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

Houston-based startup Z3VR received a $500,000 grant from Baylor College of Medicine's Translational Research Institute for Space Health, or TRISH, last month to continue exploring how the wide world of virtual reality can boost mental and physical health for astronauts on a mission to Mars.

Founded in 2017 by a group of emerging tech enthusiasts, Z3VR discovered its niche in what CEO Josh Ruben calls the "intersection of biosensors and VR" and began consulting with TRISH in 2018. Last year, the company received its first funding from the institution to create virtual reality platforms that promote exercise and provide additional sensory experiences for isolated Mars-bound astronauts.

This new grant, however, takes Z3VR's mission one step farther. The year-long grant will allow Z3VR, in partnership with NASA labs in California and Houston, to further develop their VR platform to use eye movement tracking to identify cognitive, psychiatric, or ophthalmological issues before they arise.

Getting out ahead of issues is more important than ever on the Mission to Mars. Because of the duration and distance of the mission, these astronauts will be uniquely isolated and will face a communication lag of up to 45 minutes between space shuttle and command center.

"What that means from a health care perspective is that pretty much everything you need to treat and diagnose these astronauts needs to be self contained on the spacecraft itself," Ruben says. "The system that we are building is sensitive enough to pick up on these cognitive, ophthalmological, and psychiatric conditions well before they become clinically relevant. It'll be long before the astronaut knows there's a problem. That's the hope."

Known as the Oculometric Cognition Testing and Analysis in Virtual Environments (OCTAVE) approach, Z3VR's program is modeled after a system at the Visuomotor Control Lab at NASA Ames in California. In the lab, scientists can use high-frequency eye trackers to monitor 21 physiological properties that can point to early signs of mental and physical conditions. The goal is to shrink down the same trackers to fit not just on the spacecraft, but inside a VR headset.

Other VR companies have been able to implement eye tracking into their platforms for some time now — but not at this level of preciseness. Partnering engineers on the project will have to increase the image quality four fold and capture about 10 times the number of images per second in order to detect the minute eye movements Ruben and team are searching for.

Still, Ruben thinks VR is the ideal fit for this process. "When you are in a VR application, the developers have what is effectively total control of your entire sensory experience," he says. "If I am monitoring various aspects of your physiology while you're in a VR experience, I know that the way your body is reacting is directly a result of our VR experience."

Too, the team and Z3VR envisions that through their platform this type of cognitive tracking can be a passive process. While astronauts are using the devices to exercise or learn how to fix a problem on board, their program will be tracking their eye movement in the background — much like how your smart watch would track your heart rate — alerting the command center only when a problem arises.

For Ruben, this is their giant leap for mankind moment and how they can use their tool to make an impact for earth-bound individuals.

"We imagine a world where just by interacting with a game through one of these devices we are able to flag these neurological issues well before they are issues," he says.

Though their technology likely won't be put to use in space until the 2030s, the group is already in talks with academic institutions about partnering on their program for new clinical uses and is working with the FDA to bring in regulatory oversight, Ruben says.

"This TRISH funding means the world," he says. "Not only do we have these partnerships within NASA, which we expect will really help address these problems, but we are already taking the funds and putting them to work in the US healthcare system."

Oculus Go is enabling users to their canceled travels with a virtual getaway. Image courtesy of Oculus Go

Virtual reality app developed in Houston allows users to escape to far away lands

there's an app for that

While rising coronavirus cases in the area have canceled so many summer vacations, not all hope of sightseeing this summer is lost. A Houston entrepreneur has created a virtual alternative.

Houston-area industrial design startup, Armstrong Innovations launched two Oculus Go app games, aptly named 'Escape'. The VR app was designed with relaxation and meditation in mind but has doubled as a new way to relax and sightsee without leaving your home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The sights and sounds of our new app assist with mindfulness and meditation," says CEO and founder Derek Armstrong. "It's about focusing on the sights and sounds, especially with the virus growing. It's a quick getaway without having to physically go anywhere."

The project began a year ago and was completed in March — right at the start of stay-at-home orders that paralyzed everyday life before launching this month. The company's new array of Occulus Go experiences aims at easing the mind and spirits, but with the rise of coronavirus 'Escape' can also serve to calm frayed nerves.

