2021 in review

Houston's top 3 COVID-19 research stories from 2021

These three COVID-19 research stories were among the most read InnovationMap articles of 2021. Photo via Getty Images

Editor's note: As 2021 comes to a close, InnovationMap is looking back at the year's top stories in Houston innovation. Houston is known as a top location for research, and — amid the pandemic — Houston researchers have been working harder than ever. These three InnovationMap articles about COVID-19 innovation trended among readers.

2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

From a low-cost vaccine to an app that can help reduce exposure, here are the latest COVID-focused and Houston-based research projects. Photo via Getty Images

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions. Click here to read the full article.

Overheard: Houston health care experts sound off on how tech and COVID-19 have affected the industry

Health care leaders joined a virtual panel to discuss the effects of COVID-19 and more. Photo by Dwight C. Andrews/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau

There has been an undeniable paradigm shift in the health care industry due to COVID-19 as well as the growth of technology. A group of professionals sat down to discuss what in particular has changed for the industry as a whole as well as at local institutions.

At a panel for Venture Houston, a two-day conference put on by the HX Venture Fund on February 4th and 5th, a few health care professionals weighed in on all the changes to the industry for the startups, investors, corporations, and more who attended the virtual event. Here are some significant overheard moments from the virtual panel — Thinking Past a COVID World. Click here to read the full article.

New COVID-19 variant potentially resistant to antibodies discovered at Texas A&M

The new variant is dubbed BV-1 for the Brazos Valley. valentinrussanov/Getty Images

Scientists at the Texas A&M University Global Health Complex identified a new variant of the COVID-19 virus that could present a new challenge to public health, according to a statement.

So far, the new variant, "BV-1," was found in just one case: an individual who had mild symptoms, according to the Texas A&M scientists.

"We do not at present know the full significance of this variant, but it has a combination of mutations similar to other internationally notifiable variants of concern," said GHRC chief virologist Ben Neuman. "This variant combines genetic markers separately associated with rapid spread, severe disease, and high resistance to neutralizing antibodies." Click here to read the full article.

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Building Houston

 
 

UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

The University of Houston is taking a bold step — or, in this case, roll — in foodservice delivery. UH's Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership is now deploying a robot server in Eric’s Restaurant at its Hilton College.

Booting up this new service is major bragging rights for the Coogs, as UH is now the only college in the country — and the only restaurant facility in Houston — to utilize a robotic food delivery.

These rolling delivery bots come from the state-of-the-art food service robot called Servi. The bots, created by Bear Robotics, are armed with LiDar sensors, cameras, and trays, and automatically return to their posts when internal weight sensors detect a delivery has been completed.

Not surprisingly, these futuristic food staffers are booting up plenty of buzz at UH.

“People are excited about it,” says Dennis Reynolds, who is dean of the Conrad N. Hilton College of Global Hospitality Leadership and oversees the only hospitality program in the world where students work and take classes in an internationally branded, full-service hotel. Launching robot waitstaff at UH as a test market makes sense, he notes, for practical use and larger implications.

The Servi robots deliver food from the kitchen to the table. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

“Robotics and the general fear of technology we see today are really untested in the restaurant industry,” he says in an announcement. “At Hilton College, it’s not just about using tomorrow’s technology today. We always want to be the leader in learning how that technology impacts the industry.”

Bear Robotics, a tech company founded by restaurant experts and tech entrepreneurs, hosted a Servi showcase at the National Restaurant Show in Chicago earlier this year. After seeing the demo, Reynolds was hooked. UH's Servi robot arrived at Eric’s Restaurant in October.

Before sending the bot to diners' tables, the bot was prepped by Tanner Lucas, the executive chef and foodservice director at Eric’s. That meant weeks of mapping, programming, and — not surprisingly — “test driving” around the restaurant.

Tanner even created a digital map of the restaurant to teach the Servi its pathways and designated service points, such as table numbers. “Then, we sent it back and forth to all of those points from the kitchen with food to make sure it wouldn’t run into anything," he adds.

But does having a robot deliver food create friction between human and automated staff? Not at Eric's. “The robot helps my workflow,” Joel Tatum, a server at Eric’s says. “It lets me spend more time with my customers instead of just chasing and running food.”

Once loaded, the kitchen staff can tell the Servi robots where to take the dishes. Photo courtesy of the University of Houston

Reynolds believes robots will complement their human counterparts and actually enhance the customer experience, even in unlikely settings.

“Studies have been conducted in senior living facilities where you might think a robot wouldn’t be well received, but it’s been just the opposite,” Reynolds says. “Those residents saw the change in their lives and loved it.”

To that end, he plans to use Servi bots in other UH venues. “The ballroom would be a fantastic place to showcase Servi – not as a labor-saving device, but as an excitement generator,” Reynolds notes. “To have it rotating through a big event delivering appetizers would be really fun.”

Critics who denounce robot servers and suggest they will soon displace humans are missing the point, Reynolds adds. “This isn’t about cutting our labor costs. It’s about building our top-line revenues and expanding our brand as a global hospitality innovator,” Reynolds says. “People will come to expect more robotics, more artificial intelligence in all segments of hospitality, and our students will be right there at the forefront.”

Servi bots come at a time of dynamic growth for Hilton College. A recent rebrand to “Global Hospitality Leadership” comes as the college hotel is undergoing a $30 million expansion and renovation, which includes a new five-story, 70-room guest tower. The student-run Cougar Grounds coffeehouse reopened this semester in a larger space with plenty of updates. The neighboring Eric’s Club Center for Student Success helps with recruitment and enrollment, undergraduate academic services, and career development.

“To be the first university in the country to introduce robotics in the dining room is remarkable,” Reynolds adds. “There are a lot of unique things we’re doing at Hilton College.”

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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