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

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.

Yael Katz, Topper Luciani, and Dorit Donoviel are this week's Houston innovators to know. Courtesy photos

3 Houston innovators to know this week

Who's who

Houston is full of innovative people looking to make an impact — whether it's in the health tech, fashion, or science industries.

This week's innovators to know represent different industries within Houston, but they are all looking to leave a legacy in making a difference.

Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck

Photo courtesy of BrainCheck

Yael Katz has seen the company she co-founded grow tenfold in its almost five years, and now she's watching that growth from a corner office with a great view of Houston.

BrainCheck, a cognitive assessment startup that has developed a software tool for primary care doctors to use to assess their patients' cognitive health, has moved into a new office space in the West University area following a series A round of fundraising.

"It's pretty exciting to have reached this milestone where we need more space," Yael Katz, co-founder and CEO of BrainCheck, tells InnovationMap. "We were pretty much bursting at the seams in our old office." Read more.

Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Goodfair

Photo courtesy of Goodfair

With the rise of fast fashion — in which huge clothing lines rapidly produce cheap clothing for consumers, humans are cycling through clothing at a detrimental rate.

According to a report from Business Insider, the fashion industry contributes 10 percent of the world's carbon emissions, is the second-largest user of the earth's water supply, and pollutes the oceans with microplastics.

"I realized that there was too much stuff out there," says Topper Luciani, founder and CEO of Houston-based Goodfair, "and there is an environmental crisis being caused by the clothing industry. They're manufacturing so many items, they're using slave labor, they're pumping dyes and other chemicals into rivers. It's absolutely wild." Read more.

Dorit Donoviel, director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health

Libby Neder Photography

On the most recent episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast, Dorit Donoviel speaks of space health needs in ways that sound like futuristic science fiction. However, the director of the Translational Research Institute of Space Health is actively seeking solutions for issues and needs for living in space.

TRISH works hand in hand with NASA's Human Research Program to identify the program's biggest concerns, and then tap into professors, researchers, and scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, and other partners in order to innovate solutions.

"Everyone tosses the word 'innovation' around, but that means, to us, taking risks in science. Health care, in particular, is very risk averse, but the space industry is taking risks every single day when they put people in a rocket and hurl them into space," Donoviel says on the podcast. "If we're going to mars, for example, we are going to put people at risk." Read more.

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

Houston-based organization tasked by NASA to take risks and innovate solutions in space health

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 14

For Dorit Donoviel, innovation means risk — and there's not a lot that's riskier than traveling to and living in outer space. As director of Houston-based TRISH — the Translational Research Institute for Space Health — Donoviel is tasked by NASA to take some risks in order to innovate.

"Everyone tosses the word 'innovation' around, but that means, to us, taking risks in science. Health care, in particular, is very risk averse, but the space industry is taking risks every single day when they put people in a rocket and hurl them into space," Donoviel says on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "If we're going to mars, for example, we are going to put people at risk.

"For us to take risks in order to reduce risk is a really amazing opportunity."

TRISH works hand in hand with NASA's Human Research Program to identify the program's biggest concerns, and then tap into professors, researchers, and scientists from Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, and other partners in order to innovate solutions.

Some of the issues TRISH 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 says.

In a lot of ways, TRISH connects the dots of modern space research, explains Donoviel. The organization taps into its researcher network, as well as into startups and companies with innovative technologies, in order to deliver the best space innovations to NASA.

Donoviel goes into more details on how TRISH interacts with entrepreneurs as well as what new technologies the organization has seen success with in the episode. Stream the podcast below, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.


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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

University of Houston upgrades to contactless market technology

new to campus

A convenience store on campus at the University of Houston just got a little more, well, convenient — and a whole lot safer.

UH and its dining services partner, Chartwells Higher Education, have partnered with tech company Standard to upgrade the check-out process of convenience shopping. The technology is easy to install and can retrofit any convenience store to a contact-less process.

