In the latest round up of Houston innovation news you may have missed, applications open for Houston accelerators, Greentown Labs has a grand opening date, and more. Photo via Getty Images

It's been a crazy start to 2021 with the innovation ecosystem being especially busy. For this reason, Houston innovation news may have fallen through some of the cracks.

In this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, Greentown Labs makes a big announcement, new accelerator programs open applications, a UH-born technology wins big, and more.

Greentown Labs announces grand opening for Houston location

Greentown Houston is opening next month. Photo via GreentownLabs.com

Last Earth Day, the City of Houston launched its first Climate Action Plan. This Earth Day, the Greentown Houston is opening its doors. On Thursday, April 22, from 2 to 3:30 pm, Greentown Labs is hosting a virtual event to mark the grand opening.

At the event, attendees will be able to meet startups that are a part of the program, hear from energy and civic leaders, catch the latest Greentown partners, and watch the building's ribbon cutting. The event is free and registration is open.

"Greentown Houston is our first out-of-state expansion, and we have already welcomed more than 20 startup members and more than 20 Founding and Grand Opening partners," reads a recent announcement from Greentown. "Located in the city's Innovation District, Greentown Houston will provide more than 40,000 sq. ft. of prototyping lab, office, and community space for about 50 climatetech startups, totaling 200-300 employees."

Rice Alliance opens applications for its clean energy accelerator program

The Rice Alliance Clean Energy Accelerator's inaugural cohort will be held virtually — but will eventually be housed in The Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

The Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship has opened applications for its inaugural cohort for the recently announced Clean Energy Accelerator. The program will be held virtually this summer from June to September — but will eventually be hosted out of The Ion.

At the conclusion of the program, the cohort will present in a Demo Day in conjunction with the 19th annual Rice Alliance Energy Venture Forum.

Applications are due by April 14 and interested parties can apply online.

University of Houston-born innovation wins big at SXSW

A UH-born device won a $25,000 investment at a SXSW event. Photo via UH.edu

A University of Houston professor took home an innovation prize and $25,000 investment from the Southwest National Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium's Pediatric Device Prize at this year's SXSW. The UH-born device is the Pediatric Lower-Extremity Gait System – known as P-LEGS – which is a mobility assistant, rehabilitation platform and diagnostic tool designed to help children with motor disabilities. It won one of two prizes out of 18 devices.

The principal investigator for the project, Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, is a Hugh Roy and Lillie Cullen Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the director of UH's BRAIN Center. Other team members include graduate student lead, David Eguren, as well as Alexander Steele, Yang Hu, Krishna Sarvani Desabhotla, Swagat Bhandari, Lujayna Taha, Nivriti Sabhnani, and Allen Shen.

"We were excited and honored to have been selected by the SWPDC for this award," Eguren says in a news release. "The award will be valuable in helping us continue device development and testing."

Halliburton Labs opens next round of applications

Halliburton Labs is looking for its next cohort. Photo courtesy of Halliburton

A new corporate accelerator has announced that its latest round of startup applications is open. Halliburton Labs looking for startups for its next cohort, and applications are due on April 23.

"We're excited to identify technology entrepreneurs with ready-to-scale solutions in energy generation, storage, distribution, conservation, and the circular economy," says Dale Winger, managing director of Halliburton Labs, in a news release. "Our program provides critical resources, including technical and operational expertise across numerous hardware disciplines and a global business network, to help participants advance their products, prepare for further scale and position for additional financing."

Halliburton Labs will make their selections by the ongoing program's pitch day, which is slated for May 21. The Halliburton Labs Finalist Pitch Day will be a part of the Houston Tech Rodeo.

To apply to participate, click here.

Innovative organization names new board members

Baylor College of Medicine-supported, and NASA-backed TRISH has new board members. Photo via NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health — known as TRISH — recently announced seven new members to its Scientific Advisory Board. The Houston-based, NASA-funded organization is focused on cultivating space health innovations.

