This Houston hospital is tapping into tech to best optimize its COVID-19 vaccination process. Photo courtesy of MD Anderson

Across the country, millions of people eagerly await their COVID-19 vaccinations. But many of them are encountering a big roadblock on the path toward eradicating the pandemic: scheduling their shots.

To overcome that hurdle, some organizations have turned to technology. San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B, for instance, will let customers schedule COVID-19 vaccinations through a web-based scheduler. As with H-E-B's app, many vaccination-scheduling tools are just now becoming available.

Houston's MD Anderson Cancer Center is one huge step ahead of the vaccination curve, though. Back in September, the hospital — part of the massive Texas Medical Center complex — started planning how it would roll out vaccinations for its more than 21,000-member workforce. As part of that planning, MD Anderson developed an in-house app enabling its employees to schedule their own vaccination appointments.

"We have an incredible team of informatics developers who worked in conjunction with our human resource and employee health leaders to design an app that's accessible on your phone or from any computer," says Dr. Welela Tereffe, chief medical executive at MD Anderson. "The app feeds you information about what appointments are available and then floats an appointment reminder to your calendar as well as sending you text reminders."

Beginning December 15, MD Anderson employees received the hospital's initial round of shots. They were the first employees who used the app to schedule appointments at workplace vaccination clinics. As of January 5, more than 8,700 hospital employees had been vaccinated with the first dose of either the Pfizer vaccine or Moderna vaccine. The immunizations are not mandatory. In all, 10,700 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been shipped to MD Anderson since December 14, and every one of them is already spoken for.

Yolan Campbell, associate vice president of HR operations at MD Anderson, says the vaccination scheduling app built on knowledge the hospital's team had accumulated throughout 2020 in producing apps for COVID-19 tests and other pandemic-related purposes.

Tereffe notes that COVID-19 vaccination scheduling has "caused a lot of stress" for health care providers. MD Anderson hoped to avoid that stress by incorporating the app into its vaccination plan.

"The app that that our teams have designed is very simple, very user-friendly," Tereffe says. "It prompts you to put in your preferred contact information, both email and phone. It allows you to choose a block of time and a day that you'd like to be vaccinated. And it puts the information right there at your fingertips about the vaccine and the vaccine clinic process so that you can review it in real time."

As soon as an employee chooses an appointment slot, they receive conformation via the app. Through the app, an employee can cancel or reschedule an appointment.

"I think that level of access and control really helps to reassure people that they can trust the process," Tereffe said.

The app also gives MD Anderson more control over the vaccination clinics, according to Campbell and Tereffe. For instance, a dashboard created by IT professionals at the hospital gathers data from the app to track how many vaccinations have been given, how many appointments have been canceled, and which times and days are most popular for vaccinations. Tereffe said those real-time insights have enabled MD Anderson to adjust the operating hours for vaccination clinics.

To supplement the app, MD Anderson provides extra assistance with vaccination scheduling for employees with language or technology barriers, Tereffe said. The hospital also runs a vaccination hotline staffed by HR professionals.

Looking ahead, Tereffe said MD Anderson will accept any COVID-19 vaccine that's been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So far, that's limited to the Pfizer and Moderna versions.

"We have a process in place to hold unique clinics for each type of vaccine and each dose of vaccine to ensure that people get the vaccine that they have chosen … and that they always get the correct second dose," Tereffe said. "Our intent is to help our employees make informed decisions."

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Houstonian designs new experiences to encourage innovation in students

HOUSTON INNOVATORS PODCAST EPISODE 154

As director of social innovation at Teach For America Houston, it's Sarah Essama's job to come up with new ways for the organization to support both students and teachers. But, as she explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast this week, Essama realized a huge lesson modern students needed was to learn this innovation process themselves.

Part of being an educator is to prepare students for tomorrow, Essama explains, but with rapid technology development and adaption, no one knows what the future will hold for the job market or the world in general. The best way to prepare the future generation of the workforce is to teach them how to innovate, think differently, and adapt to new ways of doing things.

"That's what people are looking for right now — people who can provide out-of-the-box solutions to problems," Essama says on the show.

This line of thinking turned into Essama founding The Dream Lab, powered by Teach for America Houston.

