UH has found a way to instantly zap COVID-10. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

While the world rushes to find a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists from the University of Houston have found a way to trap and kill the virus — instantly.

The team has designed a "catch and kill" air filter that can nullify the virus responsible for COVID-19. Researchers reported that tests at the Galveston National Laboratory found 99.8 percent of the novel SARS-CoV-2 — which causes COVID-19 — was killed in a single pass through the filter.

Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, collaborated with Monzer Hourani, CEO of Medistar, a Houston-based medical real estate development firm, plus other researchers to design the filter, which is described in a paper published in Materials Today Physics.

Researchers were aware the virus can remain in the air for about three hours, which required a filter that could quickly remove it. The added pressure of businesses reopening created an urgency in controlling the spread of the virus in air conditioned spaces, according to UH.

Meanwhile, to scorch the virus — which can't survive above around 158 degrees Fahrenheit — researchers instilled a heated filter. By blasting the temperature to around 392 F, they were able to kill the virus almost instantly.

The filter also killed 99.9 percent of the anthrax spores, according to researchers.

A prototype was built by a local workshop and first tested at Ren's lab for the relationship between voltage/current and temperature; it then went to the Galveston lab to be tested for its ability to kill the virus. Ren says it satisfies the requirements for conventional heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

"This filter could be useful in airports and in airplanes, in office buildings, schools and cruise ships to stop the spread of COVID-19," said Ren, MD Anderson Chair Professor of Physics at UH and co-corresponding author for the paper, in a statement. "Its ability to help control the spread of the virus could be very useful for society."

Medistar executives are also proposing a desk-top model, capable of purifying the air in an office worker's immediate surroundings, Ren added.

Developers have called for a phased roll-out of the device, with a priority on "high-priority venues, where essential workers are at elevated risk of exposure — particularly schools, hospitals and health care facilities, as well as public transit environs such as airplanes."

The hope, developers add, is that the filter will protect frontline workers in essential industries and allow nonessential workers to return to public work spaces.

Three UH researchers are revolutionizing the way we think the brain works. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

3 ways University of Houston researchers are innovating brain treatments and technologies

Brain teasers

While a lot of scientists and researchers have long been scratching their heads over complicated brain functionality challenges, these three University of Houston researchers have made crucial discoveries in their research.

From dissecting the immediate moment a memory is made or incorporating technology to solve mobility problems or concussion research, here are the three brain innovations and findings these UH professors have developed.

Brains on the move

Professor of biomedical engineering Joe Francis is reporting work that represents a significant step forward for prosthetics that perform more naturally. Photo courtesy of UH Research

Brain prosthetics have come a long way in the past few years, but a UH professor and his team have discovered a key feature of a brain-computer interface that allows for an advancement in the technology.

Joe Francis,a UH professor of biomedical engineering, reported in eNeuro that the BCI device is able to learn on its own when its user is expecting a reward through translating interactions "between single-neuron activities and the information flowing to these neurons, called the local field potential," according to a UH news release. This is all happening without the machine being specifically programmed for this capability.

"This will help prosthetics work the way the user wants them to," says Francis in the release. "The BCI quickly interprets what you're going to do and what you expect as far as whether the outcome will be good or bad."

Using implanted electrodes, Francis tracked the effects of reward on the brain's motor cortex activity.

"We assume intention is in there, and we decode that information by an algorithm and have it control either a computer cursor, for example, or a robotic arm," says Francis in the release.

A BCI device would be used for patients with various brain conditions that, as a result of their circumstances, don't have full motor functionality.

"This is important because we are going to have to extract this information and brain activity out of people who cannot actually move, so this is our way of showing we can still get the information even if there is no movement," says Francis.

Demystifying the memory making moments

Margaret Cheung, a UH professor, is looking into what happens when a memory is formed in the brain. Photo courtesy of UH Research

What happens when a brain forms a new memory? Margaret Cheung, a UH professor in the school of physics, computer science, and chemistry, is trying to find out.

Cheung is analyzing the exact moment a neuron forms a memory in our brains and says this research will open doors to enhancing memory making in the future.