"We are at the cusp of space becoming more accessible to regular people. We are working toward safeguarding the health of all humans -- astronauts exploring deep space and people with preexisting conditions that want to experience space for short periods," says TRISH Director Dorit Donoviel. "TRISH's diverse advisory board members will help us focus our resources on the most impactful health technology and science innovations."

According to a press release, the newly appointed members are:

They join existing members:

NASA has renewed its support for Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health. Photo courtesy of NASA

Houston research organization receives renewal from NASA and millions in funding for space health projects

new funding

Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, was granted renewal from NASA this week, which will allow the organization to continue to conduct biomedical research geared at protecting astronauts in deep space through 2028.

According to a statement, NASA reviewed TRISH in December 2020 ahead of the five year mark of its cooperative agreement with BCM's Center for Space Medicine. NASA opted to continue the partnership and now TRISH will receive additional funding of up to $134.6 million from 2022 to 2028.

"NASA has received outstanding value from our bold approach to sourcing and advancing space health research and technologies," institute director Dorit Donoviel, said in a statement. "We are proud to be NASA's partner in its human space exploration mission and to be supporting the research necessary to create new frontiers in healthcare that will benefit all humans."

The institute will focus its efforts on Mars exploration missions in the next six years and has been given three main objectives, according to the release:

  • To build strategic partnerships that will increase the volume of available biometric data on the impact of space travel on health and astronaut performance
  • To build a digital platform that simulates the spaceflight environment and will allow researchers to model and test new health technologies on Earth
  • To develop tissue chip technology that will allow astronauts to place a variety of human cells in lunar orbit during the NASA Artemis research missions to track the effects of space radiation and microgravity on humans

Since TRISH was founded in 2016 it has led the charge in space health research and has partnered with and provided grants to an array of innovative startups to do so.

In 2020 is granted Houston-based Z3VR $50,000 to explore the ways virtual reality can boost physical and mental health among astronauts and it has funded several projects surrounding space radiation levels.

At the time of 2020 review, TRISH had developed and transitioned 34 completed astronaut health and protection projects to NASA and had connected 415 first-time NASA researchers with opportunities to develop space health solutions.

Houston-based Z3VR has been granted $500,000 to work or virtual reality applications in space. Photo courtesy of Z3VR

Houston virtual reality company collaborates with space health organization

money for the mission

Houston-based startup Z3VR received a $500,000 grant from Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Founded in 2017 by a group of emerging tech enthusiasts, Z3VR discovered its niche in what CEO Josh Ruben calls the "intersection of biosensors and VR" and began consulting with TRISH in 2018. Last year, the company received its first funding from the institution to create virtual reality platforms that promote exercise and provide additional sensory experiences for isolated Mars-bound astronauts.

This new grant, however, takes Z3VR's mission one step farther. The year-long grant will allow Z3VR, in partnership with NASA labs in California and Houston, to further develop their VR platform to use eye movement tracking to identify cognitive, psychiatric, or ophthalmological issues before they arise.

Getting out ahead of issues is more important than ever on the Mission to Mars. Because of the duration and distance of the mission, these astronauts will be uniquely isolated and will face a communication lag of up to 45 minutes between space shuttle and command center.

"What that means from a health care perspective is that pretty much everything you need to treat and diagnose these astronauts needs to be self contained on the spacecraft itself," Ruben says. "The system that we are building is sensitive enough to pick up on these cognitive, ophthalmological, and psychiatric conditions well before they become clinically relevant. It'll be long before the astronaut knows there's a problem. That's the hope."

Known as the Oculometric Cognition Testing and Analysis in Virtual Environments (OCTAVE) approach, Z3VR's program is modeled after a system at the Visuomotor Control Lab at NASA Ames in California. In the lab, scientists can use high-frequency eye trackers to monitor 21 physiological properties that can point to early signs of mental and physical conditions. The goal is to shrink down the same trackers to fit not just on the spacecraft, but inside a VR headset.

