very siloed and faculty get confused about what they have to do to be compliant, ” said Susan Koch, chief compliance officer at UH. “There is a significant need for universities to make a seamless, cohesive process that is easy for faculty to follow.”

According to Koch, Ruiz and Holzschuh, many top research institutions may have this process fixed for faculty, as they have been in the business of major research operations for many years now. For rising universities such as the University of Houston, compliance operations are scrambling to keep up with their university’s rapidly growing research and innovation enterprises — in addition to expanding regulations.

“It would be ideal to have a centralized operation that intakes all disclosures and works with specific university offices to manage certain aspects of a researcher’s case,” said Holzschuh. “But like many institutions, UH does not have the resources to support that kind of operation yet, so we have to find a different solution.”

Holistic risk management

Much like we go to our primary care provider who reviews our overall health before referring us to specialists to solve specific problems, university compliance should work the same way. Centralized compliance management may be the future, but it’s not quite possible for many universities at the moment.

“We have to find a way to move forward in a thoughtful way based on our available resources,” said Koch. “These are compliance challenges that are being discussed across higher education — everyone is trying to make strides in this area.”

To address this challenge at UH, the University has launched a compliance initiative to streamline all university disclosures and ensure that all touchpoints and processes are more understandable for faculty to follow.

Led by Koch, Institutional Compliance teamed with the offices of General Counsel and Research Integrity and Oversight to form a cross-disciplinary committee to consolidate the disclosure intake and management processes, as well as provide institutional training.

“We’re setting up a communication structure so that silos are no longer silos, ” she said.

Specifically, the UH team is working on a multiphased-approach that will involve the development of a user-friendly web portal that will prompt faculty to fill out certain disclosures based on their individual case. The tool will work by taking faculty down a decision tree, triggering a set of actions they need to take. Based on how they answer certain questions, faculty will be directed toward the disclosures they need to file.

“We want to design it in such a way that it is easy for faculty to navigate complex issues,” added Ruiz.

In addition to creating the disclosure portal, the team plans to update disclosure forms, streamline processes and workflows, reevaluate who has oversight, and design education and training to ensure compliance.

“The old paper-based processes don’t work anymore,” said Koch. “People can’t locate what form they need, so our processes need to be advanced.”

And while modernizing and simplifying the process for faculty is a great first step, the team is already thinking about how to better manage the process on the backend in a more centralized manner.

“We’re hoping to eventually have a central repository of disclosed information so that compliance teams across the university have access to the same information,” said Holzschuh. “It’s difficult to manage a case piecemeal, because all of the small details are very interconnected.”

The team will also make a major investment to “up their game” to better educate and communicate with faculty — and all those who support university research, including research staff and leadership.

“We are excited about the portal that will help faculty fill out the forms,” said Holzschuh. “But education is key.”

The big idea

In the coming year, the Professor Doolittles at the University of Houston — and hopefully other institutions across the nation — will better understand what disclosures need to be filed through simple, clear processes, thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of our university compliance teams. This could not be of greater importance, according to Ruiz.

“This just isn’t the university coming up with random things to create roadblocks,” she said. “Non-compliance with federal and state regulations could result in jail time and millions of dollars in penalties sanctioned against the University.”

To be quite frank, it’s in all of our best interest to comply with regulations — and make the processes easy to follow, especially if we want to continue to demonstrate our academic research integrity, keep monies in the university piggy bank and keep our people out of “the pen. “

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Lindsay Lewis, the author of this piece, formerly served as the executive director of communications for the UH Division of Research.

Every situation is unique and deserves a one-of-the-kind data management plan, not a one-size-fits-all solution. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Houston research: Why you need a data management plan

Houston voices

Why do you need a data management plan? It mitigates error, increases research integrity and allows your research to be replicated – despite the “replication crisis” that the research enterprise has been wrestling with for some time.

