UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the trial. Photo via uth.edu

Aided by technology, medical sleuths at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston are tracking the long-term effects of COVID-19 as part of a national study.

At the heart of the study is an app that allows patients who have shown COVID-19 symptoms and have been tested for COVID-19 to voluntarily share their electronic health records with researchers. The researchers then can monitor long-term symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, depression, and cardiovascular problems.

UTHealth is one of eight U.S. sites for the INSPIRE trial (Innovative Support for Patients with SARS COV-2 Infections Registry). Researchers are recruiting study participants from Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. They want to expand recruitment to urgent care clinics in the Houston area.

Aside from accessing patients' data through the Hugo Health platform, UTHealth researchers will ask participants to fill out brief follow-up surveys every three months over the course of 18 months. The study complies with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the federal law that protects patients' information from being disclosed without their knowledge.

"This is a very novel and important study," Dr. Ryan Huebinger, assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School and co-principal investigator of the study, says in a news release.

In a study like this, researchers typically must see a patient in person or at least reach out to them.

"Using this platform is novel because we don't have to schedule additional appointments or ask questions like 'How long were you hospitalized?' – we can automatically see that in their records and survey submissions," Huebinger says.

Mandy Hill, associate professor in the McGovern Medical School's Department of Emergency Medicine and the study's co-principal investigator, says about one-fourth of the people in the study will be local residents who didn't test positive for COVID-19.

"That group will be our control group to be able to compare things like prevalence and risk factors," Huebinger says.

Eligible participants must be at least 18 years old, must have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, and must have been tested for COVID-19 in the past four weeks.

"This is not going to be the last pandemic. The more information we can gather across communities now will give us a leg up when the next pandemic happens," Hill says, "so that we can be more prepared to take steps toward prevention."

Researchers hope to sign up at least 300 study participants in Houston. The entire INSPIRE trial seeks to enroll 4,800 participants nationwide. The study is supposed to end in November 2022.

"There's such great potential for numerous research findings to come out of this study. We could find out if people in Houston are suffering from post-COVID-19 symptoms differently than other parts of the country, whether minorities are more affected by long-hauler symptoms, and if certain interventions work better than others," Hill says.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is financing the study. Aside from UTHealth, academic institutions involved in the research are:

  • University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas
  • Rush University Medical Center in Chicago
  • Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut
  • University of Washington in Seattle
  • Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • University of California, San Francisco
From biomolecular research to oral cancer immunotherapy, here are three research projects to watch out for in Houston. Photo via Getty Images

These 3 Houston researchers are revolutionizing health science innovation

research roundup

Research, perhaps now more than ever, is crucial to expanding and growing innovation in Houston — and it's happening across the city right under our noses.

In InnovationMap's latest roundup of research news, a couple local scientists are honored by awards while another duo of specialists tackle a new project.

University of Houston professor recognized with award

Mehmet Orman of UH has been selected to receive an award for his research on persister cells. Photo via UH.edu

Mehmet Orman, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation. The award comes with a $500,000 grant to study persister cells — cells that go dormant and then become tolerant to extraordinary levels of antibiotics.

"Nearly all bacterial cultures contain a small population of persister cells," says Orman in a news release. "Persisters are thought to be responsible for recurring chronic infections such as those of the urinary tract and for creating drug-resistant mutants."

Previously, Orman developed the first methods to directly measure the metabolism of persister cells. He also developed cell sorting strategies to segregate persisters from highly heterogeneous bacterial cell populations, and, according to the release, he will be using his methods in the NSF research project.

Houston researchers collaborate on oral cancer innovation

Dr. Simon Young of UTHealth and Jeffrey Hartgerink of Rice University are working on a new use for an innovative gel they developed. Photo via Rice.edu

Two Houston researchers — chemist and bioengineer Jeffrey Hartgerink at Rice University and Dr. Simon Young at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston — have again teamed up to advance their previous development of a sophisticated hydrogel called STINGel. This time, they are using it to destroy oral cancer tumors.

