This week's batch of Houston innovators includes Lawson Gow of The Cannon, Tracey Shappro of VISION Production Group, and Seamus Curran of the University of Houston. Photos courtesy

Across industries, Houston innovation leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators are coming up with creative solutions for the coronavirus or its subsequent challenges — from digital resources to reliable face masks.

This week's innovators to know shared their thoughts with InnovationMap on how the pandemic is affecting their industries.

Lawson Gow, founder of The Cannon

Innovation leaders have worked hard to advance its innovation infrastructure, and Lawson Gow doesn't want to see COVID-19 hold Houston back. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Lawson Gow is confident his coworking and entrepreneurial-focused business will survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but he remarks on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast that there will be a significant shift in how the city's developing innovation districts present themselves.

"What's interesting is if you read the academic literature on innovation districts, it talks about density, collisions, interactions, and an ecosystem of swirling hustle and bustle of people interacting with each other," Gow says. "It reads like a how-to manual for how to spread disease."

Gow, who is the son of David Gow, owner of InnovationMap's parent company, Gow Media, joins the podcast to explain what he's closely watching throughout the pandemic. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Tracey Shappro, CEO and founder of VISION Production Group

A Houston company focused on event production is helping its clients navigate a socially distant, increasingly digital time. Photo courtesy of VISION Production Group

Events and conferences across the world have been hit hard by the coronavirus as everyone focuses on staying home and socially distant. But for Tracey Shappro, CEO and founder of Houston-based VISION Production Group, who's worked for over a decade in event production, says she sees an opportunity to advance her clients' digital presences.

"We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences," she tells InnovationMap. "And I think this position is really going to help our clients make the right decisions and [allow them to] have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences."

Shappro sat down with InnovationMap to talk about how to use technology to make events virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to continue reading.

Seamus Curran, professor of physics at the University of Houston

A new technology developed by the University of Houston's Seamus Curran is making a mask that's more resistant to viruses. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Seamus Curran is well-known for his work commercializing nanotechnologies, and he is pulling from his past to deal with a future demand. The professor is using a hydrophobic coating he developed nearly 10 years ago to improve the ability of surgical masks to protect against transmission of the virus.

The world is in dire need of more face masks, and Curran notes that standard masks are "somewhat porous, and especially if they get wet, they can allow the virus to penetrate." People infected with the virus, he adds, could spread it even through a mask, while people who aren't sick could still become infected, despite wearing a less-protective mask.

Curran is hoping his solution can prove to be much more effective at preventing the spread of the disease. Click here to continue reading.

A Houston company focused on event production is helping its clients navigate a socially distant, increasingly digital time. Photo courtesy of VISION Production Group

Houston entrepreneur turns focus to digital connections during COVID-19 outbreak

Q&A

It's no secret that the events and conferences of the world have been hit hard by the coronavirus as everyone focuses on staying home and socially distant. But for a Houston entrepreneur who's worked for over a decade in event production, she sees an opportunity to advance her clients' digital presences.

Tracey Shappro, CEO and founder of Houston-based VISION Production Group, has had to reinvent the way brands and companies could interact with their audiences and get their message out.

"We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences," she tells InnovationMap. "And I think this position is really going to help our clients make the right decisions and [allow them to] have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences."

Shappro sat down with InnovationMap to talk about how to use technology to make events virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

InnovationMap: You’ve previously said you became a business owner, almost by accident. How did you decide to start a business?

Tracey Shappro: I never intended to be a business owner. I started the company, simply out of really a work ethic and a sense of responsibility. I had been working at another production company on staff for 13 years as their senior producer. One day the owner announced that he was shutting the doors down literally that same day, and I, like everyone else that worked at that company, was suddenly unemployed.

But at the same time, I was in the middle of producing all of these important projects for clients. There was just no way I was going to let these people down, and I put my own money into starting a company really quickly. I just thought I was going to finish these projects and then look for a full-time job. But, you know, fast forward that was 10 years ago.

VISION is celebrating our 10 year anniversary with a very impressive client roster started with one employee and we've grown to 10 people who are very talented producers and editors and the animators, and we have creative visual artists on staff. And through that time, we've also expanded our service offering from our core in video production to all types of event production services, and we've expanded it to interactive and virtual reality and augmented reality, projection mapping.

IM: VISION has been creating immersive experiences for Greater Houston Partnership, major sports events from the Super Bowl to the Houston Rodeo. How has technology like virtual and augmented reality and 3D mapping influenced Houston’s biggest events?

