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

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.

Houston Methodist is researching the effect of virtual reality on cancer patients. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist is tapping into virtual reality technologies to ease the pain for cancer patients

VR to the rescue

Virtual reality goes far beyond playing games with titles like Arizona Sunshine, Moss, Robo Recall, and Tetris Effect. VR also is playing an ever-growing role in health care settings. The global market for VR in health care could reach $3.8 billion in 2020, according to one estimate.

VR is touching all corners of heath, including robotic surgeries, training, pain management, and behavior modification, according to InterbrandHealth, a health care branding agency. And these technologies are happening right here in Houston.

Researchers at Houston Methodist Cancer Center are exploring whether exposure to nature, through either a real garden or VR, can ease pain and distress in cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. This approach might decrease the need for prescription painkillers.

Houston Methodist and Texas A&M University are leading this test. Renee Stubbins, a clinical dietitian at Houston Methodist Cancer Center, and Ashley Verzwyvelt, an infusion oncology nurse at the cancer center, proposed the research after several years of studying ways that nature can boost the healing process.

"Anything that affects our patients' comfort — including easing pain and anxiety, and possibly reducing the need for pain medications — is important to their recovery," Stubbins says in a release. "People have an innate connection to nature, and we hope the patients will respond positively."

Three dozen cancer patients receiving chemotherapy infusions every two weeks during at least six cycles will be randomly assigned to one of three rooms: a live-garden-view room; a window-less room, and a room where nature can be experienced through a VR headset.

Teaming up with Houston-based Skyline Art Services, local artist Gonzo247 produced a nature-inspired mural on a wall behind the live garden to create an immersive environment. The mural depicts a flowering garden, blue sky and sunset that enhance the live garden of Texas wildflowers in the foreground.

Researchers will measure pain, distress, blood pressure, heart rate, and saliva cortisol at the beginning and end of each infusion visit. Saliva cortisol, a hormone produced when the body is stressed, helps gauge a patient's condition.

"If this study proves that real or virtual elements of nature help the healing process, then it has potential to positively impact our patients," Verzwyvelt says. "Some of them are hesitant to take pain medication due to concerns of addiction and adverse side effects, so I'm excited to see the possibilities this kind of research could bring."

Houston Methodist Cancer Center says the VR experiment could have implications for treatment of an array of patients who are immobile or whose immune systems are compromised.

"We looked at multiple studies that showed exposure to nature can reduce stress levels and actually increase productivity and creativity," says Ann McNamara, associate professor in the Department of Visualization at Texas A&M. "We want to see if we can reproduce those effects in a natural environment in virtual reality."

The study is being financed by the Center for Health & Nature, a joint initiative of Houston Methodist, Texas A&M and Texan by Nature, a nonprofit conservation group founded by former first lady Laura Bush. The Center for Health & Nature, housed at Houston Methodist Hospital, debuted in 2018.

"There's a gap in research regarding what nature factors lead to increased health, what exposure to nature means, and how much exposure is needed," Bush said when the center was announced.
VR training startup, HTX Labs, recently brought on Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America as a client. Trainees can work on a digitized version of the plant that looks as real as could be. Courtesy of HTX Labs

This growing Houston startup is making training programs safer and cheaper with VR applications

VR verified

Many employers are doing reality checks when it comes to workplace training. They're wondering how they can better train their workers. But they're realizing that traditional training can be dull and even unproductive, so they're enlivening and enriching their training through virtual reality.

Houston-based startup HTX Labs LLC is one of the tech companies at the forefront of the VR-infused modernization of workplace training. Among its customers are the United States Air Force, Mastercard, Rackspace, and Houston-based Solvay GBU Peroxides North America, a maker of hydrogen peroxide.

For the Air Force, HTX Labs creates software that provides immersive training for pilots on how to deal with emergency procedures in the air and on the ground. This is something that traditionally has been carried out only with expensive simulators. Mastercard and Rackspace rely on HTX Labs' technology to teach employees — through VR-generated replicas of actual workspaces — how to handle active-shooter situations, workplace violence, and fires.

Solvay turned to the company for VR-propelled help with training workers about loading and unloading hazardous materials and other aspects of maintaining safety around potentially dangerous chemicals. HTX Labs and Solvay will jointly resell their VR-based courses to other companies, says Scott Schneider, founder and CEO of HTX Labs.

At its core, the company's VR training zeroes in on the trainee, providing engaging, interactive experiences that stress "learning by doing," Schneider says.

Training programs that have been around for decades are "designed for trainers, not necessarily for trainees," he says.

"A PowerPoint presentation, a YouTube video — it's all about the message the trainer wants to convey as opposed to 'Let's think about how people actually learn.' Studies show people learn by actively doing — active learning versus passive learning," Schneider continues. "We married that idea of active learning with virtual reality and immersive technology to deliver a learning experience that increases retention and the development of muscle memory."

In a VR-based training session, participants are equipped with VR headsets and are plunged into realistic environments where they're presented with scenarios in which they, for instance, pick up a fire extinguisher and put out a blaze, or they land or eject from a military jet that's experiencing a problem such as an engine fire.