"The Dream Lab is a set of immersive design spaces where young people leverage their imagination and creativity to innovate and solve problems within their community," she explains.

Last month, the new concept rolled out to high school students in partnership with DivInc Houston, a nonprofit focused on social and economic equity in entrepreneurship, and 21 ninth graders spent the day at the Ion for a mini-innovation accelerator and design showcase.

Strategically, Essama tapped into the Houston innovation ecosystem with the intent of showcasing the community.

"Innovation to me is being able to create something that has never been seen or done before — and that has a very important purpose," she says. "Exposing ourselves to innovation and people who think this way — and learning from them —is key to be able to be competitive tomorrow."

Essama says this program is still in the development phase. She's been testing out the concept with fourth graders and now ninth graders. She hopes the full program will be up and running by next fall.

She shares more details about the grant and the future of The Dream Lab on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

Houston-based virtual reality startup raises $3.2M in first outside capital round

fresh funding

HTX Labs, a Houston-based company that designs extended reality training for military and business purposes, announced last week that it has raised its first outside capital.

The company has received a $3.2 million investment from Cypress Growth Capital. Founded in 2017, HTX Labs — developer of the EMPACT Immersive Learning Platform — has been granted funding from the Department of Defense as well as grown its client base of commercial Enterprises. The platform uses virtual and extended reality that "enables organizations to rapidly create, deploy, measure, and sustain cost-effective, secure, and centralized immersive training programs, all within engaging, fully interactive virtual environments," per a news release.

“We have been looking to secure outside capital to accelerate the growth of our EMPACT platform and customer base but we hadn’t found the right partner who provided an investment vehicle that matched our needs,“ says HTX Labs CEO Scott Schneider in the release. “We found everything we were looking for in Cypress Growth Capital. They have a non-dilutive funding model that aligns with our capital expectations and have the level of experience that really makes this smart money.

"Cypress has a decade-long track record of success in helping emerging software and services companies achieve scale," he continues. "It is clear that the team’s collective entrepreneurial and operating experience will be of tremendous benefit to us as we focus on expanding our customer base in a very intentional way.”

The fresh funding will go toward growing and scaling the company's operations — both within the current Department of Defense and expansion opportunities into key commercial markets, like heavy industry, manufacturing, and higher education. Additionally, the funding will support increased customer adoption.

“Scott and his team have built an exceptional business that is poised for dramatic growth,” says Cypress Partner Pat McCaffrey in the release. “HTX Labs’ modern, immersive training solution provides clients with a force multiplier for modernizing training and an unmatched ROI.”

Houston's biggest benefactors gift massive $50M to pivotal Rice University institute

big money

Houston’s most generous couple has once again gifted a massive sum to a local institution. Rich and Nancy Kinder’s Kinder Foundation has donated $50 million to Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, the organization announced.

The Kinder's generous grant will assist the institute’s focus on what it dubs “inclusive prosperity” — that is, “ensuring that everyone can contribute to Houston's success and share in its opportunities.”

This new grant follows the approximately $30 million he Kinder Foundation previously gifted Rice’s Kinder Institute and its affiliates to facilitate its headquarters.

“Over the past decade, the Kinder Institute has played an integral role in shaping Houston,” said Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder Foundation. “However, we can do more to inform and more directly address the challenges our communities face, particularly in the areas of housing, education, economic mobility, health and population research.”

To that end, the Kinders’ funds will ensure the institute can assist its partners regardless of their ability to pay for research. Funds will also help the institute respond to community research needs quickly during times of crisis — such as a catastrophic storm or pandemic — when funds aren’t readily available.

Kinder Institute director Ruth López Turley calls the grant “a gift to all of Houston,” speaking to the institute’s work to improve lives through data, research, engagement and action.

“Inclusive prosperity doesn’t just happen spontaneously,” she noted in a statement. “It requires an explicit effort informed by research. Lots of organizations are working hard to make things better, but most of them have very limited research capacity, and that’s what the Kinder Institute is primed to do.”

Founded in 2010, the institute has evolved into a leader in research, data, and policy analysis of critical issues such as housing, transportation, and education. The institute also releases the familiar Kinder Houston Area Survey, which charts significant changes in the way area residents perceive and understand Houston’s ongoing challenges and opportunities.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.