"The 2000 Nobel laureate Eric Kandel said that human consciousness will eventually be explained in terms of molecular signaling pathways. I want to see how far we can go to understand the signals," says Cheung in a release.

Cheung is looking at calcium in particular, since this element impacts most of cellular life.

"How the information is transmitted from the calcium to the calmodulin and how CaM uses that information to activate decisions is what we are exploring," says Cheung in the release. "This interaction explains the mechanism of human cognition."

Her work is being funded by a $1.1 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Science from the National Institutes of Health, and she's venturing into uncharted territories with her calcium signaling studies. Previous research hasn't been precise or conclusive enough for real-world application.

"In this work we seek to understand the dynamics between calcium signaling and the resulting encoded CaM states using a multiphysics approach," says Cheung. "Our expected outcome will advance modeling of the space-time distribution of general secondary messengers and increase the predictive power of biophysical simulations."

New tech for brain damage treatment

Badri Roysam, chair of the University of Houston Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is leading the project that uncovering new details surrounding concussions. Photo courtesy of UH Research

Concussions and brain damage have both had their fair shares of question marks, but this UH faculty member is tapping into new technologies to lift the curtain a little.

Badri Roysam, the chair of the University of Houston Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is heading up a multimillion-dollar project that includes "super microscopes" and the UH supercomputer at the Hewlett Packard Enterprise Data Science Institute. Roysam calls the $3.19 million project a marriage between these two devices.

"By allowing us to see the effects of the injury, treatments and the body's own healing processes at once, the combination offers unprecedented potential to accelerate investigation and development of next-generation treatments for brain pathologies," says Roysam in a release.

The project, which is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), is lead by Roysam and co-principal investigator John Redell, assistant professor at UTHealth McGovern Medical School. The team also includes NINDS scientist Dragan Maric and UH professors Hien Van Nguyen and Saurabh Prasad.

Concussions, which affect millions of people, have long been mysterious to scientists due to technological limitations that hinder treatment options and opportunities.

"We can now go in with eyes wide open whereas before we had only a very incomplete view with insufficient detail," says Roysam in the release. "The combinations of proteins we can now see are very informative. For each cell, they tell us what kind of brain cell it is, and what is going on with that cell."

The technology and research can be extended to other brain conditions, such as strokes, brain cancer, and more.

A startup without funding is just a great idea. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Startup funding: Know the bucks behind the business

Houston Voices

A Cadillac with an empty gas tank is just a really nice, really expensive decoration for your driveway.

Change my mind.

A startup company without funding, is just a really great idea. A dream. Just like a car without gas will never get out on the road, a startup without funding will never get its product out on the market.

"There are opportunities for startup funding out there, your job is to find them and take advantage," says Daniel Weisfeld, CEO and founder of Resthetics, a blossoming startup that takes waste anesthetics and converts them into safe, renewable resources.

Mohamed Hashim, Resthetics co-founder and chemist, chimes in, "You have to do your homework. It's a slow process and hard work, but it'll be rewarding once the money comes in."

Putting the fun in startup funding

According to Weisfeld and Hashim, Resthetics joined the Texas A&M New Venture Competition and won admittance to the Texas Medical Center Accelerator, in addition to funding. In fact, their company is backed by the Texas Medical Center to date.

Business plan competitions give hopeful entrepreneurs the chance to vie for funding of their technology's development. They also give young entrepreneurs real-world experience and a chance to refine their business plans. Business plan competitions offer entrepreneurs a better understanding of what it's like to get a new venture off the ground and helps them learn to commercialize their technology.

You can browse a few business plan competitions here, including a Houston-based one.

Angel networks

While on the surface, an angel network may seem like a religious TV station, it's actually something a little more beneficial to your search for funding. Angel networks are composed of angel investors, i.e., people who invest their own funds into the beginning stages of a startup, with the hope of seeing a big return on their investment later on. Angel investors who invest in startups that end up failing will lose their money. It's a big risk.

