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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University of Houston powers up first robot food server in a U.S. restaurant

order up

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston innovator on seeing a greener future on built environment

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 162

An architect by trade, Anas Al Kassas says he was used to solving problems in his line of work. Each project architects take on requires building designers to be innovative and creative. A few years ago, Kassas took his problem-solving background into the entrepreneurship world to scale a process that allows for retrofitting window facades for energy efficiency.

“If you look at buildings today, they are the largest energy-consuming sector — more than industrial and more than transportation,” Kassas, founder and CEO of INOVUES, says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. “They account for up to 40 percent of energy consumption and carbon emissions.”

To meet their climate goals, companies within the built environment are making moves to transition to electric systems. This has to be done with energy efficiency in mind, otherwise it will result in grid instability.

"Energy efficiency goes hand in hand with energy transition," he explains.

Kassas says that he first had the idea for his company when he was living in Boston. He chose to start the business in Houston, attracted to the city by its central location, affordable labor market, and manufacturing opportunities here.

Last year, INOVUES raised its first round of funding — a $2.75 million seed round — to scale up the team and identify the best markets to target customers. Kassas says he was looking for regions with rising energy rates and sizable incentives for companies making energy efficient changes.

"We were able to now implement our technology in over 4 million square feet of building space — from Boston, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York City, Portland, and very soon in Canada," he says.

Notably missing from that list is any Texas cities. Kassas says that he believes Houston is a great city for startups and he has his operations and manufacturing is based here, but he's not yet seen the right opportunity and adaption

"Unfortunately most of our customers are not in Texas," "A lot of work can be done here to incentivize building owners. There are a lot of existing buildings and construction happening here, but there has to be more incentives."

Kassas shares more about his growth over the past year, as well as what he has planned for 2023 on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston SPAC announces merger with Beaumont-based tech company in deal valued at $100M

speaking of spacs

A Houston SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, has announced the company it plans to merge with in the new year.

Beaumont-based Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc., a provider of thermal imaging platforms, and Houston-based SportsMap Tech Acquisition Corp. (NASDAQ: SMAP), a publicly-traded SPAC with $117 million held in trust, announced their agreement for ICI to IPO via SPAC.

Originally announced in the fall of last year, the blank-check company is led by David Gow, CEO and chairman. Gow is also chairman and CEO of Gow Media, which owns digital media outlets SportsMap, CultureMap, and InnovationMap, as well as the SportsMap Radio Network, ESPN 97.5 and 92.5.

The deal will close in the first half of 2023, according to a news release, and the combined company will be renamed Infrared Cameras Holdings Inc. and will be listed on NASDAQ under a new ticker symbol.

“ICI is extremely excited to partner with David Gow and SportsMap as we continue to deliver our innovative software and hardware solutions," says Gary Strahan, founder and CEO of ICI, in the release. "We believe our software and sensor technology can change the way companies across industries perform predictive maintenance to ensure reliability, environmental integrity, and safety through AI and machine learning.”

Strahan will continue to serve as CEO of the combined company, and Gow will become chairman of the board. The transaction values the combined company at a pre-money equity valuation of $100 million, according to the release, and existing ICI shareholders will roll 100 percent of their equity into the combined company as part of the transaction.

“We believe ICI is poised for strong growth," Gow says in the release. "The company has a strong value proposition, detecting the overheating of equipment in industrial settings. ICI also has assembled a strong management team to execute on the opportunity. We are delighted to combine our SPAC with ICI.”

Founded in 1995, ICI provides infrared and imaging technology — as well as service, training, and equipment repairs — to various businesses and individuals across industries.