SynerGel combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors. Once there, the gel controls the release of its cargo to not only trigger cells' immune response but also to remove other suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment. The duo reported on the technology in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Biomaterials Science & Engineering.

SynerGel, combines a pair of antitumor agents into a gel that can be injected directly into tumors, where they not only control the release of the drugs but also remove suppressive immune cells from the tumor's microenvironment.

"We are really excited about this new material," Hartgerink says in a news release. "SynerGel is formulated from a specially synthesized peptide which itself acts as an enzyme inhibitor, but it also assembles into a nanofibrous gel that can entrap and release other drugs in a controlled fashion.

In 2018, the pair published research on the use of a multidomain peptide gel — the original STINGel — to deliver ADU-S100, an immunotherapy drug from a class of "stimulator of interferon gene (STING) agonists."

The research is supported by the Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Welch Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology.

Texas Heart Institute researcher honored by national organization

Dr. James Martin of Texas Heart Institute has been named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors. Photo courtesy of THI

The National Academy of Inventors have named Houston-based Texas Heart Institute's Dr. James Martin, director of the Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab, a senior member.

Martin is an internationally recognized developmental and regenerative biologist and his research is focused on understanding how signaling pathways are related to development and tissue regeneration.

"Dr. Martin has long been a steward of scientific advancement and has proven to be a tremendous asset to the Texas Heart Institute and to its Cardiomyocyte Renewal Lab through his efforts to translate fundamental biological discoveries in cardiac development and disease into novel treatment strategies for cardiac regeneration," says Dr. Darren Woodside, vice president for research at THI, in a news release. "Everyone at the Texas Heart Institute is thrilled for Dr. Martin, whose induction into the NAI as a Senior Member is well-deserved."

Martin has authored over 170 peer-reviewed papers in top journals he holds nine U.S. patents and applications, including one provisional application, all of which have been licensed to Yap Therapeutics, a company he co-founded.

The full list of incoming NAI Senior Members, which includes three professionals from the University of Houston, is available on the NAI website.

Houston-based Pulmotect announced a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense that will fund two COVID-19 drug trials. Photo via Getty Images

Houston biotech receives up to $6M federal grant for COVID-19 treatment

DOD delivered

The Pentagon is putting its financial power behind two COVID-19 clinical trials led by Houston-based biotech company Pulmotect Inc.

The U.S. Department of Defense is pumping as much as $6 million into the pair of Phase 2 trials, which involve a total of 300 U.S. participants, according to a January 27 news release from Pulmotect. When it's inhaled, Pulmotect's drug, PUL-042, stimulates the lungs' immune system to fight bacteria, viruses, or fungi that cause respiratory illnesses.

Pulmotect joins a number of Houston organizations that have tapped into Department of Defense funding for research into COVID-19 therapies.

In January, for instance, researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) collected $5.1 million from the department to evaluate whether an investigational oral drug, vadadustat, can help prevent acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) in COVID-19 patients.

"It's wonderful that we have COVID-19 vaccinations available now, but they won't directly help patients who are already sick in the hospital or who will become sick in the future," Dr. Holger Eltzschig, chairman of Department of Anesthesiology at UTHealth's McGovern Medical School, says in a news release.

Also in January, Houston-based clinical research organization Pharm-Olam LLC sealed a $36.3 million deal with the Department of Defense to conduct a clinical trial of an antibody treatment for inflammatory problems associated with COVID-19.

So far, Pulmotect's PUL-042 has shown promise in battling the coronaviruses that trigger MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) and SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome). The current trials related to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 are evaluating PUL-042's effect on prevention of infections and reducing the severity of the disease.

Pulmotect initially designed PUL-042 to treat and prevent respiratory complications in cancer patients. But once the coronavirus pandemic set in, the company pivoted to testing the effectiveness of its drug in combatting the virus that causes COVID-19. Last May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Pulmotect's COVID-19 trials.