They are called "angel" investors because these individuals give their own money to support startups, unlike venture capitalists who use funds pooled together from a group of investors.

Weisfeld suggests that, "Even if you don't think that your company fits someone's investment criteria, you should still reach out to them. Always ask. An investor might like you or your tech enough that they'll make an exception, or they may even recommend you to someone they know who is willing to invest."

Fun fact: In the early part of the 20th century, wealthy business owners gave their own money to support stage plays, so the term "angel investor" was born from Broadway.

You can find local angel investors in Houston here.

Non-dilutive funding sources

Often times, a startup will garner funding but will have to give up partial ownership of their company in return. This is not the case with non-dilutive funding sources. One example of non-dilutive funding is a bank loan. Sure, you'll have to pay a monthly interest rate, but you'll also get to keep absolute ownership of your startup.

Another example of a non-dilutive funding source is revenue sharing. Revenue sharing places more emphasis on a company's growth rather than its equity (your assets vs. your debts). This is important because it is congruent with the interests of entities who provide non-dilutive funding. Funding entities are more concerned with how sustainable your startup is projected to be rather than how much it is worth. This makes non-dilutive funding one of the best avenues through which to receive monetary sponsorship

Accelerators

Startup accelerators support startups as they are, well, starting up. Focused on the early stages of companies, accelerators offer startup funding, mentorship, connections in the industry, and education. Resthetics, a finalist for the 2018 MassChallenge accelerator in Austin, was able to expand its young company thanks in part to the connections made at the MassChallenge accelerator. Weisfeld and Hashim gained access to global mentor networks through the MassChallenge accelerator. Mentors helped them with manufacturing, quality management systems, and guided them as they developed Resthetics.

One of the primary differences between accelerators and business plan competitions is that accelerators offer intensive training and rigorous mentoring to push entrepreneurs to learn the ins and outs of running a business in the span of a few months. It's a hands-on crash course in business, and not for the weak at heart.

Brave souls can find Texas accelerators here.

Bang for your buck

So you've finally received the funding you need for your startup. Now what?

As a kid, my old man never let a teachable moment pass him by. After I spent ten bucks on a single Pog, my dad's new mission in life was to teach me the value of a dollar.

This lesson becomes all the more important after you finally receive funding for your startup. Weisfeld stresses the importance of budgeting after funding is acquired.

"What's the furthest you can go with the smallest amount of money?" asks Weisfeld.

Weisfeld opines that while you must be comfortable spending money, you also have to be confident with your budgeting strategy so that you spend each dollar as efficiently as possible as you take your product to market. After all, what funder is going to want to invest in someone who is wasteful with money?

Whether it's negotiating with vendors, outsourcing, cutting costs, or using independent contractors, it is incontrovertible that financial efficiency should be your next goal after you've finally acquired your startup funding. As Weisfeld proclaims, "Every dollar you spend should in turn create the same amount of value to the company."

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

Mark Clarke (left) and Wei-Chuan Shih were named among the National Academy of Inventors' inaugural class of senior members. Courtesy of the University of Houston

2 UH scientists receive prestigious national recognition for fostering innovation

top of the class

Two researchers at the University of Houston have been named to the inaugural class of senior members for the National Academy of Inventors. The new distinction recognizes the honorees for fostering innovation and educating and mentoring future innovators — as well as their contribution to science and technology.

The two UH honorees are Mark Clarke, associate provost for faculty development and faculty affairs, and Wei-Chuan Shih, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Both will be recognized at the eighth annual NAI meeting in Houston this April, a release from UH says.

"Dr. Clarke and Dr. Shih both have impressive records of producing impactful intellectual property and spurring innovation that is pertinent to the Houston region," Amr Elnashai, vice president of research and technology at UH, says in the release. "Their further efforts, including helping UH faculty commercialize technologies as well as working with graduate and undergraduate students to boost their entrepreneurial efforts, are a critical contribution to building the region's innovation ecosystem."

NAI named 65 total scientists from 37 universities as senior members. The scientists have been named on over 1,100 patents issued in the United States. Ten other Texas scientists made the inaugural class, representing Texas Tech university, Texas A&M University, Baylor College of Medicine, and University of Texas at Arlington.

