Houston innovator talks space health and the future of the commercial sector

houston innovators podcast episode 102

James Hury joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the role of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health. Photo courtesy of TRISH

Only about 500 humans have made it to space, which, from a research perspective, isn't a large data set. Yet as commercial space exploration continues and more people make it up into space, new opportunities for space health research are being made available.

"If you look at all the people who have gone into space, they've mostly been employees of nations — astronauts from different governments," says James Hury of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "We're going to start to get people from all different ages and backgrounds."

Hury is the deputy director and chief innovation officer for Houston-based TRISH, and he's focused on identifying space tech and research ahead of the market that has the potential to impact human health in space. From devices that allow astronauts to perform remote health care on themselves to addressing behavioral health challenges, TRISH is supporting the future of space health.

The organization, which is housed out of Baylor College of Medicine and supported by NASA, has a major role to play in the future of space. The Federal Aviation Administration released new space travel regulations that require travelers to contribute something to society. One way to check that box is to collaborate with TRISH on its research.

"If you are willing to go and help participate in experimentation and research endeavors, then you are helping to gain knowledge for all of humankind," Hury says of future space travelers willing to pay tens of millions of dollars to go to space.

TRISH has stood up the first commercial spaceflight medical research program to work with commercial spaceflight crews to bring back crucial research to one database. Called EXPAND — Enhancing eXploration Platforms and Analog Definition — the new collaborative program is meant to address the challenges that humans face on space missions — early detection and treatment of medical conditions, protection from radiation, mental health, team dynamics, and more.

The human aspect of space exploration has always been at the core of Houston's space industry. And this isn't going to change as commercialization within the sector continues.

"I think we'll be Space City forever," Hury says on the show. "We have a whole lot of expertise here that can support this new economy."

He shares more on the future of space health and Houston's role in space exploration on the episode. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.


The first crew of all civilians is headed into orbit this month — and they are going to bring back essential research. Photo via inspiration4.com

Houston-based research organization teams up with SpaceX for historic mission

space health

The world's first all-civilian human spaceflight mission to orbit will be participating in health-related research projects sponsored by a Houston organization.

The crew of Inspiration4 will contribute to research projects that the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine will sponsor. The project is a collaboration is between TRISH, SpaceX, and investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine.

"The crew of Inspiration4 is eager to use our mission to help make a better future for those who will launch in the years and decades to come," says Jared Isaacman, commander of the Inspiration4 mission, in a news release. "In all of human history, fewer than 600 humans have reached space. We are proud that our flight will help influence all those who will travel after us and look forward to seeing how this mission will help shape the beginning of a new era for space exploration."

According to the release, all biomedical data collected for the Inspiration4 mission will be accessible through an open data repository funded and overseen by TRISH. The mission will include the following TRISH-sponsored research:

  • Collect research-grade ECG activity, movement, sleep, heart rate and rhythm, blood oxygen saturation, cabin noise and light intensity.
  • Perform a series of tests in the Cognition app designed to assess changes in behavioral and cognitive performance. This is the same app that is currently used by astronauts in NASA-funded research studies.
  • Scan organ systems via a Butterfly IQ+ Ultrasound device, which is designed with artificial intelligence guidance for non-medical experts. Data collected will determine if non-medical experts can self-acquire clinical grade images without guidance from ground support and will provide a timeline of biological changes before and during spaceflight. This device is also currently being tested by astronauts on the International Space Station.
  • Collect and test drops of blood during spaceflight for markers of immune function and inflammation using a state-of-the-art miniaturized device called the Vertical Flow Immunoassay.
  • Use balance and perception tests pre-flight and immediately post-flight to measure sensorimotor adaptation during changes of gravity. These tests are currently performed by astronauts upon return from spaceflight.
  • Archive, fully analyze, and share resulting biomedical samples and data in collaboration with investigators at Weill Cornell Medicine and research data in an open format database to enable greater collaborative research.

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine will be collecting the environmental and biomedical data and biological samples from Inspiration4's four crew members before, during, and after the mission. These samples and data will be added to a planned Biobank that will hold cryogenically-frozen samples and data from the Inspiration4 mission. The sample collection will enable long-term research and health monitoring for astronauts. WorldQuant is providing funding support for the work at Weill Cornell Medicine.

The mission, which will be aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9, is slated for September 15 from Launch Complex 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The three-day mission will target approximately a 575 km orbit, flying farther from Earth than any human spaceflight since the Hubble Space Telescope repair missions. Inspiration4's goal is to inspire humanity and raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The space mission will be riding aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9. Photo via inspiration4.com

The Butterfly iQ, a device developed with Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, is headed to the ISS. Photo courtesy of TRISH

Health tech device supported by Houston-based organization hitches ride on SpaceX flight

space tech

An innovative ultrasonography device that has been developed with the future of space health in mind has hitched a ride on SpaceX's Dragon cargo resupply mission. The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, at Baylor College of Medicine is supporting the product's first user demo in space.

The Butterfly iQ device was developed by Connecticut-based Butterfly Network Inc. (NYSE: BFLY) and is "the world's first handheld, single-probe whole-body ultrasound system using semiconductor technology," according to a press release.

TRISH has been supporting the device's development since the organization realized the impact it can have on astronauts' ability to administer their own health care.

"NASA is returning to the moon and our astronauts will need to be more self-reliant when it comes to medical care. TRISH is investing in innovations that enable healthcare to be provided in new ways," says Dr. Dorit Donoviel, director of TRISH, in the release. "On deep space missions, tools such as the Butterfly iQ will help the astronauts monitor themselves for concerns such as kidney stones, fluid in the lungs, blood clots and swelling of the optic nerve."