TS: Well, we're in the business of what I call experience design. We look at all the stakeholders, the clients, sponsors, attendees as the stakeholders or the audience, and we understand storytelling and the producing of content. We use all of that to create perspective and to create an experience and in tandem with that, we seek out the right presentation technology to exceed that goal to use technology to persuade, and influence opinions, change perceptions.

For all the clients that you just mentioned, we use appropriate technology, but it's not technology just for technology's sake. It has to have to work and it has to work for the audience and the intended audience, whether it's a live event, or a side of a building where we're doing projection mapping. These days, we're doing more streamed events or a pre-produced packaged event.

We're doing a lot of permanent installation and interactive touch and, and even augmented reality, which is taking off for a lot of corporate clients who are wanting to really showcase their projects or their products and how they work.

IM: The cancelation of the Houston Rodeo has affected many vendors and business owners. How has this affected VISION and its employees?

TS: Well, it's really strange and surreal across industries, many businesses and organizations are right now facing you know canceling or postponing their events or their meetings or conferences. These are engagements that they really depend on. All of these companies still have a need to get their message out and they still have a need to engage their customer and they need to sell the products or services and they need to enlist support for that.

None of that goes away. Right now this is an opportunity really for VISION to do what we do best. We help companies engage their target audiences in innovative and effective ways. We're encouraging our clients now to really shift their thinking. Instead of canceling their event, we're showing them how to reinvent their events into an alternate format.

At times when you can't meet face to face, it puts a need on more of the other things like pre-produced package events, and marketing and virtual meetings and all types of streamed events. All these things become even better business tools, and we have been in this business for a long time. It's really working with our clients to protect developing business.

We're taking the same experience that they want it to originate through live event execution and crafting it and reshaping it into a visual and sensory experience that they can still engage their audiences with remotely or bringing a brand to life remotely.

IM: As the coronavirus outbreak continues and people take social distancing measures seriously, how do you see this affecting projects for this year? How will you adapt?

TS: We actually have a pretty robust plan, in anticipation of all of this we assigned teams. We have a communication strategy, and it's in full gear for two to four weeks. So we were prepared to do all of this from home and remotely.

The thing that changes is some of the tools we use. Obviously, live events are not going to be the main focus right now, but there are other tools like staging and production. And so again, we shift to our virtual service offerings. And no matter what we're doing, clients will need our strategy. They need our producer services, they need our production management, and they need our expertise. It's just the end deliverable.

IM: How can technology help during this crisis? Does this expand or contract business?

TS: Technology is evolving. We know, it's our job to keep abreast of it. And we strive to stay one step ahead of it. And augmented reality and virtual reality is a great example. Several years ago, we went down the path of virtual reality and helped clients really understand that type of immersive experience. And then augmented reality really took off.

We've been leaders in offering all types of augmented reality services. It's really very exciting. It's like surfing the world, if you will, with your own layer, augmented reality over it. The possibilities are just endless.

But now looking at the situation we're in with the coronavirus all of these technologies are even more important. We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences. And I think this position is really, going to help our clients make the right decisions and they can have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences. We're working right now with two clients in a very progressive manner.

IM: What are those two projects and how have they pivoted?

TS: We're working with The Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Every year we produce their 1,800 attendees annual luncheon, showcasing Steven Kleinberg's renowned Houston area survey, which is a coveted piece of information and data that helps steer the community forward. We've shifted into producing and packaging their thought of it now into a pre-produced virtual experience that will air at the same time as the original luncheon. It will be available online in perpetuity for probably a year until the next one.

We're still able to use technology to still engage their audience and this will actually extend their audience to new audiences that may not have participated before, and we're also in pre-production of a broadcast version of the Holocaust Museum Houston's Moral Courage Award. It will be just like turning on a television show — we're taking them from the original goals of the live event and producing it into a 60-minute show that they can now send out to their attendees, who can still participate and we can still honor all these great amazing people who are deserving of the moral courage award. We can help them grow their audiences through virtual technology.

So again, what is the need? What is the goal, what is the best technology to use to create impact and to share brand stories? We can use our storytelling and capabilities and our production value for a really great experience for viewers at home who are watching this to be engaged in.

IM: What's next for VISION?

TS: We're going to do everything we can to help our clients in these very strange times. We're going to be leaders in helping them push out their objectives. We're going to step up and do what we can to help people communicate with you times like these, you know, communication is key. We do this for a living and we really want to help make a difference. We care. We know our clients care, and right now we're going to focus on helping our clients connect.