The app is based on popular view master toys and stereoscopes from the 1800s that are reminiscent of exploration tools used over the years. There are two different experiences to choose from one named 'Escape: Roma' for its old-world inspired poolside lounge and another named 'Escape: Utopia', which brings outer space to life in front of an Oculus user's eyes.

"The app has already gotten a lot of traction in places where people are not able to go out in the world," says Armstrong. "It's so easy just to pop on your Oculus headset, open the app, and zone out or relax for a few minutes."

The local industrial design startup was founded in 2018, and it has already released a few music packs with tracks ranging from horror titles to 8-bit retro remakes for Unreal Engine projects, an advanced real-time 3D creation tool that serves as a game engine for creators to deliver interactive experiences. The music packs are a collection of audio assets made in collaboration with Epic Games.

"Our company is focused on creating engaging gamified experiences," says Armstrong. "The inspiration for our packs and now our new app came from my interest in treating PTSD and how virtual reality can help ease the symptoms of anxiety in some cases."

Armstrong, a Houston native, describes himself as a "maker of stuff," with previous experience in music production and a passion for design. According to him, his hometown is the best place to be.

"Houston really has everything you need, when it comes to new innovations and technology," says Armstrong. "I would prefer to have my business rooted in Houston rather than moving to a design startup hotspot."

Armstrong Innovations hopes to grow into new areas of the industrial design world, especially in military-driven technologies and other video game opportunities in the next year or so. Product keys for 'Escape' can be purchased online now, available worldwide for maximum relaxation.


Derek Armstrong, a Houston native, founded his design company, Armstrong Innovations. Photo courtesy of Oculus Go

Both commercial and residential real estate businesses have been greatly affected by social distancing mandate. These two Houston companies are using technology to help grow their business. Photo courtesy of Cameron Management

Houston real estate sector adapts new tech to stay competitive during coronavirus outbreak

virtual tools

As the coronavirus impacts foot traffic throughout businesses in Houston, the real estate world is ushering in digital resources to adapt to a socially distanced city.

Mike Miller, vice president of Ashlar Development, saw the growing threat of COVID-19 in early March and knew he and his team had to find new ways to engage prospective home buyers safely. By the time Houston County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the stay-at-home order, Ashlar Development had started the process of drafting a 360-degree interactive map for its northeast Houston community, The Groves, that would allow homebuyers to virtually tour the property.

"People were scared to come out of their homes, to touch model home door knobs, and walk-in and see a sales agent," says Miller, who noted the initial decline in foot traffic.

The interactive map debuted on The Groves' website on March 30, allowing users to experience the community through 35 different touchpoints. Website visitors can peruse nearby trails, the playground, pool, community amenities, and the local elementary school to immerse yourself in the community.

"One of our mantras at The Groves is to get outside. We encourage our residents to get outside and enjoy the community, enjoy the trails, and enjoy everything. What this [interactive map] does is it allows you to safely get outside from the safety of your home," he says.

Ashlar Development launched a virtual tour tool for its northeast Houston community. Image courtesy of Ashlar Development

Commercial real estate is also paving the way for innovation amid the pandemic. Houston-based real estate group, Cameron Management, unveiled its virtual 3D office tour on Monday. Partnering with Austin-based Swivel, a digital leasing platform for office space, the real estate group's latest venture will allow tenants and brokers the ability to take a 3-D virtual tour of suites.

The SaaS-based leasing application, AgileView, will feature 50,000 square feet comprised of 12 Cameron Management suites.

"We were looking to provide a tour to a broker, [or] to a broker's client, without anybody having to put themselves at any risk," says Jano Nixon Kelley, Cameron Management's director of marketing.

Kelley had built a strong relationship with the Swivel team prior to the coronavirus outbreak. When she learned of the capabilities of AgileView, "we jumped on it," she says.

"We were so pleased that they actually got the feeling for the building," Kelley says, "It doesn't look cookie cutter."

Another way both companies are getting creative is through digital marketing. Ashlar Development pivoted to digital advertising through paid media ads, email campaigns, and social media marketing. Rather than cutting its marketing budget, the community reallocated funds to building out the 360-degree interactive map and transitioning from print ads to digital display ads.