Error

There are many horror stories of researchers losing their data. You can just plain lose your laptop or an external hard drive. Sometimes they are confiscated if you are traveling to another country — and you may not get them back. Some errors are more nuanced. For instance, a COVID-19 repository of contact-traced individuals was missing 16,000 results because Excel can’t exceed 1 million lines per spreadsheet.

Do you think a hard drive is the best repository? Keep in mind that 20 percent of hard drives fail within the first four years. Some researchers merely email their data back and forth and feel like it is “secure” in their inbox.

The human and machine error margins are wide. Continually backing up your results, while good practice, can’t ensure that you won’t lose invaluable research material.

Repositories

According to Reid Boehm, Ph.D., Research Data Management Librarian at the University of Houston Libraries, your best bet is to utilize research data repositories. “The systems and the administrators are focused on file integrity and preservation actions to mitigate loss and they often employ specific metadata fields and documentation with the content,” Boehm says of the repositories. “They usually provide a digital object identifier or other unique ID for a persistent record and access point to these data. It’s just so much less time and worry.”

Integrity

Losing data or being hacked can challenge data integrity. Data breaches do not only compromise research integrity, they can also be extremely expensive! According to Security Intelligence, the global average cost of a data breach in a 2019 study was $3.92 million. That is a 1.5 percent increase from the previous year’s study.

Sample size — how large or small a study was — is another example of how data integrity can affect a study. Retraction Watch removes approximately 1,500 articles annually from prestigious journals for “sloppy science.” One of the main reasons the papers end up being retracted is that the sample size was too small to be a representative group.

Replication

Another metric for measuring data integrity is whether or not the experiment can be replicated. The ability to recreate an experiment is paramount to the scientific enterprise. In a Nature article entitled, 1,500 scientists lift the lid on reproducibility, “73 percent said that they think that at least half of the papers can be trusted, with physicists and chemists generally showing the most confidence.”

However, according to Kelsey Piper at Vox, “an attempt to replicate studies from top journals Nature and Science found that 13 of the 21 results looked at could be reproduced.”

That's so meta

The archivist Jason Scott said, “Metadata is a love note to the future.” Learning how to keep data about data is a critical part of reproducing an experiment.

“While this will be always be determined by a combination of project specifics and disciplinary considerations, descriptive metadata should include as much information about the process as possible,” said Boehm. Details of workflows, any standard operating procedures and parameters of measurement, clear definitions of variables, code and software specifications and versions, and many other signifiers ensure the data will be of use to colleagues in the future.

In other words, making data accessible, useable and reproducible is of the utmost importance. You make reproducing experiments that much easier if you are doing a good job of capturing metadata in a consistent way.

The Big Idea

A data management plan includes storage, curation, archiving and dissemination of research data. Your university’s digital librarian is an invaluable resource. They can answer other tricky questions as well: such as, who does data belong to? And, when a post-doctoral student in your lab leaves the institution, can s/he take their data with them? Every situation is unique and deserves a one-of-the-kind data management plan, not a one-size-fits-all solution.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

“Small business incubators serve as the foundation of most innovation ecosystems." Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

How small business accelerators can help Houston startups take off

Houston voices

If you plan to start a new business or already have but you don’t have an office or lab space, why should you consider working with a small business incubator?

An incubator is an organization that offers assistance and resources to help newly-formed businesses get started and supports them as they move forward. Small business incubators also provide space to house these companies in a shared work environment.

According to the executive director of the University of Houston Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation, Christopher Taylor, “Small business incubators serve as the foundation of most innovation ecosystems and for startups, these hubs provide connectivity, support, and resources they can leverage to improve their odds of success.”

Community connectivity

In a small business blog on Chron.com, the author points out that even after a business leaves an incubator, the connections they make with other business owners are relationships that will continue to grow. There, startups can learn and grow together and, in turn, incubators foster a continuously growing community by looking for businesses and growing companies that serve the same field.

For example, an incubator that is focused on technology will look for companies that are in the technology sector. At Texas Medical Center Innovation, two programs support the development of health technologies. The Cancer Therapeutics Accelerator is a nine-month program where startups get support in market and technical research. The Health Tech Accelerator is a six-month program for digital health and medical device startups.