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This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Here's what to keep in mind when planning a virtual event. Getty Images

How to use tech to take your event virtual, according to this Houston expert

Guest column

As the long-term repercussions of the coronavirus set in around the world, the events space was one of the first to realize its need to change course. Events across the world that were scheduled for March through June and beyond are being canceled, rescheduled and rethought.

As a business that has always operated in the live event and public space, my company, VISION Production Group had to quickly re-invent how our clients would be able engage with their audience under these strained circumstances.

When an event is canceled or postponed in times of crisis, businesses still have important messaging to get out. They still have a need to sell, still have a need to engage, still have the need to get organizational support. Shifting live attended events into an online experience helps those businesses shape their original event into a 'show' format that encapsulates the fundamentals of the live event in a creative manner ideal for remote viewing.

Instead of canceling the events, planners can be innovative and evolve their original format into one that allows them to still engage attendees and share their brand stories through virtual experiences.

Event marketing is all about putting yourself in the shoes of your customers — they were excited to come to your event and see the live event, network with others in their industry, and ask their lists of questions to ask during your Q&A sessions. So, what do virtual events look like, and how can you turn them in to an opportunity to add even more value and deliver an experience that makes your potential clients thrilled to be taking part in?

Creating a successful virtual event goes far beyond just a taped stream of speakers and the sharing of information. By utilizing the techniques below to create videos, creative content, 3D animation, motion graphics and other digital content, virtual events can become engaging productions that live on past the event itself.

Know your options

Pre-recorded videos

With a prerecorded event, you have the option to provide access to videos of the event on demand and can even consider additional revenue streams with pay-per-view options.

Utilize professional production and create an experience that combines brand elements and clear language with a captivating video presentation that makes attendees feel like they are turning their TVs onto a celebrity awards show. Once your pre-recorded virtual event has gone live, use video marketing to push out on your website or social media to share your brand story through packaged presentations.

VISION is currently working with both the Kinder Institute and the Houston Holocaust Museum to turn their major May events into pre-recorded productions that will be able to engage an even larger audience than their normal events.

Animated education content

Another forward-thinking technique is to produce 2D and 3D content to reduce the production costs found in traditional video. This can be interfaced with recorded and live footage or be used to walk attendees through a product demo or setup process with ease.

Think about utilizing this kind of virtual event if you are in an industry that relies heavily on trade shows. Instead of needing to be person-to-person for a demonstration, you can explain your product or service through 2D and 3D technology.

Live streaming

Get buy-in for digital events with a bit of live aspect, pulling groups together online for a shared remote experience. With a live stream event, you can have the benefits and production value of a pre-recorded event but incorporate the capability to take questions and engage your audience in real.

Remote viewers won't want to miss out on asking questions in this community format and you can record the stream for future use as well.

Virtual event panels and forums

With virtual panels and forums, you can live stream from your anywhere. Hosting an online group is a great way to engage your audience with a live Q&A session and provide the human connection, digitally.

This avenue is great if your event is typically comprised of panels and interactive breakout sessions for attendees.

Tips and best practices

Attendees flock to events to catch the latest innovations and network with industry leaders. Replicating that experience online isn't easy, but brands that get it right can attract big audiences, generate interest and increase brand visibility.

Use these tips to compel your audience to take action:

Develop a virtual event marketing strategy that aligns with your goals

With a great strategy, you can turn any onsite exhibit into a virtual event.

You may already offer online webinars or tutorials, but adding virtual events requires a little more planning. From accessibility to remote attendance monitoring, it's important to visualize each step in the strategy and planning of your event.

Choose digital technology tools and formats that convey your message and create a clear and compelling story and video script to keep attendees tuned in and engage virtual attendees using high-quality videos, animation and graphics.

Develop virtual events before a cancelation

Don't wait for your next live event to get canceled. Instead, put together video assets now. Drop the travel expenses and live stream a panel right from your office. Virtual events give your audience the flexibility to experience your brand and products from anywhere.

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Tracey Shappro is the president and CEO of Houston-based VISION Production Group.

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Houston immuno-oncology company reaches next FDA milestone, heads to phase 2 trial

green light

A Houston immuno-oncology company has recently made major headway with the FDA, including both a fast track and an orphan drug designation. It will soon start a phase 2 trial of its promising cancer fighting innovation.