The response equated to what Miller deems an "incredible success." In the first week of launching the 360-degree interactive map, Ashlar Development saw a 3,000 percent increase in page views. The traffic resulted in a 1,200 percent increase in views to its "Meet the Builder" page, which features various home builders partnered with The Groves community. Since the tour launch, the company has seen a 220 percent increase in first-time visitors to its website.

Ashlar Development's significant web traffic isn't just a vanity number; Miller states that the Groves has seen a 116 percent increase in April sales as compared to last year. To date, the community is seeing approximately 30 percent in year-over-year sales since the stay-at-home order took effect.

Similar to Ashlar Development's approach, Kelley says Cameron Management utilized email marketing to launch her campaign. Cameron Management is also incentivizing brokers to use the application by hosting a two-week-long scavenger hunt for a chance to win an Amegy Bank debit card in an effort to support local business. "They can choose how to use their money, but hopefully they use it locally," says Kelley.

"Even if you're at home, [AgileView] gives you something visual to look at. Maybe you've got kids at home and can say, 'look, here's a game we can play together.' It's something to get people engaged," says Kelley.

"Office space needs for organizations of all sizes are modifying quickly, and likely will be changed for the long term. As the commercial real estate community adjusts to this new normal, there are still many unknowns," Kelley says. "At Cameron Management, we believe our differentiator is the ability to be nimble and pragmatic across all areas of our business—now and well beyond COVID-19," she continues.

For Ashlar Development, foot traffic has returned "almost back to normal," according to Miller, who attributes the rise to "pent up demand" once the stay-at-home order lifted.

"We're all kind of stuck in our houses, and our only outlet is to get outside and enjoy where you live," he says. "Our residents don't have to get in the car to enjoy a nearby county park, they can enjoy the community and the great outdoors right outside of their home," he says.

Miller himself recently bought a house from the comfort of his residence, electronically depositing his earnest money and signing for his future home.

"I think we're on the verge of a digital revolution in our industry," Miller says confidently. "Real estate has been slow to get into the digital realm, but I think this is going to force us to embrace technology."

Usually, Ashlar Development's selling point for The Groves is its access to "get outside." But, in a time of COVID-19, the company has optimized its technology to let home buying and touring stay inside for the time being. Photo courtesy of Ashlar Development

A Houston company focused on event production is helping its clients navigate a socially distant, increasingly digital time. Photo courtesy of VISION Production Group

Houston entrepreneur turns focus to digital connections during COVID-19 outbreak

Q&A

It's no secret that the events and conferences of the world have been hit hard by the coronavirus as everyone focuses on staying home and socially distant. But for a Houston entrepreneur who's worked for over a decade in event production, she sees an opportunity to advance her clients' digital presences.

Tracey Shappro, CEO and founder of Houston-based VISION Production Group, has had to reinvent the way brands and companies could interact with their audiences and get their message out.

"We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences," she tells InnovationMap. "And I think this position is really going to help our clients make the right decisions and [allow them to] have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences."

Shappro sat down with InnovationMap to talk about how to use technology to make events virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

InnovationMap: You’ve previously said you became a business owner, almost by accident. How did you decide to start a business?

Tracey Shappro: I never intended to be a business owner. I started the company, simply out of really a work ethic and a sense of responsibility. I had been working at another production company on staff for 13 years as their senior producer. One day the owner announced that he was shutting the doors down literally that same day, and I, like everyone else that worked at that company, was suddenly unemployed.

But at the same time, I was in the middle of producing all of these important projects for clients. There was just no way I was going to let these people down, and I put my own money into starting a company really quickly. I just thought I was going to finish these projects and then look for a full-time job. But, you know, fast forward that was 10 years ago.

VISION is celebrating our 10 year anniversary with a very impressive client roster started with one employee and we've grown to 10 people who are very talented producers and editors and the animators, and we have creative visual artists on staff. And through that time, we've also expanded our service offering from our core in video production to all types of event production services, and we've expanded it to interactive and virtual reality and augmented reality, projection mapping.

IM: VISION has been creating immersive experiences for Greater Houston Partnership, major sports events from the Super Bowl to the Houston Rodeo. How has technology like virtual and augmented reality and 3D mapping influenced Houston’s biggest events?