Schneider says this type of interactive training helps participants boost the amount of information they remember. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, VR learners retain 75 percent of what they've been taught, compared with a 10 percent retention rate from reading or listening to a presentation.

"It's a much better way, a much more realistic way to learn," Schneider says.

Employers big and small are catching on to this kind of advanced training. According to Schneider, software produced by companies like HTX Labs allows employers to conduct training that:

  • Avoids unsafe real-life settings in favor of safe virtual settings.
  • Does not disrupt workplaces.
  • Reduces costs.

A CNBC article says the cost-saving aspect appeals to a number of employers like Boeing, UPS, and Walmart.

"Training facilities cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to build. Sending out-of-town employees to them racks up travel expenses. And the lost time for training is considerable," the article reads.

By comparison, a one-time investment in VR hardware and software — technology that can be used by many workers — might cost a couple of thousand dollars per employee.

"Most companies in the private sector are dipping their toes into it a bit, maybe doing some stuff internally," Schneider says of VR-based training. "But on a larger scale, there's not a lot of players doing exactly what we're doing."

Schneider envisions HTX Labs, which was founded in 2017, expanding into training centered on augmented reality and mixed reality.

For the uninitiated, VR refers to computer-generated 3D environments that you interact with and are immersed in, according to Live Science. AR superimposes sounds, images and text onto what you see in the real world, along the lines of "Minority Report" or "Iron Man," Live Science explains.

"Mixed reality is the result of blending the physical world with the digital world," according to Microsoft. "Mixed reality is the next evolution in human, computer, and environment interaction, and unlocks possibilities that before now were restricted to our imaginations."

No matter the type of technology, HTX Labs strives to "humanize training" by putting the student at the center of the learning experience, Schneider says.

For now, HTX Labs produces VR training software under the EMPACT brand name and teams up with hardware vendors to sell turnkey offerings.

Today, the company employs 12 people, all of whom are in Houston. Schneider would like to increase HTX Labs' headcount by 50 percent before the end of 2019. Also this year, Schneider hopes to raise its first round of outside capital, but only after HTX Labs secures more private and government contracts. And he doesn't rule out enlarging the company through M&A activity.

Overall, Schneider sees tremendous potential for HTX Labs, as pretty much any employer can benefit from VR training for its workers. VR training — already part of a multibillion-dollar VR market — is expected to be so pervasive, in fact, that software review website Capterra predicts one-third of small and midsize businesses in the U.S. will be piloting VR training of employees by 2021.

"VR is … being used to enhance employee training to give workers immersive 'learning by doing' opportunities they can't find in a classroom or online course," Capterra notes. "It's a revolution in an area that's historically been static and unengaging for workers."


The U.S. Air Force also uses HTX Labs' technologies to train for emergency response procedures.Courtesy of HTX Labs

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CultureMap Emails are Awesome

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

As Houston transitions into summer, the city's tech and innovation ecosystem enters a new season — but with the same level of entrepreneurialism and can-do spirit.

This week's innovators to know includes a Houston tech founder fresh off fundraising, an architect with the future of the workplace, and a startup leader with a way to digitally connect churches to their congregations.

Joe Alapat, CEO and co-founder of Liongard

Courtesy of Liongard

After raising a $17 million round for his startup, Joe Alapat, CEO of Liongard, joined the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss fundraising during a pandemic and how he's seen the Houston innovation ecosystem grow.

In the episode, Alapat also shares his advice for Houston startups looking to tap into the Houston innovation ecosystem — something he's watched grow over the past five years. Now, he says, when it comes to new startups in Houston, "the waves are hitting the shore."

"Houston has always been an entrepreneurial city, and this is just that next stage," Alapat says on the episode. "For me, it's the technology side that excites me even more to see technology companies really succeeding." Listen to the episode and read more.

Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space

Photo courtesy of Church Space

Large gathering places have been shut down for months at this point, and that includes places of worship. Houston entrepreneur Day Edwards, founder and CEO of Church Space, usually focuses on connection organizations to spaces for worship or events. But, she is now focused on getting services online for congregations to connect with.

"It felt like the perfect opportunity to give churches a way to reach more people during the pandemic," says Edwards. "This would create more impact than anything we could possibly offer at this time." Read more.

Larry Lander, principal at PDR

Photo courtesy of PDR

While much of the country has been working from home for weeks, Larry Lander opines that this has made physical office space more important than ever.

"As a place to provide a technology offering we don't enjoy at our kitchen table, as a place to better support small group work beyond the tiny real estate of our laptop screens, and as a place that physically represents what our organizations are truly all about," he writes in a guest column for InnovationMap. The role of the workplace has never been more critical to business success." Read more.

Texas startup’s at-home COVID-19 test finally approved by feds

CORONAVIRUS RESPONSE

After its earlier effort was tripped up, Austin-based startup Everlywell on May 16 finally gained approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to launch its at-home coronavirus test.

In a May 18 release, Everlywell says the self-administered test will be available later this month. The company, which specializes in at-home tests for an array of conditions, is the first to receive approval from the FDA for an at-home coronavirus test that's not associated with a lab or a manufacturer of diagnostic products.