Other VR companies have been able to implement eye tracking into their platforms for some time now — but not at this level of preciseness. Partnering engineers on the project will have to increase the image quality four fold and capture about 10 times the number of images per second in order to detect the minute eye movements Ruben and team are searching for.

Still, Ruben thinks VR is the ideal fit for this process. "When you are in a VR application, the developers have what is effectively total control of your entire sensory experience," he says. "If I am monitoring various aspects of your physiology while you're in a VR experience, I know that the way your body is reacting is directly a result of our VR experience."

Too, the team and Z3VR envisions that through their platform this type of cognitive tracking can be a passive process. While astronauts are using the devices to exercise or learn how to fix a problem on board, their program will be tracking their eye movement in the background — much like how your smart watch would track your heart rate — alerting the command center only when a problem arises.

For Ruben, this is their giant leap for mankind moment and how they can use their tool to make an impact for earth-bound individuals.

"We imagine a world where just by interacting with a game through one of these devices we are able to flag these neurological issues well before they are issues," he says.

Though their technology likely won't be put to use in space until the 2030s, the group is already in talks with academic institutions about partnering on their program for new clinical uses and is working with the FDA to bring in regulatory oversight, Ruben says.

"This TRISH funding means the world," he says. "Not only do we have these partnerships within NASA, which we expect will really help address these problems, but we are already taking the funds and putting them to work in the US healthcare system."

Five research teams are studying space radiation's effect on human tissue. Photo via NASA/Josh Valcarcel

2 Houston research teams to receive support from local space health organization

out of this world

A Houston-based organization has named five research projects to advance the understanding of space radiation using human tissue. Two of the five projects are based in Houston.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, is based at Baylor College of Medicine and funds health research and tech for astronauts during space missions. The astronauts who are headed to the moon or further will be exposed to high Galactic Cosmic Radiation levels, and TRISH wants to learn more about the effects of GCR.

"With this solicitation, TRISH was looking for novel human-based approaches to understand better Galactic Cosmic Rays (GCR) hazards, in addition to safe and effective countermeasures," says Kristin Fabre, TRISH's chief scientist, in a news release. "More than that, we sought interdisciplinary teams of scientists to carry these ideas forward. These five projects embody TRISH's approach to cutting-edge science."

The five projects are:

  • Michael Weil, PhD, of Colorado State University, Colorado — Effects of chronic high LET radiation on the human heart
  • Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, PhD of Columbia University, New York — Human multi-tissue platform to study effects of space radiation and countermeasures
  • Sharon Gerecht, PhD of Johns Hopkins University, Maryland — Using human stem-cell derived vascular, neural and cardiac 3D tissues to determine countermeasures for radiation
  • Sarah Blutt, PhD of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas — Use of Microbial Based Countermeasures to Mitigate Radiation Induced Intestinal Damage
  • Mirjana Maletic-Savatic, PhD of Baylor College of Medicine, Texas — Counteracting space radiation by targeting neurogenesis in a human brain organoid model

The researchers are tasked with simulating radiation exposure to human tissues in order to study new ways to protect astronauts from the radiation once in deep space. According to the release, the tissue and organ models will be derived from blood donated by the astronaut in order to provide him or her with customized protection that will reduce the risk to their health.

TRISH is funded by a partnership between NASA and Baylor College of Medicine, which also includes consortium partners Caltech and MIT. The organization is also a partner to NASA's Human Research Program.

Five scientists have been selected for a prestigious fellowship focused on health innovation for space dwellers. Pexels

Houston-based space health research institution names postdoctoral fellows

space city news

An organization that is supporting health care innovation in space has awarded five postdoctoral fellowships to scientists working in space-translatable life sciences.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at Baylor College of Medicine announced the five fellows this week for the two-year program. The five scientists will join 10 others who are currently a part of the TRISH Academy of Bioastronautics. These fellows are tasked with a project that focuses on health challenges astronauts on deep space exploration missions.