Startup support

Business incubators offer support in many ways, including critical services that help move businesses forward.

For example, the UH Technology Bridge connects new business owners to the Small Business Development Center, where they can get help with all their preliminary operational tasks. Companies housed at incubators also gain access to programming like focused workshops that cover how to find funding, how to build a business strategy and other business fundamentals.

Startup incubators also give startups with limited funds access to expensive equipment that they would otherwise not be able to afford. They also offer office space, usually at a lower cost than other commercial space. These spaces usually include office amenities such as central printing and conference rooms. They are able to offer lower costs because they are usually funded by a school, city or investors.

Some for-profit incubators make money by directly selling their services to startups or others. Some may make money indirectly, meaning their services generate sales for other services.

The Big Idea

“Many successful startups come out of incubators because they have the ability to create tremendous velocity as companies work towards commercializing their technologies,” Taylor said.

Starting a business is not an easy feat. But incubators can help improve a startup’s chances of success.

If you are in the Houston area and looking to partner with a small business incubator, visit the UH Technology Bridge, The Cannon, The Rice Alliance or any of the other many incubators in the area.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton, the author of this piece, is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.

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VC roundup: Here's what Houston startups raised funds last quarter

following the money

Houston startups are keeping pace when it comes to venture capital raised this year. In this roundup of funding closed in the second quarter, Houston businesses across sectors and industries close significant rounds from seed to series C.

Eleven startups raised over $222 million last quarter, according to InnovationMap reporting, which is more than in the first and second quarters. In chronological order, here's what companies snagged fresh funding recently.


Houston EV charging tech company raises $6M series A

Revterra Corp. closed a $6 million series A round led by Equinor Ventures. Photo courtesy of Revterra

Houston-based tech company Revterra Corp. has picked up $6 million in a series A funding round to propel development of its battery for electric vehicle charging stations.

Norway’s Equinor Ventures led the round, with participation from Houston-based SCF Ventures. Previously, Revterra raised nearly $500,000 through a combination of angel investments and a National Science Foundation grant.

Revterra says its kinetic flywheel battery enables quick, simple, cost-effective installation of high-powered DC chargers for electric vehicles. The technology eases the burden placed on electrical grids, the company says. Continue reading.

Houston-founded blockchain startup raises $15M series A to increase international impact

Topl's latest fundraising round includes participation from a Houston investor as well as international partners. Image via Getty Images

A blockchain technology company that was founded out of Rice University has closed its latest round of funding.

Founded in 2017, Topl is a blockchain-as-a-service company that's developing a purpose-built blockchain ecosystem to empower impact and sustainability within its userbase of businesses. The company's $15 million series A round was co-led by Houston-based Mercury, Republic Asia, and Malta-based Cryptology Asset Group.

“Topl’s blockchain was purpose built to power the next wave of supply chains and markets, that are more sustainable and inclusive,” says Chris Georgen, founder and managing director of Topl, in a news release. “Every decision we’ve made has been relentlessly focused on this problem and it’s exciting to see this approach yielding results with more than 30 different impact-forward use cases already live or approaching launch." Continue reading.

Houston-based gig economy startup raises $1.2M, launches beta platform

Madison Long, left, and Simone May co-founded Clutch to democratize side gig success on college campuses. Photo courtesy of Clutch

Two Houstonians on a mission to enable safe and equitable entrepreneurship on college campuses have launched a new beta platform and closed pre-seed funding.

Clutch, a digital marketplace startup founded by Simone May and Madison Long, closed its pre-seed round of funding at $1.2 million – led by Precursor Ventures and other partners such as Capital Factory and HearstLab. The investment from this round will support Clutch’s national open beta launch of its platform for brands and student creators nationwide and its continued investment in customer and product strategy.