TS: Well, we're in the business of what I call experience design. We look at all the stakeholders, the clients, sponsors, attendees as the stakeholders or the audience, and we understand storytelling and the producing of content. We use all of that to create perspective and to create an experience and in tandem with that, we seek out the right presentation technology to exceed that goal to use technology to persuade, and influence opinions, change perceptions.

For all the clients that you just mentioned, we use appropriate technology, but it's not technology just for technology's sake. It has to have to work and it has to work for the audience and the intended audience, whether it's a live event, or a side of a building where we're doing projection mapping. These days, we're doing more streamed events or a pre-produced packaged event.

We're doing a lot of permanent installation and interactive touch and, and even augmented reality, which is taking off for a lot of corporate clients who are wanting to really showcase their projects or their products and how they work.

IM: The cancelation of the Houston Rodeo has affected many vendors and business owners. How has this affected VISION and its employees?

TS: Well, it's really strange and surreal across industries, many businesses and organizations are right now facing you know canceling or postponing their events or their meetings or conferences. These are engagements that they really depend on. All of these companies still have a need to get their message out and they still have a need to engage their customer and they need to sell the products or services and they need to enlist support for that.

None of that goes away. Right now this is an opportunity really for VISION to do what we do best. We help companies engage their target audiences in innovative and effective ways. We're encouraging our clients now to really shift their thinking. Instead of canceling their event, we're showing them how to reinvent their events into an alternate format.

At times when you can't meet face to face, it puts a need on more of the other things like pre-produced package events, and marketing and virtual meetings and all types of streamed events. All these things become even better business tools, and we have been in this business for a long time. It's really working with our clients to protect developing business.

We're taking the same experience that they want it to originate through live event execution and crafting it and reshaping it into a visual and sensory experience that they can still engage their audiences with remotely or bringing a brand to life remotely.

IM: As the coronavirus outbreak continues and people take social distancing measures seriously, how do you see this affecting projects for this year? How will you adapt?

TS: We actually have a pretty robust plan, in anticipation of all of this we assigned teams. We have a communication strategy, and it's in full gear for two to four weeks. So we were prepared to do all of this from home and remotely.

The thing that changes is some of the tools we use. Obviously, live events are not going to be the main focus right now, but there are other tools like staging and production. And so again, we shift to our virtual service offerings. And no matter what we're doing, clients will need our strategy. They need our producer services, they need our production management, and they need our expertise. It's just the end deliverable.

IM: How can technology help during this crisis? Does this expand or contract business?

TS: Technology is evolving. We know, it's our job to keep abreast of it. And we strive to stay one step ahead of it. And augmented reality and virtual reality is a great example. Several years ago, we went down the path of virtual reality and helped clients really understand that type of immersive experience. And then augmented reality really took off.

We've been leaders in offering all types of augmented reality services. It's really very exciting. It's like surfing the world, if you will, with your own layer, augmented reality over it. The possibilities are just endless.

But now looking at the situation we're in with the coronavirus all of these technologies are even more important. We've got to leverage all of these ways to communicate that are not based on group experiences. And I think this position is really, going to help our clients make the right decisions and they can have options on how they want to communicate and engage their audiences. We're working right now with two clients in a very progressive manner.

IM: What are those two projects and how have they pivoted?

TS: We're working with The Kinder Institute for Urban Research. Every year we produce their 1,800 attendees annual luncheon, showcasing Steven Kleinberg's renowned Houston area survey, which is a coveted piece of information and data that helps steer the community forward. We've shifted into producing and packaging their thought of it now into a pre-produced virtual experience that will air at the same time as the original luncheon. It will be available online in perpetuity for probably a year until the next one.

We're still able to use technology to still engage their audience and this will actually extend their audience to new audiences that may not have participated before, and we're also in pre-production of a broadcast version of the Holocaust Museum Houston's Moral Courage Award. It will be just like turning on a television show — we're taking them from the original goals of the live event and producing it into a 60-minute show that they can now send out to their attendees, who can still participate and we can still honor all these great amazing people who are deserving of the moral courage award. We can help them grow their audiences through virtual technology.

So again, what is the need? What is the goal, what is the best technology to use to create impact and to share brand stories? We can use our storytelling and capabilities and our production value for a really great experience for viewers at home who are watching this to be engaged in.