"To reach Mars and the next stage of human exploration, the space industry will need a robust pipeline of highly trained scientists focused on human health," says Dr. Dorit Donoviel, director of TRISH, in a news release. "TRISH has selected five postdoctoral who are answering that call. We are proud to welcome these outstanding scientists to our Academy of Bioastronautics."

The five news postdoctoral fellows are:

  • Kristyn Hoffman of NASA Johnson Space Center, whose study is "Development of Machine Learning-Derived Microbiological and Immune Signatures: Applications in Adaptive Risk Assessment of Infectious Disease During Spaceflight" with mentor C. Mark Ott
  • Evan Buettmann of Virginia Commonwealth University, whose study is "Investigating the Effects of Simulated Microgravity Duration and Connexin 43 Deficiency on Bone Fracture Healing" with mentor Henry Donahue.
  • Matthew Gaidica of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, whose study is "Manipulating Sleep Architecture as an Operational Countermeasure" with mentor Ben Dantzer.
  • Maria Sekyi of the University of California, San Francisco, whose study is "Microgravity and Partial Gravity Effects on Hepatic Organoid Steatosis and Function" with mentor Dr. Tammy Chang.
  • M. Arifur Rahman of the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, whose study is "Medical Oxygen Delivery System in Exploration Atmosphere Minimizing the Risk of Fire" with mentor Aaron Ohta.

TRISH is tasked by NASA to create a new type of health care in space where doctors and fully equipped hospitals are not readily available. The organization is working to provide solutions for range from protecting from radiation exposure on the moon and mars to personal health care — astronauts have to be a doctor to themselves when they are on the space station.

"That's a totally new model for health care, so we have to solve all those problems and invest in them," Donoviel tells InnovationMap on a recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast.

Dorit Donoviel is the director of NASA-backed Translational Research Institute for Space Health is innovating the future of life in space. Libby Neder Photography


A Houston space medicine research organization has partnered with a video game maker that has created surgery simulation technology. Photo via levelex.com

Houston-based research organization taps video game makers to advance space medicine

out-of-this-world tech

A Houston-based organization affiliated with NASA has teamed up with a video game company to advance virtual simulation in space medicine.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, in partnership with NASA in a consortium led by Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge has advanced a new approach for space medicine using video game technology by collaborating with video game company, Level Ex.

"We discovered Level Ex through a process of landscaping the many virtual simulation companies that were out there," says Andrew Peterman Director of Information System at TRISH. "We especially noted those that were on the cutting edge of the technology."

Based in Houston, TRISH aims to collaborate with the best and the brightest to revolutionize space health, providing grants to companies with innovative concepts. With Level Ex, they found a new approach to decode earthly medical technologies in space.

Level Ex, a Chicago-based company created in 2015 was founded to provide training games for doctors to use to practice surgeries and procedures. The games are interactive, with the virtual patient reacting to the actions of the player. The training simulations consist of in-depth and physics-driven medical simulations that are verified by doctors in their advisory board.

"We're hoping to completely change the ways that doctors stay up to speed," says Level Ex founder-and-CEO Sam Glassnberg.

With their ongoing collaboration with TRISH, they have a challenge that's out of this world. In space, astronauts have limited space for medical tools and run on a limited crew. This makes providing basic medical training to all astronauts especially important.

Especially since the body begins to react to the new environmental conditions of space missions. The effects can be small or lead to new changes or challenges for astronauts who take on long-range missions. Astronauts may see their bodies slowly start to lose bone and muscle mass. Their fluid begins to shift toward their head, leading to increased risks of hypertension and thrombosis.

All of these are challenges NASA is working to address with the help of gaming technology from Level Ex that innovates the technology with higher-level capability and training. Combining video game technology and medical simulation applications to incorporate and explore the interplay of environmental conditions found in space.

"What we really liked about Level Ex is that they have an amazing team both on the clinical and technical side, says Peterman. "They are a group of former big-name game developers who along with clinical experts have married technology and medicine with their platform producing full in engine physics-driven real simulations rather than video playback."