Pulmotect says PUL-042 someday could be a therapy that's deployed during pandemics, epidemics, and bioterrorism attacks.

Invented at Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center and at Texas A&M University, PUL-042 has earned patents in 10 countries. The National Institutes of Health, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, and other organizations have supported R&D for PUL-042.

Founded in 2007, Pulmotect emerged from Houston's Fannin Innovation Studio, which nurtures early stage companies in the life sciences sector. In September 2019, the company brought aboard Dr. Colin Broom as CEO. He previously was CEO of an Irish biopharmaceutical company.

Thus far, Pulmotect has garnered about $18 million in equity and about $20 million in other funding.

Before the pandemic, Pulmotect was evaluating the effectiveness of PUL-042 in treating patients with mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who've been exposed to a respiratory virus.

COPD, which affects 30 million Americans, is the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S., according to the COPD Foundation. Pulmotect says 40 percent of COPD-related costs could be avoided by heading off complications and hospitalizations, which usually result from COPD problems caused by a bacterial or viral infection. In this context, the drug is meant to treat cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy whose weakened immune systems make them susceptible to pneumonia.

COVID-19-related stories topped this year's health tech trending articles on InnovationMap. Photo via Getty Images

Here are Houston's top 5 health innovation stories of the year

2020 in review

Editor's note: As 2020 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. The medical world has had a busy year amid the pandemic, and health tech innovation has never been more important. InnovationMap's top stories of the year included a new academic psychiatric hospital, Houston-based COVID-19 innovations, and more.

These 7 Houston health tech companies are providing COVID-19 solutions

These Houston startups have created health care-related solutions amid the coronavirus outbreak. Getty Images

It's all hands on deck in Houston in the battle against coronavirus — and local biotech startups have risen to the occasion.

From mental health solutions and online portals to virtual medicine and new treatments, these Houston companies have recently launched or pivoted to new options in health care. Click here to continue reading.

Houston to be home to the largest academic psychiatric hospital in the country

The UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center, set to open next year, will be unlike anything in Houston. Rendering courtesy of Perkins and Will

Film and TV portrayals of psychiatric hospitals have driven a narrative based in cold, clinical rooms and unwelcoming corridors. That picture couldn't be more inaccurate when it comes to Houston's first public mental health hospital in more than three decades. Breaking stigmas and setting a new bar for design, the UTHealth Behavioral Sciences Center is set to open its doors in late 2021.

UTHealth has brought on architecture firm Perkins and Will to design the upcoming mental health facility. The behavioral health campus will be the largest facility of its kind in the United States, becoming a place to train future physicians and specialists. Located near Texas Medical Center, the space will consist of two buildings connected by a glazed bridge, surrounded by a tranquil green space.

The 220,000-square-foot facility includes 264 new inpatient beds and will provide access to mental healthcare, substance use intervention and treatment, and medical care via integrated treatment programs. Click here to continue reading.

Photos: Houston Methodist opens new hub to showcase health tech of the future

The Center for Innovation at Houston Methodist has opened its new Technology Hub to showcase its efforts to advance digital health. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Houston Methodist is regularly exploring new digital health technologies, but, until recently, lacked a proper space to demonstrate their vision for the future of health care. Now, with the Center for Innovation's Technology Hub, the hospital has just that.

The tech hub opened earlier this month in Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center. The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more.

"Basically this space is like a laboratory for digital health innovations," says Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist. "It's an opportunity to bring doctors, administrators, and subject matter experts to talk through what digital health could be at Houston Methodist."

The tech hub has re-imagined the experiences patients have and demonstrated the effect technology can have in various experiences — from the waiting room or outpatient care to at-home health and a voice control-optimized patient room. There's a virtual reality demo room that showcases the hospital's use of VR for distraction therapy, as well as for a doctor to demonstrate a surgical procedure for his or her patient. Click here to continue reading.