"Students' tastes change constantly, and we're well equipped to handle that. But their shopping preferences evolve too, and we want to continue providing new and unique shopping experiences that are unexpected on a college campus," says David Riddle, vice president of operations for Chartwells Higher Ed, and district manager for UH System Dining, in a press release. "This is the future of shopping, and with autonomous checkout through Standard, we've made it as easy, safe and convenient as possible for students to come in, get what they need, and go."

The store, called Market Next, is located at UH's Technology Bridge and opened earlier this month. Enabled by cameras and easy-to-use scanners, the store operates 24 hours a day and is also designed for quick service for students on the go. The fastest shopping trip recorded by Standard is 2.3 seconds.

"Market Next is the first retail store in the world to be retrofitted for a 100 percent cashierless, checkout-free experience," says Jordan Fisher, co-founder and CEO of Standard, in the release. "Our platform is the only system on the market proven to retrofit an entire retail experience. Innovative retailers like Chartwells use the AI-powered Standard platform to enable shoppers to grab any product they want and simply walk out, without waiting in line. We are excited to partner with Chartwells to deliver this groundbreaking technology to more locations around the country."

Chartwells is working with Standard to bring more of these stores across the country — as well as more itterations on the UH campus.

"Checkout-free technology is an innovation that will make our students' lives a little easier and a lot safer. This is the new standard for campus safety that is important to students today and for the foreseeable future," says Emily Messa, associate vice chancellor and associate vice president for administration at UH, in the release. "That's why we will plan to convert additional Market stores on campus to this technology in the coming year."

Amazon launches annual seasonal hiring event with thousands of Houston jobs

work for bezos

Just in time for the holiday, Amazon is doing a mega-seasonal hiring event, which includes new jobs available in Houston.

According to a release, the company is adding 100,000 new seasonal jobs across the U.S. and Canada, to complement its regular full- and part-time positions. Some 2,800 of those positions are in the Greater Houston area.

These seasonal jobs, which have become an annual event, offer opportunities for pay incentives, benefits, and a possible longer-term career should the employee be interested; or it can simply be extra income during the holiday season.

They offer a $15 minimum wage, and full-time employees receive comprehensive benefits on day one, including health, dental, and vision insurance, and 401K with 50 percent company match.

Jobs include:

  • stowing
  • picking
  • packing shipping
  • delivering customer orders
  • managing people
  • being a safety ambassador
  • HR
  • IT
  • operating robotics

The jobs are listed on their website — "Earn up to $652 a Week," they say — and include locations in Houston.

New hires will be fully trained and all facilities follow strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

New awards to 'pay homage' to Houston's tech scene

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 55

With so much of 2020 going wrong, a new awards program is hoping to shine a spotlight on Houston tech startups and other major innovation players who are doing things right.

The Listies nominations are open online until this Friday, October 30, and are being hosted by Houston Exponential in partnership with InnovationMap.

"The idea for The Listies has been in the back of our minds for a long time," says Serafina Lalany, chief of staff at HX, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There has always been a need in the ecosystem to celebrate the wins and vibrant culture we have here. This is an opportunity to pay homage to that."

The 12 awards will recognize growing startups, individuals, mentors, corporations, investors, and more. Award eligibility requires nominees to have an account on HX's new platform, the HTX TechList, which is free to use and is intended to be a virtual meeting place and resource for Houston innovation.

The honorees will be awarded at a virtual event ceremony at 3 pm on Friday, November 30. The event is hoping to duplicate the engagement the organization saw at its HTX TechList launch in August, which had over 1,000 registrants and a message from Mayor Sylvester Turner.

"This ecosystem really eats up events — even if they are virtual," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, on the podcast. "This will be another opportunity for the organizations and all the people in the ecosystem to get together. ... It's also an opportunity to continue to develop what's happening in Houston."

The event is gathering tech and innovation influencers to promote and play a role in the event — from judges to award presenters. The program is also seeking sponsors to be included in the event as well.

"HX's true strength is bringing people together around a common mission, and this is very true to that," Lalany says.

Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.