IM: What's next for VISION?

TS: We're going to do everything we can to help our clients in these very strange times. We're going to be leaders in helping them push out their objectives. We're going to step up and do what we can to help people communicate with you times like these, you know, communication is key. We do this for a living and we really want to help make a difference. We care. We know our clients care, and right now we're going to focus on helping our clients connect.

------

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

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

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

what's next for health care?

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.

"Part of this space is to change culture within the organization to promote this type of technology and really grow it because we think we can have some really positive impacts with our patients with these collaboration tools.

The space also features coworking space for industry experts — like Amazon or Microsoft — to come in to co-create, Sol says. Houston Methodist was also the first hospital in Houston to sign up for Apple Health's beta program.

Tours are open to industry professionals, vendors, and staff.

"We're excited for what the future can bring with this space," Sol tells InnovationMap.

Click through the slideshow to see some of the tech hub's rooms and the technology featured.

An interactive space

Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

The purpose of the new tech hub is to allow visitors to interact with technology Houston Methodist is exploring, as well as to tell the story of the hospital's innovations and its patients. The screen upon entry to the hub is one of the only 8K touch-screen monitors and allows a viewer to tap through to see a layout of the hub as well as to hear a story of one of Methodist's patients.

From a supercomputer making its debut in West Houston to a behind-the-scenes look at Amazon's artificial intelligence-enabled fulfillment center, these were Houston's top stories in tech. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Here were Houston's top 5 tech innovation stories of 2019

2019 in review

Editor's note: Houston had some big stories in technology this year, from a peek inside Amazon's artificial intelligence-enabled Houston facility and the opening of a new supercomputer to space-focused Houston startups and the future of virtual reality.

Massive data center officially opens just west of Houston

Matthew Lamont is managing director at DownUnder GeoSolutions' which just opened its new, powerful data center west of Houston. Courtesy of DUG

DownUnder GeoSolutions has officially opened its new data centre in Skybox Houston in Katy, Texas. It's being billed as one of the most powerful supercomputers on earth.

The center, which houses DUG's geophysical cloud service, DUG McCloud, celebrated its grand opening on Thursday, May 16. The company's data hall has 15 megawatts of power and resides in a building designed to withstand hurricane-force winds up to 190 mph.

A second, identical hall is already planned to be built out later this year. Together, the two machines will have a capacity of 650 petaflop, which is a measurement of computing speed that's equal to one thousand million million floating-point operations per second. Continue reading.

5 startups keeping Houston known as the Space City

Houston celebrated 50 years since the Apollo moon landing on July 20. Here are some startups that are going to be a part of the next 50 years of space tech in Houston. Photo via NASA.gov

This month, for the most part, has been looking back on the history Houston has as the Space City in honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing on July 20. While it's great to recognize the men and women who made this city the major player in space exploration that it is, there are still entrepreneurs today with space applications and experience that represent the future of the Space City. Continue reading.

How Amazon's Houston fulfillment center uses AI technology and robotics to move millions of products

From robotics to artificial intelligence, here's how Amazon gets its products to Houstonians in record time. Photo by Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Last summer, Amazon opened the doors to its North Houston distribution center — one of the company's 50 centers worldwide that uses automation and robotics to fulfill online orders.

The Pinto Business Park facility has millions of products in inventory across four floors. Products that are 25 pounds or less (nothing heavier is stocked at this location) pass through 20 miles of conveyor belts, 1,500 employees, and hundreds of robots.

The center also has daily tours open to the public. We recently visited to see for ourselves the process a product goes through at this Houston plant. From stowing to shipping, here's how packages go from your shopping cart to your front porch. Continue reading.

Developments in virtual reality technology are changing the workforce, say Houston experts

The solution to Houston's workforce problem might be right in front of our eyes. Getty Images

Everyone's job has training associated with it — from surgeons to construction crane operators — and there's a growing market need for faster, more thorough training of our workforce.

"The best way to learn how to do something, is to just get out and do it," says Eric Liga, co-founder of HoustonVR. "But there are a lot of reasons why you can't do that in certain types of training."