Houston organization names 10 most promising life sciences startups

Here's which life science companies — in Houston and beyond — are ones to watch. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

Last week, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship gathered over 1,000 life science experts and attendees virtually for thought leadership as well as 40 company presentations.

The three-day 2020 Virtual Texas Life Science Forum was made possible through a partnership with BioHouston and support from Texas Medical Center and Insperity. At the close of the summit, several companies were recognized with awards.

Houston-based Starling Medical won the Michael E. DeBakey Memorial Life Science Award, established by BioHouston in honor of the groundbreaking Houston cardiovascular surgeon. The digital health device company is revolutionizing severe bladder dysfunction management with artificial intelligence.

Every year at the forum, the Rice Alliance names its 10 most promising companies working on developing innovative solutions in medical devices, digital health, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, and therapeutics. This year, Brad Burke, managing director of the Rice Alliance, says they had more applications to present than ever before. Additionally, the presenting companies — about half of which are Houston-based — have already raised more than $275 million in funding. Click here to continue reading.

Houston biotech company is creating a drug that could fight the coronavirus

Pulmotect, a clinical-stage biotechnology company based in Houston, is testing a drug that could be useful in mitigating the threats of the coronavirus, which is currently been recognized as a global health emergency. Getty Images

A drug being developed by a Houston biopharmaceutical company eventually could help combat what the World Health Organization has proclaimed a global health emergency.

Experiments conducted by clinical-stage biotechnology company Pulmotect Inc. show its PUL-042 inhaled drug has proven effective in protecting mice against two types of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Researchers performed those tests at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

In the Galveston experiments, a single inhaled dose of PUL-042 protected lab mice from the SARS virus, and it greatly reduced the amount of virus in their lungs after the mice became infected with SARS or MERS.

"With the risks of virulent coronaviruses and other threats increasing, as shown by the recent outbreak in Wuhan that has already spread from China to other countries including the United States, Pulmotect is optimistic that its immune-stimulating technology could be useful in mitigating the threats of current and emerging pathogens and protecting vulnerable populations," says CEO Dr. Colin Broom in a news release. Click here to continue reading.

Houston-area researchers are innovating health and wellness solutions every day — even focusing on non-pandemic-related issues. Photo via Getty Images

3 research innovations in health care to know about in Houston

Research roundup

Researchers across the world are coming up with innovative breakthroughs regarding the coronavirus, but Houston research institutions are also making health and wellness discoveries outside of COVID-19.

Here are three research innovations from Houston scientists from a new cardiac medical device to artificial intelligence-driven predictive technology for cirrhosis patients.

University of Houston's new implantable cardiac device

A UH researcher has designed a flexible device that can collect key information on the human heart. Photo via UH.edu

Cardiac implants and devices like pacemakers are either made with rigid materials that don't do the moving, beating heart any favors or the devices are made with soft materials but sacrifice the quality of information collected.

Researchers led by Cunjiang Yu, a University of Houston professor of mechanical engineering, have reported in Nature Electronics a new rubbery patch designed to collect electrophysiological activity, temperature, heartbeat and other indicators, while being flexible against the heart.

Yu, who is also a principal investigator with the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, is the author of the paper says it's the first time a device has both been flexible and accurate. The device, which generates energy from heart beats and doesn't need an external power source, can both collect information from multiple locations on the heart — also known as spatiotemporal mapping — but it can also offer therapeutic benefits such as electrical pacing and thermal ablation, according to the researchers.

"Unlike bioelectronics primarily based on rigid materials with mechanical structures that are stretchable on the macroscopic level, constructing bioelectronics out of materials with moduli matching those of the biological tissues suggests a promising route towards next-generational bioelectronics and biosensors that do not have a hard–soft interface for the heart and other organs," the researchers wrote. "Our rubbery epicardial patch is capable of multiplexed ECG mapping, strain and temperature sensing, electrical pacing, thermal ablation and energy harvesting functions."