“We are at this inflection point where marketing is changing,” May says in a press release. “We know that the next generation can clearly see that and I think a lot of marketing agencies are starting to catch on. We need to be prioritizing the next generation’s opinion because they are driving who is interested in what they buy. This upcoming generation does not want to be sold to and they don’t like inorganic, inauthentic advertisements. That’s why user generated content is so big, it feels authentic.” Continue reading.

Houston hydrogen startup closes $25M series B

This hydrogen company has fresh funding. Photo via utility.global

Utility Global, a Houston-based sustainable hydrogen company, has closed its series B round of funding to the tune of $25 million, Axios reports.

Houston-based private equity firm Ara Partners led the round. Other participating investors included: Samsung Ventures, NOVA, and Aramco.

Utility Global, founded in 2018, has developed a clean hydrogen solution. The proprietary tech — called the eXERO Technology Platform — includes a zero electricity process that converts sustainable waste streams into high-purity hydrogen. Additionally, the company developed its H2Gen Product Line that delivers customers reliable, low carbon, and high purity hydrogen, which offers unparalleled feedstock flexibility and highly competitive economics. Continue reading.

Industrial blockchain tech company headquartered in Houston closes $4M series C round

Houston-based Data Gumbo, an industrial blockchain-software-as-a-service company, announced that its latest round or funding. Photo courtesy of Data Gumbo

Data Gumbo, a Houston-based tech startup, has picked up $4 million in a series C round from the venture capital arms of foreign energy companies Saudi Aramco and Equinor.

The funding for Data Gumbo came from Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures, the VC subsidiary of government-owned oil and natural gas giant Saudi Aramco, and Equinor Technology Ventures, the VC subsidiary of Norwegian energy operator Equinor. The U.S. headquarters for both Saudi Aramco and Equinor are in Houston. Continue reading.

Houston company raises $138M for next-generation geothermal energy

The future of geothermal energy is here — and just got a big payday. Photo via Getty Images

Houston-based startup Fervo Energy has picked up $138 million in funding to propel its creation and operation of carbon-free power plants fueled by geothermal energy.

Fervos says the series C round will help it complete power plants in Nevada and Utah and evaluate new projects in California, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, and New Mexico, as well as in other countries.

California-based investment firm DCVC led the round, with participation from six new investors. Continue reading.

Houston 'sneakerheads' raise $8.9M to further develop digital marketplace

Tradeblock's three co-founders have known each other since childhood. Photo via tradeblock.us

A Houston-based company is kicking it with some fresh funding with plans to expand development of its marketplace platform.

Unique sneaker trading platform, Tradeblock, has raised $8.9 million in funding from investment partners Courtside VC, Trinity Ventures, and Concrete Rose Capital. Per the news release, the company expects additional funding of around $4.5 million to its seed round.

Tradeblock — founded in 2020 by self-proclaimed "sneakerheads" and childhood friends Mbiyimoh Ghogomu, Tony Malveaux, and Darren Smith — will use the fresh funding to expand and improve its digital marketplace for shoes. Continue reading.

Health tech startup with Houston HQ raises $14M series A

Optellum, which has its United States operations based in the TMC Innovation Institute, has raised fresh funding. Photo via Getty Images

A Oxford-based health tech startup that has its United States headquarters in Houston has announced the close of its series A round of funding.

Optellum, which has created a breakthrough AI platform to diagnose and treat early-stage lung cancer, has raised $14 million in a series A funding round. The round was led by United Kingdom-based Mercia, with additional investors California-based Intuitive Ventures and New York-based Black Opal Ventures. Existing investors, including St John's College in the University of Oxford, IQ Capital, and the family office of Sir Martin & Lady Audrey Wood, also participated in the round, per a news release.

"Lung cancer is an urgent public health crisis and Optellum's groundbreaking approach utilizing AI to accelerate early detection and intervention may fundamentally alter the healthcare community's approach to combating this disease," says Dr. Oliver Keown, managing director of Intuitive Ventures, in the release. "Optellum is uniquely positioned to align and provide considerable value to patients, providers, and payers alike. Intuitive Ventures is thrilled to provide our full arsenal of financial and strategic support to Optellum as we work towards a world of better outcomes for cancer patients." Continue reading.