The organization also has a fellowship program, in which UH has 12 current fellows.

Clarke has been at UH for over a decade and previously held the position of associate vice chancellor/vice president for technology transfer at the UH Division of Research, where he oversaw a portfolio of 360 technology patents, according to the release. Clarke has 13 patents to his name and previously worked at two startups — both commercialized technologies Clarke developed in his tenure at NASA then UH.

UH's other senior NIA member, Shih, has been granted 11 patents in the US. His NanoBioPhotonics Group has developed a number of sensing and imaging technologies and devices for biomedicine and environmental testing, among other fields. Shih, who has been at the university for over nine years, created a startup with a group of students called DotLens. The company produced and distributed lenses that could be used to convert a smartphone into a microphone.

A few months ago, a Houston scientist received international recognition when he

won the Nobel Prize for the cancer research he did for the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer center. Jim Allison won for his work in launching an effective new way to attack cancer by treating the immune system rather than the tumor.
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Houston expert: How to thrive as an employer amid The Great Resignation

guest column

With Baby Boomers and older generations exiting the workforce in droves and COVID-19 variants still straining hospitals and doctors’ offices, the health-care industry is experiencing its own “Great Resignation” at a time when health-care occupations are projected to add more jobs than any other occupational group.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook reports that “Employment in health-care occupations is projected to grow 16 percent from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations, adding about 2.6 million new jobs … mainly due to an aging population, leading to greater demand for health-care services.”

This greater demand might run into a supply issue if employers don’t act swiftly to find creative ways to retain and recruit their staffs. Today’s workforce knows its value and is no longer so easily enticed or satisfied with basic benefits packages. It’s an employee market and employers across all industries are having to step up and bring their A-game when it comes to retention and recruitment.

What you can do to up your ‘A-game’ in 2022

COVID has taught employers that they must change to survive. Spend the time now to develop a strategic plan that will allow you to adapt and improve throughout the year. Be sure to give yourself a cushion in your budget that will allow you to meet new employee demands as they arise and to be generous with relocation and sign-on incentives when you compete for top talent. You can later list these incentives in your job advertisements and highlight any other benefits that might capture interest and bring talent into your organization.

Start your recruitment and retention efforts with a survey of your staff. Find out what they really need and want from you, then try to find ways to meet their demands. Some simple ways for you to take care of your employees right now include:

Bring employees meals to their floor.

Hospitals are becoming filled up once again with sick patients and most are understaffed as employees are contracting COVID from patients. Treat your staff to healthy food—not cookies and cakes—allow them to really stop and take 15 minutes to breathe and fuel their body. This can be done twice or three times a week for each shift. Talk to them about food options or restrictions so that everyone feels like they can participate.

Bring in a counselor on a monthly basis that employees may access during their shift.

Providing this accessible, valuable resource will give your staff the opportunity to address their mental health and wellness and can help you reduce burnout among your ranks.

Allow at least one meeting a week to be focused solely on your employees.

Often the shift start-up meetings are rushed due to the day’s demands. Spend at least one of these meetings a week asking your team things like, “Where do you feel you impacted someone this week?” or ask everyone to share a personal achievement that has helped them personally keep going. This will help you build unity with your team and develop a more positive, empathetic relationship.

Provide bonus incentives to take on extra shifts.

There’s a lot of work to be done and often too few people to do it, so make it worth their while by offering a bonus for taking on more work than normal. You can also provide an option for them to earn overtime on a rotation so they can plan accordingly and still have opportunities for rest and a life balance.

Help relieve the stress of being in a high-risk environment by offering additional paid sick leave for a COVID-related absence.

The paid leave should be for the employee to quarantine at home and convalesce or care for an immediate family member who has the disease, and it should not take away from their accrued unused time off. Consult your HR advisor or attorney to find out whether paid sick leave is legally required in your jurisdiction.

Say “thank you.”