Augmented and virtual reality training programs are on the rise, and Liga cites safety, cost, and unpredictable work environments as some of these most obvious reasons reasons to pivot to training employees through extended reality. This type of training also provides portability and has proven higher retention, Liga says in his keynote speech at Station Houston's AR/VR discuss on April 25.

"You get a much higher retention rate when you actually go out and do something — physically going through the motions — than you do sitting in a classroom or reading a book," he says. Continue reading.

Recently renovated Downtown Houston office space snags leases from 2 tech companies

Main&Co's office space is now 100 percent leased. Courtesy of Main&Co

Two tech-focused companies moved into a newly developed office space in downtown Houston at the intersection of Main Street and Commerce Street. One company relocated its Houston office, and the other company has expanded to the city for the first time.

Oil and gas AI-enabled analytics platform, Ruths.ai relocated its downtown office to Main&Co, located at 114 Main St. The company has 8,457 square feet of office space in the recently renovated historic building.

Meanwhile, global robotics process automation company UiPath has expanded to build a Houston team. The computer software company is based in New York, but has a presence in 18 countries. The company's office has 5,187 square feet of Main&Co's office space. Continue reading.

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Here are 3 breakthrough innovations coming out of research at Houston institutions

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 projects, we look into studies on robotics advancing stroke patient rehabilitation, the future of opioid-free surgery, and a breakthrough in recycling plastics.

The University of Houston's research on enhancing stroke rehabilitation

A clinical trial from a team at UH found that stroke survivors gained clinically significant arm movement and control by using an external robotic device powered by the patients' own brains. Image via UH.edu

A researcher at the University of Houston has seen positive results on using his robotics on stroke survivors for rehabilitation. Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal, director of UH's Non-Invasive Brain Machine Interface Systems Laboratory, recently published the results of the clinical trial in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical.

The testing proved that most patients retained the benefits for at least two months after the therapy sessions ended, according to a press release from UH, and suggested even more potential in the long term. The study equipped stroke survivors who have limited movement in one arm with a computer program that captures brain activity to determine the subject's intentions and then works with a robotic device affixed to the affected arm, to move in response to those intentions.

"This is a novel way to measure what is going on in the brain in response to therapeutic intervention," says Dr. Gerard Francisco, professor and chair of physical medicine and rehabilitation at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and co-principal investigator, in the release.

"This study suggested that certain types of intervention, in this case using the upper robot, can trigger certain parts of brain to develop the intention to move," he continues. "In the future, this means we can augment existing therapy programs by paying more attention to the importance of engaging certain parts of the brain that can magnify the response to therapy."

The trial was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and Mission Connect, part of the TIRR Foundation. Contreras-Vidal is working on a longer term project with a National Science Foundation grant in order to design a low-cost system that would allow people to continue the treatments at home.

"If we are able to send them home with a device, they can use it for life," he says in the release.

Baylor College of Medicine's work toward opioid-free surgery

A local doctor is focused on opioid-free options. Photo via Getty Images

In light of a national opioid crisis and more and more data demonstrating the negative effects of the drugs, a Baylor College of Medicine orthopedic surgeon has been working to offer opioid-free surgery recovery to his patients.

"Thanks to a number of refinements, we are now able to perform hip and knee replacements, ranging from straightforward to very complex cases, without patients requiring a single opioid pill," says Dr. Mohamad Halawi, associate professor and chief quality officer in the Joseph Barnhart Department of Orthopedic Surgery, in a press release.

"Pain is one of patients' greatest fears when undergoing surgery, understandably so," Halawi continues. "Today, most patients wake up from surgery very comfortable. Gone are the days of trying to catch up with severe pain. It was a vicious cycle with patients paying the price in terms of longer hospitalization, slower recovery and myriad adverse events."

Halawi explains that his work focuses on preventative measures ahead of pain occurring as well as cutting out opioids before surgery.

"Opioid-free surgery is the way of the future, and it has become a standard of care in my practice," he says. "The ability to provide safer and faster recovery to all patients regardless of their surgical complexity is gratifying. I want to make sure that pain is one less thing for patients to worry about during their recovery."

Rice University's breakthrough on recycling plastics

A team of scientists have found a use for a material that comes out of plastics recycling.