Diakonos Oncology was born in 2016, the brainchild of Baylor researchers already hard at work in the realm of dendritic cell vaccines. Drs. Will Decker, Matt Halpert, and Vanaja Konduri partnered with Dan Faust, a Houston businessman and pharmacist, to bring their treatment to the public, says COO Jay Hartenbach.

The name Diakonos means “deacon or servant in Greek,” he explains. “A lot of companies end up focusing on treating a specific disease or cancer and what you end up having is a significant amount of potential but with a lot of tradeoffs and downsides. And so our goal is we need to eliminate the cancer but we can't harm or dramatically malign the patient in doing so.”

How do they do that? Because the therapy catalyzes a natural immune response, it’s the patient’s own body that’s fighting the cancer. Hartenbach credits Decker with the idea of educating dendritic cells to attack cancer, in this case, glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), one of the most aggressive cancers with which doctors and patients are forced to tangle.

“Our bodies are already very good at responding very quickly and aggressively to what it perceives as virally infected cells. And so what Dr. Decker did was basically trick the immune system by infecting these dendritic cells with the cancer specific protein and mRNA,” details Hartenbach.

Jay Hartenbach is the COO of Diakonos Oncology. Photo courtesy of Diakonos Oncology

But GBM isn’t the only cancer on which Diakonos Oncology has its sights set. Other notably stubborn-to-treat cancers that they’re working on include pancreatic cancer and angiosarcoma. The scientists are focused on meeting unmet medical needs, but also realize that treating such cancers would allow for the fastest determination of whether or not the treatment was effective.

The fast track designation, originally received last fall, means that the drug approval time for DOC1021, Diakonos’ glioblastoma vaccine, will be only six months. But Hartenbach highlights an additional boon, the fact that the special designation also allows for more frequent communications with the FDA.

“That’s very helpful for us, right as we're contemplating how to design the upcoming trials. From a business standpoint, it also is incredibly helpful because it provides a third party validation of what we're doing and the results that we're seeing,” he says.

What they’re seeing includes the survival of 13 out of 16 patients from the initial October 2021 enrollment. The three patients who passed away received the lowest dose of DOC1021. Hartenbach says that the remaining patients are thriving, with no serious adverse effects. With a median survival rate of 15 to 21 months, it’s hard to understate the significance of these patients’ success.

Diakonos Oncology is headquartered in Houston, with a staff of 10 in Space City and an additional eight distributed employees. Hartenbach says that the company’s hometown has been instrumental in its success. He mentions that the robust innovation of the Texas Medical Center meant that as the company has grown, there has never been a motivation to leave Houston.

“You're having a lot of both investment and companies actually moving to Houston,” Hartenbach says. “So we’ve been fortunate to have started there. There are bigger traditional biotech hubs, San Diego, Boston, and San Francisco, but Houston really is now putting itself on the map and it's getting a lot of attention.”

One of the companies responsible for that improved reputation? Diakonos Oncology and its promising approach to aggressive cancers.

Houston professor earns competitive NSF award, nearly $700,000 grant

science supported

An assistant professor at Rice University has won one of the highly competitive National Science Foundation's CAREER Awards.

The award grants $670,406 over five years to Amanda Marciel, the William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, to continue her research in designing branch elastomers that return to their original shape after being stretched, according to a statement from Rice. The research has applications in stretchable electronics and biomimetic tissues.

“My goal is to create a new paradigm for designing elastomers,” Marciel said in a statement. “The research has four aims: to determine the role of comb polymer topology in forming elastomers, understanding the effects of that topology on elastomer mechanics, characterizing its effects on elastomer structure and increasing the intellectual diversity in soft matter research.”

Marciel, who joined the faculty at Rice in 2019, is one of about 500 researchers to receive the NSF's CAREER Award each year. The award recognizes early-career faculty members who “have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization,” according to the NSF.

In addition to supporting Marciel's research, the funds will also go toward creating opportunities in soft matter research for undergraduates and underrepresented scientists. It will establish a new annual symposium called the Texas Soft Matter Meeting, where community college teachers can participate in a soft matter laboratory module and students in the Research Experiences for Undergrads program at Rice will present their summer research.

Recently, Rice also launched the new Rice Synthetic Biology Institute, which aims to strengthen the synthetic biology community across disciplines at the university. It is part of an $82 million investment the university put toward synthetic biology, neuroengineering and physical biology in 2018.

A fellow team or Rice researcher is also working on wearable haptic accessories. A member of the team was recently named to the 2024 cohort of Rice Innovation Fellows. Click here to learn more.