A COVID-19 research breakthrough out of a Texas university comes from unlikely source

have you heard the one about the llama?

COVID-19 antibody research coming out of the University of Texas stars an unlikely participant: A llama named Winter. University of Texas at Austin/Facebook

In the race to find a treatment for the novel coronavirus, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have announced a potential breakthrough — thanks to a llama.

Scientists from Texas' flagship university who have been collaborating with the National Institutes of Health and Ghent University in Belgium identified an antibody treatment that could potentially neutralize the virus that causes COVID-19.

The researchers detail their work in the May 5 edition of Cell, a scientific journal.

"This is one of the first antibodies known to neutralize SARS-CoV-2," said Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin and co-senior author of the paper, in a release. (FYI, SARS-CoV-2 is referring to the virus that causes COVID-19.)

Using a Belgian llama named Winter, scientists were able to identify two antibodies the animal produces when it comes into contact with a foreign body (such as the coronavirus). The first is similar to a human antibody and the second is much smaller, about one-quarter of the size of the other.

This is Winter. Photo courtesy of University of Texas at Austin

Researchers were able to link two copies of this special llama antibody to create a new antibody. This new antibody binds tightly to a key protein on the coronavirus germ that causes COVID-19 and could possible be nebulized and put into an inhaler.

"That makes them potentially really interesting as a drug for a respiratory pathogen because you're delivering it right to the site of infection," said Daniel Wrapp, a UT graduate student in McLellan's lab and co-first author of the paper.

Unlike vaccines, which can take up to two months to take effect, antibody treatment can be used in more vulnerable populations as a way to fight off the virus.

"Vaccines have to be given a month or two before infection to provide protection," McLellan said. "With antibody therapies, you're directly giving somebody the protective antibodies and so, immediately after treatment, they should be protected. The antibodies could also be used to treat somebody who is already sick to lessen the severity of the disease."

From here, research turns to preclinical studies, using hamsters and primates for testing. If successful, they will move onto humans.

If you're wondering just how a group of researchers living in different parts of the globe were able to make this discovery seemingly overnight, that's because they've actually been working on it since 2016, when Winter was just 9 months old.

The experiment began as a way to develop vaccinations for two earlier versions of the coronavirus: SARS-CoV-1 and MERS-CoV. Their years of research allowed the scientists to pivot in recent months to isolating the protein in COVID-19.

As for Winter, she's now 4 years old and still lives with about 130 llamas on a farm in Belgium, likely unaware of her contribution to potentially altering the course of COVID-19 forever.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Coding camps continue to grow and expand in Houston. The most recent comes from the University of Texas. Getty Images

UT coding camp emerges in Houston as the city grows its tech and innovation ecosystem

Up to code

As Houston's innovation ecosystem grows, the need for tech talent grows too. It's why the University of Texas and workforce accelerator Trilogy Education decided to bring a series of coding boot camps designed to teach Houstonians the skills they need to excel in the fast-paced world of the tech economy to town.

"Too many working adults lack the skills to succeed in the digital economy," says Liliya Spinazzola, the senior director for professional education and strategic initiatives at the Texas Extended Campus of The University of Texas at Austin. "And that means that employers are lacking a talent pool."

The Houston Coding Boot Camp aims to change all that. The 24-week sessions teach web development and coding skills, allowing adults to take classes even as they're working. That kind of flexibility helps them increase their knowledge as they continue to build career paths.

Houston's seen a good amount of growth when it comes to new coding camps. Digital Crafts, for instance, grew from an inaugural class of eight students to 125 people in just two years. Women Who Code saw a need for female coders in Houston to have a network, and now the city has a newly launched chapter.

Student success
So far, 260 students have completed the programs, going on to work at companies such as JP Morgan, IBM, and Deloitte.

One of those is Rebecca Gemeinhardt, now a full stack developer at Shell. She graduated with her bachelor's in graphic arts from the Kansas City Art Institute in 2017, and found that she missed being in a classroom. When she started the boot camp, she was immediately drawn to the challenge the subject matter offered, as well as the flexible schedule.

"The boot camp was just as formidable as the curriculum promised but extremely fulfilling," she says. "Going into boot camp, I didn't tell anyone I was doing it — what if I struggled and couldn't get through it? I kept it a secret until I found the confidence to identify as a developer."

Once she completed the program, she was hired at Shell.

"My life had changed so much in just six months but definitely for the better," Gemeinhardt says. "By focusing on the ability to adopt new technologies, [the coding boot camp instructors] left us with the invaluable skill of being adaptable and fast-learning full stack developers. This has helped me immensely at my current position as we are always incorporating new languages to our architecture depending on individual project needs."

Filling the need
Spinazzola says the camps deliberately try to create environments that foster the level of problem solving and exploration Gemeinhardt describes. The program partners with employers to discover what skills are most needed, and tailors the curriculum to dovetail with them. She says the skills most in demand right now are coding, cyber security, IT project management, and digital marketing.

"We also look at job description data here in Texas to see what skills are listed," she says. "And while students are in the program, we have a robust network that engages with them upfront, talking to them about what jobs are out there. And we host career fairs where they can show off their portfolios and discuss their skills set with potential employers."

Spinazzola says that students come from all walks of life and employment backgrounds, and that 26 percent of the participants are women. With 25 students per boot camp session, the small classes make for deep instruction. UT offers between three and fours sessions in Houston each year. She says that she finds participants are looking to either break into the tech sector, learn new skills or re-train to be able to advance their careers. The average age of students is somewhere in the low-30s, she says.