The astronauts will train using simulations that allow them to practice a procedure in zero gravity conditions and even simulate the gravity conditions of Mars. The game will also allow astronauts to get their own on-screen avatar with their medical information thus allowing fellow astronauts to gain more practice and experience with fewer variables in space.

The advanced medical simulation platform has potential for commercial uses on earth, improving the range of the technology to simulate new, rare, and complex scenarios across a range of medical specialties, allowing doctors to practice a range of difficult scenarios without putting patient lives at risk.

Peterman says that the partnership is expected to continue into the future for immediate applications along with other innovations in astronaut healthcare, including autonomous frameworks to provide medical knowledge in outer space.

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Energy giant makes Houston sole headquarters in massive move

HQ move

Power player NRG Energy is laser focused on Houston. The Bayou City will be the energy giant's new sole headquarters; the company will no longer split between Houston and Princeton, New Jersey.

The move to a single headquarters simplifies business operations, as a large number of the company's employees and customers reside in Texas, the company noted in a press release and report.

The company, having recently acquired Direct Energy, will maintain regional offices in the markets that it serves and "evaluate real estate needs and consolidate as appropriate," the report adds.

Mayor Sylvester Turner welcomed the news in a statement, relaying that he and his team have had "substantive conversations" with NRG president and CEO Mauricio Gutierrez. "I believe the decision is confirmation that Houston is a smart city for business," said Turner.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also chimed in, adding in part:

With this move, NRG joins 50 other Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Texas, including 22 in the Houston area alone. America's leading businesses continue to invest in Texas — and grow jobs in Texas — because of our welcoming business climate, low taxes, reasonable regulations, and our young, growing, and skilled workforce.
I thank NRG Energy for designating Texas — the energy capital of the world — as their corporate headquarters, and I look forward to our continued partnership as we ensure a more prosperous future for all who call the Lone Star State home.

Turner noted that more than a year ago, the City of Houston committed to purchasing 100 percent renewable energy through a renewed partnership with NRG Energy as the City's retail electric provider. "The plan is helping us build a more sustainable future, save over $9 million on our electric bill, and reduce emissions," he said.

NRG Energy boasts some 3,000 employees in Houston alone. In its report, the company reported a net loss of $83 million due the impact of Winter Storm Uri.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: In this week's roundup of Houston innovators to know, I'm introducing you to three local innovators across industries — tech, health care, and more — recently making headlines in Houston innovation.


Emily Cisek, founder of The Postage

The Postage — a Houston-based company that's streamlining afterlife planning — has rolled out a new app. Photo courtesy of The Postage

Emily Cisek had a mission when she founded The Postage. She wanted to make afterlife planning simpler — and she's taken one giant step toward that goal with the company's new app.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple."

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app. Click here to read more.

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research

Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, say his company transform from uncertainty to almost uncontrollable growth in just 12 months. He shares what happened on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. Photo courtesy of Proxima

After a huge dip in business due to the pandemic, a Houston company focused on supporting innovative life science companies saw 12 months of unprecedented growth. Kevin Coker, CEO of Proxima Clinical Research, says that's not only a good sign for the future of his business — but also of the future of Houston's life science sector.

"We're a good barometer for what's happening not only locally but across the country," Coker says. "As Proxima has grown, it's really show how the Houston life science market is growing."

Coker shares more about Proxima's growth and Houston's potential of being a major life science hub on the episode. Click here to read more and stream the episode.

Sylvia Kampshoff, founder of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has launched Kanthaka's first crowdfunding campaign. Photo courtesy of Kanthaka

Sylvia Kampshoff has lofty goals for her company Kanthaka, a platform for connecting users to personal trainers across over a dozen cities. With the launch of a new $1 million crowdfunding raise, Kampshoff is one step closer to growing her business according to these goals.

"Our vision is to become Amazon for health & fitness and the go-to provider to live a longer, happier and healthier life," Kampshoff says. "We couldn't be more excited about this journey." Click here to read more.

Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.