Yu has worked on the development of fully rubbery electronics with sensing and other biological capabilities, including for use in robotic hands, skins and other devices.

Baylor College of Medicine's new tool to predict outcomes of cirrhosis

A new statistical model created from artificial intelligence can more accurately predict cirrhosis outcomes. Image via bcm.edu

Currently, the standard of care for cirrhosis patients is limited because physicians can't accurately predict long-term outcomes. But this might be changing thanks to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, the Michael E. DeBakey Veteran's Affairs Medical Center, and the Center for Innovations in Quality, Effectiveness and Safety (IQuESt).

According to their study are published in JAMA Network Open, the researchers developed a model using a blend of artificial intelligence and traditional statistical methods to produce a score better predicting mortality in cirrhosis.

"When we see patients in the clinic we want to guide them about their long-term outcomes. We wanted to create a tool using machine learning and artificial intelligence to improve the accuracy of prognosis, while maintaining ease of use in the clinic," says Dr. Fasiha Kanwal, the author of the study and professor of medicine and section chief of gastroenterology at Baylor, in a news release.

The scientists used data collected from patients at 130 hospitals and clinics — such as demographics, comorbidities, underlying risk factors and severity of liver disease — as well as comprehensive laboratory tests and medication data to create three different statistical models to predict risk of mortality.

"Machine learning and artificial intelligence is important. It did help us find the right risk factors to use, but we didn't need to use very complex models to get there. We were able to create the CiMM score that will work easier in the clinic and is more predictive of mortality than the existing method," says Kanwal.

The Cirrhosis Mortality Model (CiMM) performed the best and most accurately and was more predictive than the current prognostic model, known as the Model for End Stage Liver Disease with sodium (MELD-Na).

"This tool could make a big difference in providing patient-centered care. The CiMM score could be reassessed every time a patient comes into the clinic," Kanwal said. "Previously, we were unable to predict anything long term. But the CiMM score could give us an idea of how to manage disease for one, two and three years out."

UTHealth's $11 million grant to study multi-drug resistant infection factors

A local multi-institutional research team has received millions to study drug resistance. Photo via Getty Images

A program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston has received an $11 million grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to conduct this five-year study on why some critically ill patients develop multidrug-resistant infections.

The Dynamics of Colonization and Infection by Multidrug-Resistant Pathogens in Immunocompromised and Critically Ill Patients will enroll patients at both Memorial Hermann Hospital-Texas Medical Center and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

According to a news release, the research team will seek to explain the microbial, clinical, and antimicrobial resistance factors of three major multidrug-resistant pathogens: Vancomycin-resistant enterococci, Enterobacterales producing extended spectrum β-lactamases/carbapenemases, and Clostridioides difficile. Note: all three pathogens are resistant to antimicrobial treatment such as antibiotics.

"We want to learn more about how these three classes of organisms colonize the gastrointestinal tract of critically ill patients and, eventually, cause infections in these patient populations," says Dr. Cesar A. Arias, the study's principal investigator and professor of infectious disease at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.

UTHealth has created a clinic that will provide a myriad of expert physicians for patients still dealing with COVID-19 symptoms. Photo via Getty Images

New clinic in Houston opens to help patients recovering from COVID-19

post-COVID treatment

Houston's first clinic for treatment of patients still coping with symptoms of COVID-19 has opened at UT Physicians, the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

The clinic, part of the new UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence, is staffed by specialists in cardiology, general medicine, neurology, infectious disease, pulmonology, psychiatry, and otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose, and throat). Telehealth and in-person visits are available.

"The UTHealth COVID-19 Center of Excellence brings together our university's experts in adult and pediatric specialty care, public health, biomedical research, and big data analytics — all working to provide the best outcomes for our patients, the best public health and prevention practices for our community, and the best therapies for the virus' short- and long-term impacts," Dr. Giuseppe Colasurdo, president of UTHealth, says in an October 15 release.