Houston-based biomaterials company raises $1.1M to grow team, build new HQ

BUCHA BIO has raised over $1 million to grow its team, build a new headquarters, and accelerate its go-to-market strategy. Image courtesy of BUCHA BIO

A Houston company that has created a plant-based material that can replace unsustainable conventional leathers and plastics has announced the close of its oversubscribed seed funding round.

BUCHA BIO announced it's raised $1.1 million in seed funding. The round included participation from existing partners New Climate Ventures, Lifely VC, and Beni VC, as well as from new partners Prithvi VC, Asymmetry VC, and investors from the Glasswall Syndicate, including Alwyn Capital, as well as Chris Zarou, CEO & Founder of Visionary Music Group and manager of multi-platinum Grammy-nominated rapper, Logic, the startup reports in a news release.

“I’m excited to back BUCHA BIO’s amazing early market traction," Zarou says in the release. "Their next-gen bio-based materials are game-changing, and their goals align with my personal vision for a more sustainable future within the entertainment industry and beyond.” Continue reading.

Houston-based Codenotary has expanded its series B fundraising round

Codenotary's software enables tools for notarization and verification of the software development life cycle. Photo via Getty Images

A Houston software startup that raised $12.5 million earlier this year has announced additional funding of $6 million. Codenotary, whose technology helps secure software supply chains, closed its series B round in January. The fresh funding brings the company's total investment raised to $24 million — thanks to investors Bluwat and Elaia.leaders and following a series A round that was announced in 2020.

Codenotary, formerly known as vChain, was founded in 2018 by CEO Moshe Bar and CTO Dennis Zimmer. The additional capital, which will go towards scaling up sales in the U.S. and Europe as well as entering the Asian market, was raised as an extension of the series B round. Continue reading.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

VR training startup, HTX Labs, has raised funding from an outside investor for the first time. Courtesy of HTX Labs

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. Continue reading.

Houston robotics company secures multi-million-dollar government contract

more collaboration

Webster-based Nauticus Robotics Inc., a newly minted public company, continues to make waves with government contracts.

Nauticus says it has been awarded a second multimillion-dollar contract from the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit, part of the U.S. Defense Department, for development of a self-piloted amphibious robot system powered by the company’s ToolKITT command-and-control software.

In February, Nauticus said it had been given a ToolKITT contract by the Defense Innovation Unit. Under that contract, ToolKITT is being used aboard a remotely controlled undersea vehicle operated by the Navy.

Similar contracts with the Defense Innovation Unit could be on the horizon, Nauticus says.

Nauticus develops oceangoing robots under the brand names Aquanaut and Hydronaut, along with the ToolKITT autonomy software and related services. It’s forecasting 2023 revenue of $90 million.

Driven by machine learning, ToolKITT helps identify, categorize, and perform activities that can “remove, detect, identify, inspect, and neutralize hazards underwater,” according to a Nauticus news release.

ToolKITT is used for various self-piloted robotics products, including Nauticus’ Aquanaut.

“We are humbled and honored to be doing our part to advance the usage of robotics and autonomous systems to remove servicemembers from harm’s way,” says Ed Tovar, director of business development for defense systems at Nauticus.

Nauticus’ stock began trading September 13 on the Nasdaq market. The milestone came four days after Nauticus merged with publicly traded CleanTech Acquisition Corp., a “blank check” shell company formed to acquire or merge with a business. At one point, the merger was valued at $560 million.

The new combo, operating under the Nauticus name, is led by Nauticus founder and CEO Nicolaus Radford.

“The closing of this business combination represents a pivotal milestone in our company’s history as we take public our pursuit of transforming the ocean robotics industry with autonomous systems,” Radford says in a news release. “Not only is the ocean a tremendous economic engine, but it is also the epicenter for building a sustainable future.”

Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.