It may sound overly simple but just having the executive leadership go in and say thank you, shake hands, or even show up to a shift meeting can show the staff that their leadership cares about their hard work and recognizes the excellent care they are providing to their clients and patients. People in health care or associated service industries just want to know that they are making a difference, so share positive feedback from patients when you can. It matters.

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Denise Macik is the manager of strategic HR advisory services for G&A Partners, a leading professional employer organization that has been helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses for more than 25 years.

Houston 3D printing company closes latest round of funding, plans to hire

money moves

Roboze — an Italian high-performance 3D printing company with its U.S. headquarters in Houston — closed a multimillion-dollar round of funding this month with investments from an international group of leaders from diverse backgrounds.

Investors include Nova Capital, Lagfin, Andrea Guerra, Luigi De Vecchi, Roberto Ferraresi, Luca Giacometti, Denis Faccioli and others, according to a statement.

“We are honored to have a group of investors of this caliber, who strongly believe in the vision of Roboze and in the change of production paradigm that our technology is enabling by replacing metals and producing parts without wasting raw materials," Alessio Lorusso, founder and CEO of Roboze, said in a statement.

Roboze aims to put the funds towards the research and development of a new "super material" developed in the company's R&D facility in Italy, where the company is also building a new chemistry lab.

The company added that it will also be implementing an aggressive hiring plan in 2022, hiring 60 experts in the next 12 to 18 months in fields such as materials science, chemistry, business development, aerospace, medical devices, and field and applications engineering. Half of the new jobs will be based in the U.S. while the others are slated to be located in Italy and Germany.

Roboze specializes in manufacturing industrial 3D printing technology, such as its ARGO1000, which the company says is the largest printer of its kind. Through a process called Metal Replacement 3D Printing, the company uses super polymers and composites like PEEK and Carbon PEEK to create large-scale, end-use parts for an array of industries—from aeronautics equipment to medical manufacturing.

The company currently works with GE, Bosch, and Airbus, among others, and announced in the statement that manufacturing giant Siemens Energy acquired its first 3D printer from the company.

"We think additive manufacturing is playing a key role in digitalization and cost out in the energy sector. At Siemens Energy we evaluated many companies and found that Roboze technology for high temperature polymers has met our engineering qualification and expectations," Andrew Bridges, Service Frame Owner at Siemens Energy, said in a statement. "As a result, we acquired our first machine and look forward to expanding our relationship with Roboze."

Atlanta growth equity firm acquires Houston health care startup

M&A moves

A Houston-based startup specializing in minimally invasive vascular procedures has made an exit.

Fulcrum Equity Partners, based in Atlanta, has announced the acquisition of Texas Endovascular Associates, a specialty physician practice across five locations in the greater Houston area. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“We are excited to partner with the Texas Endovascular team to continue growing the impressive platform they have already built,” says Tom Greer of Fulcrum Equity Partners in a news release. “The company has created a differentiated service model and is well positioned to continue its growth in Texas. We look forward to building on this strong presence in the state as well as pursuing strategic acquisitions as we expand its geographical footprint.”

Fulcrum manages over $600 million in assets and provides expansion capital to rapidly growing companies within health care — including IT, B2B software, and more.

The new funding will spur Texas Endovascular's growth into its next phase of business.

“We knew that finding the right equity partner was critical to our long-term growth prospects,” said Sean Mullen, CEO of Texas Endovascular. “After an exhaustive search and after meeting with multiple prospective PE firms, we chose Fulcrum because of their healthcare experience, collaborative approach, and impressive track record. We are excited to enter this new chapter in our company’s life with Fulcrum as our partner."

The two entities collaborated with Founders Advisors LLC, a merger, acquisition, and strategic advisory firm serving middle-market companies.

“Working with the founders of the practice, Drs. Fox and Hardee, as well as the CEO, Sean Mullen, was a pleasure. The entire team at Texas Endovascular acted as a cohesive unit and persevered to find the right partner in Fulcrum," says Michael White, managing director at Founders Advisors. "We are grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this process and we are looking forward to the future of Texas Endovascular in partnership with Fulcrum”.