Among other things, the COVID-19 Center of Excellence will work on developing reliable testing for the coronavirus, authenticating effective therapies, applying analytics and artificial intelligence to care and research, and collecting virus samples for a "biobank" to study how genetics affects the virus' severity.

Since the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists and physicians at McGovern Medical School have led clinical trials and treatment protocols, including one of the world's first double-lung transplants for a coronavirus patient. UTHealth is participating in some of the largest national clinical trials to help COVID-19 patients heal, such as studies to prevent progression of the disease and studies seeking proven treatments for critically ill patients.

In one of the country's first randomized clinical trials of its kind, an $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health is financing a UTHealth study of whether infusions of convalescent plasma can prevent the progression of COVID-19. Another research team is evaluating whether an oral HIF (hypoxia-inducible factor) inhibitor can protect the lungs of COVID-19 patients. The inhibitor is designed to trigger the body's protective response to low oxygen levels.

At the same time, researchers at UTHealth's Cizik School of Nursing are studying the socioeconomic and mental health effects of the virus on Hispanics, while members of the MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences are exploring how the time of day a medication is taken might help a COVID-19 patient. In addition, experts at UTHealth's School of Biomedical Informatics are using big data to fight COVID-19.

"Within our six schools, we have the broad expertise that has positioned us as one of the few universities to help our community, Texas and the country through the pandemic and beyond," says Michael Blackburn, executive vice president and chief academic officer of UTHealth. "That starts with amazing clinical care, COVID-19 trials, real-time translational research, and expert knowledge from our public health leaders."

The School of Public Health is leading establishment of a study to be conducted with partners throughout Southeast Texas to assess the virus' long-term consequences, determine factors that contribute to severe outcomes, and enable UTHealth experts to develop and use treatments more effectively. In addition, a community information exchange will be built to connect vulnerable populations with healthcare and social service providers.

"In these unprecedented times, the six schools at UTHealth are rapidly evolving the science and medical care for patients with COVID-19 and our community," says Dr. Bela Patel, vice dean of healthcare quality at McGovern Medical School. "Prevention, new therapeutics, and post-COVID-19 care for our patients with prolonged COVID-19 disease is the mission for the UTHealth Center of Excellence for COVID-19."

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Houston innovator joins VC world to increase her social impact

Q&A

Kelly Avant didn't exactly pave a linear career path for herself. After majoring in gender studies, volunteering in the Peace Corps, and even attending law school — she identified a way to make a bigger impact: venture capital.

"VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems," Avant tells InnovationMap.

Avant joined the Mercury Fund team last year as an MBA associate before joining full time as investment associate. Now, after completing her MBA from Rice University this month, Avant tells InnovationMap why she's excited about this new career in investment in a Q&A.

InnovationMap: From law school and the peace corps, what drew you to start a career in the VC world?

Kelly Avant: I graduated from Rice University with an MBA, starting scouting for an investment firm in my first year, and by the summer after my first year I was essentially working full-time interning with Mercury. But, I like to tell people about my undergraduate degree in gender studies and rhetoric from a little ski college in Colorado. If you meet someone else in venture capital with a degree in gender studies, please connect us, but I think I might be the only one. I’ll spare you what I used to think — and say — about business students, but I have really come full circle.

I always thought I would work in a nonprofit space, but after serving in Cambodia with the Peace Corps, working for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, and briefly attending Emory Law School with the intention of becoming a civil rights lawyer.I found that time and time again the root of the problem was a lack of resources. The world’s problems were not going to be solved with my idealism alone.

The problem with operating as a nonprofit in a capitalism is you basically always pandering to the interests of the donors. The NFL was a key sponsor of The National Domestic Violence Hotline. The United States has a complicated, to put it lightly, relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam. It became pretty clear that the donor/nonprofit relationship was oftentimes putting the wrong party in the driver’s seat. I was, and still am, very interested in alternative financing for nonprofits. I became convinced that the most exciting businesses were building solutions to the world’s problems while also turning a profit, which allows them to survive to have a sustainable positive impact.