"We had a student who owned a cooking school and wanted to start a new career," she says. "[Rebecca] trained as a graphic artist and wanted to be a developer. One student shut down his medical practice and says that he wanted to learn coding so that he could go work for a pharmaceutical company. To me, that's the beauty of this program. These skills are in demand, and our students are able to take what they already know and enhance their abilities to be able to take on new career paths."

The University of Texas System scooted up three spots from 2017. University of Texas at Austin/Facebook

University of Texas ranks as one of the world's most innovative schools

Hook 'em

A new ranking from Reuters has placed the University of Texas System among the world's most innovative universities.

According to an October 11 release, the Reuters Top 100: The World's Most Innovative Universities "identifies and ranks the educational institutions doing the most to advance science, invent new technologies and power new markets and industries." The UT System ranked No. 6 out of the 100 best in the world. The 2018 ranking is a jump up from its No. 9 spot in 2017.

In addition to the flagship University of Texas at Austin, the system is comprised of seven other public universities across the state as well as six health institutions. Reuters notes that because of how the UT System reports on innovation, it assessed the entire enterprise rather than individual universities.

As a whole, the UT System boasts an impressive number of accolades that helped it scoot up three spots. As Reuters notes, chief among these accolades is the National Science Foundation's $60 million grant to the Texas Advanced Computing Center at the University of Texas at Austin to build a supercomputer and the system's $2.7 billion in annual research expenditures. (Not to mention numerous Nobel Laureates among both faculty and alumni.)

Overall, the U.S. dominated the list, claiming 46 out of the 100 spots. Rounding out the top 10 for 2018 is: No. 1, Stanford University; No. 2, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; No. 3, Harvard University; No. 4, University of Pennsylvania; No. 5, University of Washington; No. 7, Belgium's KU Leuven, No. 8, U.K.'s Imperial College London; No. 9, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and No. 10, Vanderbilt University.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

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Looking back: Top 5 most-read Houston research-focused stories of 2021

2022 in review

Editor's note: As 2022 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. In many cases, innovative startups originate from meticulous research deep within institutions. This past year, InnovationMap featured stories on these research institutions — from their breakthrough innovations to funding fueling it all. Here are five Houston research-focused articles that stood out to readers this year — be sure to click through to read the full story.


Texas nonprofit cancer research funder doles out millions to health professionals moving to Houston

These cancer research professionals just got fresh funding from a statewide organization. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Thanks in part to multimillion-dollar grants from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, two top-flight cancer researchers are taking key positions at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Pavan Reddy and Dr. Michael Taylor each recently received a grant of $6 million from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas.

Reddy is leaving his position as chief of hematology-oncology and deputy director at the University of Michigan’s Rogel Cancer Center to become director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Dan L. Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center. Dr. C. Kent Osborne stepped down as the center’s director in 2020; Dr. Helen Heslop has been the interim director. Continue reading.

Rice University deploys grant funding to 9 innovative Houston research projects

Nine research projects at Rice University have been granted $25,000 to advance their innovative solutions. Photo courtesy of Rice

Over a dozen Houston researchers wrapped up 2021 with the news of fresh funding thanks to an initiative and investment fund from Rice University.

The Technology Development Fund is a part of the university’s Creative Ventures initiative, which has awarded more than $4 million in grants since its inception in 2016. Rice's Office of Technology Transfer orchestrated the $25,000 grants across nine projects. Submissions were accepted through October and the winners were announced a few weeks ago. Continue reading.

Houston researchers create unprecedented solar energy technology that improves on efficiency

Two researchers out of the University of Houston have ideated a way to efficiently harvest carbon-free energy 24 hours a day. Photo via Getty Images

Two Houstonians have developed a new system of harvesting solar energy more efficiently.

Bo Zhao, the Kalsi Assistant Professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Houston, along with his doctoral student Sina Jafari Ghalekohneh, have created a technology that theoretically allows solar energy to be harvested to the thermodynamic limit, which is the absolute maximum rate sunlight can be converted into electricity, as reported in a September article for Physical Review Applied.

Traditional solar thermophotovoltaics (STPVs), or the engines used to extract electrical power from thermal radiation, run at an efficiency limit of 85.4 percent, according to a statement from UH. Zhao and Ghalekohneh's system was able to reach a rate of 93.3 percent, also known as the Landsberg Limit. Continue reading.

Texas A&M receives $10M to create cybersecurity research program

Texas A&M University has announced a new cybersecurity-focused initiative. Photo via tamu.edu

Texas A&M University has launched an institute for research and education regarding cybersecurity.

The Texas A&M Global Cyber Research Institute is a collaboration between the university and a Texas A&M University System engineering research agency, the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station. The research agency and Texas A&M are also home to the Texas A&M Cybersecurity Center.

The institute is funded by $10 million in gifts from former Texas A&M student Ray Rothrock, a venture capitalist and cybersecurity expert, and other donors. Continue reading.

Houston research organization doles out $28M in grants to innovators across Texas

Houston-based Welch Foundation has awarded almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. Photo via Getty Images

Chemical researchers at seven institutions in the Houston area are receiving nearly $12.9 million grants from the Houston-based Welch Foundation.

In the Houston area, 43 grants are going to seven institutions:

  • Baylor College of Medicine
  • Rice University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas A&M University Health Science Center
  • University of Houston
  • University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
  • University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston

The Welch Foundation is awarding almost $28 million in chemical research grants throughout Texas this year. The money will be allocated over a three-year period. Continue reading.

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.