The FDA's emergency authorization allows Everlywell to work with a number of certified labs that process authorized tests, rather than just a single lab.

"The authorization of a COVID-19 at-home collection kit that can be used with multiple tests at multiple labs not only provides increased patient access to tests, but also protects others from potential exposure," Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health, says in a release.

Everlywell's at­-home test determines the presence or absence of the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID­-19 illness. Everlywell's test kit uses a short nasal swab and includes:

  • A digital screening questionnaire reviewed by a healthcare provider.
  • Instructions on how to ship the test sample to a lab.
  • Digital results within 48 hours of the sample being received by the lab.
  • Results reviewed by an independent physician.

Anyone who tests positive test will receive a telehealth consultation. All positive test results are reported to federal and local public health agencies when mandated.

On March 23, Everlywell was supposed to start shipping 30,000 coronavirus test kits to U.S. consumers. But before a single test was sent, the FDA blocked distribution of at-home, self-administered tests from Everlywell and other companies. After that, Everlywell pivoted to supplying coronavirus tests to health care providers and organizations.

As with the company's previously approved coronavirus test, Everlywell says its test for individuals is sold at no profit. The $109 price covers costs such as overnight shipping to a lab, lab-processing fees, and kit components. Some health insurers cover coronavirus tests.

Everlywell says it's working with members of Congress to enable companies that are neither healthcare providers nor labs to be directly reimbursed by health insurers. The startup also is exploring how its coronavirus test could be made available for free.

"Widespread access to convenient testing will play a crucial role in the country's ability to address the pandemic and prevent overburdening our healthcare facilities. As the national leader in connecting people with high­-quality laboratory testing, we are committed to fighting the spread of this virus in America," Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of Everlywell, says in the Everlywell release.

The company continues to supply its coronavirus tests to qualified healthcare organizations and government agencies.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

These 3 Houston research projects are revolutionizing health science

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 from Houston researchers from a muscular atrophy study from outer space to a research project that might allow blind patients to "see."

Houston Methodist's research on muscular atrophy in astronauts

Scientists are studying the effect of certain drugs to help preserve muscles in astronauts. Photo courtesy of Houston Methodist

Houston Methodist researcher Alessandro Grattoni and his team published research on muscular atrophy in astronauts. The research was published in Advanced Therapeutics and focused on his 2017 RR-6 muscle atrophy study that was conducted on the International Space Station.

While the current standard practice for astronauts maintaining their muscles is working out over two hours a day, the research found that use of drugs could also help preserve muscles. On a SpaceX refuel mission, mice that were implanted with a "Nanofluidic Delivery System" were sent up to space and monitored, according to a report. The device gradually released small doses of formoterol, an FDA approved drug for use in bronchodilation that has also been shown to stimulate increased muscle mass.

University of Houston researcher tracking fear response to improve mental health treatment

The research could help advance wearable devices. Photo via uh.edu

University of Houston researchers are looking into the way the body responds to fear in order to enhance mental health treatment. Rose Faghih, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, and doctoral student Dilranjan Wickramasuriya in the Computational Medicine Lab (CML) are leading the project.

"We developed a mixed filter algorithm to continuously track a person's level of sympathetic nervous system activation using skin conductance and heart rate measurements," writes Faghih in the journal PLOS One. "This level of sympathetic activation is closely tied to what is known as emotional arousal or sympathetic arousal."

When this sympathetic nervous system is activated — sometimes known as the "fight or flight" response — the heart beats faster and more oxygen is delivered to the muscles, according to a press release. Then, the body begins to sweat in order to cool down.

"Using measurements of the variations in the conductivity of the skin and the rate at which the heart beats, and by developing mathematical models that govern these relationships, CML researchers have illustrated that the sympathetic nervous system's activation level can be tracked continuously," reports Faghih.

This algorithm could be used in a wearable electronic device that could be worn by a patient diagnosed with a fear or anxiety disorder.

Baylor College of Medicine's vision-restoring research

What if a device could see for you? Photo from Pexels

When someone loses their vision, it's likely due to damage to the eyes or optic nerve. However, the brain that interprets what they eyes sees, works perfectly fine. But researchers from Baylor College of Medicine have worked on a thesis that a device with a camera could be designed and implemented to do the seeing for the blind patient.

"When we used electrical stimulation to dynamically trace letters directly on patients' brains, they were able to 'see' the intended letter shapes and could correctly identify different letters," says Dr. Daniel Yoshor, professor and chair of neurosurgery in a press release. "They described seeing glowing spots or lines forming the letters, like skywriting."

Through a study supported by the National Eye Institute with both sighted and blind people using implanted devices, the investigators determined that the process was promising. According to the release, the researchers identified several obstacles must be overcome before this technology could be implemented in clinical practice.

"The primary visual cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, contains half a billion neurons. In this study we stimulated only a small fraction of these neurons with a handful of electrodes," says said Dr. Michael Beauchamp, professor and in neurosurgery, in the release.

"An important next step will be to work with neuroengineers to develop electrode arrays with thousands of electrodes, allowing us to stimulate more precisely. Together with new hardware, improved stimulation algorithms will help realize the dream of delivering useful visual information to blind people."