New to town

Two companies expand into the Houston market by way of UH's Technology Bridge

The University of Houston has transformed its Energy Research Park into the Technology Bridge to better connect research-based startups to the market. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

A few years ago, the University of Houston renamed its Energy Research Park to the Technology Bridge. They wanted to create a program and workspace for companies inside the university to enter into the Houston innovation ecosystem. Turns out, the program also created a bridge for innovative companies entering the Houston market.

Two companies announced that they will open operations in the Technology Bridge — the first Houston offices for both, according to a news release.

Chemicals company Oleon is a subsidiary of France-based Avril, a financial and industrial company. Before the UH location, Oleon's only United States operation was a sales office in South Carolina. The other company is California-based Saratech, an engineering, software, services, and 3D printer sales company. Saratech has offices across the country, including an Austin office. The Houston office will focus on 3D printing.

According to Tom Campbell, executive director of the UH Office of Technology Transfer and Innovation, choosing a university to open a new office in a new market makes a lot of sense. There's a ready-made network of professors and students ripe with talent for internships and new and developing research.

Saratech's senior vice president, Rick Murphy, agrees that the new office can be mutually beneficial to UH and his company. Saratech already has a relationship similar to this with the University of California-Irvine.

"We are looking at universities to help with that, so industry can start educating their engineers to take advantage of this technology," Murphy says in the release.

Oleon also has previous relationships with universities in Europe and Asia. The company, which specializes in natural chemistry — specifically using fats and oils in various applications from cosmetics to automotive, plans on sustaining a lot of growth in Houston. The move represents the first of many instances of growth in the market.

"It is baby steps here, but the U.S. is a huge market," Dave Jacobs, general manager of operations for Oleon Americas, says in the release. "About 50 percent of the oil and gas market is here."

The Technology Bridge houses 23 startups and has 30,000 square feet of incubator space and over 700,000 square feet of space suited for laboratories, pilot-scale facilities, and light manufacturing. The bridge sits on the former Schlumberger campus just south of UH.

To Campbell, the bridge adds its own niche of research and lab space to the Houston innovation ecosystem as a whole, and both these companies' new offices are on par with the greater goals of the bridge.

"It's about economic development," Campbell says in the release. "A strong innovation economy is a rising tide that floats all boats."

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Houston-based imaware, which has an at-home COVID-19 testing process, is working with Texas A&M University on researching how the virus affects the human body. Getty Images

An ongoing medical phenomenon is determining how COVID-19 affects people differently — especially in terms of severity. A new partnership between a Houston-based digital health platform and Texas A&M University is looking into differences in individual risk factors for the virus.

Imaware, which launched its at-home coronavirus testing kit in April, is using its data and information collected from the testing process for this new study on how the virus affects patients differently.

"As patient advocates, we want to aid in the search to understand more about why some patients are more vulnerable than others to the deadly complications of COVID-19," says Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, in a press release. "Our current sample collection process is an efficient way to provide longitudinal prospectively driven data for research and to our knowledge, is the only such approach that is collecting, assessing, and biobanking specimens in real time."

Imaware uses a third-party lab to conduct the tests at patients' homes following the Center for Disease Control's guidelines and protocol. During the test, the medical professional takes additional swabs for the study. The test is then conducted by Austin-based Wheel, a telemedicine group.

Should the patient receive positive COVID-19 results, they are contacted by a representative of Wheel with further instructions. They are also called by a member of a team led by Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist and laboratory scientist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, to grant permission to be a part of the study.

Once a part of the study, the patient remains in contact with Fischer's team, which tracks the spread and conditions of the virus in the patient. One thing the researchers are looking for is the patients' responses to virus complications caused by an overabundance of cytokines, according to the press release. Cytokines are proteins in the body that fight viruses and infections, and, if not working properly, they can "trigger an over-exuberant inflammatory response" that can cause potentially deadly issues with lung and organ failure or worse, per the release.

"We believe strongly in supporting this research, as findings from the field can be implemented to improve clinical processes-- helping even more patients," says Wheel's executive medical director, Dr. Rafid Fadul.

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