Houston scientists has found a new use for an otherwise useless byproduct that comes from recycling plastics. Rice University chemist James Tour has discovered that turbostratic graphene flakes can be produced from pyrolyzed plastic ash, and those flakes can then be added to other substances like films of polyvinyl alcohol that better resist water in packaging and cement paste and concrete, as well as strengthen the material.

"This work enhances the circular economy for plastics," Tour says in a press release. "So much plastic waste is subject to pyrolysis in an effort to convert it back to monomers and oils. The monomers are used in repolymerization to make new plastics, and the oils are used in a variety of other applications. But there is always a remaining 10% to 20% ash that's valueless and is generally sent to landfills.

Tour's research has appeared in the journal Carbon. The co-authors of the study include Rice graduate students Jacob Beckham, Weiyin Chen and Prabhas Hundi and postdoctoral researcher Duy Xuan Luong, and Shivaranjan Raghuraman and Rouzbeh Shahsavari of C-Crete Technologies. The National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and the Department of Energy supported the research.

"Recyclers do not turn large profits due to cheap oil prices, so only about 15% of all plastic gets recycled," said Rice graduate student Kevin Wyss, lead author of the study. "I wanted to combat both of these problems."

Houston biotech startup raises millions to battle pediatric cancer

fresh funds

Allterum Therapeutics Inc. has built a healthy launchpad for clinical trials of an immunotherapy being developed to fight a rare form of pediatric cancer.

The Houston startup recently collected $1.8 million in seed funding through an investor group associated with Houston-based Fannin Innovation Studio, which focuses on commercializing biotech and medtech discoveries. Allterum has also brought aboard pediatric oncologist Dr. Philip Breitfeld as its chief medical officer. And the startup, a Fannin spinout, has received a $2.9 million grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas.

The funding and Breitfeld's expertise will help Allterum prepare for clinical trials of 4A10, a monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of cancers that "express" the interleukin-7 receptor (IL7R) gene. These cancers include pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and some solid-tumor diseases. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted "orphan drug" and "rare pediatric disease" designations to Allterum's monoclonal antibody therapy.

If the phrase "monoclonal antibody therapy" sounds familiar, that's because the FDA has authorized emergency use of this therapy for treatment of COVID-19. In early January, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced the start of a large-scale clinical trial to evaluate monoclonal antibody therapy for treatment of mild and moderate cases of COVID-19.

Fannin Innovation Studio holds exclusive licensing for Allterum's antibody therapy, developed at the National Cancer Institute. Aside from the cancer institute, Allterum's partners in advancing this technology include the Therapeutic Alliance for Children's Leukemia, Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Children's Hospital, Children's Oncology Group, and Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Although many pediatric patients with ALL respond well to standard chemotherapy, some patients continue to grapple with the disease. In particular, patients whose T-cell ALL has returned don't have effective standard therapies available to them. Similarly, patients with one type of B-cell ALL may not benefit from current therapies. Allterum's antibody therapy is designed to effectively treat those patients.

Later this year, Allterum plans to seek FDA approval to proceed with concurrent first- and second-phase clinical trials for its immunotherapy, says Dr. Atul Varadhachary, managing partner of Fannin Innovation Studio, and president and CEO of Allterum. The cash Allterum has on hand now will go toward pretrial work. That will include the manufacturing of the antibody therapy by Japan's Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, which operates a facility in College Station.

"The process of making a monoclonal antibody ready to give to patients is actually quite expensive," says Varadhachary, adding that Allterum will need to raise more money to carry out the clinical trials.

The global market for monoclonal antibody therapies is projected to exceed $350 billion by 2027, Fortune Business Insight says. The continued growth of these products "is expected to be a major driver of overall biopharmaceutical product sales," according to a review published last year in the Journal of Biomedical Science.

One benefit of these antibody therapies, delivered through IV-delivered infusions, is that they tend to cause fewer side effects than chemotherapy drugs, the American Cancer Society says.

"Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-produced molecules engineered to serve as substitute antibodies that can restore, enhance or mimic the immune system's attack on cancer cells. They are designed to bind to antigens that are generally more numerous on the surface of cancer cells than healthy cells," the Mayo Clinic says.

Varadhachary says that unlike chemotherapy, monoclonal antibody therapy takes aim at specific targets. Therefore, monoclonal antibody therapy typically doesn't broadly harm healthy cells the way chemotherapy does.