VC is an awesome way to shape the future in a more positive way because you literally get to wire money to the most innovative thinkers, who are building solutions to the world’s problems.

IM: What are some companies you’re excited about?

KA: There are a couple super interesting founders I’ve met directly engaging with . To name a few: CiviTech, DonateStock, and Polco.

I’m very proud to work on mercury investments like Houston’s own, Topl, which has built an extremely lightweight and energy efficient Blockchain that enables tracking of ethical supply chains from the initial interaction.
I’m also excited about mercury’s investment in Zirtue, which enables relationship based peer to peer lending to solve the massive problem of predatory payday loans.

We have so many awesome founders in our portfolio. The best part about working in VC is meeting passionate innovators every day. I get excited to go to work everyday and help them to build better solutions.

IM: Why are you so passionate about bringing diversity and inclusion into Mercury?

KA: I love working with exciting, highly capable, super smart people. That category includes so many people who have been historically excluded. As an investment team member at Mercury, I do have a voice, and I have an obligation to use that voice to speak highly of the best people in rooms of influence.

IM: With your new role, what are you most focused on?

KA: In my new role, I am identifying and researching high potential investments. We’re building out a Mercury educational series to lift the veil of VC. We want to facilitate a series that gives all founders the basic skills to pass VC due diligence and have the opportunity to build the next innovative companies. My goal is ultimately to produce the best returns possible for our investors, and we can’t accomplish that goal unless we’re building out resources to meet the best founders and help them grow.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Houston college system plans to open $30M resiliency-focused center

to the rescue

Houston’s initiative to protect the city from catastrophes is getting a big boost from Houston Community College.

The college is developing the Resilience Center of Excellence to aid the city’s resilience campaign. At the heart of this project is the 65,000-square-foot, $30 million Resiliency Operations Center, which will be built on a five-acre site HCC’s Northeast campus. The complex is scheduled to open in 2024.

HCC estimates the operations center will train about 3,000 to 4,000 local first responders, including police officers and firefighters, during the first three years of operation. They’ll be instructed to prepare for, manage, and respond to weather, health and manmade hazards such as hurricanes, floods, fires, chemical spills, and winter freezes.

According to The Texas Tribune, the operations center will include flood-simulation features like a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders.

The college says the first-in-the-nation Resilience Center of Excellence will enable residents, employers, civic organizations, neighborhoods, and small businesses to obtain education and certification aimed at improving resilience efforts.

“Our objective is to protect the well-being of our citizens and our communities and increase economic stability,” Cesar Maldonado, chancellor of HCC, said when the project was announced.

Among the programs under the Resiliency Center of Excellence umbrella will be non-credit courses focusing on public safety and rescue, disaster management, medical triage, and debris removal.

Meanwhile, the basic Resilience 101 program will be available to businesses and community organizations, and the emergency response program is geared toward individuals, families, and neighborhoods.

HCC’s initiative meshes with the City of Houston’s Resilient Houston, a strategy launched in 2020 that’s designed to protect Houston against disasters. As part of this strategy, the city has hired a chief resilience and sustainability officer, Priya Zachariah.

“Every action we take and investment we make should continue to improve our collective ability to withstand the unexpected shocks and disruptions when they arrive — from hurricanes to global pandemics, to extreme heat or extreme cold,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said last year. “The time is now to stop doing things the way we’ve always done them because the threats are too unpredictable.”

In an InnovationMap guest column published in February 2021, Richard Seline, co-founder of the Houston-based Resilience Innovation Hub, wrote that the focus of resilience initiatives should be pre-disaster risk mitigation.

“There is still work to be done from a legislative and governmental perspective, but more and more innovators — especially in Houston — are proving to be essential in creating a better future for the next historic disaster we will face,” Seline wrote.