When the device reaches the International Space Station, the astronauts will provide feedback on how they used the device, the quality of the produced ultrasound images, and the efficiency of image acquisition.

"We're thrilled that TRISH has identified the potential of Butterfly iQ to advance care delivery in remote – and extremely remote – care settings. We are confident that the iQ's combination of diagnostic power, portability, reliability and ease of use will prove a useful addition to the medical toolkit of the International Space Station," said Dr. Todd Fruchterman, president and CEO of Butterfly Network, in the release. "It is an honor to know that a Butterfly device will help NASA safeguard the health of its incredible astronauts by providing actionable diagnostic insights."

The device was recently introduced into CHI St. Luke's Health point of cair practice — specifically for COVID-19 treatment. Dr. Jose Diaz-Gomez, an anesthesiologist and ultrasonography expert at the hospital, says the Butterfly iQ's portable ultrasonography technology has been a key diagnostic tool in his team's point of care for COVID-19 patients.

Moving beyond the pandemic, Diaz-Gomez explained the pertinent use of lower cost, portable ultrasound tools like Butterfly iQ to increase access to health care — even here on earth.

"In conditions that are dynamic, you want to have a diagnostic tool that, over time as you're treating a patient, you can see meaningful changes — good or bad," Diaz-Gomez previously told InnovationMap. "The pandemic has enabled us to use — from the initial care to when they are on the ventilator — ultrasonography to see the changes in the patient's' lungs."

TRISH is focused on identifying and supporting technologies like Butterfly iQ through its network of space health experts, BCM, and NASA, which recently granted renewal for its TRISH partnership granted renewal for its TRISH partnership earlier this year. NASA will continue to work with TRISH to conduct biomedical research geared at protecting astronauts in deep space through 2028.

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

Greentown Houston announces grand opening, clean energy accelerators open apps, and more innovation news

short stories

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."

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City launches public dashboard for tracking COVID-19 in Houston's wastewater

data points

In 2020, a group of researchers began testing Houston's wastewater to collect data to help identify trends at the community level. Now, the team's work has been rounded up to use as an online resource.

The Houston Health Department and Rice University launched the dashboard on September 22. The information comes from samples collected from the city's 39 wastewater treatment plants and many HISD schools.

"This new dashboard is another tool Houstonians can use to gauge the situation and make informed decisions to protect their families," says Dr. Loren Hopkins, chief environmental science officer for the health department and professor in the practice of statistics at Rice University, in a news release. "A high level of virus in your neighborhood's wastewater means virus is spreading locally and you should be even more stringent about masking up when visiting public places."

The health department, Houston Water, Rice University, and Baylor College of Medicine originally collaborated on the wastewater testing. Baylor microbiologist Dr. Anthony Maresso, director of BCM TAILOR Labs, led a part of the research.

"This is not Houston's first infectious disease crisis," Maresso says in an earlier news release. "Wastewater sampling was pioneered by Joseph Melnick, the first chair of Baylor's Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, to get ahead of polio outbreaks in Houston in the 1960s. This work essentially ushered in the field of environmental virology, and it began here at Baylor. TAILOR Labs is just continuing that tradition by providing advanced science measures to support local public health intervention."

It's an affordable way to track the virus, says experts. People with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces, according to the release, and by testing the wastewater, the health department can measure important infection rate changes.

The dashboard, which is accessible online now, is color-coded by the level of viral load in wastewater samples, as well as labeled with any recent trend changes. Houstonians can find the interactive COVID-19 wastewater monitoring dashboard, vaccination sites, testing sites, and more information at houstonemergency.org/covid19.

Rice University rises with massive $100M gift for innovative new student center

student centered

Rice University's Owls are soaring of late, with the school just being named the top in Texas and No. 7 in the U.S. Now, the institution known as the "Ivy League of the South" is the recipient of a mammoth gift aimed at a game-changing student center.

The Moody Foundation has granted Rice University a massive $100 million for its planned Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity, which will replace Rice's current Memorial Center (RMC), and will become a new focal point for the university's 300-acre wooded campus, the school announced.

Notably, this new student center is designed by Sir David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates; the acclaimed architect's other works include the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Scheduled to break ground in early 2022 and construction completed in 2023, the brand-new Moody Center for Student Life and Opportunity will maintain some elements of the old RMC, namely the chapel and cloisters. Students and staff can expect demolition of the rest of the existing RMC, per a press release.

Moody's $100 million grant matches the record for the largest gift in the university's history. (Last year, the Robert A. Welch Foundation donated $100 million to the school to establish the innovation-driven Welch Institute.) The Moody Foundation has contributed over $125 million to Rice since 1964, a press release notes.

As part of the Moody $100 million gift, a new Moody Fund for Student Opportunity will support an endowment dedicated to student programs "physically anchored in the new student center and elsewhere in the university," according to the school.

All this supports Rice's recently announced plans for a 20-percent expansion of the undergraduate student body by fall 2025, as CultureMap previously reported.

"We are extremely grateful for this extraordinary philanthropy in support of Rice students," said Rice president David Leebron in a statement. "This gift will enable our students to broaden their engagements and experiences while at Rice in ways that will empower their success throughout their lives. It will also enable us to both connect more deeply with Houston and with the world. This will be the epitome of what an inclusive and outward-looking student center should be."

Elle Moody, a trustee of both the Moody Foundation and Rice, added: "As a Rice University alumna, I know this gift will have a profound and lasting effect on the campus and its students. This investment is supporting much more than just a building. We're investing in every student, so they have access to pursue any endeavor whether it's leadership, artistic, athletic, global or more."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.