The SMART Hub is a collection of researchers, engineers, and economic and policy experts looking to “enact a paradigm shift in the use and management of the wireless spectrum.” Photo via Getty Images

The University of Houston has signed on to be a part of an organization that is working toward next-gen technology for defense purposes.

UH has announced its partnership with the Department of Defense Spectrum Innovation Center’s Spectrum Management with Adaptive and Reconfigurable Technology (SMART) Hub, which aims to conduct spectrum research to help with national defense needs. SMART Hub will develop next-generation technologies, and the research team will contribute expertise in spectrum security, economics, communication systems, radar, circuits, policy, and more.

The center is led by Baylor University, and is a collection of researchers, engineers, and economic and policy experts looking to “enact a paradigm shift in the use and management of the wireless spectrum” according to SMART Hub. The consortium is worth $5 million, and comes after UH recently awarded its largest grant in history—$63.5 million from the U.S. DoD. The previous DoD contract aims to support the campus in developing analytical modeling and simulation platforms for the U.S. Army.

Growth in use of electronic devices has led to the jamming of the bandwidth available in the wireless spectrum (radio, TV, wireless phone signals). SMART Hub will focus on new approaches of spectrum communication to assist military and corporate organizations that will confront this issue more than before. SMART Hub will combine efforts of 29 researchers at 17 institutions.

“We will be working on groundbreaking technology that will revolutionize how we use the spectrum,” professor of electrical and computer engineering at Baylor and director of the efforts Charles Baylis said in a news release. “Rather than fixed systems that use the same frequency and stay there, we’re designing systems that can adapt to their surroundings and determine how to successfully transmit and receive. It’s a true paradigm shift that requires the type of collaboration we will have in SMART Hub.”

UH’s SMART Hub team, which will be tasked to produce strategies for enhanced communication in challenging spaces like regions having electromagnetic interference, forests, inner city environments, or mountainous terrains, includes:

  • David Jackson, professor of electrical and computer engineering
  • Zhu Han, Moores Professor of electrical engineering
  • Daniel Onofrei, associate professor of mathematics

From left, the UH SMART Hub team includes: Daniel Onofrei, associate professor of mathematics; David Jackson, professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Zhu Han, Moores Professor of electrical engineering.

The UH software will help DrillDocs customers make better and safer decisions out on the rigs. Photo via Getty Images

Startup taps UH-licensed technology to better optimize rig analytics

here's the drill

A Houston startup has tapped into the know-how of three University of Houston professors to help improve oil and gas drilling operations.

The startup, DrillDocs, has licensed software developed by UH professors Jiefu Chen, Xuqing (Jason) Wu, and Zhu Han that enables real-time analysis of activity at onshore and offshore drilling rigs. Specifically, the software examines video to help classify the volume of cuttings from the shale-shaker components of drilling equipment.

According to the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, cuttings are small pieces of rock that are chipped away by a bit while a well is being drilled. The fragments then travel from the bit to the surface of the water, where they can be "caught" and studied. Drill cuttings often yield the only rock data gained from a well.

"Cutting analysis is an important task for an efficient, low-cost, and risk-free drilling execution," Chen says in a UH news release.

According to the news release, the UH software will study the cutting data to help DrillDocs customers "make more informed drilling decisions, reduce safety and environmental risks, and improve drilling performance and production."

Drilling technicians usually must repeatedly study cuttings manually, which can stifle progress and lead to human errors, according to UH.

Calvin Holt and Francois Ruel co-founded DrillDocs in 2020. The bootstrapped startup is developing the CleanSight system, which monitors shale-shaker components in an effort to reduce drilling costs and risks. DrillDocs' surface-based computer vision system can deliver data via laptops, smartphones, and other devices about the size, shape, and quantity of rocks floating to the surface.

In March, DrillDocs was identified as one of the four most promising startups that participated in a CERAWeek pitch competition.

"We're taking computer vision to the drilling rig," Holt, CEO of DrillDocs, said during his pitch. "Now, for the first time, drilling and geomechanics teams will have unique, real-time data to ascertain the well's condition."

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.