Allterum's clinical trials initially will involve children with ALL, he says, but eventually will pivot to children and adults with other kinds of cancer. Varadhachary believes the initial trials may be the first cancer therapy trials to ever start with children.

"Our collaborators are excited about that because, more often than not, the cancer drugs for children are ones that were first developed for adults and then you extend them to children," he says. "We're quite pleased to be able to do something that's going to be important to children."

Houston expert calls for more innovation within the construction industry

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The construction industry has the opportunity to drive positive change through the development and deployment of technologies influencing the way we work and live, ultimately affecting our environment, communities, and personal well-being.

Carbon emissions come from a handful of broad categories, including transportation, electricity production, and industry. According to the International Energy Agency, more than a third of all global greenhouse gases come from the building and construction industry. Concrete production alone contributes an estimated 8 percent of global carbon emissions. As a result, in Houston, we are vulnerable to longer, hotter summers, stronger hurricanes and once-in-a-lifetime storms. But I'm optimistic that there is opportunity for our industry to come together and reverse the current trajectory.

We must continue developing and deploying new technologies and best practices to reduce emissions. By using data to understand the environmental implications of the materials we use, we can make adjustments that are beneficial to both our clients and the environment.

One such example is the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, known as "EC3." Skanska USA developed the open-source, freely available software in collaboration with Microsoft and C Change Labs. The tool democratizes important building data and allows the construction industry to calculate and evaluate carbon emissions associated with various building materials.

Now hosted and managed by Building Transparency, a new 501c3 organization, the EC3 tool was incubated at the Carbon Leadership Forum with input from nearly 50 industry partners. Like the tech industry, we should promote knowledge-sharing among general contractors to drive innovation and sustainability.

The demand for this tool is growing because it's not only the right thing to do, but it also benefits our communities and drives stakeholder value. Now more than ever, clients want to be responsible global citizens and they know that adopting green building practices is attractive to their prospective workforce and their clients and customers.

In Houston, the current population of 7.1 million will double to 14.2 million by 2050. With that population growth comes the need for more housing, more office space and more transportation options. Last April, Houston enacted a climate action plan that sets goals aligned with those from the Paris accord — carbon neutrality by 2050.

Similar local plans have been and are continually being developed all around the world, a necessary step to address a global issue that impacts all of us. Like others, the Houston plan contemplates how to reduce carbon emissions that are the result of energy consumption which accounts for about half of Houston's greenhouse-gas emissions.

Innovations in energy efficiency can help drive down energy consumption. As conscientious global and local citizens, we also have to consider the emissions that are created by the raw materials that are used in construction. That's become a much easier process with the EC3 tool. Now architects, engineers and others involved in the design process can make data-driven decisions that can have significant impact on the carbon footprint — as much as a 30 percent reduction in embodied carbon — of a structure that are mostly cost-neutral.

Embodied-carbon reductions can be made simply by smartly using data. The EC3 tool is one of many steps toward innovative building practices and complements the important ongoing work done by the U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees LEED certification.

Opting for sustainable building practices is good for the environment, but it's also good for the people who will spend time in these spaces. Green building reduces the use of toxic materials, and studies have found that sustainable structures, such as schools, health care facilities and airports, have positive impacts on cognitive ability, seasonal affective disorder and overall happiness.

We are also seeing an influx of client requests for sustainable and healthy building upgrades, especially since the onset of COVID-19. These upgrades are changing the way we live and work while supporting infection control, from touchless elevators to advanced air filtration systems.

For example, innovation has been instrumental throughout the pandemic for the aviation industry's safe operation. Increased biometrics across airport touchpoints, flexible passenger gathering areas that include modifications to passenger hold rooms and departure lounges, and environmental monitoring and wayfinding technology to alert passengers of airport congestion points are a few new concepts airports are incorporating into builds to keep travelers healthy now and in a post-COVID world.

Overall, the construction sector will play an essential role in how we approach expanding the built environment over the next 30 years. Using data and striving for continual innovation, we have a great opportunity to come together as an industry and create real change that will benefit our collective lives and those of generations to come.

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Dennis Yung is executive vice president and general manager at
Skanska, one of the world's leading project development and construction groups, where he oversees building operations